Squid Game: Episode 1 (Review)
Netflix is showing no signs of slowing down in the Korean entertainment space, and their next offering is the 9-episode drama Squid Game. With pitch perfect production, a great cast, and an elaborate kill game for its plot, Squid Game makes for an edge-of-your-seat watch that’s as disturbing as you might expect.
Note: This is a first episode review only.
EPISODE 1 REVIEW
Since the release of Squid Game so closely follows Netflix’s previous original, D.P, it’s an almost automatic reaction to want to compare the two. Of course, there’s very little to compare, and maybe it’s the contrast that says the most.
D.P. is bleak and realistic in its storytelling, and even in the way it handles violence. In contrast, Squid Game is also dark, and maybe even more dire, but because of its setting, it’s more stylized than realistic. For me, stylized violence will always be more disturbing — for some reason it’s easier for me to watch a brutal fist fight than it is to watch people in matching tracksuits get mowed down by a computerized machine gun. Everyone is different and has a different threshold, but I guess the point I’m making here is that Squid Game is a rather unsettling watch.
Before the games even start, we meet our hero SUNG KI-HOON (Lee Jung-jae), but calling him a hero at this point is a bit of a stretch. He’s basically a wreck of a person, and he’s destroyed his life with his gambling addiction. He lost his marriage, he rarely sees his young daughter, he’s millions of won in debt, and he even stoops so low as to steal money from his elderly mother to feed his gambling addiction.
It would be hard to sympathize with him if it weren’t for Lee Jung-jae’s fantastic performance. Ki-hoon is willing to do awful things, and to take extraordinary punishment, all for his addiction — but even in his lowest moments, there’s a humanity and a desperation there that allows us to feel for him.
Ki-hoon soon hits a new low point. His most recent winnings are stolen, he’s about to lose his daughter for good, and he signs a disclaimer of physical rights, which means if he can’t pay up, he’ll give a kidney and an eye to service his debt.
It’s when he’s at this point that a mysterious man in a suit (cameo by Gong Yoo) approaches him in the subway station. He lures Ki-hoon into playing a simple game of ddakji, where 100,000 won (~$100) is won or lost each round. If Ki-hoon wins he’ll get the 100,000 won; if he loses, since he has no money to pay, he’ll take a slap in the face. Shocking though it is, Ki-hoon agrees.
The two play countless rounds. Ki-hoon takes so many full-on slaps across his face that his cheek is bleeding by the end. This is the moment in the drama where we realize what the story is really exploring: how people surrender their humanity for their greed. Ki-hoon could have easily walked away and left with no money but his dignity intact. Instead, he leaves bloodied and battered, with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and a business card. He’s told to call the number if he wants to play more games for an even bigger prize.
I linger on the setup here because it’s so telling, and such a great explanation of what we’ll find when Ki-hoon gets involved with the actual kill games that this story is about. He decides to call the number and participate in the games, but he (and all the others he’ll meet), clearly have no idea of the stakes involved in those games.
A creepy van picks Ki-hoon up in the middle of the night, and gases each person the second the door shuts behind them. When Ki-hoon wakes up he’s in a green tracksuit with #456 on his chest. He’s amongst 455 others who are just as desperate as he is — they’re in a gigantic room with jail-like beds stacked as far as the eye can see. This is the first moment where we (and Ki-hoon) realize that this whole “game” is going to be a lot more orchestrated and powerful than he might have thought.
As everyone wakes up in their creepy barracks, we meet some other characters who become important players later on. Interestingly, Ki-hoon already finds himself connected to many of them — one is the young woman who expertly pickpocketed him, and the other is JO SANG-WOO (Park Hae-soo).
Sang-woo is an SNU graduate, doctor, and the pride of the neighborhood he and Ki-hoon grew up in… but the fact that he is involved in the games means there was a lot to him that no one knew about (read: oppressive debt). Another character that looks like he will be important is the awful gangster JANG DEOK-SOO (Heo Sung-tae).
What’s important is that we immediately learn that each of these 456 people are in crippling debt, and that they all went through the same weird hazing that Ki-hoon did, with the ddakji game and hundreds of slaps to the face. On one hand it’s sobering to see such desperate people gathered together; on the other hand, it’s unsettling, since we have seen glimmers of what they’re capable of.
The first game starts, and it’s a rendition of Red Light Green Light. Everyone seems perplexed as they’re ushered into this weird pastel-colored M.C. Escher-like maze, and then dumped onto the playing field: a sand pit with a giant doll in the distance, and a finish line. The rules of the game are simple enough, but what everyone slowly and horribly realizes is that the games have life or death stakes. Being “eliminated” from the game actually means you are slaughtered on the spot.
This is where Squid Game’s heavy and pretty unforgiving violence comes in. We watch person after person gunned down, blood spewing. We watch people trample over dead bodies in their own desperation. And above all, each player in the game seems already desensitized to what’s happening around them. Their desperation to pass the round (and survive) makes them forget the humans gasping for their last breath around them.
It’s this element that makes Squid Game so disturbing. The players are dressed alike and sent scurrying around like literal Lemmings whose lives don’t matter beyond the game. It’s sickening that this is happening and has been orchestrated, but even more so, it’s sickening because we see what inhumanity people are truly capable of. It’s a ruthless picture of mob mentality and desperation. But the greed element that’s latent here keeps us from siding 100% with the players, like we might want to.
After a huge bunch of players are eliminated (murdered) in that first game of Red Light Green Light, and here the drama starts hinting at the bigger picture that’s going on. We’ve seen most of this from Ki-hoon and the players’ perspectives, but we’ve also been teased that there’s someone masterminding it all.
There’s a legion of soldier-like characters in pink suits who seem to exist to keep the players in check, and if that wasn’t creepy enough, a person in a black hood and mask manages the game from afar. Later, he sits on a couch and watches the game of Red Light Green Light in front of him; the slaughter seems like pure entertainment. It’s like the blood sport that was the Roman gladiators.
As the first episode draws to a close, it’s hard to not to be completely sucked into this story. Just as the players find themselves locked into this brutal gameplay that may cost them their lives, we the audience have our attention grabbed by this disturbing story. You want to look away, but you kinda can’t.
The entertainment factor is through the roof — a brassy jazz song blasts while the players are diving across the finish line, surrounded by corpses. It’s almost as if the drama is playing with us. Are we just as guilty as the creepy guy behind the screens watching this mayhem play out? It seems like entertainment for him, but are we (the viewers) any different?
The first episode of Squid Game is a great introduction to not only our characters and what drives them, but the scope of the games, and the hints of what is to come. It’s not hard to imagine how much more brutal the games will get, as the number of players diminish, and they’re pitted against each other. In addition, we’ve also got a mysterious setup that’s ripe for fresh chaos, unexpected twists, and a deeper look at how far humans can be pushed.
The construct of the games feels like a giant psyop, with rules you can’t predict, and I guess the real question is whether all the human players will let themselves become dehumanized Lemmings, or if they’ll realize their very essence is at stake and instead value what makes them human. With eight more episodes to go, I imagine the stakes will get even more intense as we venture deeper into this horror-tainment rabbit hole.