Squid Game: An existentialist review

Squid Game has created quite a stir in the galore of OTT platforms as a non-English show to reach a tremendous viewership. People are loving the K-Drama take on the concept of “survival of the fittest” as the show revolves around a game where stakes are as high as losing one’s life in turn of a cash prize that can repay all of the participants’ debts. There’s a persistent enthusiasm in the protagonist’s approach towards the game and life itself, whereas the others are mostly cynical, straight faced and extremely scared, or too carefree to be concerned about their own lives.

There’s always much talk of the apparent absurdity of living, of the experiences of existence deemed as futile, or of seeing any kind of enthusiasm for life itself as foolish. That thought of a wide range of continental philosophers and literary figures, commonly focusing on concrete human beings or their “existence” develops into Existentialism, which belongs to intellectual history. Though the show isn’t exactly delving on the concepts of existential crisis, on the contrary it gives emphasis on being cheerful and practice a mere survival ( at least the protagonist does that, without much concern of his 6 million won debt ).

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. 

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essay

A Greek mythology character Sisyphus , was punished, for cheating death twice, by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. Just like the myth, Squid Game represents the constant struggle of life, where you might think you are getting so close to achieving the peak of your existence just to find out later that all was in vain.

Life can be very difficult and the Korean Netflix series is an exemplar, with its extreme but understandable life depiction of those on the brink of financial tragedy. Each of the participants are under huge debts which makes it very hard to survive in the society, with constant budging and threats of moneylenders, situations which put them in a dire need of money when they don’t have any.

 Man by exercising his power of choice, he can give meaning to existence and the universe. Thus, the human being is obliged to make himself what he is, and has to be what he is.

Sartre’s statement in L’Être et le néant.

One of the important features of atheistic existentialism is the argument that existence precedes essence (the reverse of many traditional forms of philosophy). It holds that man fashions his own existence and only exists by so doing, and, in that process, and by the choice of what he does or does not do, gives essence to that existence. The show depicts how the characters pave their own whimsical way to their extraordinary lives, the protagonist Seong Gi‑Hun with no regards for his mother and daughter gambles and loses money, even when he’s in a lot of debt. Another character Cho Sang‑Woo is a prodigy, having been studies at Seoul National University has massive debts on him as well. Similarly many characters are there in the deadly game as they fail to live a secure life and give themselves the essence of failure. The game itself represents a choice of sorts where you can put your life at stake and win a better life, the characters just fail to realize that the game is life itself.

Courtesy: Netflix

Albert Camus, an existentialist writer, believed that waiting (for something),  which is essentially the breakdown of routine or habit, caused people to think seriously about their identity. In the show there’s a sequence where the participants are allowed to leave the game, but the boredom of their mundane routine of poverty, hunger and helplessness makes them more aware of their reality and push them for the subsequent path. What is this path? Will they survive it? Who is behind this game ? Why would they want to kill people in the name of helping them? Is there a any way they can survive this? All of these unanswered questions that arise in the show represent the rhetorical questions of existence that individuals ask but never get answers for within their lifetime.

The characters’ repetitive inspection of their empty pockets perhaps symbolizes mankind’s vain search for answers within the vacuum of a universe.

The show conveys a universal message that pondering the impossible questions that arise from waiting for the characters to be free from their sufferings, in turn causes pain, anxiety, inactivity and destroys them from within. The show echoes patterns of question, answer and repetition and a sense of absurdity, which can be alternative to all the flaccid chat of the main group and triviality of the conventionally well-structured narrative of the show, since the hall where they stay shouts boredom, the show has dispensed with plot; since his characters are without much history. Even the scenery is minimal, consisting of grey beds and uniforms.

Courtesy: Netflix

One of my favorite sequences in the show was when all characters have left the game and are back in their daily routine of helplessness and poverty, when the structure of action is closing in through the course of the show, with the past barely believable and the future unknown, the here and now of action, the present moment where the Old man and Gi-hun meet and share a beer becomes all-important. Existentialist theories propose that the choices of the present are important and that time causes perceptual confusion. The sequence is a turning point in the game as we get to know later.

The show starts with some children playing the squid game and ends with the same game , same course of events more or less. With obvious reasons, only the protagonist becomes triumphant, even though all characters once deemed to be where he is. Gi-hun doesn’t want anything to do with the money as well which can be a bummer not only for the audience but also the masters of the game. These points reinforce Kierkagaard’s theory that all life will finish as it began in nothingness and reduce achievement to nothing.

2 thoughts on “Squid Game: An existentialist review

Leave a Reply