If TV’s winter awards season is a game, then Netflix’s breakout hit “Squid Game” is here to play. That was the takeaway of Monday night’s all-guild event for the series in Los Angeles, featuring a screening of arguably the best episode of the show’s first season, “Gganbu.” That was followed by a Q&A featuring creator, writer, and director Hwang Dong-hyuk, as well as performers Lee Jung-jae, Jung HoYeon, and Park Hae Soo — and, of course, a reception on the third floor terrace of NeueHouse Hollywood.
The series, produced in South Korea, centers around Seong Gi-hun (Lee), an indebted former chauffeur so down on his luck, he’d be better off having no luck at all. Living with his elderly mother, growing estranged from his young daughter, he takes advantage of an opportunity offered by a mysterious stranger. All he has to do is play a few children’s games against hundreds of other desperate, debt-ridden individuals for an opportunity to win 45.6 billion Won — South Korean currency that equals roughly $39 million U.S. dollars. If he wins, he continues in the competition. If he loses, he’ll pay with the only thing with any value he has left: his life.
“Squid Game” has become a global phenomenon, with Netflix reporting 142 million households viewing at least some of the series in its first month of release, with myriad versions of costumes inspired by the show popping up at Halloween and reports of schoolchildren mimicking the series on playgrounds.
And if what Hwang said on the red carpet of the event is true, fans of the series will have even more of the series to feast on eventually. Associated Press reported that the creator said, “I almost feel like you leave us no choice,” when asked about a second season of the series, a reference to the profound popularity of “Squid Game.”
More than just an impeccably-styled survival drama, the crux of “Squid Game” comes from its scathing indictment of capitalism and wealth that empower massive income inequality and the desperation that fuels the decision-making of the oppressed, desperate for survival. It’s a brutal and unflinching look at the current global climate, a fact that might make it a tricky sell in the hyper-indulgent setting of a Hollywood awards season.
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As attendees waited for the event to begin, they snapped photos of the signature “Squid Game” guards, all bright pink jumpsuits and opaque black face masks, that stood silently throughout the screening space, or posed for selfies with an ominous recreation of Younghee, the “Red Light, Green Light” doll featured in the show’s premiere. It was simultaneously delightful and discomfiting.
The audience was rapt during the screening, which features tortured choices by several of the characters that call into question their very humanity. The episode screened in the original Korean, with English subtitles, undoubtedly the best way to view the series, particularly to appreciate the acting craft involved. It’s an element that can be controlled in events, but might ultimately prove an obstacle for Netflix, as guild voters viewing independently might opt instead to watch the English language dub, which strips the series of some of its power. A shame, as it was meticulously crafted to be as emotionally effective as possible.
During the panel, Hwang spoke at length about the choice to have the series — particularly with regard to the games — play out in the order it does: Red light, green light first, because it allowed for enough players to enact a massacre; the honeycomb game because it was simultaneously absurd and cruel; tug-of-war next, because suddenly individuals were forced to work together to survive; then the marbles featured in “Gganbu,” which made for pairings in which unspeakable sacrifices must be made. The suspended glass bridge was next, for its circus-like atmosphere, the better to play for the VIPs who are in attendance for the first time and, then, sixth and last: squid game.
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“I chose this game because among the many games I created as a kid, this was the most physical, violent game,” Hwang said via translator. “It always ended with someone getting hurt and someone crying. So I wanted this as the very last game because I wanted these two main characters to put everything that they had on the line and express a very desperate and intense battle between them.”
And as his characters were put through the emotional wringer, the creator wanted the audience to recognize that many people in the world, the vast majority of viewers, were likely only one or two moderate disasters from suffocating poverty.
“I wanted to convey the message that most people, “I’d say about 90% of all of us, if we failed and if we lose in this highly competitive society, we can hit bottom any day. And in order to convey that message I wanted to bring in as many stories and backgrounds into the story structure as possible,” he said.
It’s a message so important to Hwang that he reiterated it again as the final thought of the panel.
“During production, the pandemic hit everyone globally. And it also exacerbated the huge, growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. We read it in the news and we also feel it in our lives,” he said, before recalling his return to Los Angeles several years ago after studying in the city in the early 2000s. “I was very saddened to see so many people without homes. And I thought to myself, ‘So many more people are now in pain.’
“There is such a huge and worsening wealth gap that so many people unfortunately have to go through. So I made ‘Squid Game’ in hopes that it’s not just going to be a show that you watch and you’re just done with it, but that very last scene, when Gi-hun looks directly into the camera and it’s almost like he’s asking you this question: ‘Do we really have to live in a world like this? And is there anything we can do to change that?'”
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And then people headed to the roof for free drinks and K-pop under the hazy Hollywood stars. The dissonance was real. At least for me. But guild members seemed thrilled, clamoring to peek at the show’s leads and finally able to take off their masks — the event mandated vaccination and negative COVID tests, as well as masks indoors — and relax in a fashion that has been absent for years.
This is the awards game and “Squid Game,” like every TV series hoping to catch the eye of guild voters, must play by the rules dictated by industry expectations. It just really makes you think. And that’s exactly what Hwang was hoping for.