There is more than one Squid Game. There is Squid Game as a cultural idea, the Squid Game Vulture’s Joe Adalian wrote about as “Planet Squid Game”: the Korean Netflix series that has quickly become a world-dominating piece of television and proof of the streamer’s global reach. That Squid Game is a hilariously, almost perversely flattened version of the show itself — it is the Squid Game that exists so that Jeff Bezos can retweet “Planet Squid Game” as a congratulations for Netflix’s “internationalization strategy.” It’s also the Squid Game that has required Netflix to hastily slap together a merchandizing plan (customize a T-shirt with your own player number!), and will no doubt spark many industry conversations about what could be the next Squid Game.
That version of Squid Game is real and potent, and it’s aided by elements of the show that are primed for cultural penetration. Series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s direction and Squid Game’s overall visual design are so striking that images from the series can stand on their own, floating around the internet as pictures with detachable meanings. The first episode features a giant doll with a rotating head and an inescapable, perpetually darting gaze. She is a mysterious obsession, an embodied panopticon, an ironic image of outsize childishness returning to haunt us. Then there are the green track suits with their utilitarian, dehumanizing number badges; there’s the shot of Gong Yoo, calm and disarming, holding up the two red and blue ddakji envelopes. All of those images can refer to specific Squid Game scenes, but memes work by dissociating the image from the original context. The pervasiveness of Squid Game memes is its own kind of meaning, sometimes but not necessarily about the show, but more so about the way its imagery has been so quickly recognized and disseminated.
But beyond that — or rather, before that — there is Squid Game the nine-episode Korean TV series, which has achieved this level of global recognition because it is distinctively itself while also playing in markedly familiar spaces. (If you have not seen Squid Game yet and your preference is to watch totally unspoiled by its premise, stop here.) The show’s closest relatives are Battle Royale and Hunger Games–style stories: people who are forced or recruited into a game where the only way to win is for all of your opponents to die. In Squid Game, the protagonist is a down-on-his-luck guy named Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who finds himself deeply in debt, divorced, struggling to connect with his daughter, and guilty over his inability to support his elderly mother. He has a gambling problem. His debt is enormous — impossible to get out from underneath, and his creditors are closing in. And so, in the meme-able scene where he plays ddakji, an envelope-flipping game, Gi-hun gets enlisted into the Squid Game, a nightmarish facility isolated from the rest of the world where contestants play simple childhood games for the promise of huge wealth: 45.6 billion won, or approximately $38 million. The winner becomes immensely wealthy; the losers die.
The connections to modern capitalism and the desperation of financial inequality is more explicit in Squid Game than in a Hunger Games–type setting. There is no veneer of fantasy or lightly rewritten place names to let viewers pretend that Gi-hun’s despair takes place in a faraway made-up world. Gi-hun is interested in the game because offering himself up to a stranger for potential financial gain seems safer than continuing with his life as it is, and later, because even the nightmare of Squid Game offers more possibility than the life he’d been leading.
His fellow players are just as desperate. Squid Game populates the game with blunt, schematic character types (an old man, a criminal, an immigrant, a woman from North Korea, a guy who was superficially successful but secretly underwater, a married couple, a doctor, the one lady everyone hates), and if the show were less deft in the writing of Gi-hun or in the cruel nostalgia of its beautifully designed games, the oversimplified side characters might have been more of a detraction. The most frustrating among them is Ali, the show’s Pakistani immigrant character played by Anupam Tripathi, who barely gets more than a few wistful, guileless lines. The mysterious American VIPs introduced later aren’t much better, but they also don’t need to be; even without detail or particularly compelling performances, they fulfill the role Squid Game needs them to play. Sure, the economy might be absurdly complex and the causes of modern inequality might be multifaceted, but at the end of the day, there are some people who have more than enough, and Gi-hun and his doomed co-players are the have-nots.
There’s a very small subgenre that Squid Game operates within (survive the brutal games to outlast the larger broken system), but it’s also playing in the broader, longer history of the social-experiment story. “The Most Dangerous Game,” Lord of the Flies, more contemporary TV shows like Amazon Prime’s The Wilds, and even the related group of post-apocalypse stories like the current FX adaptation of Y: The Last Man — there are lots of stories that let us watch human behavior play out in highly controlled, heightened scenarios. It’s as though the stark, rule-bound falseness of the experiment will let us see something about humanity that’s otherwise too hidden under social niceties and real-world messiness. The difference between Squid Game and a post-apocalypse show, though, is where the emphasis falls. In apocalyptic stories, the specific nature of the collapse becomes the social experiment: What if only people who lived in this tiny town survive? What if only people with certain characteristics make it? But there’s an inherent optimism in watching people struggle to look ahead. It’s a form of social experiment that hopes the experiment succeeds.
It’s hard to not think about apocalypse while watching Squid Game. Or maybe it’s hard to not think about apocalypse because it’s 2021, and that’s when we’re all watching Squid Game. Whatever the case, although Squid Game does plenty of post-apocalyptic musing about how humanity might behave under extreme conditions, the sense of collapse is different. In Squid Game, as Gi-hun frantically scrambles to locate some bottom to the bottomless pit of inhumanity he finds himself inside, the show is most intense and horrifying, most fully and confidently itself, at the moments when there seems to be no end to the abyss. The show’s gorgeous, intense visuals work best early, when it’s still full of mystery, when the terrifying doll’s eyes see everything and there is no hope of escape. As Squid Game’s ending reaches for answers and for a future, it gets less surprising and less visually virtuosic. It’s not the kind of apocalypse story that longs for hopeful human resilience; it’s most eloquent on the topics of financial despondence and weaponized nostalgia.
All of that makes Squid Game’s life as a triumphant poster child for global cultural dominance pretty dark. The show the whole world wants to watch right now is a show that’s best when it’s about realizing that the end has already come, and we’re all just grabbing at straws to distract from how bad it already is. That’s pretty bleak, but that’s also the way Squid Game would want it to be.
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