What’s the point of ‘Squid Game’? Mindless violence, social critique or just an excuse for a fun conversation?
Jim McDermott, S.J.: Okay, so I think we're both done with “Squid Game” now, which for some reason I can’t stop wanting to call “Squid Tales.” It’s like “Duck Tales,” but darker!
I have to say, after the first episode I wasn't quite sure why the show was so popular—or even whether Netflix wasn’t juicing the numbers in some way. I get it, unexpected bursts of violence nets eyeballs. Tarantino has made a very healthy living off that.
But there was nothing Tarantino-esque about that first game.
Keara Hanlon: The show certainly doesn’t shy away from violence, and it sets its dark and grotesque tone early on when the protagonist, Gi-hun, is forced to sign away his rights using a bloody fingerprint rather than a penned signature. But what makes the first game so shocking is the juxtaposition of a children’s game (Red Light, Green Light) with so much gore. In mere minutes, over 200 players are brutally shot and killed before our eyes, as blood splatters on the walls of the game space.
What is the point of ‘Squid Game’? Two of America’s writers consider the Netflix juggernaut.
What did you take away from the creative choice to put the players through challenges based on children’s games?
JM: Honestly, I think that was the hook that got me watching in the first place. I mean, I didn’t end up knowing any of these games—in Season 2 I’d like to see the Candy Land challenge, please—but I thought the idea of using children’s games was brilliant. Nothing sells like childhood. And in the abstract, to match that with extreme violence felt weirdly fitting, at least for me. Childhood playgrounds in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s were kind of a nightmare.
But then seeing over 200 people get shot in front of us in a matter of minutes, oftentimes in the most graphic way possible (“oh, another headshot, really?”)...it felt unnecessary.
What do you think? Was that the point? I’m thinking of how a later episode reveals mostly white American-sounding dudes (in masks and robes, for some reason?) who are watching the violence unfold. They comment in many of the same ways we in the audience might, arguing who deserves to live and which strategies seem likely to work. Is the show’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, making things overwhelmingly violent right from the start to force us to confront the fact that we’re monsters who are willing to view murder as entertainment? Or do you think he actually thought this would be entertaining?
‘It feels gross to think of this stuff as “entertaining,” but I think you’re onto something.’
KH: It feels gross to think of this stuff as “entertaining,” but I think you’re onto something. People are inherently fascinated by the abject—the blood and guts and stomach-churning things of this world that force us to confront our own mortality. I think people can’t stop watching “Squid Game” for the same reason that human beings are tempted to look at bad car accidents as they pass: Our curiosity outweighs our horror.
In this way, I think Hwang Dong-hyuk is drawing a parallel between us, the viewers, and the “V.I.P.s” in the show who pay money to view the games. As revolting as these characters are—they are crude, abusive and decadently rich—we actually share more in common with them than we do with the players, as we look on from the safety of our living rooms. If we’re tuning in episode after episode, we’re part of the problem in a way. Like the V.I.P.s, who are the clear antagonists of the show, we can’t seem to look away. We need to know who has progressed on to the next round of the game.
JM: I’m really interested in your idea that the show forces us to confront both our curiosity and mortality, especially in light of what we’ve all just been through (or continue to go through—Is the pandemic over? Is it ongoing?). Are we all so excited on some level to watch a show about hundreds of people being executed and fighting to survive because we feel like we just went through that? Maybe the ultra-violence is actually even more satisfying for us now, in that it provides a kind of catharsis after the endless suspense of whether we were going to die from Covid is gone.
‘I’m really interested in your idea that the show forces us to confront both our curiosity and mortality.’
The other thing that strikes me about that sort of “Woo-hoo, we made it through Covid” reading is just how much it positions us alongside the show’s fat cats. I have a friend who works in Lebanon who told me that he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to get vaccinated there; that’s the situation in most of the developing world. They are literally years away from the freedoms we have now. Meanwhile I’m having drinks with friends and seeing Broadway shows. It’s like, at this point, my only response to all the people still living in the nightmare I lived in for the last 16 months is to say, “Womp womp.”
And so to confirm my own self-diagnosis as a monster, let me ask you this: What were your top three favorite games?
KH: I think the most interesting of the games was game three. After some players cheat the food line to receive seconds and leave other players without any food, infighting begins to take hold. We later discover that the small food portions were intentional—the host wants the players to fight each other. Thus, the third game begins without the players even realizing it. At lights out, the violence starts. There’s some really interesting class commentary here: Rather than rising up against those who are using their suffering for entertainment, the players begin to kill each other, turning their justified anger against unjustifiable targets. As long as they’re killing each other, the game makers remain safe and the game continues.
‘The show’s point is clear: Increasing wealth inequality is dangerous and may well lead to violence.’
My second favorite would have to be tug-of-war, because the game offers one of the few hopeful messages present in the show, that good teamwork can allow a group to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
And my third favorite would be the game of marbles, not because I liked it—this episode is totally heartbreaking and I am still not over what happened to Ali—but because this game forces the team apart and reveals so much about their individual characters. Whoever wins the game of marbles lives, whoever loses dies. I can’t stop thinking about the husband and wife team. Either one of them “winning” results in the death of the other. They’ve reached a stalemate where no one can truly win. Although when you’re competing for blood money, I guess no one really wins, do they?
JM: No one but us, Keara. And in the end who else is really important, amirite?
Yeah, the marble game was painful. It was at that point, I think, that I felt like the show fully locked in on the idea that when you’re poor, you really don’t get to have anyone on your side. Even your close friends and family end up being competitors.
It was also the moment I started to wonder about some of the underlying assumptions of the show. Who dies in the marble game? A woman, an elderly man and the guy who’s not from Korea. The creators might spin that as a sort of statement about how Korean society values Korean men over everyone else—a statement we’ll see affirmed again when my favorite character, old man Il-nam, turns out to be the sicko puppetmaster of the whole thing.
‘When you’re competing for blood money, I guess no one really wins, do they?’
But particularly when it comes to Ji-yeong, the woman we’ve only just met and who is immediately one of the most interesting characters on the show, deciding to let herself die so that Sae-byeok can live.... I get it, “someone has to die, it’s that much harder if people are pitted against someone they don’t want to kill,” blah blah blah. But it raised some questions for me. And then when the other two female characters Sae-byeok and Mi-Nyeo also die (and once again, they are so much more interesting than any of the men, even poor sweet Ali), I really felt like this show just does not like women.
What do you think? How did you feel about the show’s treatment of its female characters?
KH: Yeah, I was definitely underwhelmed by the show’s treatment of its female characters. Watching the women being excluded any time that teams had to be selected brought me back to elementary school when the boys didn’t want me on their soccer team during recess, even though I was a good player. It felt immature, but maybe it’s supposed to—I don’t know.
Out of the female characters, I feel like Sae-byeok’s character arc disappointed me the most. She is clever and courageous, and is in the game for the right reasons—she needs the money to reunite her family. She is so easy to root for, and her death felt like one of the most unfair in the games, given that she successfully completes the challenge but is hit by glass shards as the game field was blown up for show.
‘I was definitely underwhelmed by the show’s treatment of its female characters.’
I also noticed that the ratio of male to female characters felt really high. Everyone involved in putting on the games (whose identities are revealed) is male—from the host, to the front man, to all of the guys in pink suits with the helmets. Even all the V.I.P.s are men. Maybe these inequalities were an attempt at social commentary, but I’m not quite sure what they were trying to say. Are they saying that women are weaker teammates, or are they simply saying that men see women in this way? Could only male characters be sadistic enough to enjoy viewing these games as V.I.P.s? What do you think they’re trying to say?
JM: That is a great question. What I’d like to hope is that Hwang Dong-hyuk was trying to make a comment about gender and power, something about how men ultimately still hold all the cards. But the show itself engages in absolutely no self-examination on questions of race or gender. There’s no moment where Gi-Hun or Sae-byeok—or Ali, I would have loved that—calls out what is going on here. I love it when a story asks the audience to pull threads together, but in this case I think it’s just as likely to have a lot of its own problematic assumptions about gender and race swirling around in the mix. The big twist with Il-nam’s being the puppet master, for instance—why not do that with Sae-byeok? I’ll tell you one thing, I bet if they had her explain why she had done all this, it would have been a lot more interesting than “I just wanted to be a boy again.” Ugh.
(I will say, I do appreciate a streaming show with a Sae-byeok who is not introduced at the very end, takes over the show for 45 minutes of exposition and then dies. Little low-key “Loki” dig there for you.)
So, final thoughts?
KH: The show’s point is clear: Increasing wealth inequality is dangerous and may well lead to violence. It’s a point worth making, but I think other visual storytellers have made similar class commentary with more nuance and tact—take Bong Joon Ho’s award-winning film “Parasite,” for example. The show has an intriguing premise, so I understand why people were drawn in, but personally I think it was a little overhyped.
JM: I feel ambivalent myself. I too feel the attention “Squid Game” has received outweighs its actual depth. But I wonder if that’s because we’re only seeing Act I of whatever this series will eventually be. It’s possible that its apparent second season could dig much more deeply into the underlying social issues and problems we’ve raised.
Or it could just have new Squid Games. Like the Fr. Collins Proofreading Exam.
KH: Now that would have really put the pressure on! I’d honestly rather play Red Light, Green Light. I think I’d have a better chance at survival.