6 Things "Squid Game" Doesn't Do So Well
A slightly more critical review of the surprise Netflix hit
I watched Netflix’s “Squid Game” soon after it came out and liked it well enough but I am rather surprised to see that weeks later the world seems somewhat obsessed with it.
First of all, what is “Squid Game”? In a nutshell, it’s “The Hunger Games” meets “Battle Royale” but for destitute adults who are competing in murdery versions of old-fashioned children’s games for a massive cash prize. That’s kind of it. You can fill in the gaps with what’s typical for the genre - an underdog protagonist, an ensemble cast with varying motivations and evil rich people enjoying the massacre.
Do not misunderstand me, I am not here to hate on the show. “Squid Game” is good. Some things about it are even brilliant. My personal favourite is the soundtrack which really gets under your skin. The visuals are memorable, the main character is more three-dimensional than most and it’s certainly refreshing to see a hit that didn’t come out of the US. But even with all that, the show is far from perfect and there were several aspects of it I wish had been handled better. So, with so many raving reviews on the internet, let’s balance the scales a little with 6 things “Squid Game” didn’t do so well. Beware of spoilers!
1. It’s a Bit of an All-Straight-All-Korean Sausage Fest
Okay, this is a relatively minor complaint (I think). I’m willing to let it go with little more than a raised eyebrow but I do think it deserves a mention. As far as I can tell, the only characters we see who are not Korean are rich white dudes who spend their money on watching people being shot by machine guns and falling from high places. Oh, and there's the one single Pakistani migrant worker. The Pakistani is kind-hearted but naive to the point of idiocy (a bit of an insulting portrayal of migrants, I would think) and dies via betrayal halfway through the show.
Hmmm... Look, I know the rest of the world is plenty racist towards Asians of all kinds so it’s like the pot calling the kettle black but… You sure you couldn't have done a tiny bit better, South Korea?
“Squid Game” isn’t particularly kind towards women, either - there are about one and a half semi-positive female characters, one of whom is axed shortly after being introduced. There is also one crazy bitch who is possibly the most memorable of the three prominent female players. Outside of the game we’ve got an antagonistic ex-wife and two elderly mothers, one nagging and one criminally oblivious. All other women just sort of die in the background. I repeat - hmmmm...
Again, I’ll let it go with a roll of my eyes - I don’t like obsessively policing diversity in media, it doesn’t always make sense to have one of every type of person and such-and-such percentage of females, gay people etc. (Oh, yeah - the only clearly non-straight person is an evil, bloodthirsty sexual predator... Yikes.) There’s no obvious intention to offend or spread bad messages here and I don’t think these things automatically make the show as a whole offensive. But it also doesn’t hurt to notice them, even if I let them slide.
2. Only One Person Can Win
The way that the “evil murder games” are set up and talked about in the story strongly suggests at first that there can be more than one winner. The goal is to survive and split the money. Unlike with “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale”, the participants are never told that only one of them can make it out alive. Of course, the games are very obviously unfair and throughout the show the viewer constantly suspects that the villains will manipulate things so that there would be only one winner. But the reason we suspect that is not because there’s a good in-universe explanation for it. We suspect it because that’s just the prevalent cliche in the genre. I could have honestly done without it this time. I would have preferred it if there were multiple winners, not only because I felt bad for the characters that had to be killed off in service to the trope but because it would have been infinitely more interesting and a much better setup for a second season. Instead, we end up with the very obvious protagonist (down-on-his-luck divorced dad Gi-hun) as the only survivor. Honestly, the way things play out, it’s almost like nobody else in the ensemble cast even mattered. We only get to know a small number of the characters before we watch everyone die horribly. The deaths would be heart-wrenching, except we’ve seen this type of scenario so often that we know what will happen from the start. Overall, the “everybody dies” ending just elicited an eyeroll from me. There is maybe a little bit of suspense - at one point I actually thought we might end up with North-Korean pickpocket Sae-byeok as the only survivor with Gi-hun sacrificing himself to help her. She seemed to have the most on the line with her little brother in an orphanage and her mother still stuck in North Korea so it would have made narrative sense for her to survive. But, alas, she dutifully dies, ensuring that there are no doubts about who’s got the plot armor. If multiple people had been permitted to live, it would have allowed for an interesting combination of winners and it would have been more difficult to predict who they would be.
Another problem is that Gi-hun does not even have too much of a character arc. He doesn’t really learn anything throughout the series - he is a decent guy at the start of it and still a decent guy at the end. Sure, by the end he wants revenge on the people who organised the whole thing but that’s not really character growth. If anything, his ultimate rival Sang-woo (a former childhood friend) has more development, albeit last minute. After spending the entire competition making immoral, self-serving choices, Sang-woo eventually repents and kills himself, allowing Gi-hun to win. But Gi-hun, while very sympathetic as a character, barely does anything of consequence.
3. The Games Are Too Unfair and That’s Bad Because...
In terms of messages, “Squid Game” wants to have its cake and eat it. On one hand, it wants to show what desperate people will do for money and how poverty can suck the humanity out of you. This is great. It’s an idea that makes us feel deeply uncomfortable. What would we do in this situation? How far would we go? But then the message gets muddled because the show tries to both put some of the responsibility on the participants and at the same time emphasise that it’s really the big bad evil rich people who are controlling everything. It doesn’t always matter if you follow the rules - too often the players’ survival depends on pure chance. The murder-fest being heavily manipulated by the organisers is the concept used in “The Hunger Games” but “The Hunger Games” aims to say a different thing with it. That story is all about the big bad evil government, the children are victims. (Mind you, I’m not even a fan of “The Hunger Games” book and I don’t think it makes its point particularly well either, it just makes it clearer what the message is.) In “Squid Game” the players are supposed to have at least the illusion of agency. But when that illusion is shattered too quickly it decreases the weight of their choices. If the lesson is about holding on to your humanity and not selling your soul to the devil for money, any “unfair” deaths have to be the fault of the players. The games themselves have to be relatively fair and perfectly winnable based on skill. They are not.
A particularly big offender in that regard is the penultimate obstacle - a bridge made of glass plates some of which can support the weight of the participants while others would break under their feet, sending them plummeting to their death. This was apparently inspired by games such as hopscotch but the concept just doesn’t fit right. All of the other games featured in the show keep the real-life game rules - “Red Light, Green Light” is about freezing in place, “Tug-of-War” is about pulling the other team over the line, the honeycomb game is about cutting the shape out perfectly. But real hopscotch is about being able to hop over gaps while staying within the lines. At what point in hopscotch do you have to “choose” what tile to hop on with nothing to guide you and with the risk of being eliminated if you choose the wrong one? The players go onto the bridge in a predetermined order so it’s incredibly clear from the start that nobody but the very last of them have even the slightest chance of surviving. The idea of the bridge itself is terrifying but watching characters die on it one by one isn’t particularly interesting. There’s no mystery here - you know the first dozen of them will die and they know it, too. The game creators go as far as to additionally hinder a player who actually has the knowledge to tell the correct tiles apart once they realise what he’s doing. That’s just nonsense. There are so few people left at that point that they have no reason to prevent that character from successfully getting to the other side, he’s beating the game fair and square. (Side note: The obvious way to beat the bridge is simply to try to jump/walk on the frame rather than in the middle of the glass tiles. I’m guessing anyone who tried that would have probably been shot but it’s still shocking nobody even attempted it - most people had nothing to lose.) And then, in an even more ridiculous surprise-shock-horror!! moment, Sae-byeok gets gravely injured by a random piece of glass after she makes it to the other side because the remainder of the bridge explodes in everyone’s faces. This is stupid and should not happen. Honestly, all three of the finalists could have been accidentally killed this way which would have made for an extremely anticlimactic experience for the rich assholes who are watching the show and betting on their favourites.
And then Sae-byeok does not get treated by the game-runners because… No, I honestly have no clue why. It’s not made very clear whether she would have been treated if she’d mentioned something or if they think her dying slowly in her bed was somehow entertaining to anyone. She eventually just gets her throat slit by Sang-woo, rendering the whole injury thing even more pointless. I mean, she was bleeding out, not sure why he even felt the need to finish her off.
I understand what the writers were going for - the constant “surprise rules” have a shock factor. But, personally, I was mostly annoyed by them. In most cases contestants only learned they had to kill someone when they could no longer bail out. At that point it was their own life versus that of the other person and it wasn’t money motivating them anymore - it was survival. That’s the thing - the main motivator has to be either money or survival but not both at the same time! And the price has to be clear so that the choices they make are informed.
The first two games are individual - every participant could theoretically pass. It isn’t until “Tug-of-War” that they have any inkling they would have to actively murder each other. They aren’t told this prior to the game so they literally cannot refuse. In this way the story kind of swings between “Lord of the Flies” and “Saw”. One is about people being greedy for power and resources and becoming savage under certain circumstances, while the other is about being the victim of a deranged psychopath and trying to escape, sometimes at the cost of other people’s lives. They are simply two different concepts. Mind you, I don’t object to participants trying to murder each other in their beds at night or sabotage each other during games. But the reason for this should be simply that the fewer people make it to the end the more money there would be for each winner. Again, that’s why having multiple winners is the better option. I guess you could argue that after “Tug-of-War” there could - and should - have been a vote to call the whole thing off and the fact nobody called a vote means they were willing to murder each other to get to the end. They made a choice. But that leads to my next issue - I don’t always buy everyone’s behaviour.
4. Everybody Sucks
Okay, maybe not everybody. The show does make a little bit of an effort to show that people do exist who would say no to this whole thing. After they are first recruited and they see what they have gotten themselves into, half of the participants want to leave, prize or no prize. Eventually, after some voting, everyone is released. While the vast majority of them, including Gi-hun, decide to return and try again, there are a small number of people who just stay out of it. Good for them! But I just find it very hard to understand why, since voting is an established thing, it didn’t happen many more times throughout the show. We are led to believe that, while there are plenty of shady characters, many of the players are decent people who are just very desperate. How do at least several of them not end up having an extreme moral crisis and frantically call for a vote after killing some of their fellows during “Tug-of-War”? Seriously, nobody? Even Pakistani Ali who is portrayed as extremely sweet? He saved Gi-hun during a previous game almost at the cost of his own life but now he’s okay with murder? I find that unrealistic. The only other time someone tries to stop the game is when a husband who was there with his wife (for some bizarre reason? honestly that seemed very weird and was never explained) is forced to play against her and wins, causing her to get killed. He’s understandably traumatised and tries to call another vote… and everyone ignores him. Every single person left, including our hero, Gi-hun? At that point it’s clear the remaining participants will be forced to murder each other, whether they want to or not, unless they all bail out. And nobody else wants to leave? I can understand if ultimately more people vote to stay - there could be enough players who have nothing to lose or too much to lose if they don’t win. But I can’t buy there not even being a vote, and Gi-hun at this stage should be doing his best to get out.
The husband in question ends up hanging himself and - yes, suicides should have happened more on this show, too. Instead, most characters react to the situation they’re in in pretty much the same way. The ones we are meant to root for sometimes feel a little bit guilty but overall everyone just plays along. I remember reading a comparison between “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale” once where the reviewer pointed out that one of the reasons “Battle Royale” was vastly superior was that the children in it had a great range of reactions and strategies while in “The Hunger Games” everyone mostly shrugged their shoulders and did exactly what they were told to do. The same thing is happening here.
5. Just Too Many Contrivances
Honestly, the coincidences in this series go way beyond my suspension of disbelief. Out of the hundreds of people who participate in the game, Gi-hun ends up in the same group as Sae-byeok who earlier pickpocketed a bunch of money from him and his former friend Sang-woo who serves as his antithesis, as Sang-woo was initially very successful, went to university and is the person Gi-hun is constantly unfavourably compared to in his daily life. What a coinkydink, fancy meeting you here! Naturally, Sang-woo is a secret asshole because: downtrodden underdog = good, university-educated businessman = bad. We get it. But that’s not all. These three people are the only ones who make it past the penultimate game, and once Sae-byeok is dead, Gi-hun and Sang-woo are left to face each other during the finale. What are the odds! No, seriously, what are the odds? I get the dramatic appeal of having two childhood friends fighting each other to the death in a game they used to play as kids but you have to justify it a bit better than that. And that’s not all! Il-nam, the random old dude Gi-hun befriends immediately after his arrival in the game, ultimately turns out to be the ultra-rich secret figure behind the whole operation. See, he’s dying of a brain tumor anyway and decided to join his own murder-game just for funsies. And he coincidentally ended up becoming super close to our protagonist and no one else. In short, all important characters and plot elements just gravitate towards Gi-hun for absolutely no justifiable reason.
Then there is the way the games themselves are organised and run. We are made to understand that this is all done for the entertainment of some mysterious, masked, super-rich men. (No murdery billionaire women, I guess?) Like a very bloody reality show, just like the Hunger Games are for Panem. But a reality show needs to ensure that it will have enough content for all of its episodes and a winner at the end. All of the pieces of media which play around with this concept seem to have the same problem - there are too many variables that would be difficult to control and you risk all of your players dying before the end. I am, admittedly, less familiar with “Battle Royale” as I’ve only seen the film and I don’t remember if there’s a good explanation for how that is avoided. But “The Hunger Games” sort of sidesteps the issue by emphasising the crazy level of control the gamemasters have over the arena. The implication is that they would be able to very quickly rescue a tribute who is near death if they wanted to. In “Squid Game” this seems less plausible. Once again, the glass bridge is particularly bad as the people in charge literally would not be able to do anything if the last two or three players all fall at the same time. They need at least two in order to have a final game! Sure, if they see that only two people are left on the bridge they could just rescue them but this does not account for the final few grappling and falling together or everyone just not moving and running out of time before anyone makes it to the end. Or, as mentioned before, for the possibility of more than one person becoming collateral to the utterly ridiculous exploding glass panes once the clock runs out. Or, for that matter, for the final few all murdering each other during the night or incapacitating each other so severely that none of them could participate in the final game. It just doesn’t make much sense.
6. Missed Opportunities and Plot Points Which Go Nowhere
There were too many of these to even list. I already mentioned how I thought Gi-hun sacrificing himself for the sake of Sae-byeok would have been a better ending than him surviving alone. But, okay, let’s go with the actual outcome - he wins after promising her before she dies that he would take care of her little brother. I can excuse him taking bloody forever to actually do that - his main motivation for attempting the game a second time is his mother’s illness but once he wins he discovers his mother has died while he was away, causing him to fall into a depression. Fine, I’ll accept that. He eventually goes and gets Sae-byeok’s brother out of the orphanage but then he dumps him in the hands of Sang-woo’s elderly mother, along with a suitcase of money. And leaves. Um… okay? But what about Sae-byeok’s mother? Did I miss something? Shouldn’t Gi-hun be trying to get her out of North Korea and reunite her with her son? It certainly seems like the thing to do, considering all of his guilt after the game.
But the biggest misstep in the writing for me comes a little bit earlier when a dying Il-nam makes a sort of bet with Gi-hun with the goal of, I guess, proving that people are just rubbish in general. From the window of Il-nam’s fancy skyscraper they watch a drunk man who has collapsed in the snow. Il-nam bets that nobody will go and help the man before the stroke of midnight and he will freeze to death. To me, the best narrative choice is painfully obvious here - Gi-hun should have almost immediately realised that he could be the one to go downstairs and help the drunk, thus not only winning the bet in a clever way but showing that he has learned to act against the cruelty and injustice of the world, rather than just accepting it. I’m still shocked that instead of doing that he stood there like an idiot until another random passer-by won him the bet just before the deadline. I mean, talk about a missed opportunity! This was really the only way to justify the wholly unnecessary reveal of Il-nam as the villain and their whole protracted conversation. Without that, the whole scene just falls flat and, once again, our protagonist has learned nothing.
(Side note - hold my beer, “Lord of the Rings”, this series now holds the medal for biggest number of unnecessary finales, the last of which is kind of the worst.)
In terms of plots that go nowhere, there’s an entire secondary storyline in which a young policeman infiltrates the game while searching for his missing brother. He manages to impersonate one of the masked staff that help run things. His point of view serves to show the audience how things are done behind the scenes and it somewhat (although not really) humanises the “evil minions” but overall his entire plot achieves nothing. Spoiler alert - his brother turns out to be a former winner of the game and is now one of the people running the show. Gasp, I guess? I didn’t really care. Then the brother shoots him and that’s that - for now. Since the shot seems to go into his shoulder, plus he falls into the sea, plus we don’t see a body, I’m guessing they’ve left themselves a handy little loophole to resurrect the character in season 2. But I can’t make myself be too invested in whether they do or not - up to this point, all he’s really done is watch a whole lot of people die without trying to help them and be sexually harassed by a rich old white dude (one of the so-called “VIPs” who pay to watch the murder-games).
I guess he uncovers the fact that some of the game staff are secretly trafficking organs. They harvest those from players who have been shot but are not quite dead yet. Okay. So what? This is one more thing that was put there for the shock factor but it’s honestly not that shocking. It’s grim, sure, but considering the fact that otherwise the players get immediately cremated it’s not like it makes that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. And, once again, this goes nowhere. We never learn who buys these organs or anything else surrounding this little side plot. It just exists and then everybody involved in it dies.
Honorable mention of a plotpoint going nowhere is the marble Gi-hun finds in his pocket - a leftover from the previous game. In the final tense moments of the bridge crossing it looks like the marble will be instrumental in telling them which tile to go on next. The player up front might be able to recognise the tempered glass by the sound it makes when the marble hits it. This would be a pretty good setup and payoff. Except it doesn’t happen. They throw the marble. It makes a sound. The guy still isn’t sure. What was the point? Yes, the marble does sort of also serve as a clue pointing to the secret villain but that’s not a good enough reason to have it there.
“Squid Game” is a good, engaging show with excellent performances from the cast. It has interesting ideas, a truly awesome soundtrack and cool visuals. I do recommend you watch if you have the stomach for it and the body count doesn’t bother you. Personally, I’d be curious about a second season but I’m not waiting with baited breath. I think there’s still room for the murder-game concept to be executed a lot better.