Calamari Brain

It took Dr. SJ and me three tries to make it through the first episode of the new “phenomenon” Netflix series “Squid Games.” We found it repugnant. We found nothing likeable about the characters. We were repulsed by the violence. We were not, to be clear, fans of the show.

I mentioned this on the twitters and was told by a follower I respect that it went on to be inspirational, an exploration of human motivations and growth, greed v. fear v. life situations for people who had never been exposed to inhumanity. I wasn’t persuaded, but I told him I hoped it had a less nihilist message than appeared.

Frank Bruni also questions why this nightmarish series has become to popular.

Here’s the plot: Economically desperate South Koreans agree to be imprisoned in a remote, bizarre arena where they compete in adult versions of children’s games whose losers are slaughtered. Aware of the stakes, they elect to continue “playing” because they’ve been promised a future-changing amount of prize money if they prevail and because their existences beyond the arena are just as dehumanizing.

In fact, the episode of “Squid Game” titled “Hell” isn’t about the competition, in which one false move equals a bullet to the head. It’s about life outside the arena. It’s about a putatively affluent society in which the divide between rich and poor — and between lucky and unlucky — is gaping. To land on the wrong side of it is to be damned.

I have an issue with part of this description, and it matters because the line drawn between rich and poor, which becomes the line drawn between life and death, isn’t about the lucky and unlucky. Not at all. The protagonist of the show who becomes a player in the game isn’t unlucky. He’s a “lazy, degenerate gambler” who takes the money his mother gives him to buy dinner for his estranged daughter’s birthday and loses it at the horse track, where he’s found by his loan shark and beaten for not repaying his debt.

The supporting game players include a guy who received the best graduate business education South Korea had to offer and used it to defraud his customers, while another is low-rent gangster. In another time, these might not be the heroes of the show, the people we’re rooting for. But here, there’s some mystical masked, omnipotent person who makes the games happen, dangling money over the heads of these dehumanized “unlucky” souls to put their lives at risk for…his amusement? I don’t know because I haven’t watched enough of the show to get to the punch line.

But the fact that this series has captured the imagination of so many terrifies Bruni. Me too. The “Times Picks” in the comments helped me to understand why.


Let me venture a guess in that you’d probably label the children in Charles Dicken’s tale, “Oliver Twist,” as no good scoundrels and petty criminals who deserve no empathy. That’s the difference between focusing on the individuals living in a cruel society as deserving no empathy versus critiquing the entire system as corrupt as most sociologists would label Victorian society at the time. In a free-market Capitalist society one is thought to be noble if they are to inherit a large home, property, jewelry, cars & other creature comforts through trust funds or other legal tax avoidance schemes versus those born out of wedlock who struggle to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and sometimes are only human who become addicted to gambling or other escapist hobbies. It is telling that usually the comfortable class interprets societal status quo as fair versus those who’ve been dealt a bad hand.

Shadow Bancroft:

This comment is a classic example of defenders of the economic status quo instinctively defaulting to victim blaming in the face of criticism of the system. The fact of the matter is that countless people end up in poverty through no fault of their own.


Interesting that you’ve focused on this rather than the corruption, decadence, and degeneracy of the VIPs for whom the game is organized. Seems like for people that rich, corruption and depravity, even terrible financial decisions and cavalier gambling, never seem to “catch up with them”… hmmm…

But the “Times Pick” comment from “Anita” seemed especially revealing.

I have not seen Squid Games, but your description reminds me of the themes from the Korean film “Parasite.” For those of us exhausted from being told how great America is when it clearly is a horrific, violent, brutally unforgiving, impoverished society with the bleakest future imaginable, it’s refreshing to see that reality reflected in art. It means someone, somewhere sees us, sees the truth, and is willing to say so. There’s comfort in truth, as it has been in short supply for a very long time.

Anita didn’t see “Squid Games,” not that it prevented her from having an opinion she needed to express, because she had her overarching belief and it had to come out: America “clearly is a horrific, violent, brutally unforgiving, impoverished society with the bleakest future imaginable” and this bizarre dystopian drama reflected reality in art. This was her “truth.”

The fans of the series are given a choice between bad and worse, but they conflate misfortunates with miscreants. That they side with bad over worse is no surprise, and reflects the political choices we’ve faced for a while. But the pessimism and hopelessness of Anita’s (and the many who “recommended” her characterization of America as worse than hell) comment combined with the failure to grasp that their heroes only “virtue” is not being “lucky” enough to be on the side doing the killing rather than be killed, explains the series popularity and why hatred, failure and wallowing in misery hold greater attraction for some than hope, effort and personal responsibility.

When he was president, Jimmy Carter said America was suffering from malaise. The popularity of this horrible series suggests we’re suffering from something far worse. Hopelessness.

I don’t know whether Dr. SJ and I will finish the series. In the meantime, we watched Ted Lasso on Hulu. I’m told that’s more of an old man show, but then, I’m an old man.

40 thoughts on “Calamari Brain

  1. Turk

    As it happens, we watched the first episode last night. I knew nothing at all about it. I also refuse to read reviews, yours being the first. I hate spoilers.

    But we are going to go forward with another episode, based on little more than faith. Given the enormous popularity of show, I’ve been told, I’m going to have faith that the dystopian set up from the first show will have rewards later on.

    This ain’t the Kaminsky Method (highly recommended), that’s for sure.

    1. David Meyer-Lindenberg

      My girlfriend and I loved the first two seasons of The Kominsky Method. And then… whatever that was happened. We were so excited to finally find a Chuck Lorre product that didn’t suck.

  2. Guitardave

    “But the fact that this series has captured the imagination of so many terrifies Bruni. Me too.”

    Me three.

    “When you’re entertained by other peoples
    pain and misery, you’ve lost your way.”

    Some wanker with a guitar on the internet

    1. Rxc

      We already have one enormous broadcasting corporation dedicated to guilt and suffering – NPR/PBS – and the two newspapers-of-record are working on joining them.

      Ghoulish entertainment sells.

  3. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Here’s my opinion: I haven’t seen Squid Game either. I hope this revelation will provoke a stimulating discussion.

    I remain, sir, yours faithfully,

  4. Quinn Martindale

    If you’re repulsed by the violence, I wouldn’t continue the show. If you’re repulsed by the characters, I would give it another episode or two.

    The show has a clear class politics – the decadent hyper-wealthy exploit the poor and middle class. But, as you note, the show heavily features the undeserving poor. Many, not all, contestants make bad or cruel choices that result in them choosing to play. Even so, the show is explicitly not nihilist. One major theme is the ability of people to help each other in desperate situations.

  5. Jake

    One Saturday night, when I was 5 years old, I was once left sitting on my grandmother’s basement floor in front of a television with a few filthy, second-hand toys. The TV, connected to a stolen cable line, was tuned to HBO. My father, who had a penchant for intravenous drug use, was unconscious and drooling on the couch behind me. Eventually, the Exorcist came on, and, paralyzed and electrified with fear, I watched the entire thing. I’ve never cared for the horror genre since and haven’t seen the Squid Game either. However, your comments this morning do offer a tiny perch, upon which a meaningful exchange of ideas might be built.

    Based on what you can deduce from this story, would you categorize my childhood as lucky or unlucky?

      1. SHG Post author

        Jake called my bluff, and so I must fulfill my responsibility.

        Lucky, compared to those 5-year-olds who had no parent, no family, no home, no filthy, second-hand toys, no TV and stolen cable line to watch on it. Lucky compared to those 5-year-olds whose parents beat them, whose uncle sexually molested them, whose mother sold them so she could get a fix. Lucky compared to those children who never reached their fifth birthday because they were caught in the crossfire of some gangbangers fighting over turf. Lucky to have been born in America where you were able to go to school, to learn, to find it within yourself to work to become something and to have achieved, despite your genetic predisposition to drooling, the great success you’ve become.

        There were luckier children than you, but you were, indeed, lucky.

        1. Jake

          “There were luckier children than you, but you were, indeed, lucky.” You may be surprised to know, I agree.

          Having only been exposed to dear old dad 1x a week, when he remembered to take advantage of his visitation rights, I believe I was far more influenced by watching my crippled mother crawl up and down the stairs to our cramped apartment so she could get to work and put some bread on the table. Witnessing all that struggle taught me to get up and go to work, no matter what, and that was fortunate, as the world we live in rewards hard workers, even if they are a little dull in the faculties.

          Now that we’ve established luck exists, and before this exchange is over, I hope you will consider the role luck might have played in the life of a ‘lazy, degenerate gambler’ – as you put it, a welfare queen, a homeless person, or, even a wealthy, powerful attorney.

          1. SHG Post author

            You’ve made an erroneous assumption, dear Jake. The issue was never whether luck exists, but what one does with it or despite it.

            1. Jake

              Ahh, leaving only, the degree to which luck shall influence how our lives turn out. Well, I’ll turn a whole card.

              As I think you know, I believe I was lucky to be born just smart enough to succeed, lucky to be born 20 years before the world experienced an overwhelming shortage of people with professional skills that just happened to overlap with my interests, and lucky to have some good examples in my life. Including you. L’Chaim.

            2. SHG Post author

              We all experience luck, Jake. We are not, however, slaves to luck. We have free will. We make choices. We can’t control our luck, but we are entirely responsible for the choices we make.

    1. Drew Conlin

      Jake, I know you take a lot of heat here; but you can take it. Any 5 Yr old that could sit thru any movie for its entirety is almost not believable. Note I said almost.
      As I am here able to respond as are you I am lucky and grateful. Hope you feel the same.

  6. CLS

    Ted Lasso is a damn fine show in comparison.

    It’s given me an excuse to chat with a friend across the pond about football.

    I’ll take another season of Ted Lasso over this Squid Game crap any day.

  7. Jay

    ah it’s always nice to open the old feedreader and find that greenfield has written a “kids today!” post. My favorite.

  8. PseudonymousKid

    I meant to stay in my room but then you bring up this show. Those desperate people are despicable, yes, but they still retain their humanity. No matter what they did, they don’t deserve what is clearly being done to them. They are despicable because they are desperate and desperate because they are despicable. It’s a vicious cycle. You shouldn’t judge them as a group, though, because some “players” may have purer motivations than others. Maybe the despicable people rise to the fore because we don’t help the “good” desperate people enough and the despicable people are willing to do what it takes regardless of abhorrent things like “morality”. A safety net is better than blood sport, I guess. I can snidely say it misses making a clear point which leaves room for my takes, but the characters and acting and art were enjoyable enough if you can stomach the gore.

    I could also suggest the show is criticizing people who enjoy the bloody spectacle by creating a self-critical bloody spectacle, but that’s too neat a circle for much discussion and not really an argument for anyone participating in the whole thing.

    1. SHG Post author

      Did you think I was suggesting that slaughtering hundreds of Koreans for bad acting was a good thing in real life?

  9. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I haven’t seen it, and don’t plan to, but I’m with Anita. Being exhausted is an irrefutable argument.


    What struck me about the show – I could barely make it through the first episode myself – is the theme of the terror of consequences. No one in the show has the slightest hesitation in being the worst person they can be. “Character development” isn’t a sufficient argument either – I’m not going to empathize with a character that needed to have a gun put to his head to be a slightly better person.

    No one is satisfied to just be poor. No one I’ve heard talking about the film in literary criticism wonders about the casual heroism of the person who turned down the Squid Game and kept working a nine-to-five, because they’ve got families to take care of. It’s just about losers, greater and lesser.

    It’s not a story that holds my interest.

  11. JMK

    Why so surprised by this? I don’t have any difficulty envisioning this in real life—in fact they could cut the prize down significantly and still have plenty of takers. Not just “low class” or desperate people, either. People from all walks would likely line up to compete.

    Other than the visceral images, this really isn’t much more than Steven King’s old short story “The Long Walk” mated with modern reality TV.

    As an aside, I would suggest to Miss Anita that if there is any artistic reflection to be found in Korean language programs made in South Korea by Koreans, it’s probably not aimed at the United States.

  12. Ray

    Personally, I don’t need the images of this kind of show placed in my brain. I think it does say something about us as a society that this kind of television would draw enough of an audience to have it on Netflix. Better to spend the time reading a good book.

  13. Dan J

    I watched the show last week, and kept waiting for it to get good. I was disappointed. But I felt the same way about Sopranos and Game of Thrones. People like “shocking” and often confuse it with “good.”

Comments are closed.