31 Pilots in 31 Days: Squid Game

When it was originally on: 2021-present

Original network: Netflix

Where you can stream it now: Netflix

Had I seen it before: No.

What IMDb says: Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children’s games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits with deadly high stakes. A survival game that has a whopping 45.6 billion-won prize at stake.

Why I picked it: Squid Game is one of Netflix’s biggest hits of recent memory. Not just in that weird “Netflix tells me it’s the most viewed thing today but no one I actually know watched it” way but in “Wow, everyone on the internet and in my real life is asking me if I’ve watched this show yet and when I say no they have strong feelings about whether or not I’ve watched it.” Squid Game was a legitimate cultural phenomenon.

It’s also the kind of cultural phenomenon that I doubt any company other than Netflix could have pulled off. Conventional wisdom would say that a Korean drama about poor people “agreeing” to play games and get murdered if they lose would not take the U.S. by storm. One of the reasons I love nerding out on all things tv, movies, and music is because there are limits on “conventional wisdom.”

No matter what we think the “rules” are of what can and can’t be a hit, there’s always going to be an idea that comes down the pike, breaks all the rules, and ends up a hit anyway. Squid Game wasn’t the first such idea, and it won’t be the last. What is fascinating is how I don’t know that Squid Game could’ve been a cultural phenomenon on any outlet other than Netflix. Something about their huge subscriber base+their algorithm figured out how to position this show to western audiences. Netflix set up the pins, and the show knocked those pins down.

What I liked: I love how there’s an almost even split between life before Squid Game and life during Squid Game. By focusing on one specific character’s story they’re able to not only get us invested in that protagonist, but also help explain how the other 455 likely ended up in the game. This first half hour is still riveting in its own way. Subtract the back half of this pilot, and you’d still have a pretty well-made tragedy about a desperate gambling addict who learns his ex-wife and her new husband are about to move his only daughter to the U.S. It’s a great way to make Squid Game about more than just money. For Seong Gi-hun, money is the one thing holding him back from being the father he wants to be, and more money could potentially mean he gets to keep his daughter in Korea.

The story also sets up all these little ways in which Gi-hun (and presumably other participants) give up more and more to end up in the Squid Game. We know Gi-hun has a gambling problem, and seemingly has had one for a while. He signs away his “physical rights” early on, before he even knows there’s a Squid Game. With this established, it makes even more sense that he would start playing a game with someone in a train station for money, allowing this man to slap him every time he loses. When this man invites him to another mysterious game, we get why Gi-hun would agree, especially after he learns that his ex might take his daughter away to the U.S. For a premise as out there as Squid Game, they actually do a fantastic job of gradually easing us into that premise so that by the time we’re watching a deadly game of Red Light, Green Light, we understand how we got here, and we still see the humanity in all these characters in a way we might not if we hadn’t started in such a grounded place.

I also really love how Squid Game plays with these ideas of consent. Technically speaking, everyone in the Squid Game agreed to play. They responded to mysterious invitations when they didn’t have to, and they signed a contract to play the games after they were given a general outline of the premise. We can also probably assume that most of them also signed away their “physical rights” at some point like Gi-hun did.

But of course, these choices didn’t exist in a vacuum, nor were they informed. Of course the biggest detail: no one knew that losing a game meant literal, actual Death with a capital D. We know when Gi-hun signed away his physical rights, it was because people were already threatening to beat him up if he didn’t, so surely that shouldn’t count for much either way. And of course there’s that bit where no one here would have “consented” to the Squid Games if they weren’t already in huge debt that was about to ruin their lives. The show appeals to our innate sense of right and wrong, and contrasts it with a twisted logic put in place by the Squid Game’s organizers; a logic that says all these clearly-bad things are actually okay because hey, the victims all chose to be here.

If we look at Squid Game as a metaphor for income inequality in the real world (and personally I think we should), this story highlights how rich people in power sometimes frame poverty as the result of choices poor people make for themselves; but again, those choices didn’t happen in a vacuum, and hell were maybe even the result of already being a poor person existing in an unjust system.

I also love how even in this first pilot, we’re already starting to see how different people react to the unjust system of the Squid Game. During this Red Light, Green Light game, some people hide behind someone else as a shield; Gi-hun’s friend from home suggests this tactic. On the one hand, he’s willing to use his insight to help his friend from the outside survive, but on the other hand he’s literally using other people as human shields. We also get a mysterious hero catching Gi-hun from certain death, even though to our knowledge, they don’t know each other at all. It’s just a human trying to help his fellow human.

What makes all these dynamics exceptionally interesting is how the Squid Game contract features a clause that says the games may be terminated if a majority of the players agree. This isn’t called out, but it’s incredibly important. It means characters can either choose to try and rally together to save themselves and each other but forgo their chances of winning any prize money OR stick it out for the possibility of the money, knowing that even if they win, more people will have to die in order for them to get that money. I don’t know exactly if or when this is going to become a major plot point, but I think it could be hella interesting to see which characters fall on the “I’m in it for the money” side and who falls on the “Fuck the money, we can all get out alive” side.

There are people from real life in the game with Gi-hun, and I imagine we’ll learn more about some of this as the series continues. Outside of him, we’re also introduced to two supporting characters who have unresolved conflict before they found themselves in the game. There’s room for drama outside the game to seep into the game, and that’s an exciting prospect.

Right now, we still don’t know who exactly is running the game or why, and the fascinating thing is… I’m not sure it matters. If Squid Game is about how anonymous, powerful people assert control over poorer people who can’t do a damn thing about it, it’s on track to be a brilliant show. If it’s about the poorer people figuring out who these powerful people are, exposing them, and dismantling the system, Squid Game, guess what, it’s STILL on track to be a brilliant show.

What I didn’t like: n/a

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yup! I’m excited to keep watching.


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