"Squid Game" is a red-light heart-check

Squid Game is the rare well-done thing I’ve seen in art where I walked away wishing it was never made.

I would have never watched a single minute of “Squid Game” if it wasn’t for YouTube. Let me dish this to you: My 12-year-old told me he had to watch the show on Netflix because he found he couldn’t watch anything on YouTube without encountering spoilers. So, out of his own pocket, he paid $13.95—handed me a crisp $20 bill—for me to reactivate my long-dead account to see what it was all about.

Squid Game is on track to be the most-watched show in Netflix history, and that’s a big deal for the streaming service that produced three blockbuster seasons of “Stranger Things,” among other massive hits. Even more peculiar, Squid Game is an English-language dub-over of a South Korean show, that delves into uncomfortable topics like the excesses of unrestrained capitalism, white-collar crime, and the strata of Korean culture. How many foreign oeuvre political statement series are interesting enough to ignite such widespread addiction among self-focused, jaded Americans?

After watching some of episode 1, “Red Light, Green Light” and episode 2, on his phone, my son was less sure. We watched (him, for the second time) the first episode together on the living room TV, and almost made it to the end of that first hour.

I’ll be clear: It’s a compelling plot. The characters are well-drawn. The mysterious nature of the organization running the games and the faceless, anonymous characters behind them draws the viewer in. I left the series curious for more, but I also left it with ears burning, my face flushed with heat and shock. We both decided we were done with Squid Game.

I am not some innocent who fell off the potato wagon yesterday. I’ve watched plenty of violent movies. The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan would leave anyone slack-jawed. I’ve watched several of the John Wick movies, the whole Kill Bill series, and a slew of hack-and-slash blood-soaked B-movies. Most of these movies were my entertainment fare before I had a family, and much of it was before I was a Christian, to be sure. But even now I am not so prudish as to avoid a movie just because it has some violence.

My son recently read all three books from the Hunger Games series, and after each book, we’d watch the related movies, which he would then review from the perspective of the freshly finished novel. There was plenty of violence in the Hunger Games, and some of its basic plot points were very similar to Squid Game, which Variety’s reviewer noted. As a genre, dark dystopian tales weaving a “Lord of the Flies” fable are pretty common, and they commonly involve an element of banal, casual brutality among strangers and friends alike.

Squid Game is different.

If you want to avoid the spoilers but read my conclusion, skip down to the CONCLUSION heading.

*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***

The filmmakers made a point of putting the audience inside a massacre, efficiently conducted, with cold precision and casual lethality. The robot voice, eerily resembling Siri or Alexa, explained the rules of the simple “red light, green light” children’s game: if movement is detected after a red light, you will be eliminated. Little did the players, each of them participating of their own volition and out of the desperate hope to redeem a ruined life, know that “elimination” meant instantly dispensed, many times painful but assured and horrifying, death.

Squid Game death was not dealt in some antiseptic sci-fi fashion, like the Tom Cruise “War of the Worlds” zapper that turned its victims to dust. It was done as an art-form: an orgy of gore. It was akin to a Tarantino movie, except Tarantino’s victims—even the more innocent ones—knew the world they lived in. Squid Game victims were ignorant of the nature of the game, and the world, for that matter. The world the filmmakers meant to portray is our world, and the players were being corrupted by it even as they learned its true nature.

Maybe Squid Game is a useful commentary on the kind of world that produces people like the protagonist Gi-hun, who is so downtrodden in life that he spends his mother’s meager earnings looking for a big score betting on horses, running up enormous debts to loan sharks. The shadowed group that runs the game hunts and grooms hundreds of contestants like Gi-hun, meticulously compiling all the sad details of their lives before making their big pitch. The sales pitch involves playing a mini-version of the main event, a simple children’s game, but one where winners are rewarded with a large cash payout, and losers suffer physical harm.

After suffering humiliating slaps in the face but winning cash, Gi-hun was left an unadorned business card and told to call if he was interested in more. This scene made me think of so many marketing schemes where the customers are self-selected by their own desire for a dream they cannot attain. Squid Game presents the lost with a “too good to be true” scenario. This was driven home to me in a remark Gi-hun made when approached by the clean-cut businessman who sat next to him on a subway platform bench—the man who made the Squid Game pitch. “I don’t believe in Jesus,” he said, interpreting the man’s “can I talk to you?” as an evangelistic effort. This interaction stuck with me, almost like a thorn in my side. It really hurt.

South Korea is a very Christian nation. It went from about three percent Christian in the ravaged days following World War II, to just under 10 percent in 1960, after the destructive civil war with the North that technically continues today, to the current number at around 35 percent. It’s not uncommon to see South Koreans spending time at work reading their Bibles when at lunch or on break. I observed this personally in my short time in the country, mostly spent in less urban areas outside the Seoul metro area. Korean culture is based on unity and harmony, and they worship as a church very differently than Americans, we who are so proud of our individuality.

For a Korean to immediately rebuff a stranger on a subway bench, after the kind of day Gi-hun just experienced—he had 4.5 million Yuan (about $3,800) stolen, was beat up by a group of loan-shark enforcers, and spent his daughter’s birthday dinner (his ex-wife has custody and plans to move the family to the U.S. for her new husband’s work) disappointing her with an inappropriate random gift won from an arcade “claw” game—by assuming God had sent the pitch man but shaking his fist at God, was an irony not lost on me.

Squid Game is not a slaughterhouse set in a dystopia removed from God’s world, like so many other tales. It has grabbed God by the belt buckle and accused God’s world of the evil it depicts in full technicolor and the surround-sound crack of a dozen robotic rifles. The technology in this pageant of blood is mostly stuff you can find in the aisles of your local Best Buy (minus the auto gun military hardware), which brings a kind of familiarity and even innocence to such a horror.

I found that the run-up to the children’s game “red light, green light” using single-file marches through brightly-colored open stairwells, and a photo-id booth telling you to "smile!” was likely done on purpose to disorient the players, as well as the viewers. Surely the cost of a chance at having all your problems paid away in cash wouldn’t be so high as your life, they must have thought. Then the guns started blazing, directed by the camera “eyes” of a giant baby doll, the carnage multiplying as the players fled, their bodies piled high at the sealed exit doors.

This all played out while the mysterious  “front man,” wearing a modern version of a traditional Korean Hahoe mask, sipped his Scotch and listened to American rat-pack music from a comfortable easy chair in a well-appointed room built for this purpose, watching with seeming satisfaction and even amusement. It was a very sick juxtaposition.

It appeared to me that, as the violence mounted, and the remaining players realized the rules of the “game” was literally a life-and-death matter, the robot would kill them even if they complied. To my eyes, players froze when “red light” was called, and, crack, they exploded in a fountain of blood. It seemed to me that the violence, gore, and gratuitous death was indeed the point of episode 1.

*** CONCLUSION ***

This moment is when I became conscious that I had a heart-check. I was sitting with this circus of grotesque slaughter playing in front of me, and trying to process it, as my heart beat hard in my chest, my youngest child (who is about to turn 11) ran from the room, my oldest told me he skipped this part when he watched on his phone, and my wife came in and said “that’s enough!” I had frozen, trying to figure out “why?” Why do this? Why show this to the audience?

In order to find the answer, I had to overcome the tsunami of blood on my television screen, and I found that I could not do it. Then I wondered what kind of world we lived in where what could be the most watched series in Netflix history’s audience consisted almost entirely of people who found they could do it.

Not to condemn anyone, but how desensitized to actual or portrayed violence does someone have to be, to watch an event that could plausibly be pulled off in this, our real world, and ignore the wanton bloody murder of innocents, in order to focus on the social or political statement, or just the plot hooks and mystery, of the series itself?

Soldiers who have witnessed excessive brutality or carnage in war frequently find themselves subject to PTSD. Survivors of mass shootings experience unbelievable grief and guilt at having lived through the event that took so many other lives, even the lives of strangers. The players in Squid Game recover rather quickly after voting to end the game and return home. They voluntarily return for more “action.” Do they think the money is worth all the mental suffering or do the filmmakers simply ignore this? I don’t know and don’t plan to find out.

It seems we, the audience, are so very calloused at what we are able to accept as entertainment through our eyes, even when such events, in real life, when they play out in far-away places, are horrifying, lasting, and ultimately not redeemable apart from the human heart’s own redemption.

To me, Squid Game is horrifying, not just because it’s an on the nose portrayal of the brutal world we currently live in, and the evil in it, concentrated into some powerful underground cult that lives by its own strictly enforced rules. It’s horrifying because its massive viral success as a show is due to the willingness of so many viewers to be able to get past (and, I suppose, need) the overstimulation of mass death of unarmed, unwitting humans treated like farm-raised cattle led to the slaughterhouse.

In a world, the one I believe in by faith, where God offers the only hope of redemption for a ruined life and a lost soul drowning in a sea of evil, Squid Game in episode 1 shakes its fist at the heavens and demands that the viewer join in. God checked my heart, and I can’t do it. I’m sure others can. I wish nobody had to try.

Squid Game is the rare well-done thing I’ve seen in art where I walked away wishing it was never made.

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