This review contains spoilers for the plot and ending of “Squid Game.”
To American viewers, “Squid Game” may seem to have emerged from nowhere. But it is a pretty unsurprising smash hit.
The show, which Netflix chief Ted Sarandos has said is on track to become Netflix’s most-watched series ever, has dominated charts the world over, serving as striking proof positive of the streamer’s global strategy. And while it’s cheering that quite so many people are curious about a project that they’re watching with subtitles (or dubbed), little feels novel about people flocking to a project that allows them to have it both ways.
“Squid Game,” created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, depicts a competition with some 456 entrants, in which boundless wealth is made available to whomever survives a brutal gauntlet of fatal events. These stages are borrowed from children’s playground activities, lending a certain simple irony to just how brutal they become: More than half of the competitors are gunned down, for instance, in the first stage, a version of “Red Light, Green Light” in which those who move after “Red Light” are gunned down.
This sees more than half the competition — some 200-plus people — shot down, and “Squid Game” is hardly shy about showing viscera. The violence is at once eerily intimate and impersonal: While there’s a brutal frankness to the way the competitors’ lives are cut short, the shooters are masked game employees (or, in the case of Red Light, Green Light, a robotic doll). Death comes doled out by random functionaries, about whom we know significantly less than about the game’s players. What we gradually learn, through the device of a detective who’s broken into the system, is that they are utterly bought-in, obeying rules of their own and believing rigidly in a game they’ve worked to present with a certain baroque innocence.
This fact — that both gameplayers and gamemakers are bound by need and by a strange loyalty to the rhythms of the competition — has clean, uncomplicated lines. It’s structurally sound and seems, at a glance, clever. So does the show’s structure in its early going, as surviving players are allowed the opportunity to leave after the first bloodbath, and end up returning of their own free will because they need the money that badly. (Their situations represent a legitimately interesting cross-section of contemporary Korean culture, including a North Korean defector and a migrant worker from Pakistan.) Having now seen both the harsh realities they face in the game and at home, we’re forced to reckon with the notion that infinitesimal odds of survival in the Squid Game might just be better than none in modern society.
But this is a starting point from which the series does little in the way of development. “Squid Game” amplifies itself endlessly, raising the stakes and the level of inhumanity. (Its opening salvo of hundreds of dead bodies seems difficult to top, but it gets over the line in demonstrations of players’ brutality, which alternates somewhat schematically with their startling shows of kindness.) Show creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has emphasized that he wrote the script for the series in 2008, before encountering recent projects with similar plots, like “The Hunger Games” book and film series. If we’re comparing the two, I’d argue that “The Hunger Games” series more clearly indicted the audience, which may be why its final installment represented a fall-off in popularity and why it’s infrequently discussed today. No one wants to be told they’re wrong for enjoying what they enjoy. Indeed, the piece of art this most clearly brought to mind was the significantly more flattering 2019 film “Joker.”
There, as here, violence is depicted flatly, and the embellishment comes from the fussy trappings around death and gore. Murder is fetishized as a way to raise the stakes in a hazily political conversation without proposing a solution. In both “Joker” and “Squid Game,” the concept of economic equality floats thickly in the air before the killings start, with “Squid Game’s” broad cross-section of the modern Korean underclass ultimately explored more as avatars of unluckiness or unfairness than as characters. And in both cases, exactingly composed visual landscapes — respectively, 1970s-Scorsese homage and playland-esque neons and rustic imagery of childhood — seem to have been staged in order to be disrupted by death. (It’s worth noting that much of “Squid Game’s” nostalgic visual palette is drawn specifically from Korean culture, an element about which a white American critic lacks a granular understanding.)
As the series runs on, it becomes clear that the Squid Game exists for many reasons, including for the harvesting of human organs from the killed and to provide amusement for a chattering class of wealthy people — some of them depicted as white Westerners — who bet on the results. About the first there seems little to say, other than that it’s impressive that the series found a way to be even more affectedly direct and unbothered about showing ways the human body can come apart. About the second, there seems insufficient irony or even meaningful appreciation that the show is encouraging its audience to do much the same thing as the much-loathed spectators. One fellow, for instance, shows up at the Squid Game viewing party and immediately starts threatening and violating someone who he believes to be a young functionary, culminating in an attempted coercive sex act.
It’s telling that the show feels the need to push this hard to insist that the people who’d watch the Squid Game for entertainment are so much more morally degraded than people who’d, say, simply watch “Squid Game” for entertainment. Like “Joker,” there’s a having-it-both-ways insistence that a culture that could create violence is inherently sick and deranged, while playing out a wildly overstated version of sick derangement in a manner designed to be maximally tense and amusing.
To be clear, there is an obvious difference between spectatorship of real-world and fictional violence, even before Hwang’s script dramatically draws it out. But it might be easier to see that distinction if the pile of bodies had been slaughtered in service of an idea more interesting than that inequality is bad. A season-closing conversation between the game’s winner and its architect indicates that the game was, in its essence, designed for entertainment and to see if it is possible for people to be good. (He believes that they are not, despite having seen various of the participants exhibiting teamwork, selflessness, and cooperation — but then, he was personally betrayed by the game’s winner, so his feelings may be a bit raw.)
This feels painfully thin as a justification for 455 dead bodies. Which is maybe the point: Those who play the Squid Game are subject to the most banal and juvenile philosophizing of those who, because of lucky breaks in life, get to determine everyone else’s reality. But taken on literal terms, that the show burned through so much life and so much fake blood in order to stage a character-based investigation of goodness, then it really is no surprise that this show has taken off. In relishing fictional death, the viewer of this series is told he’s doing something virtuous. And in enjoying gruesomeness while also tut-tutting at a system that would create such gruesomeness and rooting for its takedown, that viewer is experiencing a double pleasure, a sense of enjoying a show while also perching above it that ends up being the most complicated thing about “Squid Game.”