Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of 'Squid Game.'
By now, you may be wondering why a show about soldiers in hot pink tracksuits forcing debt–ridden adults to play children's games is Netflix's most–watched international release ever.
Squid Game, written and directed by Hwang Dong–hyuk, tells the story of a gambling addict named Seong Gi–hun. Gi–hun lives on his elderly mother's income and frequently steals her ATM card to bet on horses. After his encounter with a tall, dark, and handsome stranger—played by Gong Yoo—he is lured into a game where he can play for higher stakes. The outcomes are binary: You die or you don’t; you kill or be killed.
Soon enough, he finds himself in the game's playland along with a slew of other debt–ridden players, all of whom have a different backstory but the same reason for entering the game: They would rather die than live in shame. $40 million is the cash grab and it dangles over the contestants in a large ball, almost like a toy toddlers would try to reach for. But only the last one alive can walk away with it. The odds aren't great but to these desperate, indebted individuals, the reward compounded with inescapable nihilism compels them to put their lives and the little dignity they have on the line.
Like many Netflix shows, Squid Game’s widespread success is attributed to its characters. Following the footsteps of shows like The Good Place and Orange is the New Black, the series examines the relationships each character has to the world outside and what brings them to the 'bad place'.
Among the 456 contestants in the show is Gi–hun, the protagonist; Sang–woo, SNU business graduate and Gi–hun's old friend; a North Korean escapee; a Pakistani immigrant; and a frail geriatric dying of terminal cancer.
At first glance, the characters seem simple—we think we know who's good, who's bad, who's the brain and who’s the brawn, who's the defector, and who’s the first one to die. The premise of the show seems to tease out childlike and primitive qualities of human nature, and it almost makes you underestimate how these roles can change. Indeed, what's most chilling about the series isn't the gore—which, to be frank, loses its shock value by the first episode. It's the way the characters' true natures unravel throughout the timeline of the game.
What keeps you at the edge of your seat are the two final contestants—protagonist Gi–hun and villain Sang–woo—and their conflicting character arcs that bring the story to an explosive climax. From the get go, Sang–woo is the golden boy, the business graduate from SNU. He enters the game as a dignified, educated, and sharp contender. Later, we find that he takes advantage of this perception to fool the Pakistani immigrant into cooperating with him.
From there, Sang–woo’s hunger to survive outpaces his collective disposition and we find him becoming increasingly numb to homicide. At one point, he pushes a player to his death in order to get himself (and the last two players) across the bridge in the nick of time. Clearly, Hwang had taken the age–old trolley problem straight from every philosophy 101 textbook.
On the flipside is Gi–hun, who enters the show as a hopeless man with no prospects and few redeemable traits. Later, we learn that in spite of his gambling addiction, he manages to find goodness within himself that drives him to spare people’s lives instead of taking them. After defeating Sang–woo in the final round, Gi–hun refuses to accept the cash prize in order to save Sang–woo's life. This would mean both players walk away penniless. Sang–woo, unable to bear a life with debt and shame, kills himself on the spot, and Gi–hun is left cradling Sang–woo’s bloodied head to his chest.
But why would the protagonist weep over the very villain responsible for the deaths before him? There are plenty of scenes that foreshadow this heart–wrenching moment. As the number of contestants is shaved down to single digits, the players are no longer consumed with the temptation of obscene wealth. Rather, they turn towards each other with the hope of mutual survival: “we should stick together,” “when we make it out of this hellhole, we will look after each other's loved ones.” These are just some of the chilling sound–bites in the show. The last person Gi–hun attempts to strike a deal with is the villain himself, but without Sang–woo, Gi–hun is truly alone. Hwang asks, "Who are we without other people?"
Interestingly, Squid Game does as much to examine the lives of the players as it does the spectators. A select few VIPs watch over the live game behind glass walls and gold masks, surrounded by opulent settings reminiscent of other dystopian adaptations like The Hunger Games. Explained later in the series, the games were created as entertainment for the rich who were simply bored of their lives: “You bet on horses. It’s the same here, but we bet on humans. You’re our horses.”
Hwang doesn't try to embellish his message with layers of subtext. Every character serves a purpose and every game poses a clear philosophical question. "Can you trust anyone to be good?" is what the front man asks Gi–hun in the final scene. It offers us a sense of closure that The Truman Show never gave us: a face off between creator and participant, and the time to fully discern Hwang's overarching message—that goodness can be found even in the most harrowing place, and the real threat to humanity is apathy.