I don’t need to tell you what Squid Game is. In 2021 the Korean Netflix survival thriller took the world by storm. Squid Game was the first non-English series to be nominated and win at the Emmy Awards.
In the first season, a group of people with insurmountable debt enter a series of children’s games to win more money than they’d ever seen. It’s only soon into the first game, when people around them are being shot down, that they realize their lives are on the line.
We know Squid Game season 2 is coming, and a reality game show dubbed Squid Game: The Challenge is releasing later this month! With all the hype building, we’ve decided to take a look back at the blood-soaked first season that started it all.
We’ll start with a synopsis of the season, but if you’re up to date on Squid Game lore, you can always skip straight to our review.
Squid Game Season 1
Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambler on a losing streak and drowning in debt. He meets a salesman in the subway who takes advantage of Gi-Hun’s desperation by offering a game for money. The game is Ddakji, a Korean children’s game where each player has a square of folded paper; the players take turns throwing their square onto the other’s, which is on the ground. Whoever can flip the opponent’s square first wins.
But the salesman’s version has a twist. While Gi-hun is playing to win money, every time he loses, the salesman gets to slap him across the face. Slap after slap, Gi-hun keeps playing. He could just walk away after any number of humiliating losses, no one is literally holding him against his will. But the truth is that he has no choice but to accept being beaten, as he needs a lot of money in a short amount of time in order to survive his debt collectors. The idea that he’s free to stop playing at any time is an illusion.
I’ve explained this part because the rest of the games the salesman invites him to afterwards are in the exact same vein, but on a larger scale. Gi-Hun is taken to an island as the 456th player in a series of 6 children’s games for billions of won in prize money. The first game is Red Light, Green Light, and the sadistic twist on these games is revealed as those who don’t stop on “red” are shot dead.
Afterwards, the players decide to hold a vote to end the games prematurely and go home. They were told they could do this at any time, and the games would stop if a majority voted for it. But this show of democracy is a façade. The players go home to lives that have only worsened since they left. Their debts are piling up, and their families are in need. They are invited to return to the games. Those in charge know the answer is going to be “yes.” It’s the only choice the players have.
The games continue on. Guards in pink with shapes on their masks watch over players and kill the losers. Players turn on each other when they realize that more money is added to the pot with every death. Every aspect of these games incentivizes the players to deceive others and think only of themselves.
Gi-hun and his team use their wits and communication to survive, but that doesn’t last long as he is soon forced to play a game with marbles against the old man he has befriended. During this game the old man seems to be struggling with dementia, and Gi-hun fights back his own guilt while cheating his way to victory. The man remembers his name is Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su); he reveals that he has known of Gi-hun’s cheating all along, but allows him to win the final marble anyway, because they are gganbu (trusted friends). Oh Il-nam is shot, and other players lose their allies in their respective marble games.
Eventually the final three are left to have a special dinner amongst themselves before the last game.
Sae-byeok (Jun Ho-yeon), the North Korean defector fighting to get her family across the border and into a home.
Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), Gi-hun’s childhood friend that lost everything after siphoning money from his career’s clients to use on failed investments.
And then there’s Gi-hun himself.
In a wild turn of events, Sang-woo kills Sae-byeok before the final game can begin. He knows she would side with his old friend, and decides to even his odds. Sang-woo has been ruthless throughout the games, betraying others whenever he needed to get ahead. Now he and Gi-hun face off in the final game – and what could it possibly be? Of course: Squid.
Gi-hun comes out on top in the titular children’s game, but offers to vote to end the games instead of killing his friend. Sang-woo instead decides that at least one of them should get the money after all of the bloodshed behind them. He stabs himself, and asks Gi-hun to take care of his mother.
A year after winning, Gi-hun, still stuck in his guilt, has not touched his prize money. He receives an odd invitation and walks into a room with the creator of the game on his deathbed. But Gi-hun recognizes this man. It’s Oh Il-nam, the old player that “lost” to him during the games! Il-nam says he only made the game out of boredom, and he participated for the sake of nostalgia. These games of death and desperation are meant to entertain wealthy people like himself.
Il-nam makes a wager with Gi-hun on whether anyone will help a drunkard lying on the street corner below their window. He dies as someone finally brings help, and Gi-hun’s victory is left unacknowledged.
Gi-hun has Sang-woo’s mother look after Sae-byeok’s brother, and disappears without a word, Batman-style, with a suitcase full of money. He heads to the airport to finally fly and see his daughter in L.A. But he sees the salesman from the beginning once again, playing Ddakji with another unsuspecting victim. He chases the salesman off and picks up a dropped card.
He calls the number as he’s about the board his flight, demanding information. He is told to board the plane and not get involved. Gi-hun hangs up and walks towards the camera, determined to fight back. Rolls credits.
Squid Game: Side Story
During the main story, Police Officer Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) infiltrates the secret island of the games. His investigation doesn’t directly impact the games, but it does provide us with plenty of information and set-up for the next season.
Jun-ho is on a mission to find out what happened to his older brother, whom has recently gone missing. He discovers that the games have been going on for years, and that his brother won the game in 2015.
During the penultimate game, Jun-ho disguises himself as a masked servant in an observation room. Foreign VIPs that had been betting on the games remotely arrive to watch in person. They are clearly from a separate economic world than the players, and their distance is displayed by treating the deaths of players the way one might treat a reality game show contestant being voted off.
One of the VIPs takes Jun-ho to a private room for intimate favors, and Jun-ho takes this opportunity to beat a confession out of the man, and escape the island.
On a separate island, however, he finds himself face-to-face with a squad of guards and the Front Man, the acting authority figure of the games. The Front Man unmasks himself, and Jun-ho is shocked to finally find his brother. Jun-ho rejects his recruitment offer, and is shot off a cliff into the sea. And that’s where his story stays for this season of Squid Game.
A Heart-Wrenching Thriller
Squid Game falls into a thriller subgenre known as the survival game, where players are pitted against each other, usually until one remains. Another live-action Netflix show in this genre is 2020’s Alice In Borderland, a Japanese manga adaptation. While the East has anime like The Future Diary and games such as Danganronpa, this category of thriller is also seen in Western media, including Saw and The Hunger Games.
From a puzzler’s perspective, the use of classic Korean kid games is a fresh take on the genre. Many survival game shows can have multiple games with complicated rules that, while interesting, can take a while to explain. Sometimes the rules are even re-explained throughout the game to assure the audience remembers it all.
So not only do Squid Game’s challenges fit the idea of turning something that was meant to be fun and carefree into a competitive bloodbath, they’re also great to keep the pacing at full speed!
Aesthetically, I adored the whimsy of this series. The bright pastels and neon pinks blended perfectly with the children’s games, and all of that innocence is flipped on its head when the blood starts pouring.
The music only intensified the child-like serenity juxtaposed with morbid reality, with one recurring track emulating the Dies irea while the neon pink soldiers are either killing, or are on their way to kill the losers of the games.
The games were filled with friends sacrificing themselves or betraying others, and I was stuck teetering on the edge of my seat whenever an episode ended. I couldn’t help but to relate to and root for these characters, stuck in a terrible situation that they cannot truly escape from.
Every bit of pacing from beginning to end had me cheering on Gi-hun; that final shot, with his blazing, dyed-red hair has me excited for what is to come.
The games in the show are horrifying, but. . .
The True Terror Lies In The Deeper Meaning
What if I told you that many of us are playing in our own version of the game in real life? It’s no secret by now that Squid Game is an allegory for the socioeconomic state of the First World.
When the show released, many internet warriors fought to deny the assertion that it was criticizing the current leading economic system. And while art can be interpreted in any way that the artist did not intend, the director has made his own statements on the deeper meaning behind Squid Game.
While director Hwang Dong-hyuk used both his childhood friends and the Korean debt crisis as inspiration, the release timing was also perfect to impact U.S. citizens that were still struggling economically from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and/or rising inflation.
The players are in an extreme competition, and are given an illusion of freedom. That illusion is broken when they find that the only way to keep their lives is to risk them in these games. Not only that, but while the games are their only ticket to a meaningful existence, those with the power to help them all with a snap of their fingers are high above, watching with merriment (which is why any attempt to make a game-show-ified version of Squid Game really misses the point).
This, of course, places the Netflix hit in close proximity to The Hunger Games, in both theme and plot. Both media have and will stand the test of time because of their relatable commentaries.
The Future Of Squid Game
I’m excited for Dong-hyuk’s next installment in this modern classic. While season 2 was confirmed last year, the first table read only happened this past June. So until then, I suppose we have Squid Game: The Challenge to check out later this month.
Season 1 was full of gut-punch thrills and heartwarming choices. Gi-hun had clever solutions to the games that any puzzle enthusiast would enjoy. If you haven’t watched it but want to get in on the hype, do it now! Just make sure you don’t have anything to do in the morning, since you’ll be up all night right until the very end.