Well on its way to becoming the most popular Netflix original of all time, the new series “Squid Game” wastes no time letting audiences know what’s on its mind. Cozying up to the wave of class-conscious releases from South Korean filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho–who went four for four at last year’s Academy Awards following the release of his surprise hit “Parasite”–it’s no secret why these stories are resonating so deeply with American audiences. “Squid Game” may be more on-the-nose than its predecessors, blending elements of “1984” and “Battle Royale” into one hugely hyper-violent metaphor, but the giant open wound of sincerity at its core is exactly what makes it so effective.
The story is simple enough: a few hundred people, with a few hundred billion won of debt, compete in a series of familiar childhood games until one victor takes home enough money to last longer than a lifetime. There is, however, a catch, one horrifying enough to make anyone think twice about participating. If you don’t win, you lose. If you lose, you die. Everyone has the option to withdraw from the game if the majority agrees, but the outside world is arguably even less hospitable, and for many of the contestants, it’s the end of the road one way or the other. Among them is degenerate gambler and absentee father Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), disgraced stockbroker Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), and mysterious North Korean defector Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon), all competing for different reasons and with varying levels of brutality and strategy.
An inaugural game of “Red Light, Green Light” begins jovially enough but ends in unspeakable bloodshed, leaving more than half of the contestants dead and, soon after, boxed up and incinerated in an on-site crematorium. It’s here that “Squid Game” sets itself apart from the pack, de-stylizing the violence to a degree that becomes immediately uncomfortable and more reminiscent of mass shooting footage than anything Hollywood has dared to make in recent years. Through its nine hour-long episodes (its penultimate chapter clocks in at just over 30 minutes), “Squid Game” presents diabolically violent game sequences that are consistently the reason audiences tune in. They’re thrilling, horrifying, tragic, and regrettably hilarious, in almost equal measure. The production design, inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” author Lewis Carroll and famed graphic artist M.C. Escher is truly breathtaking on more than one occasion, with the psychedelic staircases that lead players from one game to the next emerging as the standout set pieces.
Unfortunately, the rest of “Squid Game” fails to live up to its lofty expectations set by its premise and intricate, almost labyrinthine design. The series stalls with its padded runtime and perhaps would have been more effective as a feature film. The wholly unnecessary backstory that populates a majority of the first two episodes begins dragging quickly, only to be completely ignored by the back half of the series. Subplots involving a renegade cop investigating the games and the American “VIPs” that come to watch them are interesting enough but tend to feel like the product of an entirely different story. Moreover, the same backstory that brings the show to repeated, screeching halts, begins to negatively affect the games themselves, as certain characters are given a ridiculous amount of plot armor to finish their arcs in the show’s final episode. By the end, most viewers will be audibly (and correctly) predicting what happens next, only to roll their eyes when it does, as the show flaunts an unearned confidence in its own ability to surprise audiences.
The anti-capitalist critique, too, amounts to very little by the time things wrap up. Beginning with a punk-ish attitude towards the capitalist institutions it so viciously critiques, “Squid Game” is content to devour its own tail in the end, never completely following through on the radicalism of its early episodes, while simultaneously reducing its working-class lead to the same kind of “lone wolf,” man-on-a-mission archetype it claims to detest. There’s enough here to justify the time it’ll take to watch, but “Squid Game” probably should have taken its own advice: sometimes, too much of a good thing is still too much.
Standout Episode: “Gganbu”