Squid Game and Dystopias: What are They Telling Us?

Squid Game, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is the latest dystopian thriller that recalls aspects of The Hunger Games as well as many Black Mirror episodes. For many fairly obvious reasons, audiences can relate to the idea of a dark present-near future where survival hinges on horrific actions and ethical choices.

This will be more analysis and speculation about Netflix’s huge hit than a review. I’m not going to recount the plot in detail and there will be spoilers, so it’s really meant for people who have already seen the miniseries.

It’s interesting that a Korean film dealing with economic hardship and class struggle, Parasite, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and now a mega-successful miniseries from the same country breaks Netflix records. Of course, Korea is certainly not the only country dealing with such issues or these works wouldn’t resonate in so many other places, including the United States.

I watched the entire miniseries and found it mostly compelling. It’s more depressing than enjoyable, but that’s by design of course. I can’t say I’m anxious to see the next season, assuming there is one. More than anything, I wonder what the intention of such works really are, beyond the obvious motives to entertain and, from the point of view of the creators, to make money.

I can think of three ways to interpret Squid Game: As purely escapist entertainment, as a metaphor of present-day life, and perhaps a warning of where we’re headed or as a tool to demoralize the audience.

Even nightmarish scenarios, such as horror films and dystopian tales are escapist. Perhaps they provide relief by presenting a world even grimmer than the real one.

As a warning and expose, in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World. The games are a fairly obvious metaphor for a ruthless capitalistic society that values only competition and winning.

Russell Brand weighs in on the second possibility, seeing Squid Game as an expose of capitalism. Like many YouTube video titles, his is a bit clickbaity, suggesting that his analysis is unique and unprecedented. While Brand is always entertaining and unusually articulate, I don’t think seeing Squid Games as a metaphor for contemporary life is much of a stretch (sadly).

The third and darkest possibility is that Squid Game, along with other dystopian movies, shows and novels, may actually be part of a plan to condition us for a bleak future. Indeed, there are conspiracy theories that books like Orwell’s 1984 were meant to demoralize readers and get them to accept the inevitable.

Since I can’t get into the heads of the creators, I prefer to consider the effects of works such as Squid Game rather than try to guess the intentions behind it.

Daniel Pinchbeck gives a thoughtful analysis of this perspective, seeing this type of work as nihilistic
neo-liberal pornography.” From this perspective, the grim choices faced by the contestants are there to prepare us for such a grim reality.

Is the world of Squid Game really one of pure brutality and hopelessness? There are traces of humanity, most notably displayed by the star, Seong Gi-hun, who plays Gi-Hun, a flawed character who joins the game due to gambling debts. Throughout the games, however, his empathy is revealed and, at one point, he refuses to kill an antagonist even though it meant winning the entire game.

Can’t Stop Playing the Game

The ending of Squid Game shows Gi-Hun, the winner (I told you there’d be spoilers), unsatisfied and unable to enjoy his newfound wealth. At the very end, he even decides to rejoin the game rather than visit his estranged daughter. Of course, the obvious reason for this is to set up a possible Season 2. However, it also raises questions about the nature of gambling, games, and life.

What are Gi-Hun’s motives? Presumably, he doesn’t care about winning more money as he hasn’t even enjoyed what he’s already won. Rather, he seems intent on infiltrating and perhaps exposing and destroying the game.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Putting aside the need to end the season on a cliffhanger, where does the ending leave the audience? The game is certainly evil, run by ruthless sociopaths. However, even this is not without ambiguity, as we learn that the old man, player Number 1 (Oh Yeong-su), is actually the creator. His motives are vague –he supposedly wanted to recreate games from his childhood -yet, why make them brutal life-or-death contests then?

The problem is, the people who volunteer to play are in a can’t-win situation. They choose to play because they have nothing waiting for them in the outside world and no way to improve their situation. So, even if a hero such as Gi-Hun were to dismantle the whole enterprise, would he really be helping society? Rather than risk a quick death, the players would just live out their lives in poverty and misery.

So, the world of Squid Game indeed presents us with a grim world where there is no apparent solution. The real world is hopeless for many people and their only chance is to play a game that will most likely mean death. This can be seen as an exaggerated version of poor and working class people relying on the lottery or some other form of gambling as their only salvation. Indeed, Gi-Hun is a gambler himself.

Squid Game may have subversive intentions or it may not. Either way, it doesn’t present a very hopeful vision of the future (or present). Rather, it portrays a scenario where the vast majority of people are helpless pawns in a vast, omnipotent system. It may be time to look beyond dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions. Utopias, which are out of fashion now anyway, don’t really help much either as they seem completely removed from our current reality. Perhaps we need a new genre, one that provides more of a roadmap from dystopia to a utopia or at least a tolerable world.

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