This post contains spoilers for Squid Game.
The first half-hour of Netflix’s new top-ranked show, Squid Game, introduces Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a middle-aged gambler so down on his luck that he steals money from his elderly mom and gives his young daughter a gun-shaped cigarette lighter for her birthday, because it was the only thing he could get out of the claw machine where he inserted his last coins. After meeting a well-dressed recruiter in a train station, Gi-hun agrees to a money-making opportunity. He gets in a van, is knocked out by gas, and wakes up in a dorm with more than 400 others. A voice from a loudspeaker tells them that they will compete for a lot of cash—how much, they don’t find out quite yet, but it turns out to be 45.6 billion South Korean won, or about 38 million American dollars—by playing children’s games.
Here starts the bloody part. The group is herded into another huge room, painted incongruously with a bright preschool color scheme, to play a game of Red Light, Green Light. They find out quickly that the price of remaining in motion after the creepy pigtailed robot in charge says “Red Light!” isn’t just disqualification—it’s a bullet. Before the end of the game, about half of the participants are straight-up murdered. This is not a show for viewers who dislike seeing people shot at close range (or stabbed, or killed by falling from a height, and so on). There are literally hundreds of such deaths in the show’s nine episodes, with a bonus dissection scene, if what you really crave is to see some intestines. And almost everybody on the show is afraid, all the time—the actors are constantly trembling, crying, and shaking, under the most extreme forms of duress.
If you can stand all that, you should watch this show. In some ways, Squid Game, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is another familiar entry in the “Deadly Game” genre. It’s like the movie Cube (1997), in that the players wear jumpsuits that strip them of their individuality, are trapped in a hermetic environment that looks computer-generated, and try to solve puzzles before they’re horribly murdered—but in Squid Game the staff running the game are visible, and there are many more contestants. It’s like Battle Royale (2000), though the players are adults, not teenagers. It’s like The Hunger Games, though the larger society outside the game is not a fictionalized dystopia, like Suzanne Collins’ Panem, just everyday South Korea. It’s like the movie Gamer (2009), though the players are not controlled from afar by rich people who want to experience peril without personal risk—they’re just watched, up close, by rich people who want to experience peril without personal risk.
Squid Game is different from its genre cousins in one major way, and it’s the one that gives the show its emotional punch. The players must decide that they want to be part of the game. After the opening massacre, the group takes advantage of a clause in the contract they signed, and votes, by simple majority, to end the game and go home, without anyone getting the money. They are home for a short while, before they all end up back in the van, submitting to the sleeping gas, on the way back to try for the prize.
They are simply too desperate—indebted, like Gi-hun; refugees, like Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon, a mesmerizing presence on screen, and a fan favorite), a defector who needs money to bring her family from North Korea; undocumented immigrants, like Abdul Ali (Tripathi Anupam), a big-hearted Pakistani father whose employer is stealing his wages. They would rather try for a big payoff, see a lot of people die, and possibly die themselves, than waste away slowly in the real world, trying to achieve something that seems impossible.
They’re not all “good” people. The primary villain among the players, Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), is a gangster who owes money to other gangsters. Deok-su is comically evil, resorting to outright murder of fellow players when he realizes that every death gets him closer to the prize money and that the staff will do nothing if he kills outside of the context of the games. And there’s another villain, whose identity I won’t spoil, who does something unforgivable to a fellow player that will absolutely break your heart. The fate of the more sympathetic characters among them is where the drama lies.
The ins and outs of the games are thrilling. When the team of scrappy protagonists—male and female, young and old—tugs and tugs at a rope, trying to drag a much stronger, all-male team over a precipice, I cheered for every step back they took, even though them winning would mean a bunch of other people would get crushed to death. When Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi), a woman who killed her abusive father and has just left prison with no money or friends to her name, sacrifices herself for Sae-byeok, I wept. When the contestants get to the eponymous Squid Game—a contest of offense and defense, so named because the grid that kids play it on is drawn to look like a squid—the drama had me looking at my phone to escape the tension. That’s what watching a good game will do to you.
Yes, I know, there’s some irony in the fact that a show that’s partly a moral commentary on the evils of spectatorship is No. 1 on Netflix. Few people are immune to the draw of watching others play hard and crafty, when the stakes are high. But, as the snippet of news about rising rates of household indebtedness in South Korea that plays in a hair salon in the last episode makes clear, the other big idea of the show is financial desperation, and what it does to people when they get on the wrong side of a bad system. As Gi-hun, who turns out to have a much richer backstory than I’d thought, says defiantly at one point: “I’m not a horse. I’m a person.” I can’t wait for Season 2, to find out how they play it.