In SQUID GAME (Netflix, Korean), a group of financially desperate people are recruited to participate in a series of games for a cash prize worth billions. I absolutely loved this gripping, violent, and emotionally devastating show, with a few reservations.
The first episode introduces us to Seong Gi-hun, a divorced chauffeur heavily in debt, who dips into his mother’s savings to gamble. In the opening, we see him as a boy playing a children’s game called the Squid Game, how when he won he felt on top of the world. Years later, he’s not as good at the game of life and gambles to get above water financially and hopefully reclaim that feeling of winning from long ago. True to the best South Korean films, we have a protagonist who is a heavily flawed loser but also eminently relatable and likeable.
When a mysterious organization invites him to participate in various games for cash prizes, he volunteers. Suddenly, he’s competing along with 455 other people in a series of children’s games. It looks like fun, only the trick is the losers die, and with each death, the cash prize for the winners goes up. The games break them down into smaller groups until it’s basically every person for themselves, and they realize they’re not only betting their lives, they’re selling their souls and very humanity, showing what they’re all truly made of. Along the way, we meet and sympathize with other terrific characters, each with their own personal reason for competing, making this their story as much as Seong Gi-hun’s.
The show has been compared to ALICE IN BORDERLAND, a similar Japanese series, but I personally found SQUID GAME far superior and more compelling, as it goes far deeper into character and theme, which invested me so much more heavily such that I found it emotionally devastating while I found ALICE only titillating. The games are just brutal, absolutely riveting stuff, and the stakes are devastating, with plenty of physical challenges and psychological twists. The sets and costumes in the game world are terrific. The theme is pretty simple: Capitalism brutalizes people, resulting in a boredom among the rich and a desperation among the poor uniting them in psychopathy.
I had two criticisms. One is that a side plot produces a terrific perspective on what’s going on but doesn’t really go anywhere except possibly to influence the events in a second season. The second is the ending, which I found pretty disappointing as it chose a resolution that didn’t resonate with me.
Overall, SQUID GAME is just great storytelling: people you care about challenged and absolutely brutalized by games with the highest stakes–your life and more money you could spend in a lifetime.