Screenshots taken from Netflix
Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers.
Imagine this: After years of striving and struggling, you’ve found yourself reaching the bottom of the pit. With nowhere to turn to and seemingly no way out of your circumstances, a random stranger offers you a once in a lifetime opportunity to win a truckload of money.
All you have to do is participate in a simple series of games.
What would you do? Would you rather live with the humiliation and shame of being saddled by huge debts, running from one place to another, or take that chance to get a quick financial windfall even if it costs you everything?
That’s the question that lies behind Squid Game, Netflix’s latest K-drama hit that has taken the world by storm, hitting the number one spot on Netflix in over 90 countries since it was released just two weeks ago, and is now on track to become Netflix’s most-watched show ever.
Like 45.6 million other viewers (and counting), I couldn’t resist checking it out too. The “survival of the fittest” drama has drawn comparison to other shows like The Hunger Games, Alice in Borderland, and even Lord of the Flies—not exactly the kind of entertainment I usually gravitate towards or enjoy watching.
But after seeing meme after meme pop up on my newsfeed, I decided I just couldn’t miss out on what everyone else was talking about—and took the plunge despite warnings from friends that it would be gory, violent, and nightmare-inducing.
What Squid Game is about
Squid Game runs on a simple premise: 456 people who have reached the end of the rope of their lives are invited to participate in a tournament that takes place on a secluded island, where they’ll have a chance to win a grand prize of 45.6 billion won.
Over the course of the tournament, they will have to participate in six games inspired by traditional Korean childhood games in various formats: either played individually, in pairs, or in groups. Once they’ve opted to join the tournament, they must participate in every game and are only allowed to quit if the majority chooses to end the tournament as well.
But that’s where the simplicity ends. The participants have no idea what games they will be playing, how it will be played, and most importantly, that they will be literally eliminated (i.e., killed off at gunpoint) if they fail to pass each round. Add to that the pressure of time limit, and the psychological games the masterminds play on the characters—alternately requiring them to team up with one another or pitting them against the very person they trust the most—and we get a showcase of the best and worst of humanity as the characters race to outwit one another in order to stay on in the competition and win the grand prize.
Suffice to say, it’s brutal, terrifying, and horrific.
Throughout the nine episodes, we see a bleak and very realistic picture of what the world looks like when we’re the ones running it and everyone does what is right in their own eyes. We see the rich exploiting the poor out of boredom, friends betraying and turning against one another, and desperate people resorting to murder for the sake of self-preservation.
But at the same time, it’s not just all carnage and corruption. Interspersed between these horrific scenes are thought-provoking moments, beautiful storytelling, as well as heart-warming displays of kindness and vulnerability between the characters—factors that explain why Squid Game has been doing so well in holding us in its thrall:
It shows that we are not really all that different from these characters
Even as I reeled at the way these characters treated one another, assessed the situation before them, and worked out their strategies, I realised that if I were caught in the same situations, I would probably evaluate my options—and the people around me—in exactly the same way: Will this person help me advance or pull me back from the mission? Who’s the strongest person I can tap on? Who’s the weakest link I should avoid?
Most of the tension that drives this drama comes from the constant mental battle of figuring out who you should trust and form alliances with—and not knowing how or when the system itself would pit them against you. And as the prize money grows exponentially as each character is eliminated, it’s not difficult to see why the characters’ progression in each stage of the games causes them to regress and respond in senseless ways just to survive.
As I saw myself in these different characters, it made me examine my heart: Am I also guilty of assessing the worth of another person based on my own standards of what’s good? How do I treat others that I perceive as “weaker” than me?
It shows that life doesn’t always work out the way we intended
But as with the reality of life, it’s not always the strongest, fittest, or most intelligent people who manage to get ahead. In fact, Squid Game does a good job of upending our expectations of what’s most important in these games. Usually, the trump card comes not from those who are able to break down the game based on their past experience, use their skills to work out the probabilities of survival, or their foreknowledge to weasel their way out of trouble, but from the quiet strengths of those who are overlooked, cast aside, or even jeered and despised.
The show brings us face to face with the limits of our knowledge, proving that no matter how well thought out our strategy is, how brilliant our ideas are, or even how strong our team is, there’s always an element of uncertainty or some factors we haven’t taken into account (or can’t even know!) that would tip the balance of the scales.
I found myself wondering whether I too had become a slave to self-reliance. How often have I thought I had it all figured out—only to be hit with a roadblock that jeopardises my efforts or sends me down a different track?
It shows how easily we let down our guard towards sin
Perhaps one of the reasons Squid Game is gaining so much traction around the world is because it’s filling a void, that sense of restlessness we’ve all been feeling as COVID-19 has all grounded, stuck, and completely bored. By contrast, the aesthetic pastel sets of Squid Game draw us into a world of fantasy where we’re promised a lush visual feast, non-stop action, and nail-biting thrills.
For me, the lines between fantasy and reality remained clear until the episode where the famous VIPs (or sponsors) of the show were unveiled, taking bets on who would survive in the most obscene way. The moment the cameras showed them taking their place behind a huge screen to watch the games play out, it dawned on me that as viewers, we’ve also been cast in the same position as the VIPs.
I had to swallow back my own initial disgust over the crassness of their behaviour to acknowledge that I, too, was taking voyeuristic pleasure in this—letting the Netflix autoplay function lead me to episode after episode, eager to find out who would survive this round of games, and whether the players I found repulsive would finally be eliminated.
It shouldn’t be addictive and entertaining to watch others suffer. And to be frank, it didn’t take a lot to guess who the eventual winner would be (unfortunately, there are no prizes for guessing this!), but what kept me at the edge of my seat was finding out exactly how that individual would beat the odds and get there.
And just as the characters got over seeing their fellow mates die and stopped standing guard over each other as time wore on and the stakes grew higher, I saw the same shifts in my own viewing behaviour: The first few times I heard the guns go off, I was watching those scenes behind my fingers, unable to stomach all that blood and violence.
But once the shock factor wore off, I became desensitised to the deaths and the scenes of blood pooling on the ground. It no longer affected me—I just wanted to fast-forward through all that fuss and find out the answers to my questions (Who exactly is the mastermind behind all this? Will the winner really get all that money or will there be another twist? Who are these guys behind the masks shooting people for free?).
It made me wonder: Why is watching evil so addictive, especially when it’s filmed from interesting angles, cast in a certain filter, or bedecked with eye-pleasing aesthetics? Are we developing a culture that’s insulating us from the very real implications of violence and normalising it?
It opened my eyes to see how easy it is for us as Christians to let down our guard when it comes to sin and temptations. In fact, when I evaluate why I even started this K-drama in the first place, I realised that I had allowed my viewing habits to be shaped by what the world around me deems good, acceptable, and entertaining (a standard that’s constantly shifting)—instead of what Scripture defines as true, honourable, just, and pure (Philippians 4:8).
And with that, I began to better understand the value of Paul’s warning for us to not be conformed “to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2a).
It’s terrifying to see how easily the lines between what is good and acceptable—and our ability to “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2b) for our lives—become muddied when we’re deeply immersed in it.
So, should we watch Squid Game?
If you’ve yet to start on Squid Game, you might be wondering, “Should I even be watching this?” Or maybe, like me, you’ve already jumped on the bandwagon and felt conflicted or “empty” at the end of it all.
Perhaps the key question isn’t so much about whether it’s okay to be watching such violent and gory shows (but at the same time, let’s not overestimate our ability to “handle” such content!). Instead, as we engage with and reflect more deeply on what shows like Squid Game reveal about us, we need to ask ourselves how they may be affecting our souls, and move our gaze beyond the screen to truly see the hidden pain and suffering that is all around us. Have we, like these characters, become trapped in an endless cycle of chasing after selfish and meaningless pursuits? Are we sensitive to the internal struggles of strangers we see on the streets that we so easily brush off, especially the ones that are well-hidden beneath the masks of smiles and perfectly groomed facades? Or even the secret sins and hateful thoughts we ourselves battle with?
The truth is—we shouldn’t need a K-drama like Squid Game to show us the harsh and desperate realities of our lives or the depravity of our human hearts (just read the book of Judges or check out Romans 1!). We don’t need to see these brutalities play out on our screen to know that we live in a world filled with evil, greed, and betrayal—and how desperately we are in need of redemption and rescue.
In a world where we’ve been primed to compete against one another, and to measure our worth based on how much we have, who we know, or what we’ve achieved, isn’t it wonderful to know that God’s gift of redemption and rescue isn’t dependent on us—at all? It’s not a choice between two impossible situations. And what’s more, it doesn’t require us jumping through tempered glass bridges, breaking shapes out of honeycomb candies, or most importantly, climbing over each other, to access.
And it’s a gift that offers us real hope and freedom from the circumstances of this life—and one where everyone of us can receive in full—regardless of our past mistakes.
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