On the bread and circuses of “Squid Game”

So, last week, we watched Squid Game. Spoiler alert: Non-specific reference to the ending below.

Let me get this out of the way: The program was very well written. I didn’t really find the themes particularly original. The very idea of “bread and circuses” goes back thousands of years, and a glossy production (estimated budget of $17,000,000) whose core theme is that rich people are evil feels like bread and circuses to me. But, the program was very well written.

This isn’t a criticism of the program itself. My misgivings are about what it says about us to be consuming it so enthusiastically. Hundreds of people die, brutally and violently, for our own entertainment. We are supposed to despise the rich people for being entertained by the very thing we’re entertained by. Of course, the rebuttal is: We know the deaths are all fictional. It’s all a fantasy.

But to what end? There isn’t even catharsis here. There’s no comeuppance at the end. A bunch of people die for the entertainment of rich people. The game ends. Roll credits.

There’s more to it than that, but not much. And again, I’m not criticizing the show itself, I’m criticizing the enthusiasm with which we, including me, are consuming it.

There is a deep pessimism to that consumption. There is an emotional callousness to it. I have read, multiple times, that Squid Game has a lot of emotional violence but little actual gore, and that leaves me wondering what people think actual gore is. (Don’t answer that.)

We have entered the realm of bread and circuses. We are being distracted from our bloody revolution by fantasies of bloody revolution being derailed by “You can’t beat us anyway, we can make you kill each other for table scraps and you’ll just ask for more.”

At some point watching Squid Game I found myself wanting to dive fully into the genre. There was a visceral joy in it. But in the emotional backwash of the afterglow, I’m feeling a lot of self-doubt and misgivings. Why is this valid entertainment for me?

Squid Game could have been done with far fewer deaths. “Lose the game, return to your miserable lives” or even “lose the game, we’ll turn you over to your creditors”. Then it would have been a moderately-rated well-written program in the spirit of Survivor. The violent, instantaneous, and gleefully announced murders are what elevates this.

This is hardly new. In 1982, Don Henley noted, “It’s interesting when people die.” When I looked for the information on this, I found this 1985 video where, depending on your perspective, news sources were either making fun of themselves or readily admitting “guilty as charged, but what the F!#$ are you going to do about it?”

Squid Game’s “the rich are deeply evil” theme mixed with its healthy budget feels to me like “guilty as charged, but what the F!#$ are you going to do about it?”

Another line from Don Henley’s song: “You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone.”

How far have we gone?

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