Praise for Hwang Dong-hyuk's Squid Game is well deserved. However, its overwhelmingly positive reception has overshadowed its shortcomings.
Before explaining my criticisms of the show, I will first discuss what are, in my view, some of its commendable qualities. I watched this show twice, finishing my first viewing in just 2 days, and re-visiting the first episode only about a week later. Squid Game engulfed my attention for three reasons. First, Squid Game is characterized by its striking harmony of captivating music, sound mixing, acting, and story pacing. Without these critical components, I doubt that the tension one feels in an initial viewing of this show would carry over well into subsequent viewings. Second, many viewers can find at least some relatability in one or more of the characters of the show. As someone who is still paying off an enormous amount of student debt, I can (on a less extreme level) connect with characters like Seong Gi-Hun and Cho Sang-Woo. Finally, the simplicity of the games that the characters engage in enabled me to picture myself in their position; while I watched their struggle in games like Red Light Green Light and Tug-of-War, I thought about how well I would fare if I were in the same situation.
Simplicity, which is one of the core strengths of Squid Game, manifests itself in other important ways in the show. Its music, while crafted with thought and intent, is still (at least in my view) simple, each character's motivation is simple, the overarching goal by which the games are played is simple, and even the uniforms of the staff and players are simple. The uncomplicated nature of Squid Game, in my mind, draws parallels with Chinese ink paintings. Many of these paintings, such as the ones shown below by Zhao Ji (1082-1135) and Bada Shanren (1626-1705) , are characterized not only by their monochrome color palette, but also, importantly, by their abundance of negative space. For artists such as Bada and Zhao who frequently employed negative space as a critical component of their art, these blank spots were intended to be areas where one's mind can wander, meditate, and get lost in the painting. In other words, the value of the negative space in these paintings is determined by what the viewer invests into it. In my mind, one major aspect of what makes Squid Game an enthralling experience is that the components of the show that I previously described as being simple, similar to Bada and Zhao's paintings, allow room for the viewer to intervene in the show with their own sensibilities and values. In this view, while Squid Game is still its own story, it leaves some room for the viewer to craft their own unique narrative within the crevices of the plot.
Squid Game's embrace of simplicity, while successful in the ways I have just described, also undermines its quality. This show joins a long list of media, such as Snow Piercer and Parasite, that paint an uninspired, reductionist image of the upper class as nefarious and/or one-dimensional. The upper class are by no means above criticism; there are no shortage of examples in the news of rich and powerful people abusing their power and money. However, Squid Game's social commentary that lower-class and working-class individuals are suppressed and manipulated by the ultra-rich is subverted by its cartoonish depiction of extraordinarily wealthy individuals as being so depressingly bored that seeing others die horrid deaths is the only experience that gives their own lives meaning.
Thankfully, unlike Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, Hwang does not make the claim in his show that lower-class individuals are moral simply by virtue of being lower-class. The presence of characters such as Jang Deok-su indicate that, for the director, one's moral status is defined by one's moral philosophy and actions as opposed to one's position in a society's socio-economic hierarchy. However, for me, Hwang's overarching message loses merit by implying that the very wealthy are, in fact, less moral by virtue of having too much. Rather than add dynamism to the characters in this series who posses great wealth, showing that, perhaps, in the past, there were wealthy individuals who opposed the idea Oh-Il nam's game, Hwang fully commits to his reductionist imagination of the highly wealthy by having Oh-Il nam note in his dying words that all of his colleagues felt bored with life, and that the only remedy he could concoct to sooth their boredom was to create a death game.
Squid Game implicitly argues that dehumanizing others is permissible if the subject of criticism is a person of great wealth and/or status. Furthermore, according to the director, it is uncontroversial to regard these people as inhuman individuals with inhuman desires who have no compassion for people of lesser wealth and status. Although Hwang had the opportunity to make a valuable point about the dubious morals and actions of some individuals of high wealth, power, and status, he instead settled for a bland narrative that individuals of high wealth are apathetically detached from society, don't understand struggle, and that they confer pain onto society with very little benefit in return.
Despite that Hwang acknowledges that there are individuals such as Seong Gi-hun (at the beginning of the show) who have a lower-class standing in large part as a result of their own reckless spending habits and poor work ethic, this point quickly gives way to Hwang's view that the root cause of society's ills are caused by the capitalist class. While Hwang does not explicitly express a proposed solution to absolving society of the ailments caused by capitalists, it seems implied that Seong Gi-hun's resolve to destroy Oh Il-nam's death game organization is a metaphorical call by the director the proletariat masses to topple capitalism; that is to say, Hwang believes that capitalism is a death game run by a sadistic bourgeoise that must be destroyed.
In my view, anti-capitalism and revisionist-capitalism are two distinct philosophies. While anti-capitalism seeks the demise of capitalism, revisionist capitalism argues for keeping an open mind to the ways in which capitalism can be configured more optimally in the institutions that support it. Hwang Dong-hyuk makes a number of important political points that deserve further discussion in the popular discourse. The abuse of migrant labor by some employers, exorbitantly high insurance rates, and low wages are important issues of discussion in both the U.S., where I am writing this blog entry, and in South Korea. However, Hwang's anti-capitalist message, laden with exaggeration and flair, ultimately presents itself as an immature narrative that, to far too great a degree overlooks the gains that merit and diligence incur despite a system that tilts in favor the capitalist class, and inflames what could otherwise have been a productive message about how to make capitalism better for more people.
In portraying the capitalist class as inhuman and detached from reality, he ignores the fact that many of the wealthiest people living in the world today did not inherit their wealth. Rather, their wealth was acquired through sleepless nights, depression, self doubt, anxiety, and an exhausting amount of preparation to strike at the right opportunity when it arises. In addition, he misses the opportunity to constructively discuss, instead of how to shatter capitalism, the role that government, society, and the capitalist class can better work in tandem to craft a system that benefits the greatest number of people. This conceptualization I have laid out may seem vague and irrationally idealistic, but I hold the view that a creative intellectual such as Hwang Dong-hyuk could have had, and still has, the opportunity to craft a compelling, and still, more optimistic and constructive story about capitalism, its many flaws, and its potential to engineer a brighter future.
Overall, is visually and auditorily innovative, and it has a captivating storyline, but it is thematically uninspired. Despite its shortcomings, though, Squid Game is a worthwhile view, if you are one of the few people who have not yet had the opportunity to see this show.
Nakota L. DiFonzo