Squid Game season 1 review (2021)

Squid Game feels surprisingly fresh and original, despite being inspired by various themes. Although predictable at times, it’s an immensely tense watch, delivering moments of suspense, and ultimately elevated by incredible performances.

I finally hopped on the train due to the massive amount of hype the Netflix original, Squid Game was receiving. For weeks, even months now, social media was going bananas about this series and how good it was. I even had many friends coming at me and telling me I must see it. Lo and behold, I’ve finally finished it in its entirety and I have a few thoughts about it, mostly positive of course. But, if you know me, you know I have my gripes with most things I watch, even if they’re minor ones. Then again, I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching the show from beginning to end, regardless of the flaws in-between.

Squid Game, for a large majority of it, follows Seong Gi-Hun, a drowning in debt chauffeur, a divorced man, and an all-around down on his luck individual who is one day mysteriously invited to participate in a series of games with other people in a similar financial predicament. The winner of the game is promised a large cash prize as a reward for their efforts, but little does he and everyone else know this game is more about survival. Suddenly, it becomes a life or death situation and many begin to wonder if it’s all really worth it.

I’m not going to lie; when I first started watching it, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I mean sure, it’s trying to introduce us to the character of Gi-Hun, who’s someone that’ll risk spending everything he has, and even other people’s money, in order to get a quick buck. He lives an overwhelmingly reckless lifestyle and he’s simply careless about everything and everyone around him. Lee Jung-jae sells the role convincingly since you’re led to believe he’s a loser. In reality, he really is, and when an actor can make you feel a certain way about the character they’re portraying, then that’s always a sign of something special there. That being said, it seemed a bit corny at first and I actually stopped watching it after the first 15-20 minutes. I gave it another chance though, and I never looked back. Once this series starts rolling, it doesn’t hold back and the stories, themes, and games played are genuinely entertaining.

The series doesn’t quite grab a hold of you until the end of the pilot, which truly sets the tone for the rest of the season. Most of the first episode is character development for Gi-Hun, while also showcasing some other pivotal characters. However, the meat of the show is the games and once you really see what it’s all about, you begin to appreciate what it’s trying to accomplish. In some ways, the purpose of everything going on is quite simple. Most of the games played are pretty straight forward and they’re actually games many of us grew up playing throughout our childhood. What makes it interesting and compelling are the stakes involved. Once you realize it isn’t simply a win or lose situation, but these players are actually competing for their lives and not a monetary reward, your perspective as a viewer completely changes. Plus, it’s fun seeing these games being played again in adult form. They say you’ll never forget how to ride a bike, right? Well, you’ll never forget how to play certain games you’ve always played either. It was great to reminisce with something like this.

Rather than being a viewer watching from the comfort of your home, the show makes you feel like you’re part of an audience. You begin to get emotionally invested with some of the characters who are competing and, in many ways, you empathize with them since we’ve all, at one point in our lives, have been in difficult situations. The glaring difference is we haven’t been invited to play in a game with a chance to win lots of money, while also risking our lives in the process. All jokes aside, there are many characters you begin to root for.

As frustrated as Gi-Hun can make you, you still pity him since deep down, he does want to better himself. It’s another case of someone not being able to get out of their own way. There’s Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), whose reasons for playing the game are actually meaningful. She’s thinking about her family at the end of the day, and that’s something most people can get behind. Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is sort of a wild card. You do root for him at the beginning, but he begins to give off plenty of sociopathic tendencies as you continue watching, which makes you question his intentions and his overall humanity. Then there’s Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae, who’s a gangster you hate from the very beginning and wish nothing but horrible things for. There’s always one of these in every show, I feel.

There are other characters, such as Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su), who comes off as a harmless old man, but he begins to show his cleverness and wisdom as the games go on. He also develops a friendship with Gi-Hun, which makes him even more likable. Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) has the most interesting personality of the bunch. She’s loud, overconfident, and incredibly annoying in every scene. Lastly, at least for the characters who stood out the most, there’s Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), who came off as a good person from the very start and stuck to it throughout the entire season. Sure, he has his suspect moments of bad character and lack of integrity, but almost everyone here does, which is why they’re in the situation they’re in.

Other than the games themselves, you stick with Squid Game because of all of these characters. They all have something in common and most of them are there for the same reason, but it’s their different personalities, their distinct life experiences and backgrounds, and what they’ve gone through which adds a ton of depth to them as characters and makes the story feel intriguing and important. Every narrative decision made ends up making sense because of the structure of these characters. Almost nothing feels out of place or rushed and the overall story flows smoothly, even with all of the characters having completely different experiences based on their point of view.

I do have some gripes, as mentioned, and it has to do with the predictability. At the end of the day, you can tell who’s destined to win the entire thing. Of course, I won’t spoil it for obvious reasons, but there are other decisions made in the series where you know what the outcome will be in specific scenes based on what has already happened. For me, there weren’t many curveballs or massive twists until the very end, which is a bit disappointing. Let’s use Game of Thrones as an example. The ending is a colossal misfire, but most of the series is fantastic partly because of the “no character being safe” motto. You couldn’t begin to like a specific character in the show since they would probably die in the next episode or down the line. I won’t say this detail is what made the writing so great, but it’s a huge reason since it left you speechless at times and you weren’t sure what was going to happen next.

In Squid Game, there are only short spurts of it, but when the games do happen, you already have an idea of who will make it and who won’t. Maybe something coming completely out of left field would’ve spiced everything up a bit more. I’m hoping it’s incorporated a bit in season two (and yes, there’s definitely another season coming).

Squid Game is one of the biggest surprises of the year. All the hype and love surrounding it is definitely deserving and it may be one of the best shows Netflix has ever produced. I’m looking forward to more.

Score: A-


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