For spoiler reasons for the first episode, the post is below the fold, being a run down of the episode, though I guess that by now y’all know the basic set up of the series.
You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of “Squid Game”, the most successful Netflix series so far. Everybody and their dog seems to be very excited about it, and of course my kids are pestering me to let them watch it. Now, I’m not set against violence in media as such, but I’m very much in favour of kids not being shown violent media they cannot understand. Plot lines, narratives and stories are things we need to learn. We start them on Peppa Pig and work from there, so when they encounter violence in media they can contextualise it. If we start them on violent media, no matter how good that media is, where they cannot understand the story, then all they get is the violence.
Squid Game is advised for 16+, so there was no way I’d just let a 12 and 14 yo watch that show, so I promised them that I’d watch first and then we talk. So I watched the first episode and now I’m a bit puzzled about the hype. We start with our protagonist, Gi-hun, who is, let’s face it, a waste of space. He’s a gambler with about 300k (€/$) in debt. He lives with his old mum, whom he bullies and insults, while she’s doing the cooking and washing. He pesters her for money, and when she doesn’t give him enough, he steals her bank card and steals money from her account. At this point I hated him already. I’m not sure here: am I meant to hate him? Or am I missing out on the “tragic hero down on his luck” story because I have no patience for men like him?
Of course he carries the money off to a betting place, where he first loses, then wins big, but loses the money again to a pick pocket while running from the loan sharks out to get their money. In the end he has to beg money off a woman he gave a tip earlier, because he really needs money, because it’s his daughter’s birthday. Oh, did I forget to mention that? It’s his daughter’s birthday and all he cares about is gambling. So he gets a little money and he does what? Right, he goes gambling. In the end he has an inappropriate gift (a lighter ion form of a gun) and takes the kid to a fast food place. Father of the year! He takes the kid back home, meeting his ex, and of course she’s portrayed as a total bitch, making a fuss about him being 10 minutes late. I can only imagine how much time the lady has spent waiting for this guy already…
On the way home he meets a mysterious guy who offers him a game. It’s a Korean kids game and he can easily win a lot of money. What’s even better, he doesn’t even lose money, if he loses he just gets slapped! And he loses often, letting the other guy beat him so bad his whole face swells up, but he does win some money. See, finally gambling pays off! The guy gives him a business card and Gi-hun goes home where his mum informs him that the evil ex is planning to move to the USA, taking the kid with her. If only he had some financial stability! Then he could get custody! So of course that’s when he calls the guy from earlier. Again, we’re probably supposed to now feel for him. Dude is just doing it for his daughter! This is probably me again, but I’m more worried at this point that the guy could get custody than anything else. Sorry, I know too many kids with fathers like that and I see the damage they do. I don’t know, did others who watched it feel sympathy towards him? Do they have any emotional connection with Gi-hun?
Anyway, we’re probably now about 30 minutes into the episode and the game finally begins. He and the others are basically abducted. They’re all in serious debt, the game masters know all about them, they sign a contract that doesn’t tell them that “disqualified” means “dead” and the first game “red light, green light” begins. It’s probably an international game, because I know it as “1-2-3-4 oxen at the hillside”: One kid is turns around saying their line, and while they’re doing so, you’re alowed to move, but if they catch you moving after they turn again, you’re out. Only here “out” means “dead”. Of course the first person to move gets shot, when the others notice, there’s a panic and about 80% of the participants don’t survive the following carnage. Frankly, it’s the exact sort of violence I dislike in media: Senseless carnage, just for the brutality of the images. And they are brutal, with corpses piling up, blood flowing freely. The bullets, otoh, are magical. they never hurt anybody except the person intended to die. You see them enter a head, you see the blood spray out of the back of the head, but the person behind is simply unharmed.
Of course, Gi-hun and a few more we barely got to know survive the first game and this is where the first episode ends and I’m left puzzled. Am I supposed to care about Gi-hun? Am I supposed to have an emotional connection with him that I’m just not getting because I see him as a complete asshole and not some tragic hero? Or am I supposed to care despite him being a complete asshole, because no human being deserves to be treated like that? And if so, what about all the others who died in that episode, whose deaths were obviously not meant to make a connection? I’ll give the series that the visuals are great. The people involved with the game don’t have faces, apart from the first guy Gi-hun meets. They’re wearing uniforms and masks (cue seeing them everywhere this Halloween), there is a mastermind who enjoys watching the carnage in a luxury setting, also wearing a mask. I could see this as an allegory for capitalism as a system killing people for its profits: not a personal problem, but one of a system, but honestly, it does have Nazi vibes where every single person working there is obviously ok with the brutal murder of hundreds of people.
In conclusion, the story is the Hunger Games, just adapted to a real world setting and without using innocent children but instead adults who are all less than innocent, having amounted tons of “unnecessary” debt via gambling, fraud, etc. But where the Hunger Games make you abhor the violence and brutality, so far Squid Game is desensitizing you. And just as a cherry on top of the whole mess sundae: the episode doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test…
What will I do now with the kids? If they really want to watch it, we will watch together, but we will have a long talk before watching. I’m just hoping that they’ll get bored during the first half of the episode.
Did you watch it? What was your impression?