The show that has taken the entire world by storm this year has been the South Korean dystopian drama, Squid Game (2021), and its popularity is not misplaced. From Battle Royale (2000) to The Hunger Games (2012), for a while, audiences loved the dystopian, battle-to-the-death storyline, and Squid Game is certainly capitalizing on that and may have revitalized the genre. Being a South Korean show, it is amazing to see that it has fast-tracked its way to potentially becoming Netflix’s biggest show (that title currently being held by Bridgerton (2020- )). From its fantastic ensemble of characters to its commentary on capitalism, Squid Game has plenty of fantastic elements that have clearly captivated audiences all around the globe.
Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) is a man plagued by his gambling addiction. Wasting all of his and his mother’s (played by Kim Young-ok) money on horse betting, Gi-hun is millions of won (the South Korean currency) in debt to creditors and the bank. In order to save himself and his mother from debt, and try to keep custody of his daughter (played by Ah-in Jo), he must find a way to make a lot of money, and fast. When a stranger (played by Gong Yoo) offers Gi-hun a large sum of money to play games, Gi-hun finds himself pitted against over 400 more people just like him—people at the bottom of the capitalism ladder that are so far in debt, that they are willing to do anything to climb their way out of it—in a series of children’s games that put all of their lives at risk.
Squid Game has everything you could want in a great streaming program: fantastic performances, surprising twists, great commentary on our world, and an intriguing premise and plot. The performances across the board are fantastic (I am not including the dub artists who voice the English dub of the show as I haven’t watched it in dub), all of the leads do a phenomenal job of bringing likability (or extreme hatred) to their characters and you fall in love with just about all of them—the big standout performances for me were Lee Jung-jae, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su. The great performances continue on as you go through, almost, the entire supporting cast, including the ones that are there only for a single episode, or even scene.
That said, my love for the performances only extends to the Korean cast: as per usual with a lot of Korean programming, the White actors are plucked from the bottom of the barrel. They play the VIPs (I’m not going to spoil what that means in terms of the plot), and they are all uncomfortably cringe inducing; their lines were always delivered as over-the-top and they completely destroyed the verisimilitude of the show whenever they opened their mouths. One might make the argument that their acting was to play into the commentary on capitalism by making you despise the wealthiest class more, but I would contend if you’ve seen any of the actors’ other work (look to VIP 4’s actor Geoffrey Giuliano’s horrendous performance in Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020) as an example), you would know that there is a reason they aren’t cast in projects intended for English-speaking audiences.
Outside of the incredible characters and their actors, the most captivating part of the show is how though the overall premise is outlandish, the creator of Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, has made it uncomfortably familiar. I think the reason this show has taken the world by storm is because how it portrays the capitalist social structure that so many people around the world struggle to climb, and how relatable it is to those who have been constantly kicked down the ladder by the people on the top. By shining a light on the various rungs on the social ladder and how those at rock bottom feel forced into a corner, and feel like they must do horrific acts to get out, audiences are forced to swallow the realities of the lives of the people they ostracize on a daily basis. As a commentary on capitalism, social reform, and humanity in the face of insurmountable debt, Squid Game excels at tackling the issues in a way that is still entertaining and emotionally charged for audiences despite differencing world views on the matter.
Other than the English actors in the show, Squid Game is outrageously entertaining and surprisingly poignant. The performances of the ensemble and their incredible characters carry a very absurdist premise to levels of unfortunate reality, humanity, and morality that is nothing short of enthralling. If you haven’t hopped on the bandwagon yet, this show lives up to the hype surrounding it, and I would highly recommend everyone watch it.
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