My Criticism of Netflix’s Number One Series
I admit. I bought into the #FOMO. There were memes circulating on my Facebook newsfeed with symbols I didn’t understand, and many friends who did. But the thing that did me in was my husband watching it and then hearing his constant reviews of “OMG this series is amazing,” “can’t stop watching it,” “wow the way the story goes into the lives of all these characters,” and so on.
Yup, I fell into the hype and the reviews. I wanted to achieve that viewer’s ‘high’ that my husband was feeling, reeling from each episode of this Korean drama horror-thriller.
So I binge-watched all 9 episodes in 2 days.
Goddammit, that ‘high’ never came. I kept watching episode after episode hoping it would come, chasing the thrill he experienced when he watched the series, but I was merely chasing a ghost of a feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I found plenty of thrilling moments in the series, but there were too many disappointments and letdowns for me to give Squid Game my stamp of recommendation.
Do you have a completely free weekend with time to burn and nothing to do? Watch the Squid Game marathon then. Otherwise, maybe don’t bother.
What is Squid Game?
Squid Game is one of the most popular and trending original series on Netflix right now.
It’s about a bunch of poor people who, of their own free will, sign up to play seemingly innocent Korean childhood games in a Hunger Games style fight to the finish to win the total cash prize of ₩45.6 billion (around $38 million in Murican dollars). Of course, the fun really only starts when these once-innocent games start getting lethal, and being eliminated from the game literally means ending up dead.
Since premiering on 17 September 2021, Squid Game has shot to popularity, becoming the first Korean drama to snatch the top spot on Netflix in the United States. It also reached #1 in 90 countries in just 10 days – with 95% of the viewers being outside of Korea. Even the company’s Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos had to admit that they “did not see [this success] coming.”
Watch the trailer here:
SPOILER ALERT! * SPOILER ALERT! * SPOILER ALERT!
From this section on, this article will dip into some serious spoiler segments, so be warned! Don’t read on if you haven’t yet watched Squid Game on Netflix!
Where Squid Game failed for me
The problem with Gi-hun
Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) is the main protagonist in the whole series, and while there are subplots around other characters as well, the series and camera revolve mainly around him. He’s a down-and-out chap who can’t hold down a job, has to rely on his old, aged, and ailing mother to provide for him, and also happens to be a dead-beat dad who has never been able to give his daughter anything.
I wanted so much to care for him. And there are moments that I do – especially when they explain his PTSD, and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage to an ex-wife who couldn’t understand his PTSD, and still blamed him for it. This all leads to him losing custody of his 10-year-old daughter, whom he clearly cares for, yet struggles to be the dad she needs and deserves.
But then, there are some really annoying things I can’t shake off when it comes to Gi-hun.
For example, when he gets his hands on 10,000 won and wants to use that to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, he wants to get her a present, and so he… desperately tries to win one in a UFO-catcher machine.
Now, I get it, 10,000 won isn’t a lot. It’s not even 10 bucks in the US; and not even 8 euro!
But this Quora answer tells us that “10,000 won to a Korean child is equivalent to HEAVEN,” and that there are neighbourhood shops where you can buy really cheap items from – “hundreds of colourful school supplies, fun toys, unique trinkets, board games, etc.” It even gives examples – “you can buy a pack of Pokemon cards for about 500–800 won! Or a cute character pen for 700 won! Maybe slime for 1,000, or stickers for 600.”
But what does Gi-hun do? He spends the money gambling instead. Sure, gambling to hopefully win a toy to give to his daughter as a birthday present, but gambling nonetheless. Just like how he stole his mother’s ATM card to secretly run off with her money only to bet it all on horses.
I get that his gambling is probably an addiction and probably linked to his PTSD, but if you want to show that he’s a good dad who loves his daughter, show him working hard to earn money to buy her a present. Carrying gas cylinders, riding a rickshaw, any kind of work would make him appeal so much more as a loving albeit cash-strapped dad.
Somehow, I just can’t feel sympathy for a dad who can’t get his act together for ONE DAY a year.
And when he eventually signs up to participate in Squid Game (the second time), he’s essentially just taking a gamble again. But this time, the stakes are his life. Think about it, he’s so desperate to save his mother, and get to see his little girl again… he chooses to join a survival game where the odds of winning are 456:1.
Yes, read this again – To save his mother, he puts his life on the line, possibly dying and leaving her to completely fend for herself without anyone to take care of her, when she’s already entirely at risk of losing her mobility and ability to function independently.
To see his daughter again, he decides it might be even better to risk dying and never even have the slimmest opportunity of ever seeing her again, even with the invention of video chats.
You might say, “Oh but to never see his daughter again would be too sad for him, he’d rather die.” Wow, selfish much? To deny his daughter her real, biological, loving father, because you can’t handle the heartache? Um, maybe grow up?
It’s clear Gi-hun doesn’t have much in a luck department. The one time he wins at horse racing, he loses all the money thanks to a hole in his pocket. It also takes him painfully long to finally win against the recruiter in the Ddakji game where he has to flip the tile or packet.
But suddenly when he joins Squid Game, his life hangs on a solid thread solely woven by Lady Luck. Seriously, he doesn’t make it through any of the horror games by means of his any of his wit, smarts or personal qualities (with the exception of the honeycomb game).
He survives Red Light, Green Light simply because Ali is a good man. There is no other reason. They could have shown Gi-hun be nice to Ali before this, any small, brief encounter which then would give some motivation to Ali’s superman-strength swoop-in which saves Gi-hun’s ass. But no, he survives because Ali is a good man. #weloveali
He survives the tug of war thanks to strategies from the old man and the last-minute try-all of his friend Sang-woo.
He survives the marbles game, well, we all know it was all cleverly manipulated by his gganbu, so it’s not like he DID anything, really.
He survives the glass bridge game because one man suddenly and extremely conveniently decides to ask him for the 001 vest. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s almost like the director added him in so that Player 456 (otherwise known as our protagonist Gi-hun) might live on to fight another day. Hmmmm…
And in the final showdown, he is practically handed the trophy when his former-friend decides to take himself out of the equation.
I wanted to see Player 456 survive, make it through the rounds, and eventually win, based on his own merit.
After all, wasn’t this whole sick survival game premise based on the motto of equality, that everyone start off on the same foot, and work their way towards success standing on their own two feet?
I was really glad he did it with the umbrella, but then again, I was already asking to myself, “Why don’t they just lick it or melt it with their mouth?” and I’m not usually very clever, so I don’t really consider it a mind-blowing feat to come to this conclusion.
I get it, the open-ended finale left room for a second season. Oh our hero Gi-hun will now track down this mysterious organisation and try and put an end to this brutal murder game once and for all.
Yes, but he does this at the expense of his daughter. I can’t believe that after all that, after such a life-changing event, he STILL manages to fail his daughter, STILL manages to break his promise to her. FACEPALM. Talk about coming full circle… and making absolutely no difference whatsoever.
The problem with the game
I don’t understand why all the players were desperately trying to find out what the next game would be. The writing was on the wall, quite literally. Did no one notice this? Just us viewers after people started getting killed and beds were culled?
I also found the whole VIPs bit quite predictable and boring. Yes, poor people are being used as mere entertainment for the rich, we get that premise, it’s been going on since… what, Roman gladiator times? I’d rather they’d done something smarter, maybe broadcasting it on a global syndicated network, offered up on a subscription basis to equally sick people? A nod to the fact that there are actually many sick people in the world, more than we think? And not just the rich ones? I think that was such a stereotype that could have been left in the dust. Maybe even show some of the people who opted out of returning to the game watching it, reveling in the fact that they’re not the ones being murdered? I don’t know, am I too sick to come up with such ideas?
I also felt like the red soldiers, workers and managers were a huge plot potential left disappointingly unfulfilled. Where did these people come from? We are offered some vague explanation of money as an incentive (and the greedy ones try to get even more through illegal organ harvesting).
But what if they were people who also had terminal illnesses and found some sick joy in watching completely healthy people die while they continued living? I wanted to know why they do what they do, and if they ever got caught, would they also borrow the Nazi ‘Nuremberg defence‘ as an excuse, citing that they “were just following orders”?
I kept asking my husband, “Who are the red people? Why are they working there? Does the show talk about them?” but he refused to answer any of my questions, only with a “Maybe you should just watch the show?”
So when the show came to a conclusion and my questions were unanswered, you can imagine I was naturally incredibly frustrated! What a missed opportunity!
Speaking of missed opportunities, one opportunity they definitely should have missed was the cop’s search for his brother. It was so super predictable, and the non-ending which may or may not even be picked up in a second season, simply left me feeling unfulfilled.
Squid Game‘s redeeming qualities
Not gonna lie, there were a couple of heart-stopping moments in this tournament of lethal kids games. I very much enjoyed Red Light, Green Light, tug of war and the glass bridge games.
Red Light, Green Light is shocking and disturbing because it’s the first of all the games, and watching people visibly realise that this is a game of life and death makes this segment very tense. The significant number of the population getting eliminated from this first game adds to that intensity and shock factor. Even though you already see this in the trailer and know what to expect, it’s still a very well choreographed sequence that allows you to get up close onto the action and possibly death of the person you’re watching.
Also that doll is just freaky, period.
With the tug of war game, you kinda already know that the protagonist’s team is going to make it, but it’s intriguing to see how. It also really helps that the episode ends right on Act Two of the usual three-act arc, so you absolutely have to tune in to the next one to see how they end up surviving.
The glass bridge game is simply brilliant in itself, because of the way it is conceived and played. That moment when people start realising that this particular game will be the deciding factor for the finale, as well as where they will breathe their last, definitely creates tense, breath-holding moments.
(By the way, speaking of the games, I read somewhere that people were confused by the glass bridge game because it didn’t seem like a children’s game. However, in the pictures on the wall, we see that it’s actually just jumping on logs. We’ve all done that as kids! Heck, my son still does! Except of course, nobody falls to their death with us.)
The side characters
As much as I couldn’t feel so much for Gi-hun’s character, the show really reeled me in with the side characters of Sae-byeok and Ali. As The Guardian eloquently puts it, they are, respectively, “a teenage North Korean defector at the mercy of people smugglers-cum-scam-artists,” and “an impoverished Pakistani migrant worker whose factory boss refuses to pay his wages.”
See, these are really good people caught in bad circumstances. They didn’t make a series of bad decisions which led them down the path of desperation (unlike, I dare say, the two men who end up playing the final squid game – such as Gi-hun cancelling his insurance, likely to use the money to gamble instead, for example).
They are the true injustice-facing underdogs you can’t help but want to root for, because they clearly don’t deserve what they are experiencing in their lives.
It’s possibly why the episode with the marble game was the most poignant one for me. It finally let us into Sae-byeok’s backstory, and it’s also the one where Ali’s goodness becomes his downfall.
In such a series where the obvious overarching questions are “What would people do for money?” and “What would people do to survive?” Sang-woo and Ali clearly answer these questions in very different ways for us. (Even Gi-hun did not get through the games with his morals intact, as he clearly took advantage of Player 001’s supposed dementia to ensure his survival.)
Sang-woo’s role in the series was always to show us that the smartest and brightest amongst us can suffer a humiliating defeat at their own hands, and whose lack of scruples that got him into this position in the first place, is also what he relies on to get him out. If you didn’t like his character in the show, congratulations, that’s what you’re supposed to feel for him.
Conversely, Ali’s role in the series was to confirm that one can, despite all attacks against you from the universe, still maintain ones own integrity and dignity, and still be kind to others. However, it also paints the grim but very realistic picture that, in such a dog-eat-dog world of selfish people, kindness is usually rewarded by being taken advantage of.
Squid Game juxtaposes these characters well against each other, and it is this human connection and mirror of society that gets a thumbs up from me.
Why I think Squid Game is still worth watching
The cons overshadow the pros for me when it comes to this top-rated series. I’ve never really enjoyed torture porn, but yet that’s not what did the series in for me. I blame it in part on my failure to connect with the series’ protagonist. And perhaps how I WISHED the series would have gone instead.
But if there’s one reason why I believe everyone should watch Squid Game, it’s this:
Squid Game is a reflection for all of us in one area – privilege.
If you cannot understand why people would want to stay in the game after seeing so many others get killed in the first game, then maybe we have never been that desperate.
Maybe we’ve never felt those pangs of desperation, the despair that life outside is worth less than risking your life playing a deadly game, that depressing level of self worth that perhaps you are worth more to your family dead than alive…
Then maybe what we are currently enjoying in our lives is a form of privilege. And Squid Game is a good reminder that we should appreciate it.