The Dark Herald Recommends Squid GameThe Dark Herald
I’ve heard several reviewers claiming this series is like Battle Royale.
It’s The Prisoner with a high body count and lots of gore.
*** Spoilers from here on out. ***
The title comes from a children’s game in Korea that is roughly analogous to King of the Hill. It’s a last-man-standing kid’s game. Although there is apparently some cultural significance to squids being an “unclean food” that I don’t understand, so that part is lost on me and most Americans. It also doesn’t matter because Korean kids don’t play it anymore. Too violent. It was kind of a Generation-X thing for them.
The main POV character is a degenerate gambler and deadbeat Dad named, Gi-Hun. He’s in debt to a bunch of loan sharks. His ex-wife has remarried upward and is taking his son to NYC with her new husband, so he will never see his kid again.
He then gets an invitation to play a game, if he wins he gets more than enough money to pay his debts and move to New York himself. He then gets gassed into unconsciousness and wakes up on “the island.” He and the rest of the players are dressed in uniform tracksuits, each with a unique number on each one. He says hello to a few people and meets an old man with Number 001 on his suit. Since I was already comparing this show to The Prisoner in my mind, I was completely non-blindsided when the big reveal comes in the last episode.
All of the guards are dressed as Sony PlayStation buttons except for one man with a unique mask who sounded like Eugene Choi from Mister Sunshine (because that’s who the actor was, so I wasn’t surprised by that either). His name is Front Man, strongly indicating he’s this show’s Number Two. Someone else is pulling the strings higher up.
The first game is the Korean equivalent of Red Light/Green Light. If you move during Red Light then you are out of the Game and on your way to your next incarnation because your brains are now on the floor.
I’ll admit it was kind of intriguing from a psychological perspective. Who will panic and run, and thus die versus the ones who can go from a Green State to a Red State instantly and adapt to this horrifying situation well enough to play a children’s game, surviving to the next round?
After the first round, Gi-Hun’s friend the stockbroker (who will spend the game playing the odds) had read the waiver they all signed and pointed out if the majority wants out of the Game, the Game is canceled, they go home and the prize money is divided among the losers’ families.
A bare majority votes to quit so then we get to see their crappy lives for an episode and why they all need a life-altering amount of money.
These were all pretty good characters. All of them had fairly deep flaws but demonstrated moments of real humanity as well.
They need the money too much.
So, all the main characters go back to the Game, along with a cop. The cop is trying to investigate the Game. It gives the audience a behind-the-scenes look at how the Game is run as well as introduces a shit-ton of plot holes and continuity errors. The cop, Jun-ho gets on to the island by straight-up murdering one of the guards and taking his place. I checked on this and cops aren’t allowed to commit murders in South Korea. A North Korean cop might not have been a problem but a ROK cop would. Regardless, this cop is now a murderer. But we do get to see how the Sony PlayStation guards live and they appear to be little better than prisoners themselves.
The next game involves cutting a shape out of a brittle sugar cookie with a needle. We see alliances of players form at this point in the story. After all, you can’t betray, if you don’t belong.
We see that some of the guards had a side business of organ harvesting going on with one of the players who is a doctor acting as their organ vacuum. This is in exchange for getting tips on the next game to be played.
When Front Man finds out about it, he is furious. Not about the organ-legging, he couldn’t care less about that. But that the integrity of the Game was compromised. The absolute equity between the players has been violated. That is enough for him to kill everyone involved.
We also find out that the cop Jun-ho has an alternative reason for investigating The Game. He had reason to believe that his missing brother In-ho was a player. Shortly after the organ-legging plot, we discover that In-ho was not only a player but that he won the Game. So why did he disappear?
Some critics don’t like the cop-brother’s subplot and feel it brings nothing to the story, and that it could be lifted out without affecting anything. I disagree. This is an Eastern story and follows their traditions of storytelling. From a story structure of Kishōtenketsu, this is a necessary development even if Western audiences find it unsatisfying. Although from that perspective it is no surprise at all when it turns out that Front Man is in fact, In-ho.
However, this subplot does introduce a number of continuity errors that are not required by Kishōtenketsu. The timing for most of this just doesn’t work.
Getting back to the equity of the players, it really isn’t all that equitable. The women are generally a liability to have on your team and the show is very open about it. Most of the games require some degree of strength and they don’t bring that to the party. Also, it’s perfectly legal to murder other players between rounds of the Game. The criminal gang has a considerable advantage here and during the Tug of War round.
But it all falls apart for them as well as everyone else during the Marbles round. This is the infamous “episode six.” After the Tug of War it looks like teamwork is the way to win. So when the next round starts and the Sony PlayStation buttons order everyone to pick a partner everyone chooses their new best friend. And then they find out it’s a game of marbles and the losing partner will be “eliminated.”
All of the sweet and lovable characters die. Including Number 001, except he was shot off-camera which is when I knew I was right about him. This episode was a full-on tearjerker, in theory, I could have worked up some tears myself but I was in the middle of Covid so I didn’t care about much of anything.
The VIPs arrive on the Island at this point and they are all Americans. And none of them can act. Honestly, I didn’t mind the anti-American subplot but the acting was hideous, I swear they must of dug them out of high school English classes and PC Bangs. They really lowered the bar on the whole show. Their non-acting nearly ruined it.
Anyway, the Bridge round eliminates everyone except the gambler, the stockbroker, and the North Korean defector girl. The stockbroker murders the girl right before the final round, Squid Game. Except they don’t play that, they just fight to the death with the stockbroker killing himself.
The gambler has won but is too broken to spend his millions. Then finds out that Number 001 was the guy in charge of the game. His motive was terrible but it’s the twist that counts in this kind of story and frankly, I guessed that in episode one, so I suppose it was a failure all around from that perspective.
After that, the gambler gets a suit and bad hair dye job and is about to fly to NYC to see his son. But then changes his mind and goes off to play the next round of Squid Game in season 2, where presumably he will end up becoming the new Front Man. I’m calling it now.
The Korean actors were all top-notch. Their performances were pitch-perfect. The characterizations were what this series was all about so I can forgive it for its glaring plot holes, especially given how extreme the visual stylism was. Realism was not invited, so in those places that it showed up, it was clearly party crashing.
It’s definitely better than anything Hollywood has been capable of making for at least fifteen years. But it’s not for everyone. Truth be said, it wasn’t really for me… Or else it was the Covid. Regardless, this is not a feel-good show, there is some sexual content and the violence is extreme. If you are wondering if you would really like it, then the answer is probably, no.
The Dark Herald Recommends (with considerable) Reservations.