Why Are We Stuck Here: "Squid Game," Trauma, and Repetition

December 22, 2021   •   By Hannah Amaris Roh

Amid the outpouring of reviews, commentary, memes, and even Halloween trends surrounding the success of Squid Game since the series’ release this fall, the New York Times published an op-ed: “Why the Popularity of ‘Squid Game’ Terrifies Me.” The author, Frank Bruni, is especially disturbed by the show’s appeal among teenagers and young adults: “the fact that they’re not repelled by the incessant bloodletting and by many characters’ flamboyant cruelty to one another says something weird and disturbing about modern sensibilities.” Bruni points out that this is a generation of Americans who had to grow up with school shootings, making their desensitization to hyper-violence even more disturbing. For Bruni, the show is “less a feat of ingenious storytelling […] than a gory riff on a familiar formula.”

Slate’s Isaac Butler took a similar issue in a recent Culture Gabfest episode covering Squid Game: “I know capitalism is bad. [But] this isn’t doing anything beyond upsetting me.” Butler contrasts Squid Game’s narrative structure to that of Parasite — while the latter keeps building and turning on itself, taking the viewer on a ride by the film’s climax, Squid Game, Butler says, just keeps hammering the same point. (That point being, of course, that “capitalism is bad.”) The podcast panel discusses whether we’ve become too accustomed to “repetitive and extreme acts of violence,” and whether such repetition of violence in Squid Game is artistically justified. It’s an important question, one that has plagued my mind since I, too, binged the series back in September. How many times can we see the same thing?

I confess that in my experience of the show, I was not thinking of gun violence in the U.S., though the mere thought of that connection makes my stomach turn now. Instead, I was watching Squid Game primarily as a South Korean, my mind fixated on this hyper-capitalist country where I had spent a chunk of my childhood and young adulthood, thinking about how I used to play those very games in my elementary school yard. For me, as I imagine it may have been for many of the other South Koreans and global netizens watching, the show’s hyper-violence did indeed function as a grim and searing allegory for a neoliberal “hell,” (the title of episode 2, most likely drawn from the term “Hell Joseun,” as my millennial generation has called South Korea).

But nonetheless, this question posed by American critics — whether the repetition of violence is artistically justified — is one that I want to address, because it is at heart a moral question (maybe even a judgment). Squid Game did find an audience in the U.S. and beyond, and as many critics have already pointed out, the show seems to have resonated within a global malaise over modern forms of late capitalist anxiety, feeding our hunger for reality TV, exacerbated of course by an ongoing pandemic that continues to expose the rampant inequalities of global capitalism. But Squid Game isn’t just a show about how bad capitalism is. Whether it may have been intended or not, Squid Game is a meta-commentary on capitalist trauma.

Both Bruni and Butler aren’t wrong, in that the show’s plot structure or even its symbolism is not at all hard to decipher, even for a non-Korean audience. In fact, the glaring simplicity was what the writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk himself was after: Hwang tells The Guardian that he wasn’t trying to make a profound or overly complex point about capitalism. He also explains his decision to use children’s games so that viewers can easily recognize and follow the set-up, bringing more attention to the characters themselves rather than being distracted by the rules of the games. Squid Game makes the game — and the game within the game — simple on purpose.

But what remains in the story isn’t just the unrelenting repetition of the same point, rendering the violence pointless. The point of Squid Game is not to explain to us that “capitalism is bad,” but rather this: we already know, all too well, that capitalism is bad, but we keep returning to a dire, money-obsessed system, morphing into characters that consciously choose, game after game, to participate in our (and one another’s) demise. This very structure of repetition — and return — does tell us something about capitalism’s hauntings, even when, especially when, we try to reckon with it.

As some have already pointed out, the major twist at the end of episode 2 is what separates Squid Game from others in the “deadly game” genre, when fully grown (as opposed to adolescent) contestants decide to return to Squid Game Island. There is also the Front Man (Lee Byung-hun), whose identity is revealed to be a former winner of the games who has returned to facilitate and perpetuate the violence — a crushing revelation for his own brother, the cop under cover. There’s the moment in the “Gganbu” episode, when the protagonist Seung Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) — who had thus far maintained a connection (albeit a fragile one) with his own humanity and the humanity of others — begins to manipulate the old man, transforming into the very character he did not want to be. To his own dismay, Gi-hun chooses his own survival over this friendship, returning to the structure of violence that has traumatized him.

But perhaps the show’s most sadistic return of all is the collective harkening to childhood, a desperate longing for innocence and “fairness” that is revealed to be a harsh lie. For Kyung Hyun Kim, professor of visual and East Asian Studies at UC Irvine, it’s not the violence in and of itself but the violation of childhood innocence that bothers him, because these intimate memories are now “permanently stained.” I certainly share this initial sense of repulsion, but also can’t stop thinking about the structure of nostalgia, this desire to retrieve an irretrievable past, or perhaps the imagination of a time and place when things were (or could be) “pure.” This, too, returns us to the games’ tragic and blatant irony: the very desire to create “a fair world” (the title of episode 5) itself recreates the world it is purporting to overcome. Nostalgia can be a weird thing — as a former colleague of mine had once told me during a doctoral seminar, the question then isn’t so much, “how did we get here,” but rather, “why are we stuck here?”

Even some of the market frenzy surrounding Squid Game is a depressing reminder of this stuck-ness: Netflix is busy commodifying the show’s success, while South Korean media companies are brimming over with its surging stocks. Even if the show has prompted some policy discussions in South Korean politics, these are hardly new debates about socioeconomic inequality, and the Korean media has returned to debates over IP rights to maximize their cultural exports, while the new game for American companies, as Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reports with Vox, is “to try to find the next great game” in Korea. As consumers, we too are stuck in this cycle of repetition and return, actively participating in a capitalist system that we already know is bad. The commercialization of Squid Game is, no doubt, a disturbing side effect — and some may even say main effect — of the show’s resonance. The marketplace reproduces the form of “success” that the story is obviously trying to critique. It also remains to be seen if, or to what extent, the Netflix platform will transform the K-drama landscape to shy away from social commentary and move towards escapism.

To return to the question: is Squid Game’s repetitive violence artistically and ethically justifiable? The structure of repetition makes at least two things clear to me. On the one hand, repetition can be a symptom (and not just a cause) of trauma, but, on the other hand, there is numbness as a result, whether that’s physical, emotional, and/or psychological. Numbness and trauma are often two sides of the same coin. Of course it makes sense that we are desensitized, because numbing is a coping mechanism, a way to protect ourselves from feeling horror. Take Gi-hun, towards the end: for over a year, he roams Seoul like a zombie, unable to feel, unable to shower, inescapably haunted by the blood money from his “win.” He is numb, because he is stuck; and because he is stuck, he is numb. “Survival” isn’t really survival at all, without the others.

If we reflect on this question from the framework of trauma, Squid Game’s hyper-violence is also an attempt to try to bring some level of sensation back to those areas of collective, cultural, and moral numbness. The story makes a desperate plea to its viewers to feel something, anything, as works of art aim to do — horror, heartbreak, perhaps even tenderness, about the precarious but still powerful claim to humanity that some of these characters are fighting (imperfectly) to keep, against all odds. In some ways, childhood nostalgia is a flawed and anguished attempt to counter moral amnesia, to try to awaken any trace of ethics that remains.

To be honest, I’m still not sure whether this effect of pouring salt on already existing wound leads to empathy or simply retraumatizes us — that may depend on the viewer and their specific context. For me, it had both effects. But can we actually judge an audience for being able to stomach the horror, or even for being numb to it? Doesn’t this — shouldn’t this — tell us more about the collective trauma and amnesia from capitalism that has led to a ghastly allegory like this in the first place? Insofar as Squid Game can be read as a petition to reconnect with our moral compass, the story could actually push us to re-imagine the meaning of agency — from individual choice, to collective responsibility.

The critiques from the New York Times and the Slate Culture Gabfest that were levied at Squid Game as a repetitive and “gory riff” would make sense watching this show within the U.S., where the gore in and of itself can evoke decades-long national traumas of senseless gun violence and the equally senseless, continued inaction in legislative reforms. But this repetition doesn’t make the show pointless; it is the deeper point of moral reckoning, that we are unable to move forward because we keep returning to the same place. There’s a kind of numbness and amnesia in the U.S. too, not only when it comes to the gun problem, but also when it comes to a capitalism that is incessantly fixated on individual freedom and social mobility at the expense of collective wellbeing. And if the show has made us feel this horror about our own desensitization to this violence, it may just have done its job.