Warning: Mild spoilers for Squid Game. This article does not spoil major plot developments or twists but if you wish to go into the show blind, do not read this article.
It’s interesting to see how the public perception of Squid Game has shifted as more people finish the show. On release, social media was brimming with praise and calls to watch what people were calling this year’s Parasite. But now, almost two months after the show's release, headlines have taken a more negative turn. Prominently, the show's creator Hwang Dong-hyuk defensively tore into NBA star Lebron James after the athlete criticized the show's finale.
But Lebron’s criticisms were well-founded. The show's ending was disappointing, unsatisfying and representative of problems that ran throughout the entire series.
Squid Game follows Gi-hun, a down-on-his-luck chronic gambler whose happy-go-lucky disposition is threatened by crushing debt and a myriad of family issues. After a particularly aggressive encounter with debt collectors, Gi-hun is approached by a mysterious businessman who offers him the opportunity to play various children's games in exchange for a large sum of money. What Gi-hun doesn’t know is that these games all have a deadly twist, and for every person that dies, the prize money increases.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Squid Game’s entertainment value is through the roof. While some have criticized its central concept of being derivative of the Japanese film Battle Royale — or more contemporarily Hunger Games, Escape Room, The Belko Experiment, Circle, Ready or Not, The Hunt — the twist of voluntary participation and substitution of fighting with deadly Red Light, Green Light, is more than enough to make it feel fresh. It’s a clever twist to a well established (but nonetheless exciting) subgenre.
The performances are solid, with Lee Jung-jae’s portrayal of Gi-hun as a particular standout. His performance is compassionate and soft with a distinct intensity to it which is present even before the events of the show become intense. Lee expertly traverses the fine line between overacting and intensity. The result is one of the most likeable protagonists in recent memory and a consistently engaging, animated yet nuanced performance.
Further playing into the entertainment value is the stylish and energetic direction by Hwang Dong-hyuk. Often the direction behind television shows gets lost in favour of quickly pumping out episodes. This is not the case with Squid Game, and in this regard the show is more akin to Breaking Bad than Suits. It’s clear that Hwang had a clear vision and his authorial stamp can be clearly felt throughout. Whether it be the show's set design with its vibrant and winding staircases harkening back to the impossible architecture of M.C Escher, or its mesmerizing cinematography which knows when to be restrained and when to be flashy — there’s just so much to appreciate from a technical standpoint.
However, problems begin when the show overtly asks all the questions it wants to ask and says everything it wants to say within the first two episodes, and then spends the rest of its episodes repeating or unnecessarily elucidating it’s one-dimensional social critique. Pair this with Hwang’s authorial presence and you get a piece of art so heavy-handed it puts Zack Snyder’s Jesus metaphors to shame.
The script is littered with plot convenience manifesting itself as a series of coincidences. It’s easy to overlook one or two of the more trivial coincidences, like when Gi-hun and Sang-woo immediately run into each other in the outside world after the first game. But these coincidences get more and more absurd reaching a fever pitch in the finale with an emotional climax that is contingent on three freak coincidences all occurring simultaneously (for fear of spoiling the show I won’t go into detail but for those who have seen it I'm referring to the scene with the clock and the homeless man). These plot conveniences further accentuate the lack of subtlety, as not only is subtext constantly being shoved down viewers’ throats, the text itself feels like it’s a mere spoon — or mallet — for even more subtext.
The final fault of the show is its conclusion, which has been the target of a lot of criticism and the reason for Lebron’s disappointment. The show's final scene is a sign of the times, pointing to a malignant cultural growth that has been slowly accumulating mass ever since Nick Fury showed up at the end of the first Iron Man film. Today more than ever, showrunners and filmmakers of blockbuster media are more concerned with setting up potential sequels than telling the stories they want to tell. Gi-hun refusing to board the plane that would take him to visit his daughter is a succinct example of this trend, exposing the show's willingness to forgo a satisfying conclusion in favour of teasing a continuation. Gi-hun (literally) turns his back on his character arc for the sole purpose of setting up a second season. This also causes the show to commit the cardinal sin of continuing past its perfect ending. For fear of spoiling I won’t go into detail, but everything after the finale’s time skip is completely superfluous. That fade to black should have led to credits, not a “1 year later” title card.
Squid Game has a lot of problems, but those problems can hardly detract from it’s sheer entertainment value and character like-ability. Despite its flaccid ending and hamfisted social commentary, there’s plenty to love and not recommending it would feel like a disservice. It’s worth the watch, even if the only thing you gain from it is being in the loop with one of 2021’s biggest cultural phenomena.
But don’t just take it from me! Here are some of the diverse opinions from the UBC student body:
Sophie Diebold, media studies major: “It was better than I expected … I thought the set design was insane … You know how the people behind it were all rich white men? That’s literally life.”
Simon Sheppard, psychology major: “I thought it was really well done. I liked that it was kind of like an anime but it wasn’t animated … One gripe [I had] is that they started out with that childhood theme and then they all of a sudden switched to non-childhood theme for that one glass game … I was kind of bothered by [the ending] but I get why they did it, they want to leave open the possibility for a sequel season.”
Daniel Rosen, anthropology major: “Episode six does a great job of letting you know what the ending is going to be while still maintaining its emotional punch.”
Tyneisha Power, psychology major: “I like Sang-woo.”
Hadi Malik, business major: “Part of why Squid Game was very successful was because of the character writing and the character work. Having all these character arcs set up [and] having them abruptly end is what elevated it for me ... [The twist in the last episode] threw me off a bit because it doesn’t necessarily change anything in the grand scheme of things … however the [ending] makes sense.”
Amelia Liza-Carré, media studies major: “I love those shows where you just know the whole world is watching … I skipped over [part of episode six] because I was crying too hard.”
Madison Stiver, film studies major: “I thought it was pretty good overall, a little bit over-hyped but I do get it. I’m fine with how they left it because they were just setting it up the next season. I know some people don’t like the cliffhanger ending but I thought it was pretty good.”