Squid Game Breakdown: is the Newly Popular K-Drama Really Worth the Hype?

Culture

Squid Game is a South Korean survival drama television series streaming on Netflix that is written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. It is the biggest show this year and possibly in Netflix’s history.

The series focuses on a contest where 456 players, each deeply in debt, play a set of children's games for a chance to win a 45.6 billion won prize with deadly consequences for losing.

Storyline Analysis

Since you’re reading this despite the huge spoiler alert above, you’ve most probably watched the show. So let me just cut to the analysis. I’ll be focusing mainly on the games and the contestants.

Introduction

The show begins by introducing us to Gi-hun's, the protagonist's, materialistic state and highlights his desperate need for money. It also reflects his innocent and kind nature in details like him feeding a stray cat out of sympathy. This characterization plays an important role in future episodes.

After firmly rejecting the offer made by the mysterious ddakji man, he realizes that his life is miserable and that he might as well try his luck out and accept what seems to be a harmless offer.

Game 1: Red Light, Green Light

The players get in and sign a contract that lists three simple rules for the games. Though all of the rules are fairly applied, little did the players know that they’re signing their lives away.

On their way to the game, the players walk through a colorful child-like maze. Red Light, Green Light is something they all played at least once in their lives. They are monitored by a huge familiar figure that is actually a character in Korean school textbooks.

The first game, in my opinion, is one of the worst. If a player loses, he or she is eliminated…LITERALLY. Though it might be the easiest to play, the unexpected penalty has a huge emotional impact which makes the players go out of their minds and eventually die.

Second Chance

After the first game is over, the survivors beg the masked staff to let them leave and demand that they use the voting system mentioned in the contract that would give them the chance to go home.

Before the voting system is applied, a mass amount of money is dropped into the huge piggy bank. This is just a way to manipulate the players’ decisions, as they would now have to think twice before voting.

This scene is also very critical as it shows that the players were given a second chance to leave and that nothing in the game happened without their consent.

Voting was made by the players’ number descending order, which was certainly planned. Now that we know that the old man, Il-nam, was in charge of the whole game, we can tell that his ID 001 has great significance. The voting came to a tie, and the tiebreaker would be none other than the man Il-nam himself. He votes to leave the game to, once again, prove that he is giving the players another chance and that anything that will happen after is their own unforced decision.

We already know from the first episode that the game operators know every little detail about the players’ lives. Though they’re giving them a second chance, they send all the players cards again, knowing that almost all of them will come back due to their harsh living conditions, once again to prove that it’s the players' own choice to come back. Almost everyone goes back after realizing that their real lives are not worth living, so they might as well have a last chance.

Game 2: Dalgona Candy

In this game, the players have to carve out the shape of the traditional hard Korean candy without breaking it, which is also a very common children's game in Korea. The person with the easiest shape has the advantage. This game is significant in a bunch of ways:

  • The players panic after the first loser is shot dead, which creates a domino effect, making a lot of other players mess up and lose.

  • Sang-woo seems to know what the game is before playing but chooses to hide it even from Sae-byeok who helped him identify it. He hesitates to tell his childhood friend Gi-hun and ends up not telling him, reflecting that he’s a character whose brain overpowers his heart. His true colors, which are revealed later in the show, begin to show.

  • Gihun comes up with a smart way out even though he got the hardest shape, which impresses the mastermind, Il-nam.

Game 3: Tug of War

We don’t know what to expect since the main characters form the weakest team. They have 3 weak women, one old man, a strong man but with missing fingers, and two men. They go against a team of all strong men and expect their loss before they even play.

Luckily enough though, they had the boss in their team. Since Il-nam is the oldest, wisest, and also the man behind the game, he teaches them a method that will help them win despite being weak. Sang-woo, being the smartest player, also helped in making their team succeed.

Game 4: The Marbles Game

This is one of the most significant games since it discloses a lot about the characters, but it also gives the viewers an emotional breakdown.

The players have to form pairs, but since there’s an odd number of players, they automatically expect the player who is left out to be killed. Gi-hun experiences an internal conflict between his kind nature and his sense of self, which tells him that he has to win. Eventually, his heart overpowers, as usual, and he picks to be with the unwanted, sick, old man, rejecting a healthy man's offer.

Looking back at that scene, we can tell that Il-nam had nothing to worry about at that point, since he already knew that not being picked meant he'd stay alive. But also, if he loses, he’ll still live, as the game operators know not to kill him.

Throughout the game, Il-nam keeps roaming around the set, which reminds him of his home and his family. He wastes so much time looking for his house since he supposedly struggles with dementia. Though dementia might actually be the real reason why he’s delaying the game, I actually think he did that on purpose just so he can be the last loser so that no one can see him faking his death.

This game is depressing in many ways. The players' instincts tell them to pair up with the person closest to their heart, but they are then told that they’ll be playing against each other.

This game was meant to bring out the players' worst side. Killing someone you love is definitely the worst of humanity.

Sang-woo and Ali team up. These two were always a team throughout the whole show and Ali even calls Sang-woo “hyung”, or older brother in Korean, showing how close of a person he is to him. Ali trusts Sang-woo, but Sang-woo is once again doing whatever it takes to survive, even if it means tricking everyone's favorite character, Ali, and getting him killed to win.

Even Gi-hun, who is a benign person throughout the whole show, starts to show signs of evilness as he tricks an old man with dementia to win the game, showing how desperate he is to survive.

Probably the most emotional scene, though, is that of the two young girls, Sae-byeok and Jiyoung. They agree to play one simple game to tell who the winner is, and before they do, they sit and talk to each other. Jiyoung asks Sae-byeok about her life to know if she is worth losing for. She also promises Sae-byeok before the game to let her succeed no matter what. The two girls form a bond and Jiyoung also thinks about future plans with Sae-byeok only to remember that one of them will surely die in a few minutes. Jiyoung loses on purpose and dies smiling, which made us all cry rivers.

A married couple had to go against each other, and after the game ended, the husband is shown to come back alone. He then commits suicide at night, representing guilt.

Game 5: Real vs Tempered Glass Game

This game is probably the one I felt the most stressed when watching. There is literally no specific way that would make you win. It is all based on luck.

VIPs hold a masquerade and watch the game live, betting on players.

Because this game is based on pure luck, unless you’ve worked in a glass factory, you can never tell the glass apart. This game emphasizes that death now barely startles anyone, instead they push each other to death with no second thought.

By the end of the game, there were only 3 out of 16 contestants left. The winners are then welcomed by what I like to call glass confetti, which injures Sae-byeok deeply.

Gi-hun, Sang-woo, and Sae-byeok are then awarded for being the 3 finalists and are given new suits and a steak dinner on a fancy triangle table, which is reminiscent of the steak Gi-hun couldn’t afford to buy for his daughter in the beginning. They remove all the leftover food and silverware, leaving each of the players a knife, indirectly giving them the chance to kill each other.

Gi-hun’s dark side is shown once again as he tries to kill Sang-woo when he was asleep after discovering his cold nature. Sae-byeok reminds him that that’s not like himself and that he shouldn’t kill Sang-woo. Sae-byeok then starts to bleed death, and what follows is one of the most amazing cinematic scenes. Gi-hun calls for help, and the doors open, giving us hope for Sae-byeok’s life, but we then see a familiar gift box coffin and Gi-hun turns around to see Sang-woo standing by Sae-byeok’s bed with a bloody knife in his hand. (Shoutout to the cinematographer for the genius shot.)

Sang-woo gives yet another excuse, saying that Sae-byeok was going to die anyway and that by killing her, he only made the process easier. However, Gi-hun only builds up anger and prepares to stab Sang-woo but is stopped by a staff member, since the last game has to be played and they can’t just simply kill each other.

Game 6: Squid Game

This game is accompanied by rain, which is usually a symbol of darkness. The childhood friends play a game that they used to play together as kids, but this is their bloodiest one yet.

They viciously fight to the death of each other but out of different emotions. Gi-hun fights out of the built-up rage he has against Sang-woo, while Sang-woo fights to live just like he did in all the other games.

Gi-hun takes the lead and has to take only one step to win. He then is struck with reality and his kind nature emerges again, offering to vote to end the game, even if it means losing all the money they struggled to get. Sang-woo finally apologizes to Gi-hun and when we expect him to stab Gi-hun, he stabs himself instead, making Gi-hun the winner.

General Analysis

Piggy Bank vs. the Cost of Human Life

After each death, the piggy bank on the ceiling is shown to fill up with money, which reiterates the materialistic theme of the show: how a person’s life translates to money.

Drawings on the Wall

The room that the players stayed in actually had all the games drawn on the wall from the very first day, but NO ONE noticed. The players were rather too focused on the piggy bank which was conveniently placed in the center of the room with fancy gold lighting glowing from it like a chandelier.

Reaction to Mother's Death

One of the most critical scenes is Gi-hun’s reaction to his mother’s death. He comes back home, telling his mom that he made some money, but he finds her breathless on the ground. Unlike a typical reaction to a mother’s death, Gi-hun silently lies down next to her, signifying his loss of emotions after the mortifying experience at the game place. He has witnessed so many deaths, as much as 455, that he is no longer fazed.

Ending

Gi-hun ends up lonely and goes back to living like his old self because of his sense of guilt. He refuses to spend anything from the money he earned as it is the cost of many people’s lives.

He then discovers that Il-nam is still alive and meets with him only to find out that he’s the person behind it all. Il-nam explains that his wealth made him so bored that there was no other way to have fun. They make a final bet on a man who is freezing on the street, whether someone will help him or not. Il-nam was trying to prove to the kind-natured Gi-hun that there is no kindness left in people, but Gi-hun ends up winning as the freezing man does indeed get help. However, we are unsure if Il-nam saw this before he died or not.

The show has an open ending in which Gi-hun finds the same ddakji guy making an offer to another man, a scene that looks exactly like the one that happened to Gi-hun in the first episode. Gi-hun quickly snatches the card from the man's hand, giving him no chance to take it back, not to make his same mistake. The show ends by Gi-hun calling the number and seemingly canceling his flight to go back to the games again. What for? That's up to your interpretation.

Characters

The characters in this show are very diverse and each hold great value.

Seong Gi-hun:

He is idealistic, emotional, kind, and has huge trust in others. His heart controls his actions, not his brain.

Cho Sang-woo:

He is the complete opposite of Gi-hun. He is smart and realistic. His mind overpowers his heart, and he knows that the only way to survive is to be selfish. His smart nature is what made him go so far in the game.

Kang Sae-byeok:

Sae-byeok is also a realistic character who does not trust anyone so easily.

Ali Abdul:

He is a physically strong character but is taken advantage of by many people, like his boss and Sang-woo.

Hwang Jun-ho:

He is the hot cop that everyone wished to see more of. He is smart, brave, and is the only person with enough evidence to expose this place. The things he experienced and witnessed in that wicked place and all the evidence he compiled were such a waste to be that easily gone. All we can do is hope he comes back alive in a future season.

Oh Il-nam:

I never felt at ease with this man, and I swear I could tell that something was up with him the moment I saw him smiling during Red Light, Green Light. Even when he “died”, I felt like something was still missing, and he couldn’t just die like that. Well, now I know why.

Review

I personally really enjoyed this show as you can tell, and it is definitely one of my favorites.

I would rate it a 9/10. The missing 1 would be for the unexplained parts in the plot, like the history of the masked staff, frontman, and Jun-ho’s brother. I personally think season 2 must be made to give full meaning to all the arcs that were started but not ended.

Other than that,

  • Cinematography and Editing A+
  • Acting A+
  • Direction A+
  • Themes A+
  • Visual Style A+
  • Art Direction A+
  • Musical Score A+

Though I’m the type of person who hates it when something I like gets really hyped, I would say that despite the hype, this show is definitely not overrated. It is extremely captivating, and it deserves to be watched by many as it sheds light on the dark side of society that we all simply ignore.

Anyway, Stan the cast <3

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Yomna Gamal
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Yomna Gamal is an Egyptian architecture freshman. She is a writer and interviewer for The Teen Magazine. Her other hobbies include listening to music, writing poems, video editing, and just overall having fun. She is very ambitious and dreams of leaving a mark on the world.