“Squid Game” is Netflix’s most well-watched show to date — for good reason.

The South Korean survivalist thriller follows the desperate, financially ruined as they compete to the death in a series of children's games. The prize: 45.6 billion-won ($38 billion).

Lee Jung-jae is player 456 Gi-hun, a gambling addict continually hunted by loan sharks. At times, he seems childlike, screaming “gosh” and “darn” in frustration. Other times, he’s sick, desperate and swindling loved ones.

From left, Park Hae-soo and Lee Jung-jae star in Netflix's "Squid Game."
Contributed / netflix.com
From left, Park Hae-soo and Lee Jung-jae star in Netflix's "Squid Game." Contributed / netflix.com

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Gi-hun shifts from cringeworthy caricature to naive and cluelessly altruistic, his character becoming an odd anchor as the competition devolves into further insanity.

Park Hae-soo is Player 218, Sang-woo, childhood friend to Gi-hun and neighborhood prodigy/business whiz. Park’s portrayal of ambivalence and inner conflict is confounding and so interesting to watch.

Jung Hoyeon is Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector and studied pickpocket whose hard-fought lack of trust works for and against her. A Korean fashion model by trade, Jung expertly transforms and emits this character’s fear and perseverance, and Sae-byeok’s blooming emotion is a revelation in storytelling and performance.

From left Jung Hoyeon plays pick-pocket Sae-byeok and Lee Yoo-mi is a seemingly apathetic peer Ji-yeong in "Squid Game."

Contributed / netflix.com
From left Jung Hoyeon plays pick-pocket Sae-byeok and Lee Yoo-mi is a seemingly apathetic peer Ji-yeong in "Squid Game." Contributed / netflix.com

After feeding us the despicable, filmmaker Hwang Dong-hyuk (“Silenced”) exhibits surprisingly devastating and painstaking beautiful moments of grace that balance the muck and raise the bar. (See Episode 6.)

In highlighting the despair of the deeply indebted, Dong-hyuk — who wrote and directed all nine episodes — illuminates the desperation that drives these characters to this competition and their consent in gambling their bodies as a last commodity.

Ageism, sexism and ableism are well-exposed, as well as the lifesaving wisdom among the marginalized. In the game, it doesn’t matter who you were before, there’s equality in debt and death.

It took Dong-hyuk a decade to create his capitalism satire. After the cryptocurrency boom, the rise of Google and Donald Trump’s presidency, Hwang told Indiewire it was time.

“The concept itself was not realistic at the time 10 years ago. It was too bizarre and people thought it wouldn’t be a money-making film. … But 10 years had passed and for Netflix … they have less restrictions, so I could go about my own way,” he said.

As it should, the set design in Netflix's "Squid Game" screams playground for sadists.

Contributed / netflix.com
As it should, the set design in Netflix's "Squid Game" screams playground for sadists. Contributed / netflix.com

Tension rises as the series progresses, and players must navigate changing conditions and setups. The music is modern, bright and taunting as is the set design, juxtaposing the gore against Crayon-clouded wallpaper and neon-purple hallways.

And as the players dig deeper, viewers no doubt join a game themselves in trying to solve the series’ mysteries.

The series is dubbed in five languages, with subtitles in six. Do yourself a favor and opt for the subtitles for Episode 1, if nothing else.

“Squid Game” is an intense and quality ride until the end.

The seemingly brewing climax appeared diffused, as if in the last couple of episodes, Dong-hyuk adjusted his script last-minute to make way for a potential and unnecessary second season. The move felt so disorienting and out of tune with the rest of it, this viewer wondered if another filmmaker had taken the reins. (They had not.)

Save for the sputtering, disappointing ending, this viewer regrets nothing. And, if you’re into top-notch pacing, plot and performances, for the most part, “Squid Game” is worth playing.

'Squid Game'

Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Jung Hoyeon, Park Hae-soo

Writer/director: Hwang Dong-hyuk

Time: 9 episodes, 32-62 minutes

Rating: TV-MA for violence, gore

Available: Netflix

Melinda Lavine
Melinda Lavine

Melinda Lavine is a features reporter and movie reviewer for the News Tribune. Write to her at mlavine@duluthnews.com.