Squid Game Thoughts: the dystopian island

Soundtrack: Still Fighting It by Ben Folds + the Squid Game version of Fly Me to The Moon by Joo Won

I binge-watched Squid Game in less than a day. Apart from what everyone else has written on (class inequality, debt, the lost generation, critique of capitalism, EAT THE RICH), which I have little more to contribute to, here are some quick thoughts/impressions. Spoilers galore (you’re duly warned).

Grotesque Arcadia

Ok, first question: Why children games? That’s the brilliant conceit at the heart of this series — seemingly innocuous games warped by life and death stakes. Simple rules, the promise of equity/non-discrimination, and the amplified importance of luck. There’s even some semblance of democracy — if over half of the players agree, the game can be terminated at any point.

While we don’t know much about the guards (the circles, triangles and squares), who appear to have been trained from a tender age and now numbly subordinate their individuality to the machinery of the game, their obedience can’t simply be accounted for by the Front Man’s authoritarian enforcement. Two scenes offer clues: During the dalgona candy game, one of the players takes a guard hostage to avoid being killed. When the player demands that the guard take off his mask and show his face, he is horrified by the guard’s youth, mumbling, “You’re just a kid…What did they do to you?” The player then uses the gun to kill himself.

That line really hit me hard when I was watching. The hollow eyes of the guard and his utter lack of emotion even when being taken hostage is jarring — it’s the face of someone who has allowed the maintenance of game mechanics to swallow up his own individuality. There’s more to the island’s system than violence; ideological indoctrination undergirds its design, from its symbolism to its rules of anonymity and silence to the numbers and masks. It’s a cult.

I’m weirdly reminded of the Janissaries: child slaves in the Ottoman empire, taken away from Christian countries at a young age and reared to be soldiers in a Muslim army. Here’s how The Reluctant Fundamentalist describes them: “[The Janissaries] were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

What might’ve been the ideology used to indoctrinate the guards? Look no further than the Front Man, who seems to willingly uphold the ideals of the game and was a winner of the game himself. When one of the players (a doctor) is found to have cheated in the games and colluded with guards running an illicit organ-harvesting operation, the doctor and harvesters are killed and hung for public display at the staircase. Their biggest crime was not their organ harvesting but the fact that they sullied the game’s sacrosanct principle: equality.

The Front Man: Everyone is equal while they play this game. Here, the players get to play a fair game under the same conditions. Those people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we’re giving them the last chance to fight fair and win. And you broke that principle.

Bracketing the many problems in this little manifesto, I do think the nostalgia for “equality” is a utopian aspiration, one that greases the wheels of this decades-old game. Like many other islands (including the original island in Thomas More’s Utopia) the island has utopian impulses: the yearning to return to childhood, to a lost innocence, as expressed by the game’s founder you-know-who (cough); to a fairer, blunter system than the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism.

And what’s scary is the fact that most dystopias are born out of a utopian impulse. Out of the wish to transcend the limits of present reality, to impose rational norms, modify human behavior, and to create a new order on a more egalitarian foundation have arisen the many traumas, failed social engineering experiments, and tragedies of modern history.

Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale, The Hunger Games…None of these even pretend to be anything utopian. But Squid Game (the game itself) does, however facile and superficial its utopian impulse is. Maybe that’s why the creator so confidently casts the vote to end the game early on — because he knows the players will come back. And as we watch, we can’t help but wonder: how dystopian is the real world, such that a gory, violent game becomes these players’ best shot at utopia?

***

Send recs, my loves! I want to watch more good shows/movies. Currently going through a list of Korean movies (Burning, Silenced, etc.) — just watched Escape from Mogadishu and The Handmaiden.

Love,
Sel

One thought on “Squid Game Thoughts: the dystopian island

  1. kwyoke says:

    Eyyy interesting perspectives, I didn’t really think much when I watched, actually I didn’t even understand why they used children’s games and I thought it was quite lame and not violent enough, but I guess they are all metaphors it’s just I didn’t get them the first time ._.

    “most dystopias are born out of an utopian impulse” — :0

    Like

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