*This review contains spoilers*.
I am pretty sure that if you have a Netflix subscription and/or a working Internet connection, chances are you have heard about Squid Game at least once or twice in the last few weeks. Released this September, the 9-episode Korean Drama has taken over the whole world by a storm, as it is on its way to becoming the platform’s most popular show of all time in less than a month. Everyone has watched it, and everyone is utterly in love with it. Well, almost everyone.
Let me just preface this by saying that I actually enjoyed the show – the plot is enticing, the acting is fine, the scenery is great, and the script is okay. Overall, I found it genuinely good – just not the best, as everybody seems to think Squid Game is.
And I know what you are probably thinking – ‘There she goes, hating on it just because it’s mainstream!’. However, I can assure you I’m not one of those people who will hate on anything popular just because it is popular. Squid Game is simply Not That Good, and I think it’s about time someone has the balls to outrightly say it. Now, just buckle up as I’m going to tell you exactly why I think that…
(Those who have already seen the show may skip the following section.)
Squid Game – the gist
The series centers around a contest where 456 people play Korean children’s games on a remote island in order to win a cash prize of ₩45.6B (roughly, €33M). Win a game? Advance in the competition! Lose? You get brutally killed. The battle features contestants of various ages and with different backgrounds, who have only one thing in common – they are all in crushing debt. Thus, they’re willing to do whatever it takes to win the money.
The main protagonists of the show are the miserable chronic gambler Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-Jae), North Korean defector and pickpocket Kang Sae-Byeok (Jung Ho-Yeon), and disgraced businessman Cho Sang-Woo (Park Hae-Soo). However, there are plenty of memorable characters who manage to steal the show, such as Pakistani migrant Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), elderly contestant Oh Il-Nam (O Yeong-Su), and police officer Hwang Jun-Ho (Wi Ha-Joon), who infiltrated the game to investigate the disappearance of his brother.
The players face a total of six games, which get increasingly brutal and deadly, bringing the number of participants to drop dramatically. All competitions are being documented and recorded for a small audience called ‘The VIPs’, wealthy Western men who enjoy watching people getting slaughtered for… some reason…
In the end, we’re down to just two contestants – Gi-Hun and Sang-Woo, as everyone else has kicked the bucket (with some help, of course) – who face each other in a match of the ‘Squid Game’. In a nutshell, Gi-Hun wins after Sang-Woo sacrifices himself, succumbing to his guilty conscience. Albeit becoming a billionaire, our protagonist doesn’t actually use the cash prize for a year (probably because he sees it as ‘blood money’), until he regains faith in humanity and decides to help take down The Game at the very last second of the show.
At face value, Squid Game is a gruesome splatter thriller, meant to hook you and keep you on the edge of your seat. However, the show is actually far more. It is a social commentary, which criticizes capitalism and highlights the wealth gap within society. The series is an allegory of how rich privileged people create situations where poor marginalized individuals are forced to commit heinous acts just to survive, and give them the illusion of choice, in order to convince them they are the sole responsible for their falling. Ergo, not exactly your lighthearted afternoon special.
The good, the bad… and the horrible
As I stated above, I think the show’s main idea is brilliant! It’s got thrill, a splash of gore in all the right places, and the underlying social commentary really makes you think. Besides, I love me some Hunger Games and some Battle Royale, so I definitely found the story intriguing and exciting. Nevertheless, every rose has its thorns…
The killer slow pace
The show was meant to fill me with angst and anxiety, but oftentimes I was just filled with boredom.
First of all, we have to talk about the atrocious pacing of this show. Some scenes dragged on for so long and for no reason whatsoever, it made it tedious to watch more times than I can count. There were so many scenes in which the characters were talking back and forth about life and morality, which were probably meant to strengthen the viewers’ bond with the protagonists, but that was not successfully conveyed in my opinion.
Moreover, the slow pace completely killed the suspense element for me. The show was meant to fill me with angst and anxiety, but oftentimes I was just filled with boredom. It didn’t keep me on my toes, it just kept me on the edge of falling asleep (which is not something you want from this TV genre).
A series of unfortunate storylines
The core of the plot was (obviously) the game and the participants’ journey therein, but two other storylines unfolded as well. In the first few episodes, we learn how one of the contestants – a doctor – was working with some of the guards to smuggle organs from the already-killed players. In the other main sideline-plot, we follow detective Hwang Jun-Ho in his quest to find information about the vanishing of his brother, and gather evidence to take down The Game. Albeit being actually interesting stories to watch unfold, they left me with a big question mark – did I really need to see that? No, I did not.
Those storylines simply add nothing to the overarching plot of Squid Game, nor do they affect the outcome of the series in the slightest. The doctor gets killed just a few episodes in, and the guards with whom he consorted die shortly after as well. The detective manages to find the answers he was looking for and garner some evidence, but he eventually fails to send it to the authorities and gets murdered in the end. Impact made? Almost none whatsoever.
It did cross my mind that perhaps those storylines were included to help us get a glimpse of the guards’ life, or to allegorically showcase how even law enforcement is powerless against capitalism. But was it that hard to have them impact the finale somehow? No, it wasn’t, and that’s exactly what annoys me the most – and apparently, none of the writers figured it out. Thus, we are left with two useless storylines of which we viewers are supposed to make sense ourselves, since clearly nobody else did.
The mystery of the untwisted plot
I was promised suspense, surprise, and intrigue. Well, I got none of that.
Prior to watching the show, everyone around me was saying how much I was going to enjoy the plot twists. I was promised suspense, surprise, and intrigue. Well, I got none of that.
I saw the plot twists coming from miles away – am I just psychic? And the worst part was that I managed to anticipate what was going to happen not because it was foreshadowed, but because it was all so predictable. The detective’s brother is actually the Front Man? Wow, how shocking… The Old Man actually had something to do with the competition? Who would have thought… The protagonist refuses to kill his rival? Groundbreaking.
They were simply obvious twists – ones I would expect from a B-movie, not a serious thriller such as Squid Game. The ‘un-twistiness’ of the plot ruined the show’s suspense for me, because repeatedly being able to guess what was going to happen (and how it was going to happen) did not make me hold my breath at all.
Let’s talk about the ending
Now, I’d have plenty to say regarding the show’s finale (just ask my mom – she’s been listening to me rant for weeks): to sum up – I did not like it. I did not like that Gi-Hun won, I did not like that he won thanks to Sang-Woo killing himself, and I definitely did not like that he didn’t get on the damn plane. Why? Oh, I’m so glad you asked!
I found the ending frustrating and annoying, on top of it being completely out of tune with the true essence of the show. In a nutshell, Squid Game is about moral greyness – it displays how under capitalism, there is no room for a ‘black and white’ view of society, as everyone is bound to get their hands dirty to succeed. All the characters are morally grey – some are criminals even before joining the contest, some directly kill other participants, or somehow play a role in their demise.
Nonetheless, Gi-Hun (i.e., the winner) leans more towards the ‘white’ side on the spectrum, i.e. the good side. Throughout the game, he appears friendly and somewhat nice, as he usually tries to help other players. Yes, he has his flaws, but I think we can all agree he is one of the good guys. Thus, it makes sense for him to win, right? Wrong – at least in my opinion.
Squid Game has a grey shade – none of the protagonists are either downright ‘bad’ or ‘good’, they are all flawed and corrupted on some level, and their immorality is especially highlighted in The Game. Hence, the winner should have been a representation of such greyness, for the finale to be a true reflection of the series’ essence.
That is why I believe Sang-Woo (i.e., the disgraced businessman) would have been a better fit as the winner. He is the quintessential grey character – he is usually nice and devoted, though sometimes he lies and deceives for his own gain. Throughout the show, he is often shown struggling with an internal conflict between his mendacious behavior and his moral compass, as well as his desire to be good. Furthermore, he was a businessman until he fell victim to unfortunate investments, ergo he best represents capitalism and its devious ways. Whether you love him or hate him, it is undeniable that he’s the one who truly stands in the middle of the ‘good vs. bad’ spectrum – just like Squid Game itself.
Even if we accept Gi-Hun’s victory, the problems do not end. Sang-Woo killing himself to let the “good guy” win in the end seems like a bland and easy way to end things, bordering on the cliché. As does the actual finale of the show, where our hero doesn’t get on the plane, and turns around so he can stay and take down The Game. What the hell is up with that? Why does he think that he – a regular nobody – can defeat a bunch of billionaires who have lawyers up the wazoo, and can definitely make any charge go away just by snapping their fingers? Just go see your daughter and be a decent father for once, please!
It’s easy to follow, which makes it easy to enjoy.
As I said in the beginning of this (long) rant – I actually enjoyed the show! I think the characterization is incredibly well-done, as every protagonist is so multidimensional and interesting in a different way. The acting is great (minus the white people…), and the overarching theme and the way it is portrayed through various metaphors is brilliant!
Overall, the show is great for what it is – enticing, yet not too complex. It tackles the universal struggle of social inequality – to which almost everyone can relate – but does so without going too much in depth or beyond past truisms. Apart from the brutal violence that’s rampant throughout the series and adds entertainment to the story, Squid Game is rather empty, as it doesn’t go much deeper than the superficial level in its value of a social commentary. But that’s probably the reason why it is so popular – it’s easy to follow, which makes it easy to enjoy. Its metaphors are clearly displayed and don’t ask the audience to use their brains all that much in order to spot them, since all they do is confirm the public’s accepted ideals. If you look past the gruesome element, the series doesn’t really have hard pills to swallow, and it’s otherwise effortlessly digestible. Yes, it’s entertaining – but definitely nothing pioneering. It’s good – just not THAT good.
Edited by: Andreea Rebegea