[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for Netflix’s series Squid Game.]
Squid Game, Netflix’s surprise new horror hit, is clearly focused on one person from the start: Gi-hun, the kind-hearted gambler who eventually wins the titular game. At first, however, I thought Kang Sae Byeok, a savvy, independent loner from North Korea, would prevail. I thought that if she didn’t win, then at least she would escape and maybe take the poor Gi-hun with her. In almost any other version of this story, she would have — but Squid Game writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk refuses to challenge the game structure at the story’s core, so she, like almost everybody else, is lost to the game.
To be clear, I don’t think Sae-byeok “deserved” the games’ prize money more, or that Gi-hun or anyone else deserved to lose either the game or their lives. However, in many battle royale and dangerous-game stories Sae-byeok’s defiance and skills would have made her the clear winner. And the fact that she isn’t in this case says a lot about Hwang’s intentions with the show.
Rules of the genre
The genre-naming is the basis of most battle royale media. Battle RoyaleTo Hunger Games The Purge, the overall story arc is about testing the game’s boundaries and exploiting its vulnerabilities. They are often set in alternative realities, where violence of unimaginable magnitude is common. They invoke the same horror inherent in Shirley Jackson’s controversial short story The Lottery, which says tradition, culture, and other controlling forces in our lives can convince us to do terrible things — things which seem perfectly natural until they happen to people we care about.
All of this holds true Squid GameThe show is based on elements taken from recent horror films like Ready to go or not Escape RoomPlease see the following: HuntThis is a. These films invoke another great story. The Most Dangerous GameThe story is about a shipwreck survivor, who must live until dawn to escape being hunted down by an ultra-rich killer.
The battle royale and dangerous-game games are both about games. However, they have different approaches to the villain. Battle royale examines how society and its structure control us with rewards and punishments. These battles offer an image of the controlling force like Battle Royale’s ex-teacher Kitano or Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman. These are only a few examples of the wider culture which insists that violence is essential for social cohesion. These people didn’t create the law, they merely work to ensure it remains unchanged, because they benefit from the power they get from the status quo.
The villain in most dangerous-game stories is an individual, or group of individuals who are often abnormally wealthy and actively participate in the game. Their worlds don’t necessarily condone murder for entertainment; they’re actively working outside the law, because they have enough money and power to do so. They have the ability to violate the law, but they are not allowed. because of an unfair system, usually wealth or power inequality, that system usually isn’t the primary element being critiqued.
Accepting the Rules
Squid GameThis is a perfect marriage of both these genres. You can see it in the following: Battle RoyaleOder Hunger Games, the squid game wouldn’t exist in a fair society. Modern-day South Korea is the setting for the story. This speaks volumes about our growing awareness of modern capitalism’s inequalities. The second episode ends with the victims voting to leave the game by the smallest margin. Democracy prevails! The real world unleashed upon them: the medical debts, the beggars, collectors and the swindlers. Most of the players decide to return to playing, fully conscious that they risk their lives. I’m curious what happens to the handful of former players who didn’t return, valuing their own lives above a nebulous and unlikely payout. But of course, these stories aren’t about the people who manage to escape the game.
Each person returning to the game hopes they’ll win or rob the games, and be a millionaire. Their chances of winning are higher in a game with 201 survivors than in the real world. It’s only partly accurate to say they joined the game on a voluntary basis. If failure results in being assaulted by thugs and/or killed right away by vengeful Gangsters, then any decision to avoid this outcome must be coerced.
However Squid Game also shows that people can fall into debt and poverty because of individual human choices — their own or others. Maybe that means a gambling habit and a disregard for your daughter’s birthday, a pickpocket lifting your big score, or a crook taking your money while promising to get your mother out of North Korea. Or maybe it’s because of the boredom of a few pathetically wealthy sociopaths.
Who sets the rules
Hwang, late in the series introduces us to an anonymous group of rich gamblers. They sit and observe participants’ deaths while providing mild commentary. They aren’t the ones who organize the game, they merely benefit from its entertainment. It is also revealed that Oh Il-nam (the sweet, elderly man Gi-hun meets) was both a participant as well as the game’s creator.
It is because of this delicate balance between individual human behavior and structural criticism that I believed Sae-byeok would prevail. Sae-byeok is on a break from the game and visits an immigration broker, who will help her mother escape North Korea. He prepares a delicious cup of coffee and explains how it costs so much to sneak across the border. The last time he sent him money, he cheats him. So they must start over. Getting her mother out will cost Sae-byeok a ruinous amount of money — money she could be using to reunite with her brother.
After listening patiently to the broker’s wheedling, she throws his scalding coffee in his face, holds a knife to his neck, and tells him how the situation is really going to go. Although she tries to follow procedure, she knows that isn’t always the best way to get things done. Sometimes, if you lack power or aren’t recognized by the system, it’s entirely ineffectual. Saebyeok recognizes that power responds only to power. Violence is one type of power.
Philosopher Louis Althusser, in his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” describes two structural elements that control our day-to-day lives. By offering reward or threat of exclusion, ideologic state apparatuses persuade people to comply with a set if rules. These are often schools, churches, or workplaces. Criminal justice systems and other repressive state apparatuses have the ability to force behavior through violence or coercion. Both elements are often interdependent and depend on one another to keep control.
Participants in the Squid Game have the right to withdraw, making the game a hypothetically ideological apparatus. They’re told their participation is voluntary. But the rules allow for this only because the organizers understand that the players are under threat of repressive apparatuses — like the law closing in on failed businessman Cho Sang-woo for embezzlement, or the criminal syndicate trying to wring payments out of Gi-hun and gangster Jang Deok-su.
Who are the exceptions to the rule?
Gi-hun’s backstory captures Hwang’s incredibly complex understanding of how these apparatuses interact. In the cheekily named episode “A Fair World,” Gi-hun has a PTSD-like flashback while guarding his sleeping friends in the dorm. Il-nam learns that he used to work for a large car manufacturer that had suffered huge layoffs. His coworkers and he occupied the factory as a protest. Then the police were called in — the ideological apparatus turning to the repressive. Gi-hun sat by as the police attacked protestors, and one of his colleagues was killed. It’s clear that Gi-hun has some unresolved emotional damage from this event, which likely contributed to the failures of his subsequent businesses and his marriage, and his gambling habit. Defiance is punished more harshly the stricter the system.
But all systems include grey areas where the laws aren’t defined, or can’t be enforced. The battle royale game is my favorite. It’s so fascinating to see people learn the rules and then either find a way of working with them or ignore them completely. It’s incidentally why I’m obsessed with TaskmasterBritish game show in which contestants must complete arbitrary and sometimes ridiculous challenges. It has an entertaining and joyous energy and there are no stakes. TaskmasterSimilar to the previous point, it is about either following the rules or suffering. Or finding your own path to success.
Challenges in war royales, dangerous-game stories or in TaskmasterThey are invariably unfair. Everyone is treated equally in terms of the consequences, rewards and rules. No matter how skilled the game master, everyone is equal. Squid GameAlthough everyone is treated equally, some people still practice disobedience. Some are horrifying, like the doctor Byeong-gi, who the squid game workers give special privileges in exchange for harvesting saleable organs from game victims, sometimes while they’re still alive.
Breaking the rules?
Other times disobedience may be the only way for you to survive. Sae-byeok keeps her mouth covered to keep from being gassed while the other contestants get delivered to the game. She’s able to sneak in the tiniestPocket knife that I have seen. The rules can’t be applied if nobody is aware you’re breaking them, and Sae-byeok cleverly navigates them to get an advantage.
Conceptually speaking, the endings of battle royale and dangerous game stories are often very similar. It’s presumed that dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people followed the rules of the past games, and died as a result. However, these stories are about players who want to defy rules. They can cause fundamental damage or even destruction of the system or the people that make the game possible.
Squid Game, both the show and the eponymous event, rewards players who stay within the boundaries — the limits created by people in power to send the players into a meat grinder. Saebyeok is the man to watch in traditional battle royales. His ability to understand the rules will make him the winner. Gi-hun’s creative approach to tasks is evident, such as when he licked the honeycomb candy back in the second task. He abides to the rules and uses very few derivation. Gi-hun patiently waits to be fed and sleep in his dorm. Sae-byeok crawls through the air vents looking for sugar vats.
It happens exactly the way people expect. The battle royale style’s radical potential is surpassed in the final. Squid Game’s refusal to challenge the structural root of its existence. It has never been attacked or damaged. It continues with no pause, collecting all contestants. The final scene of the show demonstrates how incredibly grim this fact is — more hopeless and horrific than almost any other story in either genre.
Gi-hun bets Il-nam, a duplicitous accomplice in murder, that no one will save an unconscious man on the streets before he dies. But Gi-hun doesn’t realize HeThis man can be helped. He’s seen the need, and he has the resources to save the man’s life: time, awareness of his situation, and a functionally infinite amount of wealth. Instead of intervening, however, he waits and hopes that someone else will take care.
It makes me wonder what Saebyeok would do in such a situation. It’s likely she would never have gone to visit Il-nam in the first place, and not just because she was never close with him. I can’t imagine her suffering the need to indulge Il-nam’s behavior, his desire for closure or control.
Would she have saved him if she was there? He would probably have died if it weren’t for the Sae-byeok who was there at the beginning of the series. However, I believe that by the end, particularly after the experience she had with Ji-yeong recently released, she would have brushed aside the spirit of her bet to save Ji-yeong. Gi-hun is more passive, and doesn’t appear to realize his hands aren’t tied. It’s why he was never the game’s strongest contestant, and why Sae-byeok has earned such a breakout fandom — she’s the more conventional audience avatar, the one who makes surprising, definitive choices.
Gi-hun is seen taking control of his affairs in the last scenes of the series. He’s retrieved Sae-byeok’s brother from the orphanage and found him a home. The boy was not taken care of by him. He’s got a cool new ’do (chosen at random based on a poster) and a ticket to visit his daughter. But he can’t help but be drawn back into the game. Perhaps in the highly theoretical season 2, he’ll finally step up to disrupt the games once and for all.
Our participation in society isn’t passive. We are not passive observers in society. Our actions, and our inactions create or maintain the structure we live within. Sae-byeok realized that all the rules against her were unfair and she didn’t have to comply with them. Il-nam understood that it’s better to play than to watch. Gi-hun will never be able understand this.
All 9 episodesSquid GameNetflix is streaming.