Netflix’s “Squid Game” spins an intriguing tale of money, murder and mania

Number 067 Kang Sae-byeok is pictured above, played by Jung Ho-yeon.

Carina Liu

Number 067 Kang Sae-byeok is pictured above, played by Jung Ho-yeon.

Netflix’s number one Korean thriller series “Squid Game” explores the true nature of humankind by combining innocent Korean children’s games with absolute manslaughter, creating a compelling drama that is taking over the world through bloodshed.

The nine-episode web series, released on Sept. 17 and directed by filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk, has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It has gained popularity through social media app TikTok, where its hashtag “#SquidGame” has been looked at more than 22.8 billion times, according to an article by NBC, garnering its well-deserved awe. 

“Squid Game” protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is an impoverished, divorced and unemployed man living with his aging mother. He struggles with a gambling addiction and is constantly betting his money away on horse races, owing thousands of dollars to loan sharks. 

When Gi-hun finds out he may never get to see his 10-year-old daughter again as she is planning to move to the United States with her mother and stepfather, he realizes that things need to change and he needs to pay off his loans. Coincidentally, Gi-hun is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (quite literally) to play a game in return for money if he wins. Debt-stricken Gi-hun agrees and is kidnapped, drugged and abandoned on a private island. This is where we first get introduced to the titular Squid Game and its 456 participants, each one wearing the same identical green tracksuit with a number 1-456 on it.

The plot quickly picks up as masked moderators and soldiers wearing red explain the game to everyone; they are in the “Squid Game”, where everyone will be playing six children’s games over a course of six days, or one game per day. In return, the winner of the game gets 45.6 billion won, worth about 38.7 million U.S. dollars. Along with Gi-hun, every participant there is also knee-deep in debt.

Perhaps it is the side characters that make the story interesting, as Gi-hun himself doesn’t stand out. He is an outgoing, friendly guy who isn’t exceptionally smart or strong, just desperate. Gi-hun quickly finds an uncommon group of friends, including his childhood friend Cho-Sang Woo (Park Hae-soo) who, despite graduating from a top university, is wanted as a criminal for fraud.

This unique ensemble of the characters and their actors’ outstanding acting add depth to the story, and we find ourselves wishing for their survival and wincing at their betrayal.

His uncanny group also includes Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a headstrong North Korean defector who wants to play the game to gain money to find her mother left in North Korea, and Oh Ill-nam or 001 (O Yeong-su), a frail, old man suffering from dementia and a brain tumor who needs money for his brain surgery. Finally, a man named Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a foreign worker from Pakistan who enters the game to make money for his family after his employer refuses to pay him for his work, joins Gi-hun and the team. This unique ensemble of the characters and their actors’ outstanding acting add depth to the story, and we find ourselves wishing for their survival and wincing at their betrayal.

Right from its first episode and first game, the show hooks its viewers. The first game starts with half the participants being eliminated in a game of Red Light, Green Light. However, once you are eliminated from the game, you are also eliminated from life. Through a dance of blood and a lighthearted jazz playing in the background, we watch as the characters have to put aside their fear and humanity, ignore the many dying beside them and keep going towards the finish line. 

A recurring theme in the show is the scent of death hidden in an aroma of pastels and deceptively cute concepts. Perhaps it is this exact concept that makes Squid Game so refreshing. The visuals are stunning, heavily taking advantage of using contrast. The childish pastel set design offers a jarring juxtaposition to the brutal games. The usage of bright blues, yellows and pinks gives the show an air of innocence and safety. However, this entire theme is broken as the audience witnesses the first death. The contrast between these two seemingly unrelated subjects enhances the shock that would typically be experienced without the cutesy appearances of the sets. Along with the set design, the cinematography is equally stunning, from the camera angles, to the panning, to the variety of lighting. Two great examples are the stark contrast between the warm lighting with harsh blood-filled scenes (such as the very first game) and the chilling cool lighting in the multitude of anxiety-inducing situations. It is clear that every visual aspect was taken well into consideration to fit the changing moods and tones throughout the show. 

The director not only takes into account the visual aspect of the show, but also the auditory aspect of the show. The use of music only contributes to the message that Squid Game sends. For example, for every game, a familiar recorder sound is played, and soon it starts to haunt the audience with the implications of a thin balance between life and death. The sound of the recorder contrasts the use of jazz music later in the show in a similar way the violent games contrast the brilliant set of the show. Additionally, throughout the show, lighthearted and romantic jazz is often played during the players’ most desperate moments. The audience is overwhelmed with hearing comforting sounds while watching gory actions. The two contrasting sensual signals alarm the audience, adding to the eerie atmosphere. 

Another unique aspect of the show is when it introduces Korean children’s games, such as the honeycomb game (in which the contestants must carve out a shape in dalgona candy) and the squid game itself. It also highlights other games, ones even non-Koreans can relate to, like Red Light, Green Light and Tug of War. 

The use of these games and concepts helps support how international the show really is, as despite the amount of references to Korean culture, people everywhere are able to understand the show easily. It’s a great example of how culture can be honestly shared in an unimposing way and still allow people to connect and relate to the message of the show, which helps demonstrate the show’s immense popularity.

As the first game ends, with over half the participants dying in cold blood, the remaining participants take advantage of a rule allowing them to vote themselves out of the games to return to their daily lives. However, after doing this, most realize that their current lives are worse than death itself, and many return to gamble with their lives, concluding that the brutal death games just might be a better reality.

The plot of the show is thrilling and keeps the viewer enamored by the moments of betrayal, failure and desperation splattered throughout the first season. We find ourselves on the journey with the main characters, rooting for their success both as a team and as individuals, while wishing for the other contestants’ failure. 

Despite having a few disturbing scenes, the show continues building suspense. Both viewers and characters find themselves asking the lengths one might go to earn money, whether it be murder, cheating and even organ trafficking. 

“Squid Game” successfully spins a tale of money, murder and mania into an intriguing story of desperation and competition, with a shadow of unforgiving consequence. 

Even as the show concludes, a sense of incompleteness to the plot is left. Many side arcs are left unaddressed, and many conflicts are left unresolved. At the end of the day, the game continues to run each year, and each character supposedly continues to live their lives almost the same way they have when the show started. Viewers are left hungry for a second season that might be directed towards an end to “Squid Game.” Fans of “Alice in Borderland” will enjoy this show, and even people who enjoy a good thriller would enjoy this drama. 

In a world where life and death is a game, in a situation where massacre is rewarded with money, in a microcosm where competition meets desperation, “Squid Game” leaves its viewers craving for more and eager to gamble their life for a chance to win 45.6 billion won.