When I was little, my mom and I sometimes used to play the well-known children’s game Green Light, Red Light. Only instead of saying “green light, red light!,” my mom would say the Korean version, which roughly translates to “the hibiscus flower has bloomed.” That was the version of the game I was most familiar with, and growing up, I was delighted to learn of the American version (which was harder, in my opinion—saying “green light, red light” rolls much quicker off the tongue than something like “the hibiscus flower has bloomed”). This game, very much like the case for many children, was definitely a part of my childhood, and it was associated with happy, innocent memories.
Then I watched Netflix’s newly-released “Squid Game,” the violent show in which a group of financially desperate people play childhood games with a deadly twist in order to get a grand money prize. The twist, of course, is death. Whether it be a shot through the head from the creepy animatronic that caught you moving during Green Light, Red Light or falling to your death from being dragged over the edge in Tug of War, you’re bound to die if you don’t stay focused.
We watch the said horrors and consequences of these games through our protagonist Seong Gi Hun (Lee Jung Jae), a middle-aged man struggling to make ends meet. When he’s given the chance to enter the mysterious game with huge financial awards, he of course takes it. Once entering the games, we meet the other protagonists, all of whom, like Gi Hun, joined because they were in similarly dire situations: the Pakistani immigrant Ali Abdul (Tripathi Anupam), the North Korean defector Kang Sae Byeok (Jung Ho Yeon) and the cunning thug Jang Deok Su (Heo Seong Tae), just to name a few. All of these characters range drastically in morality. As the protagonist, Gi Hun represents the everyman—someone who’s certainly not ready to murder others to win the games like Deok Su, and someone who’s not quite smart enough to win the games by strategy and cunning like his childhood friend Cho Sang Woo (Park Hae Soo). Instead, he gets through each game just barely by the skin of his teeth and eventually through the help of those in the games with him, but once the stakes get higher and higher, Gi Hun shows that despite all his shortcomings, he wants to remain an actual person and not just another game piece.
I wish I could say that this theme makes the show somewhat more hopeful to watch, but it did not. “Squid Game” is absolutely vicious, refusing to pull back on any punches when it comes to showing just how desperately people act in order to survive. One of the most haunting and telling ways this show demonstrates such is when just within the second episode, all the protagonists are given the opportunity to leave the games and return to their normal lives. You would think that their normal lives—even filled with debt and all sorts of other hardships—would greatly outweigh the horrific conditions of the games. However, this show excellently demonstrates that even these people’s “normal” lives have a certain tinge of death and violence to them: in the case of Ali, he returns to a boss who refuses to pay him despite his insistence on quitting the job soon. In the case of Sang Woo, he returns to cops who’ve discovered that he’s committed some financial crimes. In the case of Sae Beyok, she returns to the hopelessness of trying to take her mother out of North Korea. In the case of Gi Hun, he returns to finding out his mother is on her deathbed. All of the solutions for these characters are brutally simple: get money to get out.
The show becomes even more disturbing once the viewers learn that the extremely wealthy are the ones watching the games. Listening to them speak among one another is reminiscent of listening to people betting on horses, and the metaphor here could not be any louder. For the wealthy, the struggles of the poor are a trifling thing—a thing of amusement. Although this is hardly an original or uncommon theme, its execution still shocks its audiences into the utterly cold, hopeless feeling of grief and helplessness over the way the wealthy have such a hold over literally everyone else.
In the end, it’s not so much the blood or brains on the floor that disturbs me the most—it is instead the sad, sick feeling in my stomach that even though this show is only fiction, there’s something too real about how desperate poverty makes people and how equally amusing such poverty seems to those who have never had to suffer through it. Even as the protagonists reach closer and closer to the end of the game, it becomes clearer that the outrageous sum of money is what they want—more than anything, they just want some money to survive. Pay medical bills. Pay off debt. Buy a house. Basic things, nothing extravagant—and yet even those things seem so far off in real life that so many people find themselves playing this outrageous game instead. It’s such a chilling thing to consider: that the people involved in these games don’t intend to live like the billionaires in magazines, but instead only want to get through their lives in what should be considered the minimum for basic human happiness. Talk about depressing. Talk about painfully honest.