I am currently three episodes into Netflix’s Squid Game, the South Korean smash hit drama series. Whilst it is brutal watching: bloody, shocking, plenty of tension, violence and gore, it is not brutal with no reason. No, it is no slasher style horror flick, though the gore amps up with each vicious incarnation of the games. This is a far more thoughtful bloodied beast of a show.
The horror story cliche, from Scream to Saw, of “Do you wanna play?” is taken to new heights by Netflix’s smash hit new show, Squid Game. Set in South Korea, a group of citizens, including one North Korean defector, and our hapless antihero, linked only by the fact that they owe vast sums of money, are given an opportunity to not only wipe out their debt, but to make a vast sum of money. This devilish deal is sealed in episode one. The first game involves minor pain, and is played in the open. A silly childhood game of trying to flip an envelope, the stakes are a face slap to the debtor if they lose, and a large sum of money if they win. Our hapless antihero is a particularly unlikeable figure, a wastrel feckless gambler with a good heart, but no sense of responsibility or propriety. He exists solely for himself, even though he does clearly love his child, he is useless to her. He can’t even keep hold of the money he won playing the first game.
..and there is the rub of the whole mess: the entire show is a comment on the brutality of capitalism. It turns us against those we love, it leaves us striving for the giant glowing piggy bank of survival/money. Money is the mechanism of happiness in a capitalist society. It is the lubricant for the gears of survival: no money, no life.
I was at a hospital, a homeless man who had diabetes was not feeling well. He had no change for the vending machine and needed a candy bar. The staff would not change his $20. I didn’t have enough on me to give him change, instead donated a few bucks. The staff would rather have to treat diabetic shock than give him a candy bar, or a glucose sachet. For lack of money, money which buys compassion, he was sitting there desperately unwell, with a large headwound and being treated like a problem. They were more or less ignoring his needs. Because. Money.
It is a society as viciously capitalistic as this which forces the competitors of the Squid Game into increasingly widening circles of murder, mayhem and self destruction. Survival of the fittest, the meanest, the most strategic. Capitalism does not value compassion. Art is only valued for its sale value. The name of the game is to get all the money from others who toil for little to earn enough to provide the basics. Like insulin and a candy bar. Like a roof over a head. Like medicine. Like safety.
I have read reviews of Squid Game which focus solely on its gore and horror shock framework. These are missing the point entirely – like looking at the game of licking the colors off a gobstopper candy, they only see the outer layer of horror and choose to ignore the putrid center of the issues at hand.
Most humans when cornered become beasts. The human beast (La Bête Humaine), a novel by Zola, later made into a movie, with the subtitle Judas Was A Woman, explored the themes of rage, whether the beast can be controlled, and if peace only truly comes in death. Zola concluded that the beast was only quieted by death, and was a part of living as much as breathing or sex or defecation. Squid Game comes to the same conclusions. We have no relief in sex, instead it becomes a dangerous game of manipulation and a transactional act which turns into a rape when the price is not paid. Even being allowed to use a bathroom is turned into something which has to be transacted with by the guards – not even a piss is free.
Human nature is our concern, and that of the controller of the Game. The immense tension and emotional drag of episode 3, starts to come into full bloom, when the game asks, when there are no rules except survive, what will the human beast do to survive? Will it kill? Will it make alliances? How strong are those alliances, and what will break them? Is self sacrifice a noble thought, but an unrealistic expectation? In short, what will a group of people who are motivated by money, by debt, and by the promise of the capitalist reward of a bearable survival, do to each other when the gloves are off? What will the plebs do when pitted against each other.
The lighting and choreography of the fight scenes, only shadows and angles, strobes and impressions are available. The watcher cannot be sure who has survived and who has died. A broken bottle here, a smuggled knife there, a metal tube from a bed, a toppling structure. Impressions of violence and death are all we are given….until the lights come up. It is only in the light that the full horror of capitalist violence is brought into focus. The tight camera angles give way to sweeping panoramas of bloody desperate suffering: there is nowhere to hide from the murderous reality. The participants are confronted with the results of their actions.
Of course, as in every capitalist society there is a money making angle to be had: some enterprising individuals are harvesting organs from the barely alive, and selling them on the black market: the black masked controller doesn’t care. He is an idealist, a puritan, a twisted head honcho devoted to ‘fairness’ in the game and ‘equality’, both standards which he is not held up to.
This is what happens when human beings arrange themselves into a hierarchy of “us” and “them”, with a Leader, his Sergeants, and their minions at the top…..
……………….and the masses ruled beneath them, in a sickening ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ pastiche of true equality, a communistic marxist fly in the ointment, which instead of true equality, had some animals ‘more equal than others’, as Orwell put it so concisely. This comment on the form of communist rule, which is still highly elitist, divisionary, based around material goods and financial purchased and paid for happiness, is at the heart of the Squid Game universe. The masses, the victims are divided into two camps, too distracted by the struggle for survival to turn against their lords and masters, and defeat the Game, not each other. The winners struggle to stay high enough up in the hierarchy of meaningless games of chance, strength and skill, some of them fixed, some of them gaslighted, some of them impossible to win due to a toss of a coin, or the shape that is chosen, to live. That is the price of paying the game of winners and losers in the ultimate fight for riches and material success, not to mention for these debtors, these victims of bad choices within a capitalist society, the ability to carry on living in the world outside. They have ‘no place in this (capitalist) world anymore’, where if you have no money or credit, then you are no damn good, and thrown out onto the streets at best, risk losing the love of your family, their homes, your health and wellbeing, everything. Capitalism drove the competitors into the Squid Game, and capitalism is their only redemption…or is it?
The players have various means of survival and coping within the game. Prayer and faith, brute strength, manipulation, strategy. Even compassion, knowledge (the old man is a fine competitor who saves everyone more than once, simply because he has lived long enough to really know the games they are forced to play, and plays them with the childlike abandon of a man in his second childhood), tactics and free thinking, alliance making and diplomacy. Our hapless main protagonist, Seong Gi Hun, who does not shine in the world outside, rapidly becomes a hero within the confines of the Game. Finally, the outside loser, turns into an epic possible winner.
We watch the joy of survival, the realization that knowledge is power, from the honest knowledge of how to play the games of the old man, to the bad knowledge of the cheating doctor, and the female spies. This is a Pilgrim’s Progress for modern times, where the God is Money, and the Game is everything. Equality is shown to be a fragile and unreachable ideal. It is simply not in human nature to accept, as Dylan sang in To Ramona
I’ve heard you say many times
That you’re better than no one
And no one is better than you
If you really believe that
You know you have
Nothing to win and nothing to lose.
Dylan’s Ramona knows the futility of pursuing the ideal of equality, and that in life there is everything to win and lose, even ultimately, life itself, and the Squid Game knows this too. The leaders sow distrust, they sow division, they sow hatred and the false concept the life is a zero sum game. Human happiness is not conditional on some of us being miserable. There is happiness and resources to go around. Someone doing well, does not mean that someone else must lose. The paranoia and desperation leads to tribes forming, and society would do well to heed the warnings in Squid Game. The divisions within our society our deepening, tribes have formed, and identities set in concrete, and I fear it is not healthy for any of us.
There was a point in episode two that I almost gave up. The gore, the tension, the horror, the sadness and desperation, make for riveting, but not comfortable viewing. It is worth pushing past this point to see where the ride goes. The horror and explicit violence are intense, well shot, fantastically rendered, and unrelenting. The Truth of The Game, is that everybody suffers and everybody dies….except for the guy at the top. The higher up the hierarchy an individual is, the lesser the risk, but the risk is still there. The all consuming maw, of the Leader is sucking in happiness, safety, luxury, entertainment, money, even life itself, from the many who exist within the game. Lies of equality sooth whatever soul this Human Beast has left.
On the surface, the sugary shell, the disney-like theme park ride set is coating the labyrinthian dark reality of crematoriums, tunnels, bombs and ladders that only go deeper into the hell that is The Game. The game costs everything a person has – even their humanity and their love for each other. There can be only one leader, there can be only one winner. Society is a sham. We are all struggling and suffering in the outer shell of delicious living, only to fall under the surface with one detrimental act of Fate, illness, age or inability to play by the rules set by others. We ignore this reality because nobody wants to fall under, so instead we strive to stay on the surface, paddling desperately, not waving, but drowning. Perhaps it is time for society to take a fresh look at what we hold dear, and think again.
Dehumanization, the masks of those on top, the bare faces of those in The Game, is a theme that uncomfortably runs through this post covid reality. Masks are good. Masks save lives, but they have also made everyone seem a little less human. I walk around sometimes with a Cheshire Cat smile hiding my own sad face, pinned to my ears and taking away my human-ness. Removing my laughter lines. Hiding my tears beneath dark glasses: people see a ‘we are all mad here’ smile, and my prescription dark lenses, I disappear. I could be planning a party or a funeral. Who knows. No one can see. Information is currency. The Game and the underlying world survive on information – who is behind the mask, what are the arbitrary rules of the latest meaningless game the plebs are forced to play, who is the Leader, who are the Watchers, why and who died, and who lived and how. Information is more valuable than money itself. Money cannot be spent in the grave.
Equality is a shattered illusion, and it is only when it is exposed that the Leader steps out from the shadows and takes matters into his own filthy hands. It is only when the cheating is laid bare, that the Leader pulls and gun and punishes the guilty. Fairness is an illusion he cannot survive without. It is integral to the paradigm of the Squid Game, where in face death and losing is arbitrary and intrinsically unfair. Death and risk and suffering played in a child’s playground, is still death and loss and risk and suffering. There is no sugar coating The Game.
When the game is revealed in all it’s murderous glory, the participants start screaming and trying to escape, but they survivors mostly return. The draw of the glowing piggy bank, the need for won (Korean currency, aptly named in a homophone for the English word for not losing) or dollars, pounds or Euros, in order to survive an unfair society, overrides even the need for life itself.
Do you want to play?
Do we have a choice?