By: Mike Hale
This story contains spoilers.
If you know that you’re supposed to have watched Netflix’s South Korean puzzle box Squid Game by now, but you’ve been lucky or prudent enough not to, here’s some of what you’re missing.
There’s the eye-catching — though not especially interesting — production design and costuming, glimpses of which you may have caught on social media. Escher-like stairways and overscaled, toy-chest decor — along with the monochromatic jumpsuits and forbidding masks — recall dystopian favorites such as The Prisoner, The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s own Money Heist. Their meme-readiness has clearly been a factor in the startling omnipresence of the series since its September 17 premiere.
(A second season has not been announced, but betting against it would be as unwise as trusting one of the show’s desperate schemers in a game of marbles.)
There’s also the element of game play, which appears to have been the primary attraction for the teenagers in my own household. The story’s hapless protagonists, sequestered on a remote island, are forced to play elaborately staged and deadly versions of childhood games, some familiar to Western viewers (tug of war, red light-green light) and some, including the squid game of the title, specific to Korea. Alliances form and shift; players reveal their true makeups; losers are immediately gunned down. The six games, spaced across nine episodes, invoke both reality-TV competitions — Survivor with guns — and the more purely kinetic pleasures of televised sports and esports.
But what is Squid Game about? When you look past the ornament and the action, one thing you see is an utterly traditional, and thoroughly predictable, band-of-brothers and -sisters melodrama. The central group of game players is straight out of the Hollywood war-movie playbook: the strong and silent leader, the moody outsider, the violent thug, the kindly old guy and the gentle naif who serves as audience surrogate.
They’re the dirty half-dozen or so, and their progress through the story contains no surprises. They die in exactly the order you would expect, based on their importance to the mechanics of the plot.
That kind of predictability is practically a motif in Squid Game, so much so that it feels intentional. The identity of the masked games master known as the Front Man is obvious across much of the season, although it’s supposed to be a mystery. The decision to have one particularly sympathetic character’s death take place off screen, unusual in a show that emphasizes numbingly graphic killing, is an easy sign that the person will reappear. A wrinkle in the structure of the marbles game — a plot device that helps make the sixth episode egregiously, shamefully manipulative, and has also made it an audience and critical favourite — can be seen coming from a kilometer away.
Striking visuals, the visceral pull of the games, the appeal of the science fiction and mystery elements and the reassuring familiarity of the hoary storytelling formulas all contribute, I’m sure, to the popularity of Squid Game. (Given Netflix’s reluctance to share numbers, its actual viewership is a bigger mystery than anything in the show.) But what probably puts it over the top is the aspect of the series that most makes me dislike it: its pretense of contemporary social relevance, a thin veneer of pertinence meant to justify the unrelenting carnage that is the show’s most conspicuous feature.
The game players — an unemployed autoworker, a North Korean refugee, a fraudulent investor — are all debtors, brought down by circumstance and weakness and sufficiently desperate to take part in the kill-or-be-killed scenarios devised by the games’ unseen but presumably autocratic creators. (The potential payoff, accumulating in a glass sphere as contestants are eliminated, is in the tens of millions of dollars.) The setup is a commentary on the rigid class stratification of South Korea, and a pretty obvious allegory: Losers in the rigged game of the Korean economy, the players have a chance to win in the (supposedly) more merit-based, egalitarian arena of the squid game, but at the risk of almost certain death.
But there’s a difference between making reference to something and actually illuminating it, or using it as the basis of authentically human drama. Squid Game has nothing to say about inequality and free will beyond pat truisms, and its characters are shallow assemblages of family and battlefield cliches, set loose upon a patently ridiculous premise. (The cast members, led by South Korean stars Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo, work valiantly and with some success to give the players actual shadings of emotion.) Its goal, a common one at the moment, is to ingratiate itself with its audience by confirming their accepted ideas. Like another recent South Korean hit, Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite, the show does that with room to spare.
And what that also accomplishes, of course, is to provide cover for the violence, which is more than mildly sickening in its scale, its graphic presentation and its calculated gratuitousness. Well before the hero, Gi-hun (Lee), was playing the titular game in the final episode with a steak knife sticking through his hand, I had had enough.
The director and writer of Squid Game, Hwang Dong-hyuk, is a feature filmmaker (The Fortress, Silenced) making his TV series debut. He and his camera people keep the story legible and the images routinely well composed, and he stages the action with dull competence. But he doesn’t have a distinctive style, which is particularly noticeable because the series is clearly a throwback to a slightly earlier generation of South Korean movies by directors such as Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk, whose stylistic panache and mordant wit allowed them to make outre violence feel like an organic element in their stories. In Squid Game, it’s just empty, bloody calories.