**Warning: This analysis contains major spoilers**
(This review is for people who watched Squid Game and are needing to process what they watched and for people who do not intend to watch it but want to know how to have conversations about it.)
“Squid Game,” the Korean show that has serious Hunger Games energy, is now the number one most watched series of all time on Netflix. This peaked my interest. Similar to the show “13 Reasons Why,” this show taps into essentially human themes and has excellent storytelling and well-developed characters — and the stakes are literally life or death. I’ll be breaking this review down into three major sections: an overview of the plot, worldview analysis, and final thoughts. I’ll specifically be looking for “redemptive analogies” within Squid Game as I dialogue with the show.
We follow a man named Seong Gi Hun who finds himself in the underworld. Recently fired from his job and deeply in debt, Seong is desperate to pay his debt and regain his life. What’s worse, his mother is also tied up in Seong’s debt and in declining health. Further, Seong is not trusted by his ex-wife and will soon lose contact with his daughter when they move to America. In a place of desperation, Seong is met by a man in the Subway who promises to make him rich if he simply plays and wins a game. Seong initially refuses, but after his situation continues to decline, he agrees to enter the game. He is later put to sleep with a sort of gas, and he wakes up in a warehouse with over 400 other people.
At the start of the first game (red light/green light), no one understands that being “eliminated” means being killed. When that quickly becomes apparent, some try to escape, some protest, but others recognize the only way out is to win the round. All who do not cross the line when the clock runs out are killed. After the game, over half are dead. This prompts nearly everyone to want out. The rule makers announce that if half of the players vote to leave the game, the game ends and everyone can leave. But just before the voting starts, a large clear piggy bank lowers from the ceiling of the warehouse and begins filling with cash. It is made clear that the winner[s] of the game win the cash. This proves to be a strong motivator to stay in the game as every contestant was selected because they are in some sort of financial trouble, or need the money to accomplish some good in their life (like reuniting with their family). But the vote takes place and the majority (by one vote) votes to leave the game. Here comes the moment that makes this story so captivating.
After the players are released, we follow a few of them as they reenter the hopelessness of their lives. A few days pass, and they realize that they had a chance at a better life (by winning the fortune) in the game than they did out in the real world. Every player is given a chance to reenter the game, and over 90% of them do. At first they were victims, now they are choosing to be there. This is what separates Squid Game from other dystopian stories: the individual choice to enter into that hell. The writers do an excellent job establishing unique motives for each of the major characters to reenter the game. I found myself thinking, “I understand why they chose to go back in. At least there they found a glimmer of hope.”
The rest of the series follows Seong. He makes alliances, fights for survival, finds clever ways to outsmart his opponents, and eventually win – but at the cost of dueling his lifelong friend in the Korean playground game called “Squid Game” where the show derives its name. About two thirds of the way into the show, we are introduced to the special guests. These are elites who (presumably) pay big money to “bet” on the remaining players as they would in horse racing. The show is careful to portray a sharp contrast between those who are desperate to have money and those who are bored with how much money they have. There are other secondary storylines, but this is sufficient to understand the show.
1. A Reverse Away from Sexualization And Back To Storytelling.
Save for the one sex scene in this show (which I skipped), Squid Game is surprisingly non-sexual. I say surprisingly because I have grown used to how sexuality has become a main focus in stories in the west. But Squid Game tells its story apart from over sexualizing its women, or by over emphasizing feminism. Yet, its male and female characters are developed into well-rounded and compelling characters. I found myself growing to admire Jung Ho-Yeon, the lead female character, as she had to overcome her loner tendencies and learned to trust Seong Gi Hun (the male lead), and he learned to trust her (after she robbed him in the opening episode). Their relationship was not romantic, or sexual, as any American would expect it to be. Rather, they became deep friends and allies. She even stopped Seong from murdering and helped him embrace mercy. This lack of sexualization, I think, is a strength of the show. While it has a graphic sex scene, it served the larger purpose of the story where the woman was trying to buy the strongest male’s allegiance by giving herself to him— only to later be betrayed by him (again, I skipped this scene. But it was very clear by the context that they were both using each other). This is in contrast to most western stories that throw a sex scene in just to (presumably) keep its audience’s attention. I wonder if Americans long for well-developed characters and stories and are growing tired of over sexualization. I certainly want that.
2. On Being Lured Into Darkness
In “The Lion King,” King Mufasa showed Simba all the land that would one day be his — everything that the light touches. But Simba asked about the shadow lands, and Mufasa replied to never go there. Yet after Mufasa’s death, that is precisely where Simba went. Being that Squid Game tops the all-time Netflix charts, its audience are like Simba in being drawn into the dark underworld of Squid Game. This is because humanity is drawn into both goodness and evil — the light and into the dark. Humans are capable of both, just as our Parents longed to have knowledge of good and evil, so we too long for that same knowledge. What Squid Game offers is a kind of imaginative knowledge; an experience into a world where the stakes are life and death. Rather than criticizing the gore, violence, and graphic nature of the series, I am asking a more fundamental question: why are so many drawn into that world? What “enjoyment” do I receive in watching? To deny that there is such enjoyment is to deny that humans possess what Yung called “the shadow,” and what Paul called “the flesh.” Our curiosity of death and suffering is satisfied by Squid Game. But I suspect many (especially young people) do not know how to process their unexpected desire to continue watching. This is why I compared Squid Game to 13 Reasons Why: they both possess the same dark alluring affect that draw young people in. This contaminates viewers imagination and numbs their conscience. Parents and friends would do well by asking those who watched Squid Game what affect it had on their soul.
3. Hijacking Longings
Inherent in Squid Game is conflict theory: there is a finite sum of resources to be distributed to a finite amount of people. The large piggy bank suspended from the ceiling became the prize they all fixated upon. But ironically, Seong wins the prize but it does not satisfy him. In fact after the game he does not spend any of his prize money. The suspended piggy bank hijacked humanity’s longing for freedom and justice (the things money promises to buy), and distorted their longings so the contestants either passively or actively murdered each other. Squid Game serves as a cultural “bridge,” or redemptive analogy, that reveals humanity’s attempt to satisfy our longings but in an inappropriate and winner-take-all way. Contrasted with the conflict theory inherent in Squid Game, Christ offers unlimited resources for all who enter into Him. His “piggy bank” promises true satisfaction, and invites all who have ears to hear the good news of the Gospel. Rather than Squid Game’s 400 contestants whittled down to 1, Christ’s Gospel starts with the One and extends to the world. What all the contestants really longed for was justice – a longing Jesus will satisfy to all who enter into Him at the end of all time. The false glimmer of hope in the game cannot compare to the true and sure radiance of Jesus.
I write this summary and worldview analysis so that those who have seen it can process it, and those who will not see it can discuss it. This show is violent, contains lots of language, and one sex scene. But rather than criticizing, I wanted to enter into a dialogue with this extremely popular series. There is far more that could be said about what the show gets right and what the show gets wrong. But I think these three observations floated to the surface. We have not seen the last of Squid Game as it left on two major cliff-hangers and Netflix has already allocated funds for season 2. But no matter what captures our cultural imagination, be sure that anything good, true or beautiful in media comes directly from God. Christians must not be afraid to look for redemptive analogies in media, because by doing so, we may help the lost world stumble its way to Christ.
*Note: I did not read any other reviews for this show save for one interview with the writers. They made it clear that their motivation for writing this show was to expose elitism in societies — it was not a critique of capitalism.