Squid Game Review

Light spoilers ahead!

Battle Royale has always been one of my favorite books and over the years, I’ve gone through countless movies, anime, manga, and games that put their own spin on it. With so many derivatives of the genre now, it was surprising to see Korean drama Squid Game crossover into Netflix’s top 10 most-watched shows globally. The premise is quite familiar: 456 people who are financially struggling get invited to partake in a mysterious battle royale tournament for a chance to turn their lives around. Contestants play through a series of six children’s games with deadly twists in order to compete for 45.6 billion Korean won. Squid Game is a little different as it simplifies the concept of battle royales by using children’s games so that the audience can focus their attention on the characters instead. At its heart, Squid Game is a character-driven series: we learn their backstories, motivations, and what drives them to risk it all.

We first meet the main character, Seong Gi-hun, a divorced gambling addict that lives together with his mother while struggling to support his daughter financially. Owing massive debts to loan sharks while still addicted to the thrill of horse betting, he’s a typical deadbeat dad that doesn’t have a lot of redeeming features at first glance. In fact, Gi-hun is probably the most boring character despite being the protagonist of Squid Game. He’s a painfully average guy who has it a lot better than some of the other competitors and for the most part, has only himself to blame for the situation he’s in. Of course, Gi-hun’s characterization is purposeful in how it represents everyday people you’ve undoubtedly encountered before but he does pale in comparison to the majority of other competitors. He teams up with childhood friend Cho Sang-woo who is now a disgraced banker on the run for embezzlement, a foreign worker named Abdul Ali whose boss has been withholding wages, an elderly man named Oh Il-nam who has a brain tumor, and Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector who wants to bring the rest of her family here.

For a show that revolves around gratuitous violence, betrayal, and horrifying twists, their ragtag team has a lot of heart and it’s in these side character stories where Squid Game shines brightest. The relationships and bonds they build over the course of the nine episodes are the centerpiece of the show and despite the limited time to develop characterization, the actors pulled off emotional exchanges beautifully. In particular, episode 6 features an unexpected twist on the games that becomes the turning point for many of the remaining contestants. While some rely on betrayal, cheating, and even sheer luck, the quiet star is Ji-yeong: a young woman released from prison after murdering her abusive father. She teams up with Sae-byeok and their resulting conversation is both breathtaking and emotionally devastating as they come to terms with the turmoil of their respective decisions. It’s easily the highlight of the show and had Squid Game maintained that gripping sense of emotional distress against the tension of the games’ time limits, it could’ve easily become one of the best series in recent memory.

Unfortunately, Squid Game doesn’t nail its ending in a particularly satisfying manner, and the open-ended nature of its conclusion feels like a setup for a second season instead of giving meaningful closure. There are a few subplots to go alongside the competition but they don’t lead anywhere interesting and remain mostly unresolved by the time the ninth episode finishes. The mystery of the games’ origins and implications of other iterations understandably cannot fit into Squid Game’s short runtime but it would’ve been better to close off the secrets for good rather than leaving options open. In the end, it also feels like the characterization of Gi-hun is stagnant with how little he seems to take away from competing in the games. It’s true that his decisions reflect his heart of gold and instinctive desire to help others but with the cost of his family relationships, it feels like he’s right back where he started. In the final scene, his sentiment is commendable but his delay and inaction already undermined many of the most powerful scenes during the competition. The impact of sacrifices and promises made throughout the competition rang hollow as Squid Game concludes with an element of uncertainty.

That said, there are also countless things that Squid Game does right throughout its nine-episode run. The striking visuals are a result of the impeccable set design and the cheerful arenas that get splayed with blood, brain matter, and organs are a terrifying contrast. In many ways, Squid Game is an allegory for a late-capitalist society that values competition over everything else. The sheer opulence and displays of wealth throughout the later episodes are meant to fill you with disgust as they watch the competitors claw their way through the games from the brink of death. While the gold-encrusted masks and lavish chandeliers found in the VIP rooms are extravagant, it’s their contrast to the lifeless, drab set design of the arenas and sleeping quarters that emphasize the desperation of the players. Unfortunately, the poor English delivery from the VIPs can break that element of unease with how forced they sound but with such high stakes, it never fully pulls you away from the tension.

The sound design and cinematography also play an integral role in how Squid Game keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. The soundtrack for Squid Game is fairly unassuming and minimal in nature. Much of the music plays into the role of children’s games by sounding ominously cheerful or featuring marching drums that underscore a fear of time running out. For the most part, a lot of the music is purposely reserved in nature to emphasize the horrors in the actual games themselves. Although we see countless deaths over the course of Squid Game, you never get used to the sound of bullets being fired into a contestant or the sickening crunch of people’s bones. It’s designed to make you jump every time because even though you know it’s coming, you still hold out hope that the characters might escape by the skin of their teeth this time around. The cinematography is also phenomenal and this is most apparent in episode four when a riot breaks out in the sleeping quarters. The strobe effect that’s employed gives you a sense of utter chaos and the brutality that lingers between the flashes of light is claustrophobic with no indication of who might live or die.

From a technical standpoint, Squid Game was executed brilliantly. The atmosphere, color palettes, sound design, and cinematography always manage to instill a certain anxiety in its audience. It keeps you gripped throughout each of the games and with the rising stakes of each new death, you can’t peel your eyes away from the violence that consumes the competitors. While the character developments are the highlight of Squid Game, it’s also where the series ultimately falters. Understandably, many of the characters aren’t supposed to be sympathetic people and some are even downright evil. But the final direction that Squid Game takes feels a little out of place in the context of the episodes before it. Unfortunately, this is a natural result of keeping the conclusion open-ended for a possible second season and a lack of satisfactory answers to the mysteries surrounding the games’ origins. Squid Game is a fantastic thriller that examines the cutthroat nature of capitalism and the terrifying possibilities of the human condition but falls short during its final act.


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I turned my incoherent ramblings on music, anime, and video games into an entire blog.

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