“Please tell me you’re not writing a review on ‘Squid Game.’”
So said my colleague at The Phoenix when I mentioned I’d recently watched the hugely popular TV show.
“There have already been so many reviews,” he continued.
And he’s right; the hugely popular show created by Hwang Dong-Hyuk has pervaded all corners of the internet, along with scores of responses. But after reading several of these reviews, I couldn’t help feeling that there was an essential piece missing. Yes, the anti-capitalist takeaway is evident and important. But within that framework, there is also a key commentary on television itself, on performance and viewership, on being seen and unseen.
The very premise of “Squid Game” — so horrible you can’t look away — contributes to much of its undeniable appeal. Hundreds of people with enormous amounts of debt are invited to play high-stakes games to win money while being live-streamed for rich American audiences, the VIPs. Too late, the players find out just how high these stakes are. At its core, then, “Squid Game” is a show about a show. The hosts of the Squid Games are manufacturing set, costume, character, and plot decisions ostensibly designed for the ultimate viewing pleasure of the VIPs. Of course, this translates into good television to the real audience: Netflix viewers. And it works; “Squid Game” is visually irresistible, with candy colors, teal and hot-pink tracksuits, and dead bodies packaged in black boxes with a pink bow. The characters are well-rounded and well-written, particularly the complicated, charismatic lead Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-Jae). After all, the hosts of the Squid Games carefully choose each participant and compile their information into a comprehensive file for the VIPs. In other words, the hosts are setting up inherently good television, with intrinsically dramatic, life or death situations between many varieties of characters and interpersonal relationships.
When we are introduced to the world of the game, we are also introduced to the panoptic rules of the series. The participants wake up in a prison-like system of beds, metal bars dividing them from each other. Soon, it’s revealed that several people, each dressed in a hot-pink tracksuit and a mask, are actively monitoring the participants through arcade-like screens. At the beginning of the first game, as the players walk through a pastel labyrinth of stairs, we focus on a camera. Cues like these are omnipresent throughout the show, creating a constant environment of surveillance. Screens, cameras, and the masked staff follow the players everywhere.
In a particularly compelling episode, “Gganbu,” the participants pair up to play a game of marbles. The beautiful dialogue capturing these intimacies between two people makes it easy to forget that there is actually a third person in each group: a masked staff member, gun in hand. The staff, anonymous, faceless, almost entirely silent, feel like an obvious nod to the other silent observer: the Netflix viewer. In every game, in every private moment, the voyeur remains: a faceless person in a hot-pink tracksuit, the VIPs, and us. In this episode, Gi-hun attempts to play with his partner, Oh Il-nam, an old man with a brain tumor who is losing his memory. [Spoiler: it turns out that Il-nam is actually one of the hosts of the game, and not really playing.] Il-nam gets distracted by the set, which looks like his childhood neighborhood, however, and wanders around until he finds an exact replica of his old home in a “Synecdoche, New York”-like reveal. To me, this is the most crucial and surreal moment of the show. What are the diegetic implications of a set which replicates a real house? An entire neighborhood? Knowing that [spoiler] Il-nam is actually the mastermind of the game, are we to understand the set was specifically designed for him, with or without his knowledge? Yet such a detailed replication seems impossible within the reality of the show, given the old man’s genuine memory loss and the many years that have passed since he lived there. The surreal creation of the neighborhood through the set collapses the lines between the Squid Game and “Squid Game.”
After the games end, [spoiler] Gi-hun emerges the unhappy winner. When he asks Oh Il-nam why he let him live, in both the marble round and after, Il-nam responds, “Because it was fun playing with you.” The line is true in multiple ways. One, it was fun playing the games, such as marbles, with him. Two, it was fun playing with him in the way you bet on horses (a metaphor used throughout). Three, it was fun playing him in the way you hit play on a TV show. Gi-hun is, at his core, a protagonist. He’s useful for the games. For the VIPs. For us. We know from the beginning that Gi-hun will win because he is the character we begin with and we see the most of. And the rules of the game follow the rules of television.
The other primary logic of television is television as commodity. K-dramas have become a significant part of Korean culture and economy, which has also created a culture of Western consumption. “Squid Game” speaks directly to this, particularly through the repulsive characters of the obscenely wealthy American VIPs, one of whom sexually assaults his Korean servant. Upsettingly, the huge success of “Squid Game” has generated another wave of American fetishization of Korean people. Tik Toks and selfies of Asian-American people are being filled with comments comparing them to characters of the show, particularly Jung Ho-yeon, the beautiful actress who plays Kang Sae-byeok. The commodification and sense of ownership white Americans feel over this show and its actors is eerily and repugnantly similar to the American VIPs’ consumption of the game in the world of the show.
“Squid Game” is the most-watched show on Netflix to date. Countless articles have been written hypothesizing what in the series, exactly, made it so popular. It would seem, however, that this is the wrong question to be asking. Hwang Dong-Hyuk has created a self-referential show that delves not only into the capitalist structures of wealth and power, but of surveillance and performance. In the most well-known scene of the show, a massive doll presides over a deadly game of “red light, green light.” Here, the danger for the participants is the danger of being seen.