Squid Game

This Netflix thriller has become a global phenomenon. I watched the first episode to see what the fuss was about. It was compelling viewing and now I’ve finished the whole series.

There has been much coverage about the violence in the show. This is a shame because the violence is of a particular sort (people being shot) and quite often the camera turns away so the violence is implied. You can usually look away.

Spoiler alert: this post describes some characters, scenes and themes but doesn’t reveal the ending.

In Squid Game, 456 people play six successive games and are killed if they lose in any one game. Squid game, itself, is the sixth and final game. A big, life-changing, cash prize ($38 million) awaits the winner.

The games’ contestants are people who have such huge debts (and are pursued by creditors) that they conclude, in desperation, that it’s worth risking death to win the big prize. Although, in one sense, they make a free choice to take part, in reality they’re jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Life’s choices, in their eyes, have narrowed to these life-and-death games.

To participate, the players must sign the consent form, which has just three clauses:

  1. A player is not allowed to stop playing.
  2. A player who refuses to play will be eliminated.
  3. Games may be terminated if the majority agrees. (In this case, all players return home unharmed.)

The central character, Seong Gi-hun, is both flawed and the eventual conscience of the show. He steals money from his poor mother and loses it gambling. Whilst the games’ dynamics push everyone in one direction (the need to stay alive), he keeps his moral compass — apart from one slip for which he feels deeply ashamed very quickly.

Oh Il-nam is the elderly man with a brain tumour who develops a friendship with Seong Gi-hun. He’s not what he appears to be.

Single mum Han Mi-nyeo is the most annoying character in the show but this is almost certainly deliberate because she regularly screams some home truths (a sort of wise fool ). At one point, she says something that will resonate in places where education is not free, “I’m very smart, I just didn’t get a chance to study”. (This is mistranslated in the show.)

Cho Sang-woo, a childhood friend of Seonh Gi-hun, is the poor village kid who went to university and did well in the finance world. To the outside world, Sang-woo is a success and Gi-hun a failure but the deeper truth is more complicated.

Kang Sae-byeok — smart, streetwise and living by her wits — is a defector from North Korea. She’s trying to acquire enough money to get the rest of her family out of North Korea and help her brother, who’s in an orphanage.

Abdul Ali is a simple, honest, good-hearted migrant. Like other migrants, he’s exploited by his boss but all he wants to do is work hard and earn a living.

Jang Deok-su is not to be messed with. He’s the irredeemable bad guy, the antithesis of Seong Gi-hun.

These modern archetypal characters come together for the deadly games that they have “chosen” to play. They form friendships, help (and fight) each other, and are, ultimately, normal people making difficult decisions under extreme circumstances — all whilst “knowing” that only one of them is going to emerge alive.

The games themselves are those that Korean children will be familiar with. Their simplicity belies the fact that people will die in each game. This jarring reality is brushed over by the games’ invigilator, whose matter-of-fact announcements make her sound as if she’s gathering children for a school trip.

As the show develops, you begin to learn how the poor competitors are fodder for an extremely wealthy but bored group of men who have a complete disregard for human life. There’s a scene, with human furniture, that conjures up the decadent world that Jeffrey Epstein might have created for his famous and wealthy friends (without the killing).

Throughout the series, questions are alluded to without being dwelled on: How and why does society allow people to become so debt-ridden? When is a person free to choose? What is the relationship between rich and poor? Is life about winning and losing, and does one happen at the expense of the other? Can someone remain good when the rewards of being immoral are greater? What obligations do we owe to each other?

Like the best fiction, Squid Game works on many levels: it is compelling and visually stylish, has absorbing characters, indirectly raises issues plaguing our world, and doesn’t offer any easy solutions.

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