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.
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.