“Squid Game”: An Ugly Reflection Of Human Nature
Reading Time: 4 minutes
You’re in a room with a playground. There are cotton candy clouds painted on blue walls, a sand pit, and a large animatronic girl far ahead, with her back facing you, flanked by men in red suits and black masks. You look around and see others wearing bright green tracksuits with flashing numbers. The girl begins to sing a song, sparking some long-lost memory within you. You know this game; you’ve played it before.
“Red light, green light…” You begin to walk with the others until the girl turns around and you freeze. You scoff internally––why a children's game? Then, the person in front of you moves, a near imperceptible turn of the head, and a loud gunshot rings out. The person drops to the ground, blood staining the sand. Chaos ensues, and the game has begun.
“Squid Game” is Netflix’s newest addition to its ever-growing collection of Korean dramas and is its most popular yet, being the first to top Netflix’s US charts. So what exactly is captivating about the show?
The series revolves around a group of people who have fallen on desperate times and need a quick payout. When these individuals are offered the chance to play a few games to make almost $40 million by a mysterious benefactor, they jump at the opportunity. However, the games have a horrifying twist: if you lose, you die. After this revelation, “Squid Game” turns into a test of survival and luck with the only way out being to win. But as friendships form and bodies begin to pile up, the lengths the participants must go to win only grow more complicated.
The show opens with a divorced father, Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae), who is drowning in debt and decides to participate in the games in order to be financially stable enough to share custody of his daughter. As he continues on in the games, he forms alliances with some of his fellow contestants, including Sae-Byeok (Hoyeon Jung), a tough North Korean refugee, Cho Sang-Woo (Park Hae Soo), a cunning businessman and Gi-Hun’s childhood friend, Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo), an old man who is dying of a brain tumor, and Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a naive immigrant from Pakistan.
The pacing of the show starts off slow as it carefully sets up its characters and introduces the audience to the premise of the game. But as the show progresses and the stakes get higher, things fall apart quickly. With each passing game, participants become more and more desperate. The games themselves are children's-fare like “Red Light, Green Light” and “Tug of War,” satirizing the innocent significance they played in our childhoods and contrasting them with the brutal reality of the present. The mystery of who is actually behind the games also intensifies as the games’ history and origin are revealed little by little through Joon Ho (Wi Ha-joon), an undercover police officer who is in charge of investigating the game.
The characters are a high point of the show and add a surprising sentimentality to an otherwise action-filled show. In fact, the series goes quite in depth with each character’s story, especially with their unique motives for wanting to win the game. However, the game itself brings out the worst qualities in these characters. As a result, the audience is often torn between empathizing with the characters and hating them.
The backstories of the characters also reflect present-day situations that many people in the real world find themselves in. For example, Ali is a Pakistani immigrant who is discriminated against in his workplace, a problem that is prevalent in today’s world. In addition, Sae-Byeok is a refugee who was separated from her family, which is another pressing global problem. The proximity that these stories have to reality further emphasizes how the game and the people serve as a reflection of humans and their willingness to survive in a harsh world.
“Squid Game” also expertly displays the emerging relationships between the contestants and the quick bonds that are eventually fragmented by the pressure of the games. An uneasy trust blooms between the contestants despite their differences, encouraged by their determination to survive. Even through the tension, there are heartwarming moments between the members of the group as they work to keep each other alive and sane.
The general unease surrounding the game is bolstered by the show’s color scheme and setting. When the players first agree to participate in the games, they wake up in an underground bunker, devoid of any furniture besides beds that are gradually taken away as more and more players die. The bunk-beds themselves resemble storage shelves in a warehouse, further emphasizing the expendability of the players once their usefulness in the games have run out. At the very end of the show, the nearly empty room serves as a melancholy reminder of those who had passed. The bunker room itself has a very minimalistic, utilitarian gray scheme, while the games take place in bright pastel rooms, juxtaposing the harsh reality of the games with a cheery facade.
Additionally, the show often incorporates vibrant block colors into its background, such as the green uniforms of the players and the red suits of the workers, or the pink bows on gift-resembling coffin boxes of those who have died playing the game. These colors convey a childlike feel, highly reminiscent of a playground. Throughout the show, the audience also sees glimpses of brightly colored stairs, which symbolize the contestants’ need to climb up in society from underground. These maze-like stairs further add to the absurdity and the disorienting feeling of the whole situation.
“Squid Game” also boasts an especially memorable soundtrack. The songs add tremendously to the overall unease and childhood nostalgia of the show. One of the songs, “Way Back When,” contains a distinctive flute sound that harkens back to the innocence of youth. Since this particular song is often played as a motif during the dangerous games depicted in the show, the dissonance between the innocence of childhood and the current violent reality continues even in the music.
A disturbing reflection of society, “Squid Game” is a thrilling dark satire that makes viewers question whether we too might resort to such lengths in a similar situation. Though the desperate lengths the characters go to in order to win may seem far-fetched at times, there are debtors and powerless people all around us, held stagnant by the economic and social structures that determine our lives. To what extent are these characters ourselves, and the Squid Game our world?