The Squid Game is a dark complex narrative, at times to too violent and horrifying to watch, but compels the viewer at several levels to remain glued and addicted to how this gory narrative unfolds. While many if not all characters are destined to die, and die horribly, the series has its twists and turns, and can surprise you, and touch you when you least expect it.
I found five compelling reasons to binge watch it across 9 days, drawing many parallels to organizational systems, Indian society and personal identity:
a) Choice-making on Choice-less thresholds:
The classical and recurring theme of the series is to invite the vicarious viewer into exploring the world of ‘choice-less-ness’ and ask whether you have a voice and a choice to make. Each threshold is a ‘damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t’
Unlike ‘The Dice man’ by Luke Rhinehart where the protagonist who is a psychiatrist, surrenders his choice-making to the roll of dice, this narrative haunts you as its characters make choices quite knowingly. There are many characters, where each makes his or her choices a bit differently. Despair and survival make some of them do terrible things but there are others who try to be heroic. The Squid Game is replete with such diverse choices which leave you quite introspective.
The creativity of the narrative is to expose the shallowness within man / woman, laying open what were the shadows of selfishness, murderous rage, lack of integrity and resolve, accompanying guilt and how one copes with it. The Squid Game throws light all of this darkness with no qualms and with no guard-rails. Freud would be affirmed by how the Id violently takes control, dismantling all definitions of right’s and wrong’s for several characters.
There are other characters, who reveal their softness, their humanism, their altruism, and their vestiges of compassion in poignant ways. However, there are no black and whites — each character battles or embraces his or her dark side and then makes a knowing and naked choice.
It is after having made such choices, the Squid Game looks at the phenomena of ‘redemption’ — and the sheer preciousness of ‘redemption’. It is redemption that prepares the characters to prepare for the next threshold and for some this immense power lies not in a God or a priest but in abilities within self to forgive oneself and the other — provided one makes such a choice.
b) The Class Divide: Numbness that accompanies it
The series has interesting background hues to offer — factories being shut down and workers losing their jobs, financial markets and trading of derivatives that bring ruin, rising individual and household debt that hold families captive, and how the costs of living keep spiraling up in South Korea (a bit like most other developed nations) leading to the ever-increasing gap between the elite and the poor. While the Korean movie ‘Parasite’ had a comic take on this interface between the entitled rich and the aspirational poor, Squid Game looks at the very extremes of this divide that never meet.
Set against this background, the narrative begins with the impoverished — and how their daily existence of mere survival and getting through the day — make them numb to any form of dignity, values, morality, and humanity. Poverty is said to be the motherlode of all sinning, and the Squid Game begins with these characters, that are steepling over the abyss of lifelong debt, crime, gambling, with little self-worth, shameless, and with no dignity. Ostensibly offering these ‘losers’ a choice to win, Squid Game only reveals how this class of people are oppressed and violated, and perhaps more so with the fantasy of making your millions.
The Squid Game raises this mirror for all of us, who have co-created this immense class divide, and compels us to see how this set of people live, survive, and die.
On the other side, the narrative sets up the Billionaires — labelled as the VIPs — the voyeurs of this saga, who wish to find ‘fun’ as they gamble on who would survive and who dies. The choice of billionaires is a bit blasé — most of them are pale white men — there is an odd Chinese tycoon thrown in… and the writers were a bit lazy here. Maybe they were influenced by our recent space travelers. The writers also display a bit of homophobia — the only homosexual is a perverted billionaire. Without being a plot spoiler, the Korean billionaire had the best lines — he speaks of the numbness, sheer wealth has brought in his life, and how he had forgotten that mere spectating never allows you to touch a sense of ‘play’ within.
The Squid Game targets the middle class sandwiched between these two extremes — who can feel both angry and envious at the rich and powerful, and disdainful, sad yet grateful by differentiating and distancing themselves from the very poor and the desperate. It is this middle class the Squid Game is unrelenting with — giving them nightmares of how fragile the middle class is.
I was hit by old memories of my aggression, oppression, greed and selfishness — memories that lie under the sophisticated denial and rationalization — and it is these personal encounters within that the Squid Game beckons to explore and to look at.
c) The Search for Hope
With global warming having walked into our world, with catastrophic visualizations of impending doom and death, with dictators muscling their aggression across the globe, and with the threat of collapse of democracy and modern capitalism, and the list just goes on — the world appears to be doomed.
The Squid Game makes you to dig deep inside yourself and examine how you value ‘hope’, — is it decaying as you pour your acidic cynicism, despair, and sorrow on it. Each episode makes me look tenderly at hope as an object that is dying before my inner eyes, till I realize that it can only live and be nurtured through a community
I cannot nurture hope if my community relishes cynicism and despair … that hope is a communal process and not an individual process. The Squid Game has its poignant moments where certain characters offer themselves and the other — a belief in hope.
Is humanity destined to wither away in ignominy because men and women are selfish, evil, competitive, and hell bent on survival alone? This is a question that the Squid Game leaves you puzzling over.
d) Agency versus the Community
The Squid Game exposes both the power of being the agent and determining your journey, as well as the inanity and insanity that accompanies a self-righteous stance of cherishing agency without looking at the community. Several characters win precious hours of living and meaningfulness not because of their own agency, but because how the community or the clan allows them to.
There are father-figures who bless the agentic actor, there are sibling-figures who cherish the agentic actor, there are clans that are not merely instrumental but seek to create an ‘Us’ — offering safety, belonging, and being with each other — however ephemeral these moments might be. And these tender moments are ephemeral — a horrendous number of people being killed each day.
An interesting choice that each character has to make — should I be a part of a transactional network of smart self-centered agents who can survive this competition (willing to deny that the very same network would have to be fought with at a latter stage) or should I search for a community of like-minded human beings even if I get killed by one of them in the not-too-distant future.
The Squid game makes great viewing on this.
e) To Play or not to Play
The sheer ingenuity of Squid Game comes from the use of children games — some of these games would be played all over the world. These games: ‘green light–red light’ (red for danger), ‘tug of war’ etc. are games that are a lot of fun. For example — green light-red light is an interesting take on authority and children, in the series it is shown as a giant doll, that turns its face away allowing you to move, and then turns on to you with full vigilance. Any movement is seen as a deviance and is to be punished.
Competition and collaboration, us versus them, attack or defense, win or lose, include or exclude, evoke or provoke — these and many other ploys are magnified by the creators of the Squid Game, intensified with consequences for the participating adult.
It is in the game — in the arena of action — where the characters are exposed. Lies, manipulations, deceit, partnering, care — these aspects of self and the other are not masked any more. The players — the losers, the vagabonds, the criminals, the beggars, and the sick — do not wear masks.
The rest of the system is masked! The guards across the hierarchy wear masks, the host wears a mask, the Front Man wears a mask, the VIPs are masked. Unmasking is equivalent to vulnerability and inevitable death. Masks allow for the carrying out of the tasks and the roles.
If the mask were to symbolize the ROLE, it seems that real creative play can only happen if you relinquish the ‘Role’, and be yourself. This messaging is quite grotesque but an interesting take on ‘play’. To have fun, to be creative, and to be excited, the Squid Game invites all to take off their masks.
The Squid Game does not offer easy answers to the introspective viewer. It also does not disappoint the viewer with deceitful promises or oversimplified messages. It speaks of power inequity at its dramatic core — except that the players discover their own power and magical choices, and the spectators remain untouched and insulated from a visceral urge to survive and live through the chain of crises.
Behind the gore and the blood, the series does impact you — it comes in the dreams and triggers memories both joyous and revolting. It ends quite poignantly — I would be happy if there is no season 2 though the producers have articulated their intent to do so.
There are many mysteries that remain unsolved and perhaps that is the best way for these to be.
A EUM perspective
From the EUM framework (refer to www.eumlens.in), it is easy to label the Squid Game as an Arena system, demanding a certain quality of strength and desire from each participant. Even if the series offers such a container, the nature of relatedness and temporary relationships are still a kaleidoscope — offering hues of belonging and the clan, clockwork hierarchies, and finally an exploration of meaningfulness and intimacy.
Squid Game remains a complex pluralistic system — perhaps as complex as the human beings who enliven and deaden it.