It's the TV sensation of the year. Everyone is talking about it and the images are everywhere. Admittedly that is slightly exaggerated – but only slightly. Netflix's Korean drama/thriller Squid Game really is a game changer.
Now, normally something that is advertised as extremely violent is not my cup of tea, but this was different. I regard Squid Game as brilliant, revealing and dangerous.
The basic premise of the nine-part drama is that 456 players, who are desperate for money because of debts they cannot pay back, are lured to an island where they play a series of six Korean children's games – with deadly consequences. After each one, the losers are eliminated – literally – until there is only one left at the end. A combination of The Hunger Games and Big Brother, the show is superbly filmed and brilliantly acted, with engrossing characters and a dramatic plot with many twists and turns. And it is not just entertaining; it also carries a profound message.
There are those who think that Squid Game is basically an anti-capitalist diatribe, but it is much more than that. The bad guys are of course the evil corporate capitalists gambling off the misery of the poor.
The show highlights the situation in South Korea where the net worth of the top 20 per cent is 166 times that of the bottom 20 per cent - a gap that is increasing. The birth rate is falling because many young people feel unable to afford a family. Debt is the number one cause of increasing suicides in South Korea. Household debt, at 103% of GDP, is the highest in Asia. We live in a world where governments are getting into increasing debt for short-term gain, so why should we be surprised if their citizens follow suit?
Ironically the mastermind behind the evil argues that it is about equality and giving poor people a second chance - the same promise that gambling offers.
Debt, gambling and corporate greed, resulting in people being bought, sold and dehumanised. It's sadly all too realistic.
Squid Game is graphically violent, although personally I didn't find it all that realistic even with the blood and gore. It's less comic book and more computer game.
Nonetheless there are two dangers associated with this. First, like the participants, it is easy for us to become accustomed to the violence and deadened to its reality. Violence as entertainment is dehumanising and brutalising, not only to the participants but also to the voyeurs. This is like a 21st century version of the 1st century Colosseum. Although the actors are not killed, the use of violence for entertainment is disturbing.
Then there is the danger of imitation. Squid Game is most definitely not for children, and yet in today's internet world there are many children who will watch it. The trouble is that they will not have the understanding or the maturity to process all that goes on – and, like some adults, they could be tempted to see what it portrays as normal and even acceptable. They may even imitate it. A Belgian school has already given a warning because of children in the playground playing the 'Red Light, Green Light' game, with punches for the losers, as opposed to executions.
Squid Game shows that we are moral beings who have to make choices. One of the strokes of genius of the show is that the contestants have the opportunity to leave. And there are choices in other areas as well – sometimes literally a matter of life and death.
The show also shows human beings as complex and rounded. We are not just economic units, or machines for sex – but we are also emotional, relational and physical. In that latter regard, one subplot is where some of the 'workers' in the game steal the bodies of the dead and harvest their organs to sell to the rich. Is that the stuff of fantasy nightmares? Not according to a report this week from human rights groups who believe that 100,000 dissidents, criminals and political prisoners have their organs harvested every year in China.
In the midst of the violence, greed, selfishness and exploitation, there are also glimpses of kindness, compassion and joy. That is humanity – mixed up and messed up.
Christianity comes up a surprising amount - at least for Western audiences. But it should not be surprising in Korea. The growth of the Christian church, with millions becoming Christians; the part that the Protestant work ethic played in the South Korean economic miracle (which means it is now one of the richest countries in the world); and the corruption of the Church through wealth and power are key parts of modern Korean life.
However, the show is not sympathetic to Christianity at all. Think, for example, of the moving portrayal of the pastor's daughter who was raped by her father. She roundly mocks the man constantly praying for forgiveness as he participates in yet another murderous game. "What use is praying?" she asks. Indeed, God, Christ, and spirituality are not part of the game.
Squid Game is a morality tale but one that offers no answers. And it is an accurate, if exaggerated picture of our world where Covid, climate change and the culture wars are now increasing the gap between rich and poor. The irony is that while it makes the corporate capitalist big bosses the villains of the piece, Netflix itself is one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. The show laments using the death of the poor for entertainment of the rich, yet that is precisely what this show itself does. Squid Game cost $30 million to make and is now estimated to be worth $1.3 billion. There is money in poverty porn and violence.
With its portrayal of violence for entertainment, gambling with the poor, sexual exploitation, and the growing gap between rich and poor, the series portrays a 21st century post-Christian culture - one which is regressing to a pre-Christian Greco-Roman pagan view of the world.
In episode 2, appropriately titled 'Hell', the participants are given the choice of leaving. A slight majority vote to do so – but 93% of them vote to return. The choice is between the hell of the game, or the long drawn-out hell of a poverty-stricken life, filled with broken relationships in the 'real' world. Are there no answers?
The answer to the excesses of corporate capitalism is not communism – just look to North Korea to see the joy that brings! Whatever economic system we use, they will need Christian values.
The answer to violence is not more violence – or just talking about peace while preparing for war. It is to come to know the one who is the King of Peace - real shalom.
The answer to the question 'what is humanity?' is desperately needed in a world where our cultural elites cannot tell us what a human being is. One of the best lines in the series is when one of the contestants states, after hearing 'you people are like horses': "I'm not a horse, I'm a human being." But what is a human being? The biblical answer - that we are male and female equally made in the image of God – is the foundation of all the great 'liberal' virtues of diversity, equality, compassion and humanity. When we reject that we end up with Squid Game.
The answer to the problem of a hypocritical, hubristic, hollow Christianity is not to have less Christianity but more. At least more of the Christianity which worships, loves, knows and serves Christ – rather than just using him as a prop for our games and goals.
I am thankful for Squid Game. Like Breaking Bad it reminds me of the great need of fallen humanity – how can we deal with the virus of evil that runs through the middle of every human heart? In the last episode, there is a street preacher with a sign shouting 'believe in Jesus or go to Hell'. It's a mocking clip, but ultimately that is the only choice. For those who are already in some kind of Hell, and those who are headed that way, the only answer is the good news of Christ.
As the credits run at the end of the now inevitable Squid Game series two, can I suggest that an appropriate ending would be to cite the words Jesus used:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." (Luke 4:18-19)
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia, where he runs the ASK Project. He blogs at The Wee Flea.