By the time Squid Game, Netflix’s latest international phenomenon, reaches the end of “VIPS”, its seventh of nine episodes, the Korean dystopian series is firing on all cylinders. Catapulting off the emotions of “Gganbu”, “VIPS” sees Squid Game widening its lens a bit (welcoming in a few American VIPs) and hammering down on some of its central mystery around the Front Man, and just what the fuck is going on with this twisted blend of Battle Royale and The Running Man.
And boy that episode ends on a delirious high; as the tense fifth game comes to a conclusion, Gi-hun, Sang-woo and Sae-byeok leap across the finish line, their emotional survival unceremoniously greeted with an explosion of glass cutting through them as the remaining platforms behind them exploded (because no victory in capitalism comes without some scarring, after all). It’s a marked change from the end of the previous episode, which bid farewell (or so it seems) to Il-nam and Gi-hun’s budding friendship, the show’s unexpectedly poignant emotional core.
However, by the time “VIPS” ends and “Front Man” begins, Squid Game‘s attention turns slightly away from its main characters, and the entire narrative dynamic begins to shift. It is pretty telling that after a harrowing bathroom scene, Sae-byeok is quickly cut down by Sang-woo and her narrative complications erased (mostly) from the proceedings, so Squid Game can turn its attention to the deeper mythological mysteries of the Playstation Foundation (as what I’ve taken to calling the shape-adorned clan of teenagers lording over the games).
And boy, are those underwhelming – the secret organ harvesting, the set up of the organization, and of course, the eventual reveals of In-ho and Il-nam as the central personalities involved in The Game (as the Front Man and the games’ prime benefactor) all stick out like sore thumbs among the impeccably acted and tightly cadenced half-dozen hours preceding it. All three of these, which initially feel like great flavor text tucked into the corners of Squid Game, end up being much more prominent in the show’s blend of violent mystery and dystopian science fiction than it had any right to be. Where Squid Game succeeds is with its interpersonal relationships, formed against a backdrop of the greatest horrors humanity can commit on itself – once it shifts away from that to reposition its remaining characters and world, it quickly becomes a much less engaging affair for those final 30 minutes.
This shift also comes at the cost of Jun-ho’s character, whose proxy to the main story was already barely tethered to anything coherent inside Squid Game, save for an audience surrogate unsheathing its larger world. Yet, as Jun-ho makes his escape and the Front Man begins to chase him down, Jun-ho suddenly became a primary driver of drama – an inherently less interesting position for his character to be in, especially when the mystery around his brother’s disappearance (which – why did it take Jun-ho six years to realize he was missing?) is disappointingly revealed to be tied to the identity of the Front Man.
Rather than explain In-ho’s rise to prominence – and his presumed connection to Il-nam – at any point, Squid Game instead rushes through the final moments of Front Man to get to its final episode, which has a laundry list of priorities, the sixth (and titular) game seemingly least among them. Which, as “One Lucky Day” plays out, is a supreme bummer: the palpable tension of Sang-woo and Gi-hun’s beautifully scripted final fight, the culmination of a decades-long friendship between two men essentially fighting to save their mothers (nobody yells “Martha!” at any point, thank God), is undercut immediately by the show’s infatuation with meaning and mystery.
Once we skip ahead in time, so much of Squid Game‘s potent emotional storytelling has fallen by the wayside; after all, 95% of its characters are now dead, the journeys of debt-riddled marriages, cowardly con men, and traumatized immigrants traded for cat and mouse game with the audience. Which, once Gi-hun shows up at Il-nam’s bed and gets the explanation for Why Things Are, is just a real fucking bummer of a way to end a great series.
On one hand, it is a brave and exciting move to repurpose Il-nam’s character at the very last second; a rich fucker pretending to play in pit of suffering most humans suffer through existence in, is a powerful visual representation of how those in power present themselves to those who aren’t, and how their marginalized identities and existences become a playground for the 1%. However, the glaring obviousness of this final twist (and particularly, how it is telegraphed in the final episode) ultimately sacrifices the most emotionally poignant sequence of the series – the end of “Gganbu” – for the sake of twisting the knife into the audience just one more time (as if Gi-hun returning home to find his dead mother and having to lie to Sang-woo’s mother wasn’t punishment enough). This, in turn,leads to an even more disappointing final image, when Gi-hun abandons his entire purpose – his daughter – to further uncover the shadowy, shapeless mysteries of the The Game.
Quite frankly, who gives a flying fuck about how In-ho won the game in 2015 and ascended to the role of Front Man, or who designed the labryinthe, ant colony hallways of The Game’s compound? It seems Squid Man is barely interested in them itself, given they are mostly wistful nods towards stories that don’t actually exist, rather than coherent (or even incoherently tantalizing) suggestions of a larger world at play. At some point, it felt like creator and writer Hwang Dong-hyuk realized the potential of his premise, and was compelled to make it expand: while I’m all for shows with secret, organ-stealing trapdoors, a biting critique of economic disparity, and a sick-nasty visual aesthetic, where Squid Game chooses to stretch and reshape its initial premise is supremely disappointing.
Dong-hyuk has said potential future seasons could possibly focus more on the Front Man and the Korean police, both of which feel tertiary to what makes Squid Game great – more importantly, it blatantly reveals that many of these dangling plot threads were intentional, as Squid Game caused such emotional trauma (Dong-hyuk has said he lost six teeth during writing and production) it is clear there was no concrete direction the show was setting up for in a potential second season. While I appreciate creators trying to build in a little job security into their shows, how Squid Game expands on itself – and presents potential opportunities for the future – is decidedly anemic, ending one of the year’s great series on a strangely underwhelming final note.