4 out of 5
Created by: Hwang Dong-hyuk
covers season 1
Commentary doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be effective.
Greed is a motivator. Mob mentality is powerful. Tie either of these to self-preservation, and you’ve got the seeds to drive not only plenty of conflicts across history – past and forthcoming – but also, alas, some of the push and pull of progress as well.
Plenty of movies and TV and books and comics have explored this ideas. In horror, this is often used to pit people against one another with bloody results; in something in a more action or drama vein, you’d likely have some Big Bad CEO sitting on a golden throne, to be upseated by a fighting-for-the-people hero. Also simple commentary, but not really geared toward much beyond entertainment.
Squid Game features a giant “game” run by mysteriously masked Big Bads which pits 100s of competitors – in debt, struggling, playing for a huge cash prize that increases with each conquered opponent – against one another in a series of spins on children’s activities, such as red light / green light, and marbles. Those ‘conquered opponents’ are not simply dismissed, though, which is discovered during the first such game – they’re killed. The remaining participants are given the chance to leave the game at that point, and if you think that those stakes will actually dissuade the majority from the chance to live in money-provided luxury, well, then maybe this is your first such exposure to one of these types of setups.
But while Squid Game’s general concept might not be new – and even it’s upscaled, violent, somewhat creepy takes on those kid’s games has precedents – writer / director Hwang Dong-hyuk advances the formula, and the potential impact of the scenarios it studies, right from the outset: within the story’s extremes and outlandishness, he inserts actual human beings.
Yes, some people are going to scheme no matter what, just as some people might have more notably altruistic bents, but the reality is often more grey for the majority. Dong-hyuk focuses on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a destitute, living dollar-to-dollar well-meaning but failing father and son, who steals from his mother to gamble and has to con a kid to win a prize from a claw machine for him so he can give his daughter – living with her mother and stepfather – a birthday gift. But while this sketches out the traits of a lout, and initial impressions play that up a bit, we get to see – thanks to Jung-jae, and careful scripting and pacing – the person who has struggled and descended into this loutish behavior, and the vainglorious attempts to scrabble back above the surface and try to make his mother and daughter proud. At no point does Dong-hyuk / Jung-jae try to justify the behavior, but it’s more about making sure we actually have some context on Gi-hun, without handing it to us as an exposition dump. So when Gi-hun is approached by a man who, essentially, offers him money to slap him, we’ve already seen the character exposing himself to risk/reward scenarios, and his acceptance of these terms is understandable. He gets slapped and gets paid; he’s then offered a card to join a game for higher stakes. The escalation makes sense.
Others have gone through the same, and this is how they are all escorted to the game, in some remote location. But Dong-hyuk doesn’t just stop there: of course not everyone is an instant convert, and we get to break away from things after the first unleashing of violence. However, there is now the allure of that huge cash prize, and it’s now very juxtaposed against the realities of their lives – of being judged for being outsiders; of not being able to get a hand up once knocked down. And so – Gi-hun included – they return to the game.
Dong-hyuk keeps mixing it up appropriately throughout the 9-episode series, not just relying on the quirkiness of the events to drive episodes – the focus is very much on how the different personality types we meet react and adapt, especially when the game runners, claiming fairness as the guiding rule for all of the events, start to become especially manipulative – say, shorting food during one night, or casually leaving knives out after a meal.
Expanded from a 120-minute movie treatment to a full series, there are inevitably some aspects or beats that dip the tension or suspension-of-disbelief: some rather logical questions are never asked, and we miss some opportunities to clarify the rules of engagement when they suddenly seem to change. Also, while the ‘remote island run by mysterious benefactors’ shtick gives us a pass on much of the setup – and the production and costume design really is quite fantastic and inventive in this sense – some of the later games start to push that a bit, ballooning to more cartoonish proportions. Dong-hyuk also needs a way to give us some background on who’s running the show and why, thus inserting secret cop Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) into the mix, whose storyline isn’t quite combined seamlessly, especially towards the end.
However, these blips never derail the drive of the show, pulling Gi-hun apart and forcing us to see ourselves in different aspects of the characters and all of their relative goodness and badness; the slight over- or missteps above are very much mitigated by not allowing the show to become obsessed with its games, or with twists, or with finger-pointing. There’s even a beat which would’ve likely required a more bland version of this story to give us an entire episode to explain and flashback on and justify, and here it’s just left as an open question for us to ponder.
As we might the ending, and whether it was “right” to leave things the way Dong-hyuk does. But I think it’s wholly fitting – it’s not clean; and you can go back and forth as to how self-serving it is (within the show, or in a larger context), which seems rather keeping with the show’s themes.