The Best Thing About Squid Game
So, like the rest of the world, I’ve been watching Squid Game.
The zeitgeist-y South Korean TV series is, as you’ve heard from everyone else already, genuinely great: well-paced, confidently directed, stylish, human, witty, tense. It’s a horror show on the surface, as stacks of hapless contestants get involved in what essentially amounts to a slightly more threatening and significantly more deadly version of Crystal Maze, but beneath that, there’s something more going on here, too.
Now, I watched Squid Game because I am, as I’ve written about before, a sucker for these sorts of gamified murder horror movies. There’s something about that simple set-up – fight your way out, or die – that’s appealed to me as a story structure since I first got into the world of horror. Stretch it out over a whole season, and you’ve got me hooked, especially with the brilliant and already-iconic ensemble that Squid Game put together.
But what I think Squid Game did so right, and what I think makes it stand out over so many other survival-game horror, comes in the form of its second episode. The premiere is a set-up to the game itself: people die horribly, everyone involved knows what they’ve got into, and they all opt, within the rules of the game, to get out and pretend that it never happened.
But they also know the prize money on the line for winning. Much like South Korea’s last major international pop culture hit, Parasite, Squid Game is a story about money, class, survival – and what that really means if you don’t have the cash to live anything close to the life you want. The second episode sees our major players leaving the game, shaken, but alive, and returning to the lives that they had before – the same lives that led them to take up the opportunity to play in the first place, under the promise of a potentially huge jackpot (even if they didn’t know exactly what it might cost them in the long run).
In this genre of gamified horror, the contestants usually don’t know what it is they’re getting themselves into – and by the time they figure it out, they have to play their way out and face the high stakes that the game’s creator has forced upon them. But in Squid Game, the characters get that choice. They can just leave. They don’t have to go through with it.
So the time we spend with them back in their real lives is extra-important. Why, exactly, would they ever even think about going back to play this deadly game if they didn’t have the same stakes in their outside worlds? For our leading man, Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-Jae), the world he’s returning to is one of unbearable drudgery and struggle; he has next to no money, is on the brink of losing his daughter as her wealthy stepfather moves the family to America, lives with his mother, whose illness is beginning to worsen and require more medical attention.
For anyone who’s lived with any kind of financial hardship, it’s all too familiar. The stress, the constant pressure, that grinding-down of the energy that comes with lying awake and crunching those numbers every night; the life he returns to is not necessarily traumatic or dramatic, but it’s miserable. Squid Game captures that feeling of the sheer brutality of Not Having Enough – the painful weight of living a life that is constantly on the edge of collapse, waiting for the moment that it either improves or crashes entirely. The drudgery of it, the endless cycle of struggle, of never being able to quite get out of that hole and falling back on the worst coping mechanisms to live with that constant worry – it’s something that so many people, including myself, living in this particular capitalist hellscape, can recognise so clearly in our own lives.
Which is why it makes sense that Gi-Hun decides to return to the game. Squid Game is a show not just about survival, but why just survival isn’t enough. Gi-Hun could survive by just leaving the game, returning to his life, struggling through. But the thought of living that out is genuinely less appealing than facing these games; what’s worse, a life of endless struggle, or the tiniest glimmer of a chance that you might be able to change that for yourself and the people around you?
The contestants don’t have to go back to the game. But they do – because living under the weight of financial hardship is so unrelentingly miserable that it feels like the only real choice. Squid Game recognises the ways that capitalism forces people to do the unthinkable to survive, recognises the coercion it exerts over people by grinding them down over decades of struggle and hardship, with the tiniest sliver of a hint of a maybe that they might be able to escape it. It knows that returning to that is, most likely, worse than what the game demands of them.
And that’s the best thing about Squid Game – it makes a case for why Gi-Hun is drawn back to this game, despite what he knows it might cost him. The show makes a great case to understand the desperation that comes with a lifetime of financial hardship, and, even against this high-concept horror backdrop, finds a way to say something that rings painfully true about the lives of so many of us who don’t have the privilege of financial comfort.
If you enjoyed this post and want to see more stuff like it, please consider checking out my other recapping projects – Jericho, Lost, Sex and the City, Doctor Who, and Carrie are good places to start! Please also have a look at my fiction work, such as my short story collection, Misandry. And you can always support me on Patreon for access to exclusive blog posts!
(header image via CNET)