Squid Game, a one-season Korean TV show, has become a kind of sensation since it premiered on Netflix in September. You know a series has really touched a nerve when people start dressing up as characters from the show for Halloween and speculate about whether there will be a second season and if so what its plot will be.
I watched the show this week, and found it both fascinating and repellant. It’s hard to say anything about the show without offering spoilers, so I will just note that the plot boils down to two depressing commentaries on the human condition: first, that financially troubled people who are separated from their families and friends will do just about anything for money, and second, that non-desperate people will take advantage of that reality for their own sick, personal amusement and will be able to find other people who can rationalize assisting in the whole effort and enforcing the rules for pay. The players are 456 Koreans who are so deeply in debt that they agree to play a desperate game–called the Squid Game after a rough game played by Korean kids on the playground–in hopes of winning a huge and potentially life-changing jackpot, as they are watched on TV by sick “VIPs” who have enlisted legions of masked guards to enforce the rules of the game.
It’s a pretty grim and terribly violent series, and its presentation of the underside of Korean society is incredibly bleak–so much so that, even when the players understand the real rules of the “Squid Game” and have the chance to go back to their normal lives, they quickly realize that their lives are so hopeless and depressing that they voluntarily go back to the game. And there is a certain fascination, from a psychological and sociological standpoint, in watching the players play variations of different children’s games that the masked “front man” has carefully determined will expose and exacerbate the worst aspects of the players’ characters and incentivize them to do whatever it takes to win. There aren’t many characters in the show who retain even a shred of decency as the game proceeds.
The show clearly doesn’t present a very appealing view of South Korea or the human condition in general, and I haven’t decided whether I want there to be a second season of Squid Game or just think about the plausibility of the scenario presented by the series as is. I’m not sure I really need more evidence of the seamy underside of human beings right now.