When Squid Game was first described to me, I heard comparisons with The Hunger Games. After watching it. I understood. Both had the word Game in the title. Both shared some themes: poverty, control, survival. Both were global successes and tapped into the zeitgeist of what we were all thinking about which was killing each other.
I’ve seen these types of every-person-for-themselves action dramas before. After watching the first episode I was satisfied. It could have ended there and have been a chilling end to an intriguing short film. Of course, it didn’t end there. There were eight more episodes in the season. And sure, the writers could have kept the story going with each episode being a game, with characters being sacrificed, and the protagonist making it to the end. That’s all easy to predict. But then Episode 2 happened.
If you haven’t seen Squid Game yet… I must warn you that there will be spoilers. With that being said allow me to quickly sum up Episode 2, Hell:
After surviving the first game of Red Light, Green Light, the remaining 201 players vote to decide whether they want to continue playing or forfeit the money and return to their normal lives. With one person left determining the vote, the old man, number 001, votes to go home. Back in Seoul, the contestants attempt to survive a different game. In addition to the protagonist, Gi-hun, the story now follows an additional five other players from the Game, as well as establish a B plot with the police officer, Jun Ho. The episode follows the characters as they confront the challenges of their lives whether it’s getting money to pay for surgery, evading arrest for fraud, getting a sibling out of an orphanage, avoiding unpaid debts, or fleeing after horribly mutilating a corrupt boss. In the end, all six characters decide that their only choice is to return to the game and try their luck.
Episode 2 is pretty straightforward. It’s the characters jumping out of the pan, but into the fire. It’s one of those episodes where we follow multiple characters’ storylines with multiple story arcs. However, this episode is critical for us to continue to watch Squid Game. It’s this episode that made it an international phenomenon. Without this episode, it would be another gimmicky violent thriller, a derivative of many others. So while I understand the comparison with The Hunger Games, it is this episode, for me, that makes Squid Game something unto itself.
Enhance the Viewer’s Participation
We might not be the VIPs, but every one of us watching Squid Game is making a bet subconsciously. We wonder who will make it to the end. We can safely guess that Gi-hun will be there; he’s the protagonist, after all. But who would challenge him in the finale?
Like the tale of the tape, we need to know the strengths and weaknesses of the contestants before we can make a solid decision. That is why before we watch a boxing or MMA fight, we often follow the little documentaries and listen to the interviews of the fighters to see what drives them.
Episode 2 branches out, and allows us to examine the five other contestants in a familiar environment. What are their values? How risk-averse are they? What do they have at stake? How do they treat others?
This is what makes the show so appealing because it taps into the psyche of so many of us during these trying times. Some of us have made bad decisions, some of us are feeling vengeful, some of us are desperate, but all of us are struggling. We can all relate to one of the six characters that the show follows. We all see positives and negatives in these characters that we can attribute to ourselves.
This episode, allows us to make an educated guess and understand these characters. Yet, this episode still retains the unpredictability of the story and keeps the viewer invested, as much as a sports fan would when cheering for their team.
Present the Alternative
Episode 2 shows us a completely alternate show. If they were to never return to the Squid Game, we could continue following these characters in this hellish world, and it will probably still be entertaining.
Would it be an international sensation? No, but it would still be a respectable show with complex characters surviving thrilling scenarios.
Episode 2 doesn’t only show the characters how terrible their realities are, it shows us, the viewers, something we are familiar with. Episode 2 has rules we all understand. Episode 2 cleanses our palettes before we start the main course. Episode 2 prepares us for all the violence and bloodshed that the show has left to offer. Episode 2 gives us time to tell ourselves… “Okay… I could stop here… this isn’t my thing.”
By allowing this little moment for us all to breathe, we can brace for all the drama and tension to come. If you open with a bang… you don’t follow up with another bang… you follow up with a breath. Episode 2 is a lesson in pacing.
Reinforce the Theme
Squid Game is a show about making choices. Making choices to join, making choices during the games, making choices with alliances, making choices to give mercy or kill.
Episode 2 maintains that theme. It’s all about characters making choices. In the beginning, they choose whether to leave and in the end, they choose whether to return. Scene after scene, in between, we witness characters making key decisions.
Yet… wait… at the beginning they ask to leave and at the end, they return? Wasn’t it all kind of pointless? Does any of the choices even matter?
One of the greatest questions in philosophy is whether free will exist. Is everything already pre-determined? Are we merely floating through space and time at the whim of the universe? Does any of it matter?
At the end of the season, we hear the contestants being referred to as horses in a race. This reminded me of a saying I heard once — and I consider it when I think of free will: Horses don’t know we want them to go faster, they just know they’re being whipped.
Episode 2 is so brilliant because like all great philosophy it’s a bit of a contradiction.
If you like Squid Game, Episode 2 probably wouldn’t be your favorite episode. But Episode 2 is the summation of the story’s thesis. Episode 2 is the one episode you can skip and you wouldn’t miss any of the trademarks that make the show. However, you’d lose a layer of character development that takes the show from another gimmicky concept to a multi-layered character piece. And with that, the audience feels as though they are involved.
How did you feel about this episode? Do you think another episode was more critical? Let me know in the comments below.
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