Katrina Williams examines Netflix’s dynamic South Korean series, attesting that it is worth the hype.
I can hear all the TikTok and Twitter users sighing in desperation already: “Squid Game? Please, no more!”. Netflix’s release has skyrocketed in popularity all over social media, inspiring the creation of countless memes, theory threads, Halloween costumes and a whole heap of praise. The show itself has officially become the platform’s most popular series of all time and banked a second season, even superseding Bridgerton. But is it worth the hype?
As a previously semi-avid watcher of Kdramas, and a big fan of the death game/battle royale genre (shout out, Alice in Borderland), Squid Game was a must-watch from the moment I first laid my eyes on the trailer. I had the chance to sink my teeth into it a couple days after release, a good while before the show’s popularity soared into international superstardom. Therefore, If you’ve been at all concerned about the effect the show’s worldwide acclaim has had on my critical thinking skills, do not fear: I went into the show completely blind, and let me tell you something, it is just as good as everyone cracks it up to be.
Not convinced? Bear with me - and warning for some general spoilers for episode one ahead. Squid Game opens with deadbeat dad Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) scrambling to secure enough money to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. Wholly unsuccessful after a pickpocket snatches the entirety of his gambling winnings, he encounters a strange businessman at the subway station who coaxes him into playing a game of ddakji in return for cold, hard cash. Gi-hun is then invited by ways of a peculiar business card to play a “game” which he accepts. One chloroform-induced snooze later, he wakes up in a dormitory with 455 others, and goes on to play the first of six Korean childhood inspired games. Sounds like great fun, right?
Except for the fact that (and you’ve probably guessed this by now) if you lose, you die. The last fifteen minutes of the first episode throw you straight into the deep end, and Squid Game does not at any point let you catch your breath. The rest of the show careens completely into insane spectacle, sometimes unsettling, mostly uncomfortable, often stomach-turning, and in some moments downright sadistic. One episode in particular feels like pure unbridled mental torture, and past that stage it only gets worse.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what sells the show outside of its plotline. First of all, the acting is immaculate. There are no bad apples in this cast, though Lee Jung-jae especially is a stand-out. His depiction of Gi-hun’s character arc is absolutely masterful. On a less serious note, whenever I see him I’m now reminded of a video that’s been floating around on TikTok with a girl announcing: “He’s middle-aged, but I want him.” I share this sentiment completely, and can confirm that in my experience this view is formed at least in part because of how heart-wrenchingly endearing Gi-hun’s portrayal becomes, which is an impressive feat considering his somewhat pathetic persona at the beginning of Squid Game.
Of course, the show triumphs in countless other areas. Squid Game explores competently and thoroughly the extent of its premise without ruining its own twists and turns, of which make for a fantastic rollercoaster of emotions. The show’s misè-en-scene combines gaudy, pastel, childish aesthetics with a haunting, nightmarish soundtrack that ramps up Squid Game’s fear factor to 100, far more scary than if the games were held in someone’s dingy basement, à la Saw. And finally, and thankfully, it’s not all fun and games: though there are points where the plot becomes almost sickening, Squid Game doesn’t ramp up its gore and violence to the point where it becomes a tasteless parody of the themes it attempts to convey.
These themes, of course, are ones that ring as clear as day. The show’s core message is in its shrewd criticism of late capitalism and the aforementioned’s harrowing effect on the lives of South Korea’s bottom rung. Squid Game, in all honesty, is completely hopeless. You aren’t going to find any sort of happy ending here: and all the better for it, because if the show had ended optimistically none of Director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s hard work would have made its mark. However, one criticism I would retain is that the show does toe the line of realism and downright sadism far too closely in occasional moments.Overall, Squid Game is a must-watch, though there are a few things to keep in mind while doing so. First of all, watch it subbed if you can in order to fully enjoy its incredible cast. Secondly, try not to watch it through a Western lens, and put in some work to appreciate the intricacies of South Korean society that it conveys, as you honestly should for all foreign-language content you consume. Finally, if you ever again find yourself in a game of “What’s The Time Mr Wolf?”, don’t you dare move a muscle once your adversary has turned around. It might end up being life or death.
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