Once in a blue moon, Netflix does deliver something worth one’s time, purely as an exception that proves the rule. Inevitably, however, the level of attention and praise heaped on Squid Game is disproportionate to both its merit and originality. At its core, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series, riffing as it does on a range of influences, from Battle Royale (one he cited), to Big Brother (itself predicated on individuals’ capacities for selfishness and turning on one another), to Utopia (the discordantly perky soundtrack and day-glow colour scheme, as carnage and violence erupts all around), is really very familiar and its targets – capitalism, huh? – disappointingly prosaic. But if the series has little new to say about human nature, it undoubtedly succeeds in engaging through its characterisation. As for the essential “entertaining the Elite” theme, it could lend itself to readings beyond the self-evident one presented. Although it doesn’t exactly beg for them…
In terms of plotting, perhaps the biggest surprise comes early in the proceedings. While the game itself calls for volunteers – unlike the co-opted contestants in Battle Royale, The Running Man and The Hunt – the expectation would be that those blanching at the sight of fellow players being mown down in the first round would meet with an impassive response from their hosts. Instead, it turns out there’s a “democratic” approach to the gameplay, such that a majority may vote to return to their debt-burdened lives without punitive consequences (albeit, they are kept under surveillance). We’re shown that the controllers of the game have little to worry about from ex-participants going to the disbelieving authorities, barring an investigating cop who ultimately fares no better.
Subsequently, I wasn’t wholly persuaded by the dramatic conceit by which 187 of the 201 players then return (a 93% re-up rate, having had their numbers whittled down from 456), on the premise that likely death is preferable to dead-end debt. Doubtless some would go back for more, even on balance of the odds – and I’ve seen comments by the in-debt suggesting the conceit isn’t so far-fetched – but quite that level seemed fanciful. Of course, that’s based on a literal reading. If we regard the contestants as society itself, accepting inevitably deleterious and destructive ways of life at the behest of those in power, even to the extent of inviting experimental poisons into their bodies because they are told to, rather than, say, dropping out and going off grid in attempt to find something more hopeful, then the proportion doesn’t seem so far-fetched at all.
In terms of the suggested explanation for the elaborate spectacle, Oh Il-nam (001, played by O Yeong-su) proposed the contest as a means to alleviate the boredom of the rich, formulating an equivocation of the commonality between the rich and poor, that there is “no fun in life anymore” for either and thus the contest is mutually beneficial; it’s as pat a reveal as suggesting he was also attempting to assess whether there is any good left in humanity (as he illustrates with the bet on help coming to the drunk man on the street). We’re versed in this argument, since it’s a common fall back for humanity deserving its rum fate, and many of those in the game confirm this thesis (ie, one may see Squid Game as predictive programming of the order that we are to believe we are essentially worthless, and we have coming whatever comes for us).
Particular targets are the coolly intellectual 218 (Park Hae-soo’s, Chao Sang-woo), who reveals himself a master of rationalisation and ruthlessness of thought, pretty much from the first, albeit our lead 456 (Lee Jung-jae’s Seong Gi-hun) takes time to recognise this, even though he is alert to the signs immediately. There’s the inevitable religious hypocrite (244) too, and the tough guy gangster (101, obviously) who is really a coward, while there’s also a smattering of commentary on requisite touchstones immigration, racism and sexism. Gi-hun is seen to veer back and forth, well-meaning but nevertheless capable of manipulating 001 when he believes it will see him through to the next round.
As noted, the idea of an Elite game is pretty old hat. When one can argue Eli Roth (Hostel: Part II) came up with something more innovative, however distasteful, it means there’s little in the way of a flag to fly here. Culling the sheep for entertainment and pleasure. Hwang throws in various Kubrick references, not least the ornate mask wearing (Eyes Wide Shut) and human furniture (A Clockwork Orange, but also, bizarrely, Vamp). The idea of basic affluent moral decadence, without any additional increment, isn’t really sufficient, though, even as a broader metaphor. Not when there’s a global depopulation agenda in full swing; it rather makes Squid Game seem like small potatoes. What exactly will Gi-hun do in the sequel, unless he discovers there was someone else behind the old man (Hwang has said he has no specific idea or intention for more, but Netflix is sure to be persuasive)? Squid Game will need to rise to a greater challenge, not fall back in on itself.
On a practical level, one wonders how entertaining these games actually are for the viewing Elite. Sure, if they’re simply watching for the moment contests are plugged by guards, there’ll be a dependably queasy snuff-thrill. But in the meantime, cutting out cookies, playing marbles and waiting hours for a possible steak-knifing are hardly going to be riveting. Indeed, the extra-gaming mayhem of the lights-out slaughter is surely the sort of thing they’re really in it for, days-of-the-arena style, and there are fewer games offering that kind of immediacy (the tug of war, the glass bridge, the final squid game, although that one becomes less than compelling in terms of rule play.
Generally, Squid Game is well-enough sustained. Its second episode curveball of leaving, then returning to, the island (for Lost, that would be Seasons 4 and 5) soon gives way to a more routine approach. There’s even time for a subplot about organ harvesting that feels like filler. Additionally, the cop plot seems more about the reveal than finding anything terribly interesting for Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) to do in the meantime. I have to admit too, that it seemed likely early on that he would encounter his brother as a guard (by the time he’s revealed as The Front Man, played by Lee Byung-hun, I had forgotten this). He also has a remarkably long-life phone battery.
The same twist factor was true of the Old Man’s survival; my early thought was based entirely on his being numbered 001, and I’d long since abandoned that by the time of the final episode. One might point to a few The Prisoner pointers herein, with 456, our main protagonist, reducing to 6 (Patrick McGoohan’s designated number). 218 reduces to 2, who is, of course, 6’s weekly nemesis (101 is 2 too). There’s also the cop escaping for help, reaching a rocky shoreline, only to be stymied.
The show’s pop-art sensibility does much to lend it a veneer of something vibrant, from the PlayStation-esque shapes (actually from the squid game, but the similarity couldn’t have been lost on the maker) to the Escher stairways and the aforementioned day-glow colours reminiscent of Utopia. Also deserving a mention are the sometimes-eccentric subtitles (“That darned wench!” proving a particular favourite, uttered as it is by Heo Sung-tae’s gangster 101, showing remarkable restraint in his characterisation of Kim Joo-ryoung’s Han Minyeo, 212).
The suggestion is that a Squid Game sequel may focus on Front Man and the cop side of things (Hwang’s former profession), but series built on withholding and mystery tend to encounter problems if they don’t have a clear idea where they’re going. You can create an empty Mystery Box, or you can bungle your revelations. Squid Game 2.0 may reveal that Hwang has little else to add. Stranger Things may have entertained in its subsequent seasons, but it hasn’t felt essential beyond that first run.