When Squid Game debuted on Netflix in 2021, I anticipated its popularity, but I didn't foresee it would become such a massive hit.
Squid Game, a dark fantasy by Hwang Dong-hyuk, cleverly wove a strong critique of capitalism into a sadistic competition. In the series, financially struggling individuals vie for a chance at 4.56 billion won (around $38 million) by participating in seemingly simple children's games, such as carving an umbrella from a cookie with failure resulting in cold and undignified deaths.
In Squid Game: The Challenge, Netflix transforms Hwang Dong-hyuk's fiercely anti-capitalist K-drama into a reality game show, except for the lethal consequences, (of course). Initially, the prospect of Squid Game: The Challenge sounded distasteful but then curiosity and anticipation kicked in.
The premiere echoes the K-drama's eerie atmosphere, introducing participants awaiting pickup for the competition.
The confessionals serve as the primary storytelling device from which we can glimpse the thought process of random participants and decide if we are rooting for them or not.
We first meet Starla (Player 318), who expresses the struggles of facing a recession, working without pay, yet holding onto the dream of clearing debts. It's a bleak picture.
We arrive at the debut challenge, "Red Light, Green Light," which reintroduces the towering robot doll, Chantal. The vast group of 456 people in green tracksuits floods the playground, nervously facing red-tracksuit-clad facilitators and waiting for the game to start. Here both the audience and the players get to see the grand set design, which eerily mirrors the movie and we all marvel at the replica of it all.
I found myself wondering once or twice if the set used was in fact the real movie set.
More players are introduced. There’s the mother-son duo, LeAnn (302) and Trey (301). There’s a best-friend duo of Stephen (243) and Chase (242), there is Jada (97) and then we are also introduced to Bryton (432), whose confessional statement “sympathy is only a weakness” clearly establishes that we are in for a ride with this one. A real tool.
In case you have forgotten, here is a quick refresher, the premise of Squid Game’s “Red Light, Green Light,” is as follows: When Chantal the doll turns her gaze away and recites her phrase, race towards the finish line, when she stops reciting her phrase and turns her head towards you, stay still. Do this quickly and cross the finish line before the clock runs out.
The game starts. And everyone makes a break for the finish line.
Immediately, interesting strategies emerge, from sideways skipping to lying on the floor, all to avoid elimination. Whatever your strategy is, just be quick with it before Chantel turns so you don’t find yourself in the impossible position of Player 385, who froze mid-squat and gave up when she couldn’t hold the pose anymore.
The game symbolizes "death" through exploding ink packs, creating theatrical but tasteless moments of players keeling over in symbolic death.
Chantal completes her first recitation and turns.
In sequences of pop pop sounds, exploding ink packs and the scene cutting to the eliminated players, Starla (318) is among the first players eliminated, Chase (242) also goes down leaving his best friend Stephen (243) devastated, as a plethora of other unidentified players are caught moving in Chantal’s gaze and eliminated too.
This first wave of elimination of players quickly establishes the harsh reality of the show: anyone can be swiftly ousted. Even the characters you think are significant because you just saw their confessionals.
Player 107 is the first person to cross the finish line, followed by a wave of other players including Trey, whose joy is quickly tempered when he remembers that his mother, LeAnn, is still behind the finish line.
“I did this because of her, I wanted her and I to have an experience, and she might not make it.” Trey narrates in his confessional pulling at our heartstrings.
LeAnn finally makes it and in a slow-motion embrace, Mother and son are reunited. Also crossing the finish line are abrasive Bryton (432) and Lorenzo (161), mullet Stephen (243) without his best friend, Jada (97), another mullet named Kyle (101), and many others. The survivors celebrate in relief, with the exception of player (66), the lone player left behind the line when the clock ran out. Pop.
Transitioning to the dormitory living space, a mirror image of the living space in the TV show, alliances form quickly, and cliques solidify.
Bryton (432) finds and assembles his team of fellow jocks. Trey and LeAnn stick together (naturally), The two mullets, Stephen (243) and Kyle (101) find each other and are soon joined by other men, among them is Rick (232), a retired physician and endearing grandpa. This clique call themselves gbangu Korean slang for buddy.
The doors open, and red tracksuits march in. Time to take stock. A screen at the front of the room quickly runs down the player count: 197.
This means that 259 players were eliminated in the first challenge. The giant piggy bank descends from the ceiling and money pours in: each eliminated player represents $10,000. The prize pot now stands at $2.59 million. The survivors cheer. This is morbid. But I cant stop watching.
The group is informed of future challenges and character tests, which will provide opportunities for players to grant others advantages; or chances to eliminate players, this is the game’s drive to foster a social game on top of the physical challenges.
LeAnn, a direct and no-nonsense personality doesn’t seem to have any qualms about dispatching anybody if she has to eliminate them, she makes this clear to her son Trey. And just like most people in the dorm, her first target would most likely be Bryton (432), who’s rubbing people off the wrong way, openly cultivating a clique of jockeys and generally being abrasive.
“My personality is outgoing, it’s almost selfish because I love myself so much.” He says in his confessional. Bryton is both interesting and annoying. A classic reality TV villain.
Banking exclusively on his strength and athleticism, he couldn’t be bothered with playing nice and we are all clamouring to see just how far that attitude takes him in a competition that also features social aspects.
Time for chores. As the players settle into a semblance of temporary life in the dormitory, we find Dani (134) and mullet Kyle (101), peeling carrots (rather badly) in the kitchen. Kyle and Dani are making small talk when an announcement kicks in: they’ve been selected to take the first test of character. Grant one player an advantage or eliminate someone.
The choice will be anonymous and announced the next day.
The two players quickly dismiss the option of granting an advantage to another player, assuming that no one would reciprocate if put in their position. Opting to eliminate someone, they contemplated potential targets: Bryton the abrasive, one of the mother-son duo, and Mothi (200), who they perceived as becoming too friendly with everyone, a social advantage. They returned back into the main dorm area, attempting to conceal their guilt over essentially committing a form of "murder" within the game. Kyle seemed particularly suspicious, and Dani's demeanour only slightly softened the situation
During mealtime, red tracksuits distribute containers of rice. Players are instructed to take only one container. However, Lorenzo (161), pulls a sly move as he takes one rice container, hides it under his pillow, and returns to the line for another. Later on, he also scavenged leftovers from other people. Jada notices all these and is appalled.
In the confessional, Lorenzo adorned in a knitted dress and hat embellished with daisies, delivers his perspective: "At the end of the day, we are not here to play fair. We are here to play a game, and I’m going to play by any rule that I want." I must admit, that’s a philosophy that, in the context of this game seems quite understandable.
However, is that a winning strategy? Considering the competition's social dynamics which gives random players power to eliminate like it gave Dani and Kyle. Such powers are explicitly designed to provoke players to act on grudges.
Lorenzo and Bryton appear similar in their approach—both unconcerned with diplomacy or courtesy. Personally, they are entertaining but I'm betting against their win in this game.
Bedtime comes with the snoring noises that are bound to happen when 194 people are sharing a room. The lights go out, and we see Bryton, unable to sleep, doing push-ups in the dark.
In the morning, as everyone was adjusting and acquainting themselves, the red tracksuits made their reappearance. The time had come to reveal who Dani and Kyle had secretly chosen to eliminate. Shockingly, it was Mothi (200)! His crime? Being too friendly.
This choice seemed illogical to me compared to the other potential targets. Eliminating Bryton could have removed a physical threat, and breaking up the unbreakable alliance between Trey and LeAnn could have made strategic sense. But axing Mothi felt like a pre-emptive move against a future that hadn't unfolded yet. Nevertheless, Dani and Kyle's decision set a blunt and harsh tone: Friendliness itself might be a punishable offence. The room was filled with shock as Mothi's weight in cash was added to the prize pool, and many expressed their disapproval with boos. Kyle attempted to justify his feelings, while Dani admitted feeling remorse but acknowledged the monetary gain for the group.
It’s time for the next challenge as the players are led through the colourful Escher staircases, leading to a white room. Instructed to form four lines, the first players from each line, Players 166, 328, 98, and 170, are selected to enter the next room. While the room applauds their entry, a perceptive player voices suspicions that something fishy is about to go down. And they are not wrong.
As anticipated by most players and I'm sure the audience, the challenge introduces the Dalgona, or cookie, task.
The premise of the Dalgona (Cookie) task is as follows: Participants receive a delicate sugar cookie with an etched shape and must fully extract the shape using a needle. Any cracks or breaks on the shapes disqualify them. The catch: there are four shapes—a circle, a triangle, a star, and an umbrella—where the umbrella, with its intricate curves, poses the greatest challenge.
Given two minutes to assign shapes, disagreement arises among the selected four with no player wanting to choose the umbrella. Their attempts to resolve the allocation through arguments do not produce a result, as reaching a consensus among strangers proves challenging. They resort to an arbitrary "guy, girl, guy, girl" sequence, which Player 328 disputes by choosing the star. Ultimately, Player 98 refuses to cooperate, allowing the time to run out.
To everyone’s absolute shock, all four players are eliminated, leaving the waiting lines of players in disbelief. The pressure mounts on the next four players—454, 378, 321, 288—to avoid selecting the umbrella. Player 288 suggests a foot race as an alternative resolution, but this too dissolves into an argument and time elapsing without a consensus, resulting in their elimination too.
A recap of episode 2 coming soon.