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The Dartmouth
June 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: Squid Game Nails Portrayal of Vast Inequality and Human Immorality

Through the games, the show offers illuminating social commentary.

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The Korean TV mini-series “Squid Game” seemed to appear out of nowhere, quickly receiving worldwide attention and inciting vast media discourse. Featured on Netflix, “Squid Game” tells the story of a cruel competition for immense wealth — won by playing children’s games with a deadly twist. The show is told through the perspective of player 456, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae). Created by South Korean director Hwang Dong-hyuk, “Squid Game” tactfully explores class issues and its viewers’ role in them through superb acting and character development that evokes strong emotional responses. 

In an exposé of the effects of massive income inequality, “Squid Game” explores the desperation of the downtrodden, pitting the game’s cash-strapped participants against each other in playground games to the death. The show’s unflinching comfort with brutality is neither unfamiliar nor new. The exploration of social injustice through competition has been investigated previously in movies such as “The Hunger Games” and “Parasite.” However, the willing involvement of “Squid Game”’s players leaves its viewer particularly haunted, as beloved characters choose to play the games and turn on each other as they succumb to greed. 

“Squid Game” quickly revealed its affinity for violence in the first episode, “Red Light, Green Light,” in which characters playing the game are gunned down if a robotic schoolgirl senses them moving. Introducing the theme of “dog-eat-dog” competition which runs throughout the series, competitors push each other out of the way to escape or even use one another as human shields — despite having been friendly earlier in the show. With this game, the show rapidly shifts from slightly boring and confusing to astonishingly engaging and violent in just the last 15 minutes of the first episode. While the violence is gratuitous and intense, the raw and emotional response of the characters in their desire to survive is what makes the series powerful. 

The impersonal nature of the violence in the show heightens the emotive experience of watching, as cherished characters die just like anyone else: painfully quick and without circumstance. There is no separation between the main characters and the background characters, and while there is more character development for the players who survive longer, they face the same fate as anyone else in the games.

With only one winner in the competition, viewers know that almost everyone will die. Yet, watching your favorite character be betrayed, then mercilessly slaughtered, is difficult to witness. Furthermore, the face of death is unknown. All administrators in the game cover their faces with a black mask and act as the functionaries of a mysterious higher power.

The cold and detached treatment of death implies that the players are replaceable and unimportant because of their lack of wealth, furthering the theme of differential treatment on the basis of class. A character’s role in the game is indicated simply by the clothing they wear — with players donning minimal green track suits, guards holding large guns while wearing pink jumpsuits and benefactors behind gold, bedazzled animal masks. With clear imagery separating the haves and the have-nots, “Squid Game” delves into social injustice through its creation of outlandish and violent games with a kitschy neon aesthetic. 

Additionally, “Squid Game” introduces a Korean cast to an American audience with actors that tap into an intense vulnerability which heightens the many messages of the show. Lee Jung-jae portrays Seong Gi-hun with a skillfully intentional normality. He is easy to identify with and therefore project onto — maintaining his empathetic personality through the series and never succumbing to the same evil as other players until the final game. 

It is not often that the titular character — an absentee father and son, albeit with a sweet disposition — is the most monotonous character. However, in the crowd of pickpockets, thugs, thieves and failed businessmen that all undergo phenomenal character development, Seong Gi-hun cannot compare to the complexity of these characters and their tumultuous backgrounds. 

Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), player 67, portrays a stoic woman and North Korean defector. She joined the competition to secure the funds to get her brother out of an orphanage and find her mother, who was sent back to North Korea. With her unwavering harsh disposition, her rare moments of emotion are heartbreakingly raw and show that even the strongest can fall. With a minimal acting career prior to “Squid Game,” Ho-yeon is one of many examples of the immense talent within the show being rightfully brought to international attention and fame. And with the option to watch in Korean or with an English voiceover, “Squid Game” demands to be watched in its native tongue to let the actor’s talents shine. 

The character development comes to fruition as players reveal their true selves in episode 6, “Gganbu,” when they must choose their partner for a game of marbles. When choosing, however, players are unaware that they will be opponents rather than teammates and that the game will inevitably end in one of their deaths. The emotional turmoil runs high as characters must either betray their partner or negotiate the death of a friend. Reveling in the pitfalls of humanity, “Squid Game” reveals that no one is safe, and people will turn to immoral acts in times of desperation. 

The enemy of “Squid Game” is its viewer. In the series, it is the benefactors who watch and cheer as 456 people betray, fight, and kill each other in the pursuit of wealth and social mobility. But are we, the viewer of the television show, any better, as we consume a series about the same thing? While watching a show about death is clearly different then witnessing it firsthand, we discuss the drama online, rate characters’ deaths and actors’ looks as we completely miss the point of the show. It is easy to pretend a pile of bodies is just a mass of skilled actors when it is in a show, but this fictitious violence is representative of the inequalities that haunt the real world. “Squid Game” is meant to make the viewer uncomfortable — to point out our complicity in the perpetuation of social divides — because this unease means that the desperation felt by the characters has successfully transferred onto the audience. 

Rating: ★★★★★