I will not reveal any more detail in this review than appears in the trailer, but I wholeheartedly recommend going into this series completely blind. At your peril, of course. You will have one more opportunity to stop reading at the end of the first paragraph.
If you don’t enjoy having your heart-rate elevated and knuckles whitened, you would be quite within your rights to file the new Korean Netflix thriller series Squid Game under ‘too much for me, thanks.’ It is confronting, nerve-shredding, violent and is actively uninterested in your feelings. However, if you’re willing to test your mettle, you may find it becomes one of the most rewarding TV experiences of your life. Buried under the avalanche of impossibly heartbreaking decisions, betrayal, agonising physical challenges and, well...quite a bit of blood, is a deeply affecting tale of morality, greed and sacrifice. This is your last opportunity to stop reading and start streaming the first episode.
Not quite game enough? That’s OK.
Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyu's Squid Game opens with a black and white prologue featuring a group of children enjoying the titular playground game, accompanied by a voiceover from the eventual winner, explaining the rules. It is a brilliant piece of foreshadowing of the episodes to come, acting as a multi-layered framework to which the rest of the plot clings. There’s never any doubt that the significance of this scene will be referenced later in the series, and when it finally is, its inevitability somehow feels more devastating.
We spend most of the time following Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a reluctant chauffeur and gambling addict who takes money from his sick mother to fuel his vice and try to buy the affection of his daughter after he’s reminded it’s her birthday. The first episode paints a bleak picture of Gi-hun’s reality, owing millions of won to vicious loan sharks who violently agree to give him one final extension on his repayments — if he fails, he’ll find himself short a kidney, and we’re not given the impression that anaesthetic will be used. After a shattering day of finally winning enough money on the horses to satisfy his debts, only to have it pickpocketed, a down-on-his-luck Gi-hun encounters a dapper gentleman in a subway station who offers him the opportunity to fairly earn enough money (and more) to finally be out of the red. All he must do is participate in and win a series of children’s games. Gi-hun knows as well as we do that there must be a catch, but such is the nature of his financial desperation that he reluctantly agrees, which sees him gassed unconscious and brought to a secret location — along with 455 other contestants.
Waking up in a room full of similarly track-suited and sequentially numbered participants, the crowd realises they have all been made identical offers to bring them out of their financial hardships. An army of masked soldiers confirm that they will each be given a fair chance to earn a share of a substantial cash prize if they successfully complete a series of six games over six days. Unfortunately, there is nothing childish about these games. Both the consequence for losing a game and the method by which the total prize money accumulates are two of the series’ meanest tricks, but by no means the most cruel. The effectiveness and brutality of the games lie in their simplicity. The first — Red Light, Green Light — initially causes understandable confusion and incredulity amongst the group. ‘Surely it can’t be this easy,’ they think. But the gut-punch realisation that the penalty for failure is death ramps up the dread and tension to an almost unbearable degree, and instantly sets the tone of the remaining episodes to that of a vivid nightmare.
Aside from the numerous deaths that ensue, which are, due to the nature of the game, callous and unforgiving, the most difficult aspect of Squid Game to stomach is watching each character gradually come to terms with their likelihood of survival, what they might have to do to achieve it, and how that wreaks havoc on their ability to trust the other players. Alliances are formed, but how sure can anyone really be about who they’re making deals with? There is simply too much at stake for anyone to be completely honest. The rules of the game sound fair, even democratic, but how fair can fairness be when the deck is stacked in favour of the one who wrote the rules? A particularly nasty twist comes around halfway through that totally upends the system and any predictability the players were able to take comfort in. This is the point at which Squid Game comes perilously close to tipping into some Battle Royale-esque cliches, and in a few moments it can’t quite resist.
I am reasonably outspoken about my enjoyment of horror and thrillers, but equally so about my disdain for the likes of Saw and Hostel that depict humans in situations of unimaginable distress for absolutely no reason, without even appearing to operate on a metaphorical level — I find those films (and others like them), at best, vile, and at their worst, demonstrably evil. The reason I mention that is because I'm very aware that it may seem as though I'm describing Squid Game in this way. However, part of the brilliance of this series is how it manages to balance a perfectly calibrated conversation between the desolate reality of its premise (which is arguably essential to keep the stakes elevated throughout) and Gi-hun's indelible faith in the common decency of mankind. Sometimes his optimism limps, with its last breath, and sometimes it bursts and surges out of every seam. In watching Gi-hun navigate the complexities of every decision he's forced to make, we see a different aspect of ourselves on screen — it gave me pause to consider how I might have responded to the various dilemmas, and even challenged me to judge him for his self-serving choices. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
In a similar way to Bryan Fuller's Hannibal, the cinematography and set design are often so striking that they almost serve to dilute the otherwise chaotic action. It's a visually stunning production, aided in no small way by Jung Jae-il's excellent score — a near-perfect and eery blend of juvenile recorder, disconcerting electronics, emotive piano and guitar and thunderous percussion. It shares an uncanny amount of tonal and thematic ground with the scorchingly good 2020 Japanese thriller Alice in Borderland (so much so that Borderland started trending on Twitter shortly after the release of Squid Game), which takes nothing away from either. There are also noticeable similarities with other Korean works such as Bong Joon-ho's Parasite and Snowpiercer, and the more recent Netflix Original Sweet Home, all of which grapple with the class system in overt and sweeping allegory.
I would not rob Squid Game of the opportunity to work its magic on other potential viewers by describing any further aspects in greater detail, but needless to say I was completely blindsided by its emotional impact. Layer upon layer of plot threads are woven together with impeccable precision, revealing crucial backstory breadcrumbs at exactly the right moment. A number of scenes left me in floods of tears as the gravity of each character's choices (sometimes their last) was brought sharply into focus by a new piece of information that always felt organically discovered. That's not to say the series doesn't contain its fair share of rug-pulls, but each one feels earned and uncontrived. My favourite 'gotcha' of the entire series is unceremoniously dumped in our laps but literally never mentioned. It's a spectacular piece of plotting and I'm obsessed with Hwang Dong-hyuk's bold decision to let it go unaddressed.
There's no doubt that Squid Game won't be everyone's cup of tea. But in a last-ditch effort to get you to give it a try: do you think it's possible to have anxiety about honeycomb?
Don't be so sure.
Squid Game is streaming on Netflix now.