Deprivation Binge

Troy Reimink: ‘Squid Game’ phenomenon dramatizes economic survival


Troy Reimink mug

Troy Reimink

The premise of Netflix’s “Squid Game” might be the TV best elevator pitch of all time: It’s “Hunger Games” for adults, with a thick layer of late-capitalist panic and a visual aesthetic built for memes. Total slam dunk.

By now, the Korean-language series has thoroughly swept the planet. Its story involves hundreds of financially desperate people who have accepted a mysterious invitation and find themselves in a secret location, competing in life-or-death versions of children’s playground games where the last contestant alive receives a huge cash windfall.

The nine episodes unfold a puzzle-box narrative with enough twists and cliffhangers to guarantee viewers — at least those of us whose tolerance for violence was forged by 1990s action films and Quentin Tarantino — will keep binging. It’s one of those products that’s so timely, so perfectly attuned to cross-cultural anxieties that it feels almost algorithmic.

Netflix has announced that “Squid Game” is now the most-streamed original series in the company’s history. The show has already prompted a perfunctory “Saturday Night Live” parody, an infinitude of online discussion and a creeping realization that the competitors’ now-iconic blue-green numbered tracksuits, possibly splattered with blood, will account for probably half of the adult Halloween costumes we’re about to see.

That whimsical color palette, along with childlike set designs and playfully eerily music, are juxtaposed against violence whose scale and brutality is obviously crafted for shock value.

The first episode alone climaxes with more than 200 people being shot to death during a game of Red Light/Green Light, as the contestants suddenly understand the gravity of the competition they’ve joined. Each subsequent game eliminates many more with escalating ruthlessness.

Series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has written characters believable enough to generate real emotional stakes. Every competitor is deeply in debt and on the verge of financial ruin or worse, and many are perfectly willing to fight each other to the death for money, to the apparent amusement of whomever is watching from the shadows.

Our point-of-view protagonist is Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), an unemployed deadbeat dad who has started to offer vital organs as collateral for his debts. Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector trying to find enough money to smuggle her family across the border. Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is an investment manager under investigation for embezzling his clients’ money.

Some players are more sympathetic than others, clearly, and the series seems agnostic on whether the characters are victims of structural deprivation, or if their predicaments are self-inflicted. The socioeconomic subtext, while particular to South Korea, is just generic enough to resonate in any culture with snowballing inequality.

Like the story itself, the ideas animating “Squid Game” give us a lot of puzzles to unravel. Is the game itself a metaphor for the global economy or just a superficial setting for an action thriller? Is it a critique of hyper-violent entertainment or a just stylish presentation of it? Is it a coherent political text, or just a provocation?

The answer to each of those questions is yes, and the story is so cleverly built that “Squid Game” can have its cake as many ways as it wants. Same deal: Is “Squid Game” a substantive commentary on capitalism or just a self-aware product of it? And is there even a difference?

My tinfoil-helmet theory about Netflix is that, for a few years now, the streaming giant has basically been summoning content to life from its vast collection of user data. I don’t mean this literally, of course. Hwang adapted “Squid Game” from an unproduced screenplay he wrote more than a decade old, and any hit show not based on existing intellectual property feels almost miraculous nowadays.

But Netflix knows more about our viewing preferences, collectively and individually, than we know about ourselves. And when it puts something on our home screen, it’s not because it’s guessing what we might want to watch — it knows we will.

Are we all just doomed players in a game we don’t control or understand, or have I fully lost my mind to big-data paranoia? Again, probably yes to both.

Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.

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