All right, I’m going to push the envelope a little bit here: talking about Squid Game, the Netflix series that became an instant success and is the focus of very animated discussions all over the web, might sound a bit “out there” for SciFi Month, but I reasoned that its deeply dystopian overtones (think Hunger Games on steroids) and some details from its premise might make it an intriguing candidate. So here I am…
Just in case you have not heard about Squid Game, it’s a story set in South Korea (where it was produced) and deals with the harrowing experiences of a group of people recruited to participate in a series of games whose winner will take home a huge jackpot. The players are all individuals with great financial problems: there is the addicted gambler weighted by debts he cannot pay and living on the shoulders of his old, ailing mother; the promising young market trader who fell into the embezzlement trap; the runaway from North Korea desperate to bring the rest of her family over; the Pakistani immigrant struggling to make ends meet because his employer has not paid wages for some time; the petty criminal lord who skimmed too much from his bosses, and so on. And also a few others animated by different drives, like the old man who’s dying of cancer and is unwilling to simply wait for the end to come.
What these players don’t know, is that they will be taken to an unknown location (we learn later it’s a remote island) and that losing any one of the six scheduled games will result in physical elimination: yes, they will be killed without mercy, which puts a horrifying spin on the competition, made to look even more appalling when, after the shocking first elimination, many are willing to go away and allowed to do so, but not before being shown the amount of money already accrued. The expression on many faces at that point, the sheer element of assessment and desperate greed on them as they ponder these terrible odds, chilled me even more than the actual scene of the mass killing in the first game.
And what’s worse is that as the episodes move forward, so does the cruelty of the games which force the players to actually kill their opponents or drive them to their death, pitching them one against the other despite the alliances and friendships that were tentatively forming among the various groups. Not to mention that there is a number of rich and bored individuals who are watching the “show” and betting on the players’ survival as if they were racehorses, which adds a further layer of grotesque unreality to an already heavy mix.
Given this premise you might wonder about the huge success that Squid Game is enjoying, and I wondered myself, coming to the conclusion that it must be because of the human factor involved, of the psychological study offered by these people placed like rats in a maze and observed (both by the fictional spectators and by the ones behind the screen) for their reactions to the extreme situations they are facing. The message seems to be that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in life, that circumstances can turn even the friendliest, most gregarious person into a merciless killer, and that after a while the money becomes only a vague goal, eclipsed by the far simpler need for survival: in the end, the winner of the competition has been so changed by the experience that money loses all its attraction and remains unspent in the account where it was deposited.
There are also some elements that made me compare Squid Game to another darkly dystopian series, Black Mirror, where the otherworldly coexisted with the grotesque: the backstage of the games’ fields is made to look like a psychedelic dreamscape with its bright, highly saturated colors and mazes of stairs and passageways through which the players are led – truly like sheep to the abattoir – by masked and armed attendants, while classical music (mostly Strauss’ Blue Danube) plays in the background.
Another unsettling visual is that of the coffins in which the losers are incinerated, shaped like black boxes tied with an incongruous pink bow. The game themselves are versions of children games, like tug-of-war, marbles or that game (I don’t know its name in English) where one player turns its back to the group who can advance until the count of three and must stop at three as the first player turns around, with penalty inflicted on those still moving. It’s the dichotomy between the original innocence of these games and their deadly consequences in the series that offers the real horror here, compounded by the realization that the players joined the game to escape from the adversities of their lives, only to be met with a deadly struggle that makes those adversities look like a picnic by comparison.
In the end, despite the heavy atmosphere and the cringe-worthy situations depicted in each episode, I can say that I appreciated Squid Game – not enjoyed, of course, because using that word feels like blasphemy, but I was hooked from start to finish and it made me think a great deal about the human mind and soul, what drives us and the extremes we can reach when facing drastic, life-threatening circumstances. And any story that can make me think is always a good find…