“Red Light, Green Light” introduces the premise and quickly raises the stakes with a brutal final third.
This recap of Squid Game season 1, episode 1, “Red Light, Green Light”, contains spoilers.
The titular squid game in Netflix’s new original K-drama is a children’s playground game, played on a court in the shape of a squid. The opening narration explains the rules; attackers and defenders, one leg or two. The objective, it seems, is to basically just wrestle. The attacking team has to touch a foot on the squid’s head to win. If anyone’s pushed out of the squid’s boundaries, they die. This basic concept, however, is about to be massively contorted.
Squid Game season 1, episode 1 recap
“Red Light, Green Light” makes it clear early that Gi-hun is a degenerate. He sponges off his mother and blows what little money he does have gambling on horses. He spends the morning of his daughter’s birthday in the bookies just to fund her special day. But almost immediately after promising her all kinds of treats he loses his newfound wealth while being chased by some goons he already owes money to. Just like that, he has one month to cough up his debts or the cost will be recouped in the form of his vital organs. He even signs in his blood to make it all official.
Gi-hun’s daughter, Ga-yeong, is adorable at least. She’s careful not to upset Gi-hun when he’s forced to take her for a cheap junk food meal and pretends to be happy about the cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun that Gi-hun gives her as a gift — he won it out of a claw machine with the help of some random kid in an arcade. Ga-yeong’s mother and step-father are well-off and well-adjusted, and Gi-hun is neither, but he obviously means well.
This is all so we understand Gi-hun is desperate. And we have to understand he’s desperate so we understand why he’d agree to play a high-stakes game of ddakji with a random man at the train station. Gi-hun doesn’t have 100,000 won to gamble, so every time he loses, which is every round, he pays the toll in a slap across the face. Before long, he looks like a Batman villain. Eventually, though, he wins a round. A hundred grand better off, he’s much more susceptible to the idea that there are other big-money games he can get involved in. Since the salesman seems to know everything about him, including his employment history and his current debts, Gi-hun is compelled by the idea. He’s happy to have made 100,000 won, but it’s barely enough to make a dent in what he owes, and when he returns home, his mother tells him that Ga-yeong will be moving to the U.S. next year. In order for her to stay, he has to prove he can support her financially.
So, inevitably, Gi-hun calls the number on the business card that the salesman gave him and agrees to participate. “Red Light, Green Light” turns out to be the password to join in, which involves boarding a people carrier along with the other passengers, all of whom, including Gi-hun, are gassed into unconsciousness for the trip. When he wakes up, he’s wearing a tracksuit labelled “456”. There are 455 other players, all simultaneously waking up in towers of plain bunk beds. 001, an elderly man trying to stave off dementia by counting the participants, has a brain tumour. 067, the young woman Gi-hun tripped over earlier, who presumably stole the money he won from the race, has some issues with 101, an obvious gangster type who isn’t thrilled about her “going independent”.
The staff are all wearing coveralls and masks adorned with either a square or a circle, the same symbols that were on the back of the salesman’s business cards. One of them explains that everyone present is on the brink of financial ruin, and stand to make a pretty penny by playing six games over the next six days. The prize money will be accumulated in a giant piggybank suspended from the ceiling. Everyone agrees to participate, and is led through a giant check-in process that has them climb multiple multicolored staircases up, up, and up to a “game room”. All the while, we get glimpses of the enigmatic figure in a black hood and mask, who one assumes is the frontman, in charge of the whole operation, though he later gets a call from… someone, which suggests he might have employers above him.
Sang-woo, number 218, is also playing — Gi-hun knows him and his mother, who was convinced he was abroad on a business trip. “Red Light, Green Light” turns out not just to be the password for the first game but also the game itself, a version of the playground game where you move on green and stop still on red. But there’s a twist. Here, if you’re eliminated from the game, you’re shot to death. Once the participants discover this, most of them attempt to flee and are killed en masse, their corpses piling up on top of each other by the doors. The remaining players have no choice but to play along. Sang-woo helps Gi-hun figure out the motion sensor and advises him to stay behind someone else — 067 has the same idea, hiding behind and antagonizing 101 during the game.
All of the main characters we’ve met so far survive the game, but Gi-hun only makes it by the skin of his teeth, and even then only thanks to the intervention of another player, 199, who catches him when he’s about to fall. “Red Light, Green Light” ends with the roof of the “game room” closing as an aerial shot reveals the games are taking place in dense woodland in the middle of some mountains.
You can stream Squid Game season 1, episode 1 right now exclusively on Netflix.