Squid Game has nothing to say about inequality and free will, and its characters are a shallow combination of family and battlegrounds, loosely based on a ridiculously ridiculous premise.
If you know you may have watched Netflix’s South Korean puzzle box squid game by now, but you haven’t been lucky or prudent, here are a few things you might have been missing out on.
Captivating – though not particularly interesting – production designs and costumes, which you may have caught on social media. Escher-like stairs and overscaled, toy-chest décor — with monochromatic jumpsuits and forbidden masks — recall dystopian favorites like The Prisoner, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Netflix’s own Money Heist. His meme-preparation has clearly been a factor in the series’ staggering ubiquity since its September 17 premiere. (A second season hasn’t been announced, but it would be as unwise to bet against it as to rely on one of the show’s desperate schemers at a game of marbles.)
There’s also the element of gameplay, which has been the primary attraction for Teens in My Own House. The story’s hapless protagonist, sequestered on a remote island, is forced to play elaborately staged and deadly versions of childhood games familiar to some Western audiences (tug of war, red light-green light), and some, squid games. Including title, specific to Korea. Alliances form and change; Players reveal their true makeup; The losers are killed immediately. The six games, spanning nine episodes, invoke the more purely kinetic pleasures of reality-TV competitions — survivor with the gun — and televised sports and esports.
But what is the squid game about? When you look behind the ornament and the verbiage, one thing you see is a totally traditional, and totally predictable, band-of-Brothers-and-Sisters melodrama. The game’s central group of players is straight out of the Hollywood war-movie playbook: the strong and silent leader, the moody outsider, the violent thug, the kind-hearted old man, and the gentle naff who serves as the audience’s surrogate. They’re a dirty half dozen or so, and there’s no surprise in their progress through the story. They die in exactly the order you’d expect, based on their importance to the mechanics of the plot.
This kind of prediction is practically a norm in squid games, so much so that it seems intentional. The identity of the masked Game Master, known as the Front Man, is clear for most of the season, although it is considered a mystery. A particularly sympathetic character’s death is judged off-screen, unusual in a show that emphasizes stoically graphic murder, a handy sign that the person will reappear. A wrinkle in the Marbles Game’s structure—a plot device that helped make the sixth episode egregious, embarrassingly manipulative, and also made it a favorite of viewers and critics alike—can be seen coming from a kilometer away.
The striking visuals, the awe-inspiring vibe of the games, the appeal of science fiction and mystery elements, and the reassuring familiarity of horror storytelling formulas all contribute, I’m sure, to the popularity of the Squid game. (Given Netflix’s reluctance to share numbers, its actual viewership is a bigger mystery than anything else on the show.) But what probably tops it is the aspect of the series that I disliked the most. Does: Its pretense of contemporary social relevance, a thin veneer of relevance meant to justify the incredible carnage that is the show’s most distinctive feature.
The game’s players – an unemployed autoworker, a North Korean refugee, a fraudulent investor – are all indebted, brought down by circumstance and weakness, and enough to participate in kill-or-kill scenarios devised by the unseen. A desperate but possibly autocratic producer of the show. (The potential payoff, accumulating in glass balls when competitors are eliminated, is in the tens of millions of dollars.) The setup is a commentary on South Korea’s rigid class stratification, and a very clear metaphor: the Korean economy losing out in the rigged game. In the U.S., players have a chance of winning in the (supposedly) more merit-based, egalitarian arena of the squid game, but at an almost certain risk of death.
But there is a difference between referencing something and actually publishing it, or using it authentically as the basis for human drama.
(The cast members, led by South Korean stars Lee Jung-Jae and Park Hee-soo, act bravely, and with some success, to give players a real shade of emotion.) Its goal, at the moment, is a common one. Acknowledge yourself with your audience by affirming your accepted views. Like another recent South Korean hit, Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, the show does this with room additions.
And what it does achieve is certainly to provide cover for the violence, which is much more than mildly ill-advised in its scale, its graphic presentation, and its calculated redundancy. Just before the protagonist, Gi-Hyun (Lee), playing the Titanic game with a steak knife sticking out of his hand in the final episode, I’ve had enough.
Apologetics might argue that the murder has aesthetic and thematic resonance, combining business dispatch and cartoonish exaggeration, but nothing on screen supports that. There is little fear and less emotion, only the logical satisfaction of the body matters.
Squid Game director and writer, Hwang Dong-hyuk, is a feature film producer (The Fortress, Silenced) making his TV series debut. He and his cameramen keep the story legible and the images regularly composed well, and he stages the action with sluggish ability. But they do not have a distinctive style, which is particularly noticeable as the series is clearly a return to a slightly earlier generation of South Korean films by directors such as Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-Duk, whose stylistic panache. And the Mardant Wisdom allowed them to make the extreme violence feel like an organic element in their stories. In the squid game, it’s just empty, bloody calories.