It’s publication day for GX Todd’s much-anticipated Ghosts, the fourth book in the Voices series. I’m about halfway through and loving it (but don’t want it to end!). This has been one of my all-time favourite book series, and I’ve nagged you to read Defender, Hunted and Survivors over the years (go! go read them!), so be prepared for more nagging just as soon as I’ve finished this one.
In the meantime, GX Todd has kindly written a guest post for you today, on the violence of the Netflix super hit, Squid Game.
The Violence of Squid Game:
Should it be this much fun to watch?
The kinds of violence in Squid Game aren’t new to the entertainment medium. For a while we’ve had movies and TV shows that have explored ‘death games’ – just turn your eye to Battle Royale, the Escape Room and Saw films, Cube, The Platform (to an extent), Alice in Borderland, and The Hunger Games franchise for examples. They’ve been around for a decades, but Squid Game has really rocketed hyper-violent entertainment into the popularity stratosphere. As of writing this, 2.1 billion hours of Squid Game have been watched by Netflix subscribers. To put that into context, that’s the equivalent of 239,700 years.
I binge-watched Squid Game in preparation for writing this article. I’ve wanted to see it and also not wanted to see it since talk revved up about it being so brilliant. If you’ve read any of my books, you can probably tell I don’t have a problem immersing myself in death and violence. If anything, I’ve become a little desensitized to it. I’ve spent a lot of time paddling round and splashing in the deep end of the horror pool. I’ve seen and read a lot of messed up shit. My hesitation about watching Squid Game was more to do with if it could live up to my expectations (which is, admittedly, a difficult task to do). But, before I reveal whether I enjoyed it or not, let’s talk about why everyone else is loving it.
In its total run-time of 485 minutes, a whopping 455 people die. Most of them on-screen. Bloodily. Painfully. With heaps of Technicolor gore. Yep, you read that right to any parents/guardians out there who are letting your kiddies watch this show. (Actually, the body count is more than 455 if you start counting the deaths outside of the games themselves). And they die in imaginative, often brutal, occasionally ridiculous, ways. Deaths from heights, many, many point-blank gunshots to the head, slit throats, and there’s even a clandestine doctor in the ranks who’s gorily harvesting dead contestants’ organs to sell on the black market. There’s a lot of blood and guts in this show. The makers also do a fantastic job of balancing these bursts of violence and tension-filled, high-stakes games with light-heartedness and empathetic character building. If the episodes had been so relentlessly filled with death and chaos, I think a lot of viewers would have switched off. Of course, curiosity is also a huge factor in keeping a viewer’s interest piqued. I continued watching because I wanted to know what the next game would be. A land-mine filled reconfiguring of Hopscotch, dismembered legs flying at my screen? Dodgeball with a spiked ball and no protective gear? Some games were better than others. I personally preferred the ones that were reliant on skill and cleverness compared to the ones catered more toward luck or physical strength. What I did appreciate, however – other than the great special effects and copious amounts of blood splatter – was how each round systematically broke down the competitors’ psyches. I think it might have been the smartest part of the whole series. [Spoilers in next section.]
The Basic Psychology of the Games (as told by an amateur non-psychologist)
The first two games are specifically individual rounds (Red Light, Green Light, and the honeycomb cake shape cutting), where death comes swiftly if you mess up and the punishment is dealt by the anonymous ‘powers that be’ behind the games. The next game has the contestants teaming up into groups of ten for Tug-of-War. Here we see the first instance where the players are directly responsible for killing their fellow contestants, and not in a pleasant way. They are forced to watch as they physically pull their competitors off a high platform and down to their screaming, bone-crunching demises. It’s a desperate You-or-Me situation with very little time to consider alternative actions. Camaraderie and trust for team members is tentatively built, a sense of security in numbers settles in, and then the next round swiftly demolishes it.
Marbles asks for a two-player partnership and then forces those players into a head-to-head competition. The bonds recently formed are now turned on themselves. Only one winner can progress to the next game; the team-mate you chose is now your deadly foe. And this isn’t a few minutes of frantic push-and-pull struggling. This is a decisive, thought-out, very deliberate form of survival over the space of a thirty-minute-long game. I really liked how the writers slowed the pacing down here and allowed some breathing room for conversation and latent manipulation to come out. I especially appreciated the discussion between the two teenage girls (even if was a little tropey). There were some real fraught, emotional scenes here and without needing any adrenaline-fueled mayhem to boost the enjoyment.
Next, the penultimate game, and this was a bridge too far for me, personally. I think this was the weakest round. But we see the contestants are not only back to working at an individual level after losing most of their ability to place trust in others, but some are even actively using other players’ deaths (grabbing and pushing them forward to test the glass surfaces to see which will break) to further their own progress. It hasn’t taken long at all to degrade the moral codes of the majority of these remaining people. There could be parallels drawn here with how Big Media and their owners control and disseminate information in order redirect the attention of the common people on to undeserving quarters, distracting them from the true culprits (i.e. Banks, Politicians, Tax-Evading Big Corporations, etc.) But let’s not get into that right now. We’re talking about a Netflix show here, after all.
By the time the final two contestants make it to the last game – the squid game itself – all sense of brotherhood, collusion and humanity is gone. The only way to survive, to win, is to violently, brutally take it. In fact, it might have been interesting if the writers had seen this through to the end: the stripping down of humanity to its basest of instincts, to its most animalistic form of survival after suffering so much trauma and conditioning. After all, every one of these people entered these games with the full knowledge that only one of them could win. But, alas, it doesn’t. Everything ends quite predictably.
Notice how I dodged commenting on how any of this on-screen violence translates into the more obvious themes of capitalism or classism? Themes I’m sure other articles have already discussed in detail and in a far more articulate and intelligent manner than I could. I’m not discussing those here because, honestly, I don’t think Squid Game handles them all that well. For me, the whole ‘Bored Rich Elite vs Lower Class Pleb in Debt’ feels like a shallow veneer the makers have thrown over their show like a set dressing, much like the Escher-like staircases and the over-sized children’s playground. Deep, thought-provoking discussion over class structure or South Korea’s growing personal debt crisis aren’t why we, the viewers, have spent a collective 239,700 years watching this show. In fact, if they had tackled those topics with all seriousness, I’d hazard a guess that Squid Game wouldn’t be a fraction as fun or as popular. None of us are finishing the nine-episode run and saying ‘Gosh, I wonder what the average amount of personal debt a person in South Korea is in’. No, what we’re saying is ‘Man, did you see that woman’s brains coming out of her head?!’. None of our kids are going to school the next day and asking their teachers about the working and living conditions of South Korean people and their households. No, they’re running into the playground at lunchtime and making up improvised quasi-violent Squid Game games to play with their friends. And it’s in Squid Game’s sheer audacity (I mean, come on, has no one noticed that 400+ people have been going mysteriously missing every year for over a decade?) that the enjoyability comes from. Yes, horrific things happen to the most vulnerable of our society on a daily basis – they’ll be preyed on by those more powerful than them until the end of time. But never is it done in such grandly-designed, gaudily-painted sets, or during children’s games played to the death while being watched by fat, white men in ornate, golden animal masks who are the most awful (like, the worst) English-speaking actors on the planet.
So, in conclusion, Squid Game is as fun, grotesque, dramatic, comedic, over-the-top, unsubtle, exasperating (I’m still puzzling over the many plot-holes in the whole brother-cop sub-plot), entertaining and absurd a TV-watching experience as you could hope to find on Netflix – or anywhere else for that matter. And I enjoyed it very much. For the first 5 or 6 episodes, at least. I’m still not very happy about how they treated my favourite character. Writers can be such assholes.
G X Todd is the writer of ‘the Voices’ series, the fourth and final book of which, GHOSTS, releases on the 9th December in all good book shops.