Squid Game (2021) TV Series Review
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
HUNGER Games meets Battle Royale in this abnormal phenomenon that's taken the world by storm in no short part due to its pragmatic storytelling and character development, making viewers question what they would do if put in this life-or-death eliminator.
Hundreds of cash-strapped people in South Korea are individually invited to attend a competition where they must compete to the death in a series of children's games in order to claim a cash prize of 45.6 billion won. Among these players are differing personalities such as Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae); a man in debt to gangsters with a sick mother at home, his best friend from school, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon) who is competing to reunite her bordered family.
Although majority of the main cast are competing for honest, relatable reasons, select players have joined for petty financial gain, leading to frequent arguments and dilemmas between central characters. This made the show feel more realistic and created distain towards these tempered players, with the most prominent example being Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae). His inclusion as a turncoat gangster was much-needed as he would continually form alliances with like-minded players before, inevitably, betraying them when a better deal came around. Sung-tae's performance also played a major role in why his antagonistic character worked as you can tell he had a blast playing the role, hamming it up during pivotal moments where he would barely survive seemingly-unavoidable death.
Squid Game features various twists and turns throughout its nine episodes, with many of them naturally occurring towards the climax. However, one of the biggest surprises for me actually took place during the beginning of the series where it's revealed that players can willingly leave the game if majority vote to, and even more surprising was that at one point they do; all players leave the island and return safely to their homes. In order for the show to continue, players were invited to return, with many opting to as they realised life wasn't worth living without a chance at a fresh start. Implementing this key plot device made the show even more interesting as these characters all chose to be there, vastly different from similar stories such as The Hunger Games where players were randomly chosen, eliminating any emotional attachment to their progression through the games other than living.
Competent character development can only be achieved through the actors portraying them, and thankfully, Squid Game features incredible acting...for the most part. Series standouts included Lee Jung-jae, Heo-Sung-tae and Anupam Tripathi, but for me, the best actor was undoubtedly Jung Hoyeon as Kang. Her best performance, much like everybody else, came during the show's best episode; Gganbu.
This episode tests the morality of all characters and develops their personalities as we explore their lives prior to financial debt. Being someone who cannot trust others, Kang's development is expertly shown as she interacts with a similarly-isolated character that she is left to open up to before a grim outcome leaves her distraught and left with little purpose which is expressed through Hoyeon's subtle, masterful transition from a stoic loner to a woman emotionally destroyed following the rapid realisation of her situation. While most of the acting is exceptional, key characters displayed towards the series' end were horrendously bad, and while this can be interpreted as intentionally-bad due to the nature of their personas, bad is bad and cannot be deemed anything but campy and disengaging considering the game that occurred during their hilariously-poor delivery.
Aside from its creative take on an derivative concept, Squid Game also shines through its exceptional pacing, never feeling too fast or slow for its own good. Episodes such as the previously-praised Gganbu and Stick to the Team stand as the series' finest due to their engrossing themes of morality, justice and faith. But sadly, the series finale One Lucky Day fails to live up to the excellency shown prior, and while the ending does open up the door for a possible second season, its vagueness and predictable twist left little to be desired and presented more questions rather than answering prominent ones previously imparted to the audience.
There are many reasons to watch Netflix's most popular series; realistic characters, excellent storytelling and pacing, but perhaps its greatest strength is to present a show which can translate thought-provoking views on morality and decency. Squid Game is more than just a series of battle royale minigames; it displays shrewd substance underneath the visceral spectacle of its malicious children's games. Hwang Dong-hyuk has created an important series not only for fans of well-written shows, but for those who would not have watched Korean media otherwise, creating a broader catalogue for western audiences to access and, hopefully, enjoy moving forward.