Having watched little else but Korean dramas for the past year, I felt that Squid Game was different from the numerous other dramas I’ve watched. For a start, both the storyline and location did not feel distinctively Korean. For the most part, the dramas I’ve watched have been in the romantic comedy-drama genre. In this genre, there is a strong sense of place, with the city of Seoul playing a character in the drama. In contrast, the storyline of Squid Game has predecessors in both Asian and Western film and television, for example, films such as Battle Royale and Hunger Games, but also in reality TV series such as Survivor. Appropriately for the genre, the story is set on a remote, desolate island, and there is nothing to identify it as Korean. In addition, there are some episodes that include native English speakers. To be honest, the scenes featuring these characters are jarring, both because of the stilted manner in which the actors deliver their lines, but also because the scenes feel like they belong to a different TV series. All of this is to say that Squid Game is best evaluated not by comparison with other Korean dramas, but on its own terms.
In broad outline, the storyline revolves around Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorcee who is barely staying afloat financially. One day, a mysterious stranger invites him to play a children’s game while he is waiting at the subway. He is then invited to participate in a contest, on the promise of handsome financial remuneration, along with thousands of other participants who are enduring similar financial hardships. They soon discover that the contest involves the highest of stakes, and it comes to a premature end. However, the participants’ financial struggles back in the real world soon lure them back into the contest. The contest consists of six children’s games that participants must successfully complete in order to be the last person standing, and to claim the lucrativecash prize.
The world of Squid Game is a cold and brutal one, in which only the smartest and most ruthless players will survive. The series is structured around the six games, but just as much of the interest lies in events outside the field of play. Some players will do whatever it takes to gain an advantage on their rivals, including forming alliances with those who they consider to be strong opponents. Sometimes, the games themselves throw players for a loop by undermining their best-laid plans. There is also a storyline involving an exploration of the origin of the contest itself.
I find it difficult to say exactly what meaning, if any, should be read into the series. One theme is the issue of trust, and whether we can trust anyone in this day and age. On a related note, another theme is what kind of society and world we wish to live in. Another is whether money can buy happiness or if it is the root of all evil. Regardless of exactly what the overarching theme of the series is supposed to be, it makes for compelling viewing.
stay afloat (adj.) – having enough money to pay what you owe
hardship (noun) – a situation in which life is very difficult, usually because you do not have enough money
lucrative (adj.) – bringing a lot of money
alliance (noun) – an arrangement between two or more people by which they agree to work together to achieve something
throw for a loop (idiom) – to cause someone to be shocked, amazed or confused