A giant animatronic doll sings the Korean phrase for “Red Light, Green Light.” Adults in green tracksuits have the length of the jingle to move forward and stop before the doll turns. The ones who don’t stop in time? Shot down.
Squid Game, the new K-drama that may become Netflix’s biggest show ever in the next couple of days, arrived in the U.S. with an eye-catching trailer and a dream. Word of mouth by netizens on Twitter and Tik Tok has propelled the death-game thriller into the mainstream, with lots of other Korean content (hopefully) following closely behind. For now, the series has resonated with millions of viewers in more than 90 countries, all watching 456 players carrying immense debt compete in deadly children’s games for a chance to win a literal fortune. How the show got so big is a journey still being sussed out, so for now the best thing to do is just join the ride.
After a black-and-white scene explaining the titular game, we meet our first main character, Seong Gi-hun, a divorced dad with a gambling problem and massive debt who lives with his mother. In the first 12 minutes of the episode, Gi-hun is so unbearably pitiful — stealing his mom’s debit card, recklessly gambling her money on horse races, losing his winnings, getting beaten up by his loan shark, taking back a 10,000-won tip (about $10) from a cashier — it’s nearly impossible to root for him. All this happens on his daughter Ga-yeong’s 10th birthday, no less, resulting in a disappointing dinner of tteokbokki (spicy fish and rice cakes) and a gun-shaped lighter when all she wanted was fried chicken. (Also, poor Ga-yeong.)
At the end of this rough-ass day, Gi-hun meets a mysterious recruiter (played by none other than the Goblin himself, Gong Yoo). Gi-hun thinks he’s a missionary at first, but no, the recruiter is just a handsome man offering cash to strangers who beat him in a round of ddakji. (The penniless losers? They get off with the low price of a slap to the face.) To win at ddakji (origami meets pogs), you have to flip your opponent’s folded origami square with your own, and it looks like it requires both brute strength and an eye for angles to be good. Gi-hun is not good. I lost count of how many times he gets slapped before he actually wins one round, but considering my limit would have been three, he plays long enough to prove himself both desperate for money and a glutton for punishment: the ideal candidate for the upcoming games. After he finally wins (and briefly forgets about the money over the chance to slap back, which, fair), the recruiter outlines Gi-hun’s disheartening financial circumstances and gives him a business card with three symbols on one side and a phone number on the other. Gi-hun doesn’t seem entirely interested in what it all means until his mother tells him that Ga-yeong is moving to the U.S. with her mom and stepfather, but he could get custody if he proves his financial means. It’s enough to push him to call the phone number. The recruiter asks if he wants to “participate in the game.” Next thing we know, he’s getting picked up by a masked driver in a van and knocked out with sleeping gas.
For whatever reason, Gi-hun is surprisingly calm when he wakes up in a massive dormitory (as are all the players — maybe still groggy?) with all the other players wearing the same green jumpsuits with numbers on them (Gi-hun is 456). He meets contestant 001, an old man with a brain tumor who is counting the number of contestants to stave off dementia, before encountering gangster Jang Deok-su (101) as he beats up Kang Sae-byeok (067), a woman who used to work for him. Gi-hun’s impulsive ass jumps in when he realizes Sae-byeok was the pickpocket who stole his winnings from the horse race. After the masked, magenta-jumpsuit adorned workers give an introduction with a “heartfelt welcome,” Gi-hun recognizes Cho Sang-woo (218), a childhood friend who is now wanted for financial crimes.
The introduction the players are given before they sign up has very little actual information, just how each of them is on the brink of financial ruin, that they’ll be competing in six games over the next six days, and that their winnings will be whatever is in the currently empty giant golden piggy bank suspended from the ceiling. No one knows what’s going on until they’re ushered through an M. C. Escher neon nightmare room of staircases and pastel colors and end up in a vast space painted to seem like they’re outdoors with a giant robot doll (already an icon). It’s here that they’re told they’ll be playing in the innocent kids’ game Red Light, Green Light. When they lose, they’ll be “eliminated,” which turns out to mean a rifle will shoot and kill the losers. Suddenly, getting through the round means surviving as much as it means getting a chance at the money. With this deadly twist, the characters’ motivations change from round to round, hour to hour, moment to moment, adding more importance to see what each round has in store and how each round will shake up the entire game.
Meanwhile, as the eliminated players’ bloody deaths get soundtracked to a jazzy rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” the mysterious Front Man sips scotch from a crystal decanter. The episode’s second half offers glimpses behind the scenes, including an impressive surveillance setup and a floor illuminated with the players’ headshots. They’re creepy moments, but they’re used sparingly, giving us just a hint of the scope of the operation. The lingering shots of the puppets and the observing game master go a smidge too long and extravagant. Do we really need chandeliers and decanted liquor to underscore the wealth behind the game, coming too close to the splendor of The Hunger Games’ Capitol? For a show this inventive, it leans a little too close to something we’ve all seen before.
Luckily, our main characters survive. Gi-hun will stick close to his saviors Sang-woo, who told him the game’s secret, and Ali (199), a Pakistani man who kept him from falling. And for some reason, the elderly man who smiled way too much during the round.
The Next Game Will Begin Shortly
• The black-and-white sequence really does set up the dynamics of the whole show (violent play, choosing teams, etc.), but for me, it took five watches for the playing field to register as a squid’s head.
• For anyone wondering how the show got Gong Yoo: He worked with creator Hwang Dong-hyuk on the 2011 film Silenced, about sexually abused students at a school for the hearing impaired. Public outcry around the film even got a law passed in South Korea.
• For more of Gong Yoo on public transportation, watch Train to Busan (before the American remake fucks up its legacy).
• All of the players that were highlighted actually owe more than Gi-hun, hinting that he may not be the player who will stop at nothing to win the money.
• I don’t know what’s worse nightmare fuel, Chantal’s “Red Light, Green Light” jingle, or the old man’s grin as he runs past the bodies.
• Would you survive this game? Since the robot doesn’t seem to pick up tremors, I would almost make it to the end but get capped when I don’t make it over the line in time.
• Hi! I’m excited to make my Vulture debut recapping this show! Though the whole season has already been released (and I’ve watched the whole thing twice), I’ll make sure to avoid spoilers for future episodes. #TeamSubtitlesNoDubs