Squid Game season 1 review – a dark, compelling game of survival

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: September 17, 2021 (Last updated: November 23, 2023)
View all
Squid Game season 1 review - a dark, compelling game of survival


Squid Game gives the nostalgia of childhood playgrounds a grim twist as various down-on-their-luck players stand to lose much more than a fortune.

This review of Squid Game season 1 is spoiler-free.

Squid Game is so-called after a popular Korean playground game, and everything you need to know about the show, which is streaming on Netflix, is in that title. Yes, it’s about the nostalgia for carefree childhood fun, but it gives that premise a grimly adult twist. In these games, losing means dying. So, for 456 financially destitute players, winning becomes the only means of survival.

The history behind Squid Game is storied; its roots are in a comic book and the show has taken over a decade for director Hwang Dong-hyuk to bring to fruition. In steps Netflix, and you know the streaming powerhouse is confident in the material since they elected to release it all at once – an unusual strategy for K-Drama, though employed recently for the very good D.P. – and even provide an English dub. And it’s not even a bad dub, as such things go. Given the genuine sense of tension, the prevalent mysteries, the engaging character dynamics, and the class-conscious thematic underpinnings, there’s virtually no chance this won’t be a hit. Aside from being stretched just a touch too thin in spots, I’d say it deserves all the praise it’s going to get.

Anyway, the premise runs thusly. 456 financially destitute “players” are suckered into a potentially lucrative opportunity by an enigmatic salesman, and before they know it, they’re being shipped in a fleet of Hyundais to a mysterious middle-of-nowhere island where they’re to compete in a series of childhood playground games for a cash prize of ?45.6billion. Failure or refusal to comply means elimination, and elimination means death, a punishment to be meted out by masked staffers who seem as much prisoners to the game as the players are. The first two episodes introduce a motley crew of focal characters, including an old man with a burgeoning brain tumor, a gangster, North Korean defector Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), our down-on-his-luck protagonist Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), and his childhood friend Sang-woo (Hae-soo Park). All are given an identifying number. All are in the same boat, though not always for the same reasons.

One couldn’t say that all this setup is handled deftly; each episode runs close to – or just over – an hour, and every point it wants to make about every character seems to be made two or three times over for good measure. But the players are interesting, with complex backstories and personalities, and the callous, impersonal nature of the game’s organizers is immediately compelling, as are the depths of their infrastructure. Their motives remain nebulous, at least for a while, but given the show’s focus on money and class, it’s easy to imagine what’s up. The extremely capable tension-building during the games and the strong characterization – you’ll find yourself really rooting for certain players right from the jump – are what’ll keep you enthralled during the first two hours, and things only get more compelling from there.

READ: Squid Game: The Challenge – Is the Reality Show Real or Scripted?

Netflix, TV Reviews
View all