The Thing Is The World Is Basically A Squid Game
Better Late Than Never: Squid Game
“The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant was killed.”
Half a century ago, writing under his pen name of Richard Bachman, Stephen King saw the future — or at the very least, the one Squid Game takes place in. King will never be accused of being a Pollyanna, but the novels he wrote under his pseudonym made him look like Dr. Seuss. And in two in particular he foresaw the world that Squid Game took place.
You’ve probably seen The Running Man, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Richard Dawson action film ‘loosely’ based on the Bachman novel. If you haven’t, you haven’t missed anything, and if you have you didn’t get anywhere near the picture of the book. Bachman’s novel takes place in a dystopian future and it does center on a man named Ben Richards who participates in a deadly game show. Everything else is made up. Richards tries out for a game show because his daughter is suffering from a serious illness. During his tryout, he becomes a contestant on The Running Man, which is nothing like the game show you saw in the movie. (Killian is the producer, not the host and he’s an African American. Ah Hollywood.) In the title game show, the contestants have to run and hide across the nation from the hunters who are scouring the country for them for thirty days. If you should survive the whole thirty, you receive a prize of one billion dollars. No one ever has; the record is eight days. And no one is rooting for you to survive; indeed the audience is rewarded if they phone in and say they spot the contestant. I won’t go any more into details; suffice to say this dystopian future is far bleaker than the one in the movie, and while the hero triumphs (in a way) there’s nothing resembling a happy ending.
The other novel is The Long Walk. Set in a future not that far removed from The Running Man (maybe it’s just a different part of it) one hundred teenage boys walk from the Canada/U.S. Border to Boston and must maintain a pace of exactly four miles per hour the entire time. If they drop below four miles per hour, they are warned. You are allowed to be warned three times. The fourth time, you are shot. The survivor of the walk gets a prize and a wish. We never learn what makes up this world, all we know is that it is led by a mythical figure known as The Major, and that based on the final page, it is unlikely the ‘winner’ lives much longer than the losers. (Bachman/King quotes many game shows of the 1970s; the quote above is from that book.)
As Squid Game became an international sensation last December and became a critical hit that dominated American award shows (something that is at best done for British series; certainly not South Korean ones) I was very reluctant to watch it. Part of it had to do with the level of violence that I heard was associated with it, part of it was, I admit, I am loathe to watch any series with subtitles, but mostly I was afraid to watch another dystopian TV show. I couldn’t tolerate Handmaid’s Tale; how could a Korean series about a violent game show be any better? So I kept putting it off. But with the Emmys nearly upon us I knew I would have to prepare to have my gorge tested. So last week, I became the last person in the world to watch the first two episodes of Squid Game. And while it is as gruesome and horrific as the chatter has proven, I can’t deny that it is also riveting and mesmerizing to watch.
I shall limit my review to the first two episodes, but there will be spoilers.
In the first episode we see a man who seems an utter reprobate (Lee Jung-Jae). He steals his mothers ATM card, loots her money so he can gamble, wins big, and then we see him run from loan sharks. His pocket is picked and he is force to sign away ‘his body rights’. Seeing his daughter that night (he’s divorced and his wife has remarried) he presents her with a ‘gift’ he won in a crane game. Going to work, he runs into a ‘man’ who offers to have him play a game (I don’t know the name but it involves throwing envelopes at one on the floor.) He has no money, so if he loses he agrees to be slapped in the face. Countless times he loses, finally he wins and is about to slap the man he sees until he remembers the cash. He reluctantly takes and is given a card with symbols on it.
Later that night he learns that his wife and daughter are moving to America with his mother urging him to sue for parental rights, he agrees to play the game. He goes to a pick up site, and is gassed. He wakes up in an unknown area along with 455 other players. (I’ll discuss some of them in a bit). A group of…people, all wearing masks come in and tell several of their players their situation: It’s simple actually. All of them are hopelessly in debt. If they play six rounds of this game, they will be rewarded.
The first game is ‘Red Light, Green Light’. If you’ve seen the first episode, or if you’ve read the first part of my review, you know or can guess what happens to the contestants who are caught. I won’t deny the final ten minutes of the episode aren’t fascinating in a gruesome way — the contestants running for cover as they realize the consequences, their desperate efforts to get to the finish line in time, the surreal nature of the toy girl, a man in a mask watching this to ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, and enough blood to make Sam Peckinpah blush. That said if I had seen only the pilot with no other knowledge of what Squid Game would become, I almost certainly would have never watched another episode. But because of the Emmy nomination I felt I had an obligation to go a little further. So I watched the second episode, appropriately called ‘Hell’. That episode establishes it as a masterpiece.
The stunned contestants are recovering from what they have seen and demand to be released. There’s a rule that says after every round if a majority vote to cease the game, the game will end. Before it does, the loser’s share nearly 2 billion won (you’ll have to look online for the currency exchange) is deposited. The surviving 201 vote.
By a margin of one vote, they agree to end the game. The survivors are returned to ‘the real world’.
In a longer review about TV at Politico, a writer said Squid Game was a searing indictment of capitalism. I thought a lot about that review was crap, but having seen this episode, I can’t agree more. Because it’s not just how far these people are willing to go even after seeing hundreds of their fellow contestants die to play for their share of what is literally blood money; it’s the fact that the world they live in has put them in this situation. And unlike the lead who seemed to get in over his head, almost all the other contestants ended up playing the game because of a system that was just as violent as the one they signed up for. (I’m going to refer to them by number for my own sake; the credits didn’t reveal easily the cast names.)
199 an Indian immigrant (Annupam Tripathi) has been owed money for six months and the company he works for is out of money. 67, the pickpocket we met earlier (SAG winner Jung Ho-Yeon) spent all her savings trying to get her parents out of China, only to lose everything when the broker proved to be corrupt. 218 (Park Hae-Soo) is an embezzler in futures who is wanted by the police. 001 (Ooh Yung-Soo) has a ‘lump’ in his head and nothing to live for. Even the reasons of 456 become more empathetic when he learns his mother has diabetes and might need her feet amputated. All of these players are given another card, offering to let them return to the game. And we see that this is as much hell as the world they just escaped. They don’t have a life to come back too. Compared to what these people are facing, you can see any of them could have become the Korean equivalent of Walter White if circumstances permitted. Of course, they have far fewer options than he does.
I know there will be far more to Squid Game then just what I’ve seen — there’s a crime boss who’s in debt up to his eyeballs and a detective who is trying to find out what happened to his missing brother who got a card like everyone else did. And maybe there isn’t much more to it than could be together in a fairly decent episode of the Twilight Zone. (Jordan Peele could have made it work as much as Rod Serling did; there are quite a few elements that do remind me of Peele’s work as a filmmaker.) All I know is that, from what I see so far, Squid Game is worthy of all the praise and awards it has gotten to this point. And in a way, I can see why this show was mentioned in an article with Succession: if there was an actual Squid Game out there, you know one of the Roy siblings would be signing up the international rights for Waystar and even Logan would see the potential in franchising it. In a way, Squid Game takes place in a completely different universe from Succession. In another, they’re right next door.
(Note: I have learned that Netflix is planning to have a real-life version of Squid Game air some time in 2023 around the same time Season 2 of the fictional one does. Considering the financial troubles the site has been going through the past year, do you think they’ll try to boost the ratings by adding a new meaning to the term ‘a contestant has been eliminated?)
My rating: 4.75 stars.