First Impression and Spoiler Free Series Review: SQUID GAME
Squid Game is EVERYWHERE. Everyone is talking about it, and if you’ve been watching dramas for a while, people you never thought would talk to about kdramas are suddenly wearing green tracksuits and wanting to discuss your favorite actors. According to Netflix, it may end up being its most-watched original show ever. What is making the world jump over that one-inch subtitle line and dive into this particular drama? I have no idea, but let’s talk about why we watched it instead.
Why is everyone around the world tuning in to watch this 9-episode Korean drama? Like any other phenomena (I’m side eyeing you Tiger King) I think timing has a lot to do with its success. I can’t say that watching people kill each other or watching greedy people meet a horrible end should be therapeutic during a pandemic, but it seems that it might be exactly that.
Now that we’ve addressed why everyone in the world might be interested in the drama (I still have no idea so leave a comment if you happened upon this blog and you don’t normally watch Asian content), let’s talk about what made us press play and if we think it lives up to all the hype.
For the seasoned drama watchers, the cast may be the first thing that appeals to you. Lee Jung Jae is a HUGE deal in Korea — he’s both a seasoned movie star and starred in his fair share of dramas. Here he plays a deadbeat son and father who steals money from his mom and gambles it away. Most will be very turned off by his character when the show starts, and you should be. But his acting and character are the heart of this show. Not to be outdone is Park Hae Soo, whom many of you know from Prison Playbook. He gives a stellar performance as a once-successful businessman who has lost everything and is wanted by the police. New to dramas is Jung Ho Yeon and she was FANTASTIC. Her character is a North Korean defector. Sprinkle in a guest appearance by Gong Yoo and a cop played by Wi Ha Joon and it’s a pretty rounded cast. All the other players felt fleshed out and everyone on the show did a great job. Okay, except maybe the horrible Western actors they bring in toward the end.
Drama Geek: I’ll admit that I only started this because of the hype. I’ve stayed away from the more violent shows recently, but there wasn’t anyone on the blog watching it, so I figured I’d give it a try, not really remembering who was even in the cast. Park Hae Soo has hair extensions to fill out his receding hairline, so it took me a bit to realize it was him. I also totally thought the cop was played by the Come and Hug Me hyung but I’ve found I’m not the only one that gets them mixed up. One of the best performances is actually given by 001’s Oh Young Soo. He breaks your heart over and over.
Kdrama Jen: I started watching because my daughter and husband were watching this! The violence in the first episode was a bit too intense, but I went back to this after my daughter finished and could not stop talking about it. She even bought a green leisure suit! It amazed me how the violence itself was not what caused the intensity (although it is graphic). Instead, it is the way all the relationships come together and each person is faced with decisions and cruel fate. I second the endorsement of Oh Young Soo!
Kmuse: I also watched it because everyone was talking about it, even my friends that are not Asian content watchers. So glad that I did push play since it had me so engrossed that I just sat down and watched six hours straight. Would have been all nine but my kids got in the way of me totally tuning out the real world. All the performances of the ensemble cast were top-notch and there was not one that didn’t shine in their role.
Every person invited to play the game is desperate for money. They have no idea what they’re in for when they’re given a mysterious card with three shapes on it. They wake up in a huge gym full of beds and people, clothed in green track suites with numbers 001 to 456 printed on them. They’re greeted by guards in hot pink uniforms and masks wielding machine guns. Each of their captors has a shape on their masks. The imagery this creates is possibly the spark that has made this show so popular.
Building on that imagery, the players are led up and down brightly colored stairs that resemble a dollhouse. They spill out into a large arena, where the biggest and creepiest doll is waiting to play the first game: Red Light, Green Light. It doesn’t take long after the game starts for everyone to realize that the punishment for not standing completely still is death.
Part of what makes this show work, as it dives deeper into a thought experiment, is that for the first game they have no idea what they’ve signed up for, but the rules allow them to vote to go home and the majority wins. They’re all sent home without any prize money and back into the same situations that led them there. They are given a day or two to face whatever hardship, then given another card and a decision. Will they join the games again, knowing they’ll be risking their lives, or will they face the reality they live in?
Drama Geek: I’ll admit that I don’t usually watch these types of shows. I’ve never seen Battle Royale and I didn’t watch last year’s sleeper hit Alice in Borderland. Which means I don’t have a lot to compare it to. I think the attention to character detail is powerful. Their families are all shown so that, even though they may seem horrible, we know they are loved and will be missed. It doesn’t help that Jung Jae’s mom is one of my favorite Korean grandmas and she’s suffering from what one of my family members is currently battling in the hospital.
Kdrama Jen: The slow realization that they have signed up for a battle to the death can be seen as it hits each player differently. Then there is the cruel reality of their alternative, and they next have to make a choice to return to the game. To me, this made the thought experiment that much more brutal. It was a different matter when they were all helpless victims, but to choose to return when they know death is on the line? Now we are talking about some really serious moral dilemmas.
Kmuse: I actually am a fan of these types of shows where people have to outwit some kind of game. I didn’t jump onto Squid Game right away because the world we are currently living in can be a bit depressing. I wasn’t sure I was up for this kind of story at this time. I loved how they gave us a very messed-up version of what we enjoyed in our childhood. It felt like playground childhood nostalgia mixed up with a killer Charlie and the Chocolate Factory vibe that totally worked.
Are We the Horrible Spectators?
Each new game is more intense, with more bloodshed, and more players being the ones to spill the blood. The happy tunes they use to move the players from one room to the next, and the polite computerized voice that gives instructions or declares someone “eliminated,” creates this otherworldly feel that pulls you in and makes you need to see it to its end. And surprisingly enough, we start to see pieces of everyone’s humanity among all the greed and death. Key players either reveal what they’re capable of under their shiny exterior, or the kindness that was buried beneath depravity. There are doctors, lawyers, fathers, and mothers. Let’s not forget those faceless guards. One of the main rules is that they will be killed if they reveal their identities. We do get to see who some of them are and the show leaves you wondering how they ended up there, and who started this demented game to begin with.
Drama Geek: Toward the end, they bring in the VIPs that have been watching all along, and it struck me that in a way, I was one of them. I was watching this unfold for entertainment. It didn’t stop me from finishing, but it did increase the unsettling feeling I already had. I do think most of us would hope that we’re actually the cop who sneaks into the games trying to find his brother. His eventual mission is the reveal what is going on, and bring the police force in to help stop it
Kdrama Jen: It made me think about how, even if we are not watching Squid Game as spectators, aren’t we somewhat doing this in our everyday lives? All of those people had hardships. Am I doing enough to help the people around me? I know, it is a bit of deep thought, but this show made me examine my own humanity too.
Kmuse: I liked how the writer mixed in the idea of free will into the mix. All of these people (after the first round) knew what the consequences were and chose to take the chance. It is hard to blame only the rich people who were watching the contestants. There was plenty of blame to go around.
I think some of these games aren’t going to hit the international audience the same way, or we at least won’t have the advantage of having clues to what might happen next. Even the director said the games were very simple, but that’s the part that makes it more horrific. Our two main guys grew up together, so they actually played these games with each other. Maybe that is why it doesn’t matter what game they played. We can all relate.
Drama Geek: This is another attention to small details that made the show more relatable for me and sucked me in. They weren’t weird sci-fi battles we could never imagine being a part of. Even if we’ve never played that particular game, we’ve done something similar.
Kdrama Jen: It added to the eerie feeling. It’s one thing to play “Red Light, Green Light,” but to suddenly have the stakes so high made it feel so jarring. Even a game of marbles took on so much meaning. That particular episode was so painful to watch!
Kmuse: To be honest, the game I had the hardest time trying to figure out was the squid game. Still not sure if I have all the rules straight in my head. Luckily, that isn’t really necessary to follow the plot. I enjoyed that the majority of the games could be won by anyone if they were able to figure out what was going and had a bit of luck on their side.
The End and Season Two
This is a spoiler free review so we won’t get into the specifics. No one goes into this type of show thinking there will be a happy ending, and there isn’t here either. Hunger Games was created to put on display what war does to the people who fight it. What does poverty and desperation do to us each day? What has capitalism done to Korea and to any nation it’s infiltrated? Are there still good people in the world, or are we one decision away from accepting an offer like this? You’ll have to watch it to see if any of these themes were explored properly. As for season two, the director made it sound like it was a given, but production hasn’t started.
Drama Geek: Episodes 7, 8, & 9 had me crying as certain players died. One of the girls that died toward the end really hit me hard. Her story was so sad and plausible. I wanted her to survive.
Kdrama Jen: I now want to have a full podcast with spoilers allowed because I have so much more to SAY! I agree with Drama Geek! Those three episodes hit me hard.
Kmuse: I was so shocked that I ended up emotionally connecting with any of them, since I thought they were all the worst back at the beginning. It was a very interesting show, and I teared up several times.
Do We Recommend?
Drama Geek: It seems like I don’t really need to, since the world is already watching. I will say it was a compelling watch and had some pretty great performances. If this isn’t your regular genre, you’ll know by the end of episode one if you’re willing to hang with the show.
Kdrama Jen: I actually think you should try beyond the first episode. The first episode was hard for me to watch, but once I got into the story and cared about the characters, I could not stop watching! I would recommend this for sure. Drama Geek and I were chatting and we discussed that it has a bit of a vibe similar to the movie Parasite (but more brutal!) I can definitely see why this is drawing in a wider audience. Even if this kind of show is not your usual watch, I think it is worth taking a peek. At the very least, you may find this is a gateway drama for your friends and coworkers. Be ready to recommend others. This is only the beginning…
Kmuse: I agree that you need to give it a little bit of time. There is a lot of violence, which can be hard to watch if you are squeamish. That said, I would definitely recommend it. It makes you think, which is always a sign of great storytelling.
Unless we’re eliminated before the next game, we remain —
Dramas With a Side of Kimchi