Squid Game is a remarkable series, one with an obvious, high-concept premise which might have made it utterly predictable. Fortunately, it introduces unexpected twists, turns, and tangents to make for a less structurally familiar exercise. Imagine a ruthless, brutal reality television show with a cash prize in the billions, pitting hundreds of desperate contestants against one another. This is the scenario into which Squid Game casts the hapless Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a feckless simpleton struggling to make ends meet, with a tendency to constantly dig himself into trouble. Gi-hun is lured by a chance encounter into participating in a secret, clandestine game. Run by a nameless, faceless elite, the game pits its contestants — a gaggle of desperate ne’er-do-wells and troublemakers — against one another in various simple children’s games. But unlike a harmless reality show, the price of losing is violent and fatal. For all his flaws, Gi-hun is an amiable enough person and manages to forge a loose alliance with a group of fellow contestants: an intelligent old friend from the neighborhood named Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a cheerful old man (O Yeong-su), a kindly Pakistani immigrant (Anupam Tripathi), and an inscrutable North Korean defector (Jung Ho-yeon). But as events unfold, it quickly becomes clear that the contest is a zero sum game that will challenge every hastily formed relationship, with deadly consequences for the losers.
Conceptually it’s not a particularly original series, descended from the likes of Battle Royale‘s biting satire or the slick YA vibe of The Hunger Games, with the techniques of reality TV elimination challenges baked in. Cheekily, the stormtrooper-like guards that run the game wear obscuring faceplates that resemble the buttons on a PlayStation controller. Squid Game ramps the intense ultra-violence of the situation, something that might not be out of place in an old martial arts movie or a Tarantino exploitation film homage. But the brutality and gore isn’t what sets it apart, nor is the obvious metaphor that propels the whole enterprise: a secret tournament as a scathing stand-in for the systemic cruelty of capitalism. What makes it memorable is how the point is made. Squid Game benefits from an unsettling, artful, and powerful style. The island-bunker setting is a deeply deranged place where incredible set design gives the tournament a childlike, summer-camp ambience, throwing the life-and-death struggles into macabre relief. (The pastel Escherian staircases through which the contestants are marched to each challenge are a particularly eerie touch.) The show ventures away from this striking bottle scenario just often enough — generally in a compelling B-plot involving a detective (Wi Ha-joon) trying to infiltrate the game — to contrast it against the real world of modern Seoul, deftly painted as a differently awful place that is just as unforgiving in many ways. With an array of exceptionally executed film-making techniques at its disposal, the core metaphor is unforgettably realized.
Squid Game doesn’t exactly make sense of that metaphor, unfortunately; when the mysterious machinations behind the game ultimately come to light, it’s clear the symbolism isn’t backed up by any real rationale. This leads to a not entirely satisfying finale, one in which the show’s point has already been so thoroughly made that there isn’t much left to say. But even if the destination lacks punch, the journey is well worth experiencing, particularly for a four-episode stretch down the middle wherein the performers shine in a series of fraught, emotional interactions. These episodes powerfully illustrate the heartlessness of capitalism in dark microcosm, and some of them are shattering. Meanwhile, there are plenty of side plots and diversions complicating the expected structural scaffolding to keep the experience interesting and suspenseful. The message is relentlessly cynical, of course, but there is heart lurking within the show, enough so that its blemishes — silly conceits, on-the-noise villainy, occasionally histrionic acting — are easily overlooked in light of the big picture. Despite its stressful, tragic, and trigger-worthy subject matter, it’s easy to see why this series has become something of a sensation. While it’s not a masterpiece in my book, there’s something to be said for the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it.