Unmasked: What Squid Game Reveals About Entertainment Culture

In the vast milieu of modern entertainment, it is rare that any book, movie, or show is able to rear up from the swirling whirlpool of continuous content and assert itself in the cultural context as memorable. And even then, it must endure past the endless spin-offs that will inevitably try to profit off its success, hungrily grasping at the crumbs that come their way and saturating the genre to the point that something new becomes a tired, bloated trope. And if at this point the original still stands, still outlasts, and still appeals to the majority, it will likely become something that defines a generation.

The first Avengers movie had potential to rise to the this level, but instead of having to outlast the spin-off phase, Marvel ended up saturating its own market with endless sequels, storylines, and series. The BBC’s Sherlock seemed to show promise, but instead settled comfortably into the genre of classic mystery made modern. Downton Abbey made a decent effort as well, but soon succumbed to the host of other period dramas set in the UK.

The two shining success stories of the last twenty years are Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. The former still dominates pop culture to an impressive degree, and the latter was so powerfully done that, though the YA dystopian spin-offs have been alarmingly numerous, only the Divergent series even made a respectable approach (and I bet that until this sentence, you hadn’t thought about it in years). The elements of these two phenomena are so deeply engrained in our culture, that anything hoping to compete with them for popularity would have to create as compelling of a hidden, secondary world as Hogwarts and wizards, or outstrip the fascination/horror of watch children fighting to death in an arena. It might even need to do both at the same time. And on top of all that, it would need to introduce something new, something defining, something of its own signature style into popular culture.

Enter Squid Game.

(And, fair warning, spoilers ahead.)

If you haven’t at least heard of Squid Game yet, you likely live under a rock. It has taken the world by storm, having been watched by over 142 million households in its first month (making it Netflix’s most-watched series to date and absolutely annihilating the previous record — 82 million screens in the first 28 days — held by Bridgerton). Memes, parodies, and challenges have rippled over the Internet, and some schools have even noticed children playing “Squid Games” during recess on the playgrounds, despite the show being intended for mature audiences. So how on earth did a show like Squid Game become so popular?

It really is a gripping series — my husband and I watched the first seven episodes in one sitting and then watched the last two the following morning. And even though sometimes that watching was done through my fingers, I found I simply couldn’t look away. The show is intended to be a commentary on the evils of capitalism and class difference: 496 of South Korea’s most destitute and indebted willing to fight to the death over an enormous pot of cash. But rather than showing what raw capitalist greed can turn a person into, I found that the show ultimately uncovered something much more sinister, a glimpse of unchecked human nature — and capitalism has nothing to do with it.

It’s almost as though the show appeals to something base and animalistic inside of us. The VIPs, a bunch of wealthy American elites, show up to the games wearing actual animal masks. There is an obvious layer of implication here that these men are beasts, that in dehumanizing the players before them they are simultaneously dehumanizing themselves. I was struck at the similarities between this scene and the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins depicts people who are so absorbed in themselves and their self-mutilating self-expression, often resulting in enhanced animalistic features, that they lose touch with the reality of the games. The VIPs and the Capitol citizens are human potential laid bare, living in gross excess while the game-makers craft an environment of graphic horror, always pushing the boundaries to be shocking enough that we don’t become bored and stop watching.

I’m sorry, did I say ‘we’? Well, I suppose that’s because we, lounging on our couches and munching away at our snacks, are just as invested. But let me back up first for a minute.

I don’t think that Squid Game would have been able to come into fruition without Harry Potter and The Hunger Games coming before it. First of all, Harry Potter primed the cultural imagination to desire a hidden world within our own, a step closer than even Narnia. Rather than walking through a wardrobe into a different world, we want the possibility of a whole hidden existence that is just out of reach, behind the next brick wall or suggested by an eccentrically-dressed person walking down the street. We crave a world where magical boarding schools hidden in plain sight can co-exist with toasters and traffic, and this desire has shaped collective creativity to an impressive extent. (Seriously, look at all the media in the past 20-25 years: Fantastic or alternate world? Boring, tired, blasé. Fantastic or alternate world within our own? Bring it on! Twilight, Percy Jackson, Bright, Onward… The list goes on.) In fact, the more current, real-world issues that can be crammed into a hidden reality the better. While stories like this always existed, I believe that Harry Potter truly whetted the cultural appetite for them, defining postmodern “fantasy” if you will. And as time goes on, it seems the need for fantasy to be deeply infused with the “normal” world only becomes stronger.

Squid Game fits this bill perfectly: there is a secret world hidden right under the noses of everyday folk going about everyday life. The entrance to this hidden facet of society is through a chance encounter at a train station, something even more accessible than Platform 9 and 3/4. Even within the building where the games take place, there appears to be a (perhaps unconscious) visual nod to Harry Potter: the multiple, confusing stairways bear much resemblance to the moving staircases of Hogwarts castle, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

But while elements of Squid Game’s foundation were established by Harry Potter, it owes more of its success to The Hunger Games. Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, initially had tried to get it made in movie form about a decade ago, but was rejected multiple times, having been told that the content was too “bizarre and unrealistic.” This would have been around the time that The Hunger Games was at the height of its popularity. The Hunger Games is a pretty grotesque and horrific concept, if you think about it. Kids ages 11-17 are forced to fight to the death in an arena to remind their districts why peace is good. I still remember reading the books when I was a young teenager and feeling almost guilty for enjoying them, as if I were doing something wrong. And when the movies came out, they didn’t exactly shy away from the violence and horror of the storyline. The Hunger Games was edgy and pushed boundaries, but it also gave the cultural imagination a sort of bloodlust that has become more and more extreme over the course of the last decade. Today, The Hunger Games isn’t shocking anymore. But because of it, just ten years later, the world has been perfectly primed for a show like Squid Game. What was deemed unrealistic a decade ago is praised for its realism today.

In some ways, Squid Game is “better” than The Hunger Games in that it focuses on adults fighting it out instead of children. But rather than the chaotic free-for-all that defined The Hunger Games, what is so chilling about Squid Game is the way in which it blurs the lines between chaos and order, loyalty and betrayal, children and adults. The players are mature, but the games are extremely juvenile. There are rules so strict they are enforced with capital punishment, and yet the players are also free to murder each other in their sleep with no intervention from the guards or game-makers. Teams are forced to bond, and then forced to use a flippant game of marbles to decide whether they or their friend will die. Even between winning and losing the lines are blurred, as illustrated by the glass bridge. In order for players to “win” this challenge, they must remember and use the costly failures of those who went before. It is at once the ultimate team sport and every man for himself.

Only time will tell, of course, whether Squid Game has enough grit to last as a benchmark in popular entertainment culture. But if it does, I think the thing that will define its “genre,” the unique element it brings to the table that most knock-offs will try to copy, will be this idea of grotesque, twisted juxtaposition, resulting in a semi-surrealist visual. The tantalizing lure of a giant cash prize hovering over the contestant’s heads is quickly equated with a death sentence for all but one. A giant, innocent looking playground becomes spattered with blood. Soft, pastel colours that would usually be soothing or comforting become threatening and frightening. A delicious, honeycomb childhood treat, usually tasted for enjoyment, becomes flavoured with the sweat of survival. The coffins brought in for dead bodies are wrapped with a pink bow, like some sort of sick gift. The feeble, innocent old man we spend the whole show pitying turns out to be the sadistic mastermind behind the whole thing. Even the pink-clad soldiers’ uniforms look more like hazmat suits or surgical gowns (things generally associated with sterility, cleanliness, and ultimately bravely helping others) than military uniforms; such figures pulling out guns and killing contestants without hesitation is chilling and jarring. And apparently, in our current cultural mindset, addicting.

The show uses music as well to drive home this unnerving juxtaposition, and classical music in particular. Classical music at the best of times is typically associated with elegance, beauty, grace, and elevated taste, but in Squid Game, it is played alongside the basest and ugliest parts of human nature. Every morning, the contestants are heralded by the fresh, cheerful fanfare of the third movement of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major. In the first instance of this, the music evokes feelings of joy, optimism, and potential. This is a chance for a new start, an opportunity for contestants to reclaim their lives, get out of debt, follow their dreams. But by the second morning, this fresh new start is undergirded with a sickening cost. I suspect the choice of a trumpet concerto was deliberate as well for a couple reasons. First, any concerto has an orchestra and a soloist, drawing a subtle parallel to the fact that Squid Game, though it requires a large group of performers, will ultimately debut only one person. And second, the trumpet or bugle is an instrument typically associated with the army, specifically in the capacity of serving as a wake-up summons; so even though it is veiled by an orchestra, the trumpet is essentially arousing the contestants for battle.

The other notable piece of classical music that Squid Game employs is Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube, which crackles pleasantly from the loudspeakers every time the rules to a new game are announced. This, too, has some twisted parallels to the competition. The Blue Danube is a dance, particularly a waltz — perhaps the most famous waltz of all time. A waltz has set steps and movements which the dancers, all dressed alike, follow meticulously. The implication here of course is that in a perverse way, the contestants are also in a sort of dance, and some of the camera shots during these scenes almost mimic the great ballroom scenes of people walking amongst each other. The one scene where The Blue Danube plays extensively is during the dinner (reminiscent of a criminal’s last meal before execution) shared by the final three contestants in the penultimate episode. Three contestants around a table with three sides, while a piece in triple metre plays in the background… But in a waltz, there is only room for two partners, and so, unsurprisingly, one of the final three dies before the last challenge. This is no elegant ballroom dance, but a danse macabre: a dance with death.

While on the surface level, Squid Game may be a simple critique of how capitalism traps the average person in a game designed by the rich, I think that ultimately its more profound and disturbing message comes from its viral popularity. After all, how are the people behind those 146 million screens any better than the VIPs, watching from the comfort of their pleasure lounge? We, too, cheered for our favourites and were disappointed when they died. The amount of real world filters, apps, merch, and games inspired by Squid Game dehumanizes the show’s contestants just as much as the rich American businessmen do, except perhaps more shame on us that this is our response even after emotionally connecting to the players. We as a society worldwide have eaten up the graphic violence and feasted our eyes upon human nature laid brutally bare without even a thought of wearing a mask to anonymize the fetish.

In closing, I find a certain C.S. Lewis quote circling in my thoughts. In Prince Caspian, after Peter, Edmund, and Trumpkin decided to skin, clean, and cook a dead bear, Susan and Lucy move off a little ways to avoid the gruesome business. After they sit, Lucy speaks up.

“‘Such a horrible idea has come into my head, Su.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some day, in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside, like the animals here, and still looked like men, so that you’d never know which were which?'”

Even if Squid Game doesn’t endure to the extent of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, it certainly betrays the trajectory of cultural appetite concerning the entertainment industry — and how very close we have come to realizing Lucy’s shudder-inducing thought.

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