Squid Game – Season 1 Review

Is this bandwagon jumping? Well, no, if that were the case I would’ve marathoned the series and got a review up much quicker, but I will say the show wouldn’t have been on my radar at all had its popularity not exploded. In fact I love the fact that a Korean live action drama series has become so popular worldwide given a lot of people often stick their noses up at subtitles or live action dubs. With that all being said, what did I think of the show? Funny you should ask, though the answer probably won’t surprise you…

Synopsis:

Seong Gi-hun, a divorced and indebted chauffeur, is invited to play a series of children’s games for a chance at a large cash prize. Accepting the offer, he is taken to an unknown location where he finds himself among 455 other players who are also deeply in debt. The players soon discover that losing a game results in their death, with each death adding ₩100 million to the potential ₩45.6 billion grand prize. Gi-hun allies with other players, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo, to try to survive the physical and psychological twists of the games…

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

The Good:

Some many green jumpsuits, so little time… left until most of them die.

The core concept of a deadly game to whittle down a group of downtrodden people to entertain the rich isn’t new but it’s rarely if ever done better than here. For starters is what happens after the gathered contestants play the first game, the old “Red Light, Green Light” (“What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?” for those of us in the UK!) where if you get spotted moving when the person (or robot in this case) turns around you lose, and by lose this version means you get shot. Once it’s done they find out just how much cash they could win but only just over half vote to leave instead of continuing playing but that’s enough to get the game called off but life back out in the real world is so harsh for these poor people heavily in debt or at least desperate for a change in their life that nearly all of them come back to play the rest of the game.

Among the contestants are Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorced Dad who’s living with his mother and still acts like a spoiled child, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), Gi-hun’s childhood friend who everyone around him was so proud of because he went to a top business school but it turns out he’s millions in debt, Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) a defector from North Korea who needs the money to track down and smuggle her mother across the border as well as look after her younger brother, Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su), an old man with a brain tumour who sees playing this game as better than just lying in a hospital bed and dying, Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani worker who is being mistreated by his employer and needs to provide for his family, Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) a Korean gangster who is now in massive debt after gambling behind his boss’s back, and Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) a rather unpleasant woman who is very good at lying to get what she wants. It’s a varied cast of people who are easily manipulated…

This must be a complete bastard to find the bathroom in.

I love the look and set design as well. The people behind the games wear pink overalls with black masks, each with either a square, triangle or circle denoting where in the chain of command they sit. At the head of them is the Front Man (Park Si-wan), who wears a sharp-angled black mask and more trendy black attire. As either the workers or the contestants are moved about they often walk through a colourful staircase room that looks like something out of Relativity by M. C. Escher (or “the painting with all the stairs” as I just typed into google to find the name and artist out…) It’s all backed by some weird Disney-like “workers plodding along” type music is the best way I can think to describe it. It’s all very odd and unsettling, in the best possible way.

As the contestants are whittled down with each passing murderous children’s game people start forming alliances, Gi-hun, Song-woo, Kang, Il-Nam and Ali eventually form a group, though it becomes clear as time passes that Song-woo understands that there can only be one winner in the end and is more willing to sacrifice his fellow teammates. Cutting out shapes from honeycomb, a game of tug-of-war from perilous heights and a game of marbles cut down the field, with the latter game being the most dramatic as they pair off beforehand thinking they would be working together but then find out they compete against each other, leading to Gi-hun having to eliminate the kind and gentle old man Il-Nam who starts to suffer from dementia to top off the guilt and Song-woo having to eliminate Ali, though he actually loses to him but outsmarts him to “win” without winning the game. Complete git, though his life is on the line so it’s hard to be TOO harsh on him… Hmmm, though Ali had a wife and young daughter to look after and he doesn’t! Such are the conundrums of the weird set up.

The most dramatic round of tug-of-war you’ll ever watch.

As all this is happening there is a fun subplot of policeman Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) sneaking into the games and uncovering the identity of the Front Man as that of his lost brother before failing to escape and tell the mainland what’s going on and where its being held. It was fun to follow, though the reveal of the Front Man was easy to see coming, and a side-plot involving organ harvesting wasn’t that interesting… Anyway, soon some VIPs arrive, all wearing glittery masks and commenting on how fun it is to watch and gamble on all the death, just to really ram home the message. After a close call on the second-to-last game involving a glass bridge where each step has a 50-50 chance to dropping out and having you fall to your death we get down to the final three, Gi-hun, Song-woo and Kang, though Song-woo kills the latter in her bed as she became delirious after suffering a stab wound during the glass bridge game. Putting her out of her misery or just killing another game participant? Gi-hun certainly believes it’s the latter. The two duke it out in the final game, the titular Squid Game, and Song-woo loses and kills himself before Gi-hun has a chance to call it a draw.

This leads to the finale, where Gi-hun returns home to find his mother dead and so becomes disillusioned for a year, not spending a single bit of currency. This gains the attention of the main sponsor of the game: Oh Il-nam, who as it turns out played in the game because playing was so much more thrilling than just watching and who then challenges Gi-hun to a contest to see if anyone would help a poor tramp outside his office / bedroom, one which he loses as someone does come and help him, but Il-nam seemingly dies before he finds out. Gi-hun then tides up some lose ends involving Kang’s younger brother and Song-woo’s mother before heading off to see his daughter in America with a fancy suit and new haircut, but on the way there he sees someone being recruited the same way he was and ends up turning around, phoning the Front Man and telling him he’s going to put a stop to it all…

At nine episodes it doesn’t overstay its welcome and its well-paced, for the most part. I had a quick look at the English dub and it seems pretty good if subtitles really aren’t your thing (decades of watching anime has made watching and reading subtitles second nature by now!)

The Bad:

You know I never mentioned that the Front Man pictured here was a past winner of the competition. Well, now I have, so there.

Not a lot to say really. As mentioned a subplot revolving around some grunts and a contestant who’s a disgraced Doctor back home doing some organ harvesting on the side didn’t add much to me, and really it only served to give Hwang a place to potentially escape from and show us that keeping the game fair and level is important to the Front Man and the VIPs, which is a funny sort of honourable thing done by very unhonourable people situation…

I’m not convinced a second season will work, whether it be just a new set of contestants and Gi-hun sneaks in or worse Gi-hun re-enters to take it down from within, which would be a crazy decision. Either way if he’s stopped the guy from being recruited before heading to see his daughter and then we called it a day I think I’d have been much happier. I’d love to be proved wrong though!

Overall Thoughts:

Kang is one of the many great characters that won’t make it to a possible sequel due to the very nature of the show!

Squid Game has become a worldwide hit and while I’m sure some of it is word of mouth about the brutally violent games that take place in the series I’m hoping the people who watched it for that also appreciated the character drama, the admittedly on-the-nose class struggle analogy and general look and direction the series has as well. I don’t know if anything is “111 million views in just a week or two” good but at least Squid Game delivered on the hype I’d heard about it going in, it’s if nothing else a great TV series.

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