“Squid Game”: a bloody, refreshing change of pace for Netflix originals


Jake Panek

The simple premise of cash-strapped players competing in deadly games is elevated to an engrossing level in director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game.”

Jake Panek, Staff Writer

“This is just a game,” says one of the faceless, pink-suited guards, only distinguishable because of the white square adorning his black mask. 

This quote is indicative, nearly self-referential: yes, it’s a show about games, but watching “Squid Game” and getting lost with its characters in its hellishly, extravagantly vibrant and enigmatic setting is almost like a game in and of itself. Amidst the vivid, horrifically graphic violence and increasingly dark subtext and tone, there’s a level of playfulness coursing through the veins of “Squid Game,” and it results in one of the most compelling shows in recent memory.

“Squid Game” follows Seong Gi-Hun, a man crumbling under the weight of the massive debts he owes to loan sharks and the news that his estranged wife and daughter are moving to America. While at a train station, he’s approached by a salesman who asks him to play a game of ddakji for money, and he’s granted an invitation to a mysterious game with the promise of higher stakes and an even higher cash prize. He accepts, is put to sleep in a van and wakes up with 455 other nameless players in an undisclosed location. There, he recognizes his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo and Player 067, a pickpocket who stole money he won from betting on horses, and befriends Player 001, an old man with a brain tumor. After signing a waiver with only three vague rules—a player is not allowed to stop playing, a player who refuses to play will be eliminated, and games may be terminated if the majority agrees—the games begin, and… well, you’ll just have to see for yourself. (I mean, you likely already have; if you don’t know what happens at this point, you probably just live under a rock.) 

“Squid Game” was released onto Netflix a mere month ago on September 17th, and now, it’s the biggest launch the platform has ever seen—not one of, the—amassing over 111 million viewers and $900 million dollars in value. Watching the wildfire spread across social media initially made me a little worried knowing how overhyped a show can be because of the rather low standards that audiences have, but right from the first episode of “Squid Game,” it’s practically irresistible. It takes its time to establish the dire situation of its main character and garner empathy for him before exploding in a sheer, bloodstained adrenaline rush, and by the final lyric of the placid rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” the hook has been set in so deep that you can’t help but want to binge the rest of the episodes.

Every aspect of “Squid Game” works together in perfect harmony to make it the perfectly bingeable show of the moment. The shadowy organization behind the games, the conversations and relationships between the continually dwindling amount of players in the main dormitory and the nerve-wracking games are all riveting in their own way and ensure that, even during the occasional moments where its pacing is uneven, the story flows smoothly no matter what it cuts to in any episode. It’s also because of that killer hook that “Squid Game” is able to flesh out its main cast of characters so easily. Aided by a powerhouse ensemble of actors Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon and more, each character is given a backstory and a moral standard that makes all of them unique and absorbing. Even characters that are blatantly meant to be unlikable, like the thug Player 101, have moments where you can connect with the situation they’re in.

Of course, everything in the show does loop back to the titular games, and the only word I can think of to describe how director Hwang Dong-hyuk commands each scene is effortless. The palpable tension in the scenes preceding the games is amplified tenfold, and the juxtaposition between the vibrant, youthful setting and the grisly deaths makes it even more unsettling. I couldn’t count how many times I gasped during each game; it’s that effective. But as the relationships and morality of the characters progress, there’s a gradual emotional weight that’s introduced that culminates in what is easily the most devastating episode of television we’ll see this year. It really goes to show just how far you can take such a simple premise.

Sadly, “Squid Game” does have its faults. Watching the show for a second time, the logical issues run rampant—many of the games and key plot points rely on there being a certain amount of players surviving that the organization behind the games can’t control, which is a glaring problem that the thrills can’t cover up on a rewatch—and knowing how the season ends (which I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen it) does detract from a lot of the weight that the later episodes carry. The show’s critique of capitalism is topical and treated well, but it also could not be more unsubtle; for many people, this won’t matter—this was made for mass appeal, after all—but it comes off to me as a sort-of “baby’s first anti-capitalist message.” Another major issue that many viewers have brought up is the actors playing the VIPs, the wealthy English men funding the games, and if I’m being honest, I don’t get this criticism at all. Yes, the dialogue they’re given is laughable, but compared to other foreign language shows with English actors, it could be a lot worse. I also think the immature, stupid writing reinforced just how despicable what they’re doing really is—they bet money on the lives of human beings and only feel disappointment and anger when they “lose”; to them, this is just a fun game, and anybody below them is disposable.

These imperfections are ultimately minimal when you look at the bigger picture of “Squid Game.” It’s weird to think that, at its core, it’s not far off from being just another product of the battle royale craze that’s been dominating the entertainment industry because of how insanely well executed it is. From the classical leitmotifs to the fanciful set and costume design to the rewarding character dynamics, every aspect of “Squid Game” elevates it beyond nearly every other trendy show that Netflix has seen. Although it’s still unfortunate that a large portion of its audience experienced it through the horrendous English dub, it’s so refreshing to see a foreign language show have the biggest launch on such a major streaming platform. It’ll be interesting to see how time will fare for “Squid Game,” but in this current moment, there’s no denying the importance and pure enjoyability of a show like this.

Overall rating: 85/100