You may have heard people talk in passing about the South Korean Netflix show “Squid Game.” The first thing you need to know about it is this: The show is very violent.
As in, lots of blood and people being shot in the head. So, based on a few social media reactions I’ve seen, if you don’t like violence, the first “game” is going to be really upsetting to you. There are some people tuning in to see what all the fuss is about and are traumatized.
It’s also a show where the less you know going in, the better. The basics of the show revolve around debt, who is allowed to succeed in a capitalist society (and why), and the deep cruelty inherent in a system that has such visceral winners and losers. The show has some stunning, eye-catching set pieces, often combining childlike silliness with bloody violence, like some more evil incarnate of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The production values, and the acting, are first-rate, especially Lee Jung-jae as the main character, a gambling addict named Gi-Hun.
Some critiques of the show are based around the idea of it wielding familiar concepts about the worst sides of capitalism like a sledgehammer. However, I would argue that I am not sure whether a lot of Americans accept their current political reality, so maybe you do need a sledgehammer to wake them up.
I think the show may have caught on in the United States because South Korea and the U.S. have sort of a parallel running story at the moment. Both of our nations have a personal debt and income inequality crisis. I say “crisis” in the singular form because both debt and income inequality are part of the same problem. This theme appears often in recent South Korean pop culture, from the work of director Bong Joon-Ho (such as “Snowpiercer” and the Oscar-winning film “Parasite”) to the historical/zombie series “Kingdom.” Even the K-Pop group BTS has some biting social commentary underneath a sheen of poppy fluff – “Baepsae” and “Go-Go” are about socioeconomic inequality.
Both of our societies share a lack of a social safety net (one character struggles to afford lifesaving surgery for his mother, a realistic experience to many in both nations). “Squid Game” doesn’t offer solutions, something that it is criticized for, but to be honest, it’s not really up to the show to give those solutions. This is more of a vent of frustration.
You can feel this when a small group of Americans shows up in the latter half of season 1. Like in many Korean films and shows, the Americans are almost cartoonishly evil buffoons. On one hand, it’s a little over the top and nearly derails the show, but on the other, it’s a fascinating view of how we’re seen by some in the rest of the world. There is some real anger in this portrayal of goofy malevolence.
But in the end, “Squid Game” is a damning reflection of the current Korean society, which is in turn reflected by our own American system of winners and losers and how it is defended. I couldn’t help but think what the reaction of our own country would be if such a horrifying game was uncovered. Without giving too much away (again, better to go in with little knowledge of what this is all about), I could very easily see a portion of the U.S. public responding to such horrors with “Well, you know what? Maybe those people shouldn’t have got themselves into that situation!”
Because when it comes to the unfortunate and their suffering, our preferred game is the Blame Game.
The last word goes to the afore-mentioned BTS (hey, not my cup of tea either but remember what their fans did last year).