Working Through The Queue: Squid Game (2021)
I was wondering if this particular type of genre had a name yet, because in my head I always just called it 'Murder Death Games'. As it turns out, it's just called Battle Royale which makes obvious sense but I thought it was maybe too obvious and some other title had been coined (and besides, I like saying 'Murder Death Games'). The trick with Battle Royale fiction is that it always risks going too deep into the realm of gratuitous violence, but more often than not they do tend to have redeeming qualities (besides great acting and directing) that will focus on strong character arcs, various social issues, and/or moral conflicts that stick with you long time after a viewing.
Thankfully Squid Game not only hits all these marks but it does so with great flair. The show offers a strong sense of its own world and vision, making you care about how the games unfold as they guide you with a pretty tight narrative flow. Where the show really shines though is in its focus on its characters and their development throughout the series. While I appreciated the actor who played main protagonist Seong Gi-hun, I truly did not care for the character at the start of the show. However, I really appreciated how he developed over time, and by the end instead of making him feel like a different person he felt like a person who grew and changed due to their experiences, something that a lot of writing and shows can't always capture perfectly.
Partial spoilers coming up.
Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun, a gambling addict who lives off of his mother and constantly fails to provide for his daughter. One day he's approached by a stranger at a train station to play an abusive game for a large sum of money, and soon afterwards is offered access to a game with larger stakes. After accepting and later waking up in a mysterious location with 455 other players, it's revealed that they will play deadly versions of children's games in the hopes of the survivors winning a huge cash reward. Horribleness ensues.
It's a very familiar feeling scenario considering how many Battle Royale thrillers have been released in TV, film, manga, and video games at this point. And while an evil death game show in itself doesn't feel too original, it all really works well in the pacing, tone, and atmosphere. The gradual introduction of other key players, the pacing at which the stakes are revealed, and the psychological horror elements all unfold really nicely and keep you continually engaged. The entire set up of the contest from the creepy henchmen in pink, the corruption of childhood games, and the ominous Front Man all give the show a strong sense of personality.
One of the elements I also really liked was the introduction of conspiracies within the conspiracies, as things are happening within the shadowy organization under the Front Man's nose. These tie in nicely to the side plot of a cop who has infiltrated the organization, his story acting as a great way to see the inner workings of what happens behind the games. The pink soldiers have their own worries and schemes as they themselves are just cogs maintaining the plans and pleasure of those above them. Their dronelike nature and monotonous service in their morbid duties adds just one more layer of depressing commentary to take with you after your viewing.
I also really fell in love with the variety of additional characters and their own unique motives that were explored throughout the story. Kang Sae-byeok is a North Korean defector who needs the money to reunite with her family. Jang Deok-su is a gangster who needs to settle his debts, while Cho Sang-woo was a successful business man who is now running from the police for stealing from his clients. Oh Il-nam is an elderly man with a brain tumor who doesn't want to die in the outside world, and O Yeong-su's performance in this role is fantastically heartwarming and heartbreaking. There's a great range of stories being told, and it all aids in making the stakes to feel real and the consequences of their actions more visceral.
My one and only real complaint about the show is that by episode seven we are introduced to the VIPs, a group of rich men wearing animal masks who watch the games for entertainment. It's a truly lackluster reveal as a shadowy cabal of rich white men wearing dumb masks isn't exactly a new idea, and it's made worse by their terrible acting and stilted dialogue. It's really odd considering the strength of every other performance, and it strangely echoes a similar issue I noticed in the South Korean space western Space Sweepers. It creates a weird tonal dissonance and I can't peg down if it's on purpose or not. The Front Man approaches the games as a nearly sacred event at times though which conflicts with the VIP subplot, and thankfully later revelations give the games a potentially different sense of purpose beyond the shadowy cabal. That in turn just makes all of the VIP sections feel like a narrative hiccup, but not one that derails the show.
On the violence front, Squid Game does offer plenty of brutal and vicious sequences. For the most part they avoid any heavy gore, instead opting for a casual brutality as the pink soldiers eliminate contestants with a quick gunshot. Another sequence features gangster Jang Deok-su bullying another player to the point where he accidentally beats that man to death in a flat shot with no spectacle or ceremony. Later there's a sequence where gangs form up at night and murder people in their sleep to thin the competition, most of the worst parts of the violence obscured by the darkness and panic. Squid Game relies on a bluntness that's reinforced by disturbing realism, which is in turn intermittently broken by spectacle. This all creates an interesting balance that the show navigates exceptionally well, and the format of spreading it out over nine episodes helps to prevent feeling too overwhelmed or worn out. Unless of course you binge it all in one sitting, but then that's on you.
With all of that in mind, you do have to be of a particular mind and mood to enjoy this series. If you do think you are and you've enjoyed Battle Royale fiction then this is definitely one of the strongest showings for the genre. So come for the Murder Death Games and stay for the social commentary on social inequality and economic exploitation, plus get some great character focused storytelling along the way.