Squid Game is the hugely successful Netflix series that premiered in 2021. Reported to be the number one viewed Netflix show in multiple countries and seen by 140 million subscribers and counting, it’s a nine-episode mini-tv series with deadly game elements found in Saw (2004) along with wider, dystopian themes found in the Hunger Games (2012).
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The following article contains spoilers. ̶P̶l̶a̶y̶e̶r̶s̶. Readers have been warned…
What is Squid Game about?
In Squid Game, several hundred desperate South Korean residents agree to partake in a series of childhood games with the chance to win an enormous cash prize. What they come to realise is that the penalty for losing is death.
The Hero’s Journey
Most Hollywood films attempt to follow the hero’s journey. This story structure, first proposed by the academic Joseph Campbell, was embraced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Their success with Star Wars and Jaws in the 1970s, propelled the methodology through the screenwriting community. Multiple books followed which made the theory spread and added further layers of advice.
While most accept that these are guidelines and not rules, there has been a tendency to consider them as necessary. In what has probably become a virtuous circle, the use of the hero’s journey as a successful template increased its use and tropes even further.
The legacy of Joseph Campbell
The hero’s journey is a reverse-engineered monomyth based on the study of ancient stories and revised by screenwriters such as Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder.
Joseph Campbell believed from his mythic studies that all stories could be distilled into a single episodic adventure – the monomyth. However, this simplification and its proliferation through Hollywood created a western-centric and often male-led formula.
It seems highly likely that American writers were also influenced by the two great texts carried by their forefathers: The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible. Hence, from the former we have a propensity of stories where the protagonist goes on a journey and the latter, the hero’s resurrection after death.
While the hero’s journey offers much flexibility – it’s been applied to multiple genres – it is biased by the pool of those that studied and applied it.
Squid Game offers a story with many elements that we recognise as pertaining to the hero’s journey.
But it does bring its own flavour and along with films such as Parasite (2019) – the Oscar winner in 2020 – offers tweaks to the classic hero’s journey stages.
The Hero’s Journey applied to Squid Game
So, let’s see how Squid Game is structured. It starts with our protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae:
The Ordinary World
Gi-Hun lives with his frail mother, in poverty. He has a weakness for gambling his money that he can ill afford to lose. He sees the best in people.
The Call to Adventure
Gi-Hun mets an enigmatic man who gives him an opportunity to win enough money to never have to work and can get the care his mother needs.
Crossing the First Threshold
Gi-Hun enters the Squid Game and plays ‘Red Light, Green Light’. He and the other players realise the true horror of the game.
Meeting with the Mentor
Gi-Hun, the last contestant, meets Oh Il-nam, played by Oh Yeong-Su, the first contestant. Gi-Hun realises that Oh Il-nam’s knowledge of children’s games gives him an advantage so decides to make a pact. However, Oh Il-nam is a false mentor – someone who appears to give good advice but ultimately is focussed on themselves rather than their pupil.
Refusal of the Call
The group votes on whether to end the game. The final vote is made by contestant number 1, Oh Il-nam, who votes to end the game despite having the least to lose, being very ill.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
They play more games and other players are lost. Gi-Hun and Il-nam form a team for protection as does everyone else. The other significant team is led by Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), a gangster and bully.
Approach to the Innermost Cave
The contestants are whittled down to two – Gi-Hun and his childhood friend, the investment banker Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo). They play the Squid Game.
Gi-Hun beats Cho Sang-woo but refuses to kill him. Cho Sang-woo kills himself rather than face the embarrassment of returning home and prison.
Gi-Hun wins the prize money.
The Road Back
Gi-Hun returns home but is too late to save his mother. He doesn’t spend the money and becomes a vagrant.
Gi-Hun finds out Il-nam is still alive and meets him on his deathbed. He finds out he is one of the game’s creators who believes that no one is selfless and therefore life isn’t something of value, so they can be used for the amusement of the rich. Gi-Hun disagrees and is proved right by a bet they make. Il-nam dies and we are not sure if he realised that he lost.
Return with the Elixir
Gi-Hun is rejuvenated by the win, starts spending (dyes his hair) and prepares to leave Korea. But at the last moment he turns back – we assume to stop further games from being played.
So, what’s different about Squid Game?.
The structure above is close to the classic hero’s journey.
One element is somewhat different – the refusal of the call. There is hesitation by Gi-Hun to phone the number on the business card but there is a much larger refusal by half the original consort.
This serves as a useful pause in the story. It prevents the story being somewhat frivolous and gives us the dilemma of: what would we do?
Half still want to go ahead. It’s left to Il-nam, one of the Squid Game creators, to give them a second chance to change their mind and turn their lives around through conventional means.
Writer-director’s Hwang Dong-hyuk story arcs
Perhaps this is a sociological comment on the difficulty of rising from poverty or the lures of quick wins, like those Gi-Hun likes to take.
One risk of being too focused on the hero’s journey as a template, is that you can neglect the story arcs of your other characters.
However, the writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk does a good job of ensuring that all the main characters have a fulfilling story of their own, even if it ultimately ends in their death. Of course, he has the advantage of the time afforded by a series of nearly nine hours rather than a two hour feature, but, nevertheless, it still takes great skill to make us care about each character and complete their arcs.
Archetypes are a useful shorthand method of describing fictional characters. Based on Jungian theory, they use well understood descriptors for individuals in stories. They are most visible in sitcoms and superhero films where the heightened reality of these worlds seems more accommodating to stereotypical representations of human behaviour.
In more complex drama, archetypes can provide a useful way for writers to ensure their characters change through the story.
So, for each Act of a story, by giving a name to the role they are fulfilling, either as an archetype or job title, you can check their progress. For example, in The Godfather (1972) Michael starts as a soldier, then becomes an assassin, before finishing as a mob boss.
Squid Game’s characters: classic archetypes
The Everyman: Seong Gi-hun
He is the main protagonist and, in some stories, would be a straight-out hero. But in this story, he’s the Everyman, representing the viewer’s path of discovery. Any of us could be him, tempted to take a risk to change our lives for the better.
Cho Sang-woo. Gi-hun’s friend from childhood. One might assume he has loyalty from their shared friendship. But Sang-woo is the Trickster. He stole from his employer and is deceitful throughout the game.
The Rebel: Ji-yeong
The Caregiver: Sae-byeok
Sae-byeok. The Caregiver. She killed her father who abused her and then takes Ji-yeong under her wing.
The Innocent: Abdul Alli
Abdul Ali played by Rama Vallury. A low-skilled migrant worker who is tricked by Sang-woo.
The Sage: Oh Il-nam
Oh Il-nam is wise, remembering many of the games he played as a child. The sage is often the mentor to the protagonist as he is in Squid Game. The mentor is usually replaced by his pupil, and this happens in dramatic fashion, with Gi-hun beating Il-nam in a game to the death.
The Ruler: Jang Deok-su
Jang Deok-su is in charge within the contestant pool through his physical presence and propensity for violence.
The Lover: Han Mi-nyeo
Han Mi-nyeo played by Kim Joo-Ryung uses her physical charms to inveigle herself but loses her own identity and is evicted.
The Hero: Hwang Jun-ho
Hwang Jun-ho played by Wi Ha-Joon is a detective trying to make the world better. He has the courage to infiltrate the game where a mistake could lead to his capture.
The Frontman: The Shadow
The Frontman (Tom Choi). The Shadow or mostly usually referred to as the antagonist. He’s in charge of the game.
Now, it’s unlikely that Dong-hyuk deliberately created a character for each archetype, but he might have.
The importance of family in Squid Game
One final reflection on Squid Game is its strong family element.
In some cases, we have actual family structures such as Gi-hun and his mother. But in many other cases, the relationships are like those of blood ties. The strongest family dynamic is that of two “brothers” – Gi-hun and Sang-woo – through their childhood friendship which is shown early in the series as they play the Squid Game. Their love and rivalry run throughout the story.
One benefit of a relationship with two people is that it allows the writer the opportunity to present the theme of the story from two sides.
The Hypothesis & The Antithesis
In Aristotelian terms, this would be the hypothesis and the antithesis. Or one view and its opposite. Gi-hun believes there is ultimately good in people and given a chance, they will make an ethical, selfless choice. Sang-woo believes in the opposite and puts himself first at every opportunity, even in death.
The use of familial structures, like archetypes, provides a shorthand for viewers, even if they are not aware of it. Many of us know that siblings are often different from each other and can one day be fighting and another day be playing happily.
There are others too. For example, Il-nam and Gi-hun – father and son or Mi-nyeo and Deok-su – husband and wife. But it’s the two brothers battling it out to end that fuels the main familial core of the story.
Squid Game Season 2: what happens next?
The first season of Squid Game ended with a suggested continuation through Gi-hun returning to the game.
Will it repeat the format that was so popular or change it? Will Gi-hun enter another game? Will Jun-ho return? And will the story follow the hero’s journey, bring a whole new set of archetypes and will there be a familial dynamic at its core?
It’s going to be exciting whichever way Squid Game creator Dong-hyuk chooses to play it…
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