Opinion | Why the Popularity of ‘Squid Game’ Terrifies Me

By Frank Bruni

Credit...Ben Wiseman
Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

At the beginning of the second episode of the dystopian fantasy “Squid Game,” anonymous villains load the boxed corpses of hundreds of contestants who’ve been gunned down for their failures into incinerators. But one of the bodies still twitches. Its fingers crawl out of a gap between the lid and the rest of the box.

So the lid is stapled shut. It’s cremation for the person regardless.

That’s not even the most disturbing image in the nine episodes of “Squid Game.” And the show, which began streaming on Netflix last month, has apparently been the service’s biggest debut ever. Are there teenagers or young adults in your life? Ask them about “Squid Game.” They’ve probably watched it. They’ve quite possibly loved it. And that terrifies me.

A Korean-language production awash in blood, “Squid Game” is less a feat of ingenious storytelling — though there are some deft touches and inspired wrinkles — than a gory riff on a familiar formula, a hyperviolent “Hunger Games” with an immeasurably darker view of the world.

Here’s the plot: Economically desperate South Koreans agree to be imprisoned in a remote, bizarre arena where they compete in adult versions of children’s games whose losers are slaughtered. Aware of the stakes, they elect to continue “playing” because they’ve been promised a future-changing amount of prize money if they prevail and because their existences beyond the arena are just as dehumanizing.

In fact, the episode of “Squid Game” titled “Hell” isn’t about the competition, in which one false move equals a bullet to the head. It’s about life outside the arena. It’s about a putatively affluent society in which the divide between rich and poor — and between lucky and unlucky — is gaping. To land on the wrong side of it is to be damned.

That this vision appeals to so many viewers, especially young ones, suggests a chilling and bleak perspective — on capitalism, on “freedom,” on individual agency — that should stop us in our tracks. In the jarring, horrifying first episode, as contestants begin to be killed by the dozens, an unidentified mastermind cues up music and pours a cocktail to savor along with his view of the massacre, which calls to mind the school shootings that a generation of American children have grown up with. God is an assassin, tipsy and merciless in his gilded lair.

Maybe the viewers of “Squid Game” just thrill to the bold, cartoon-colored shock of it: Its visual and spiritual aesthetics are what you’d get if you crossed an episode of “Teletubbies” with a highlights reel of Quentin Tarantino at his grisliest. And there’s suspense inherent in learning, slowly, who dies, who survives, who that mastermind is. I canvassed young people I know: “I couldn’t look away,” “insane premise that I was captivated by,” “very few shows have its wow factor.”

But 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. “We’re entertained by extremes,” a 23-year-old who zoomed through “Squid Game” in two days told me.

Then there’s the indiscriminate manner in which a huge hit becomes an even bigger phenomenon — a trend — divorced from its actual content. Mike Hale, a television critic for The Times, wisely noted the “meme-readiness” of “Squid Game.” The Times also published an article by Vanessa Friedman about how track suits were newly “hot” because the “Squid Game” contestants wear them (as a kind of prison uniform, mind you). The Times published another article, by Christina Morales, about the history of dalgona candy, which is a deadly prop in one of the series’s elimination contests. There was a link to instructions, by Genevieve Ko, on how to make it.

In a week and a half, on Halloween, we’ll be bombarded by “Squid Game” costumes. The Wall Street Journal weighed in on that.

To some extent, “Squid Game” is big because it’s big, its first-burst popularity generating attention that begets even greater popularity as everyone wants in on the action and as curiosity’s slippery tentacles reach farther and farther into people’s consciousness.

But its commentary on class, greed and savagery is much too central to be incidental. That commentary may, as Mike wrote, be “a thin veneer of pertinence meant to justify the unrelenting carnage.” But it’s there, thin or not, along with that carnage. And tens of millions of viewers are riveted.

For many if not all of them, to at least some degree, this portrait of life as a sadistic lottery and poverty as a hopeless torture chamber has resonance, which means it also has merit. That’s a bullet to the soul.

Several of you took issue with the concerns I expressed last week about President Biden’s performance. Three complaints in particular popped up:

The first: Biden is getting an unfair rap. The widespread Biden-in-trouble narrative pins on him problems that aren’t of his making and denies him credit for efforts less easily noticed and dramatized than, say, the pandemonium at the airport in Kabul. On the subject of credit, you shared this Substack post by Heather Cox Richardson, saying that it’s a part of the picture that too many journalists, including me, ignore. Excellent point.

And on the subject of blame, you’re right: Biden didn’t cause shipping delays or rising gas prices (though presidents often have to answer for such matters regardless). He’s not the source of congressional obstructionism. But I focused on that obstructionism because he campaigned on the assertion that he knew how to work the levers of Congress especially well. So he has invited judgment about how well he works them, no matter the uncontrollable dynamics at hand.

The second: Journalists tend toward melodrama, evident in sloppy word choices. You noted my reference to the “plummet” of Biden’s job-approval rating, arguing that while it had dropped significantly — according to Quinnipiac’s polling, for example, it fell to 41 percent in early October from 49 percent in late July — “plummet” implies circumstances worse and less predictable than that. You’re right. I gave insufficient thought to that description.

The third: Biden needs cheerleaders, not detractors. Otherwise, we end up with Donald Trump again! I’d argue that critical appraisals of Biden aren’t dangerous but necessary, in large part to point him and Democrats toward victory over Trump and his enablers. These appraisals shouldn’t make or even imply any equivalence between Biden’s troubles and Trump’s outrages. Mine didn’t. And never will.

Sometimes a columnist speaks for just a small subset of readers. The opposite of that is Bret Stephens in The Times on the junior senator from Texas: “Ted Cruz is to my brain what durian fruit is to my nose.” (Thanks to Miki Smith of Worton, Md., and David Calfee of Lake Forest, Ill., for nominating this.)

Staying on the topic of political revulsion, here’s Michael Gerson, who once wrote speeches for President George W. Bush, in The Washington Post: “In my political youth, conservatives praised state governments as ‘laboratories of innovation.’ Now they’re graveyards of sanity and public spirit. And the actual graveyards provide evidence.” (Christine Allen, Charlotte, N.C.)

Also in The Washington Post, a survey of Apple upgrades by Chris Velazco and Tatum Hunter notes, skeptically, a new $4.99-a-month Apple Music Voice plan for playing songs upon verbal command: “The details are hazy, but anyone familiar with Siri’s constant mistakes and misfires may be shuddering. If I wanted to pay money to be consistently misunderstood, I’d buy a plane ticket to my mother’s house.” (Joe Hornung-Scherr, Holland, Neb.)

Here’s David Remnick in a recent article about Paul McCartney in The New Yorker: “To retrieve the memories and sensations of the past, Proust relied mainly on the taste of crumbly cakes moistened with lime-blossom tea. The rest of humanity relies on songs. Songs are emotionally charged and brief, so we remember them whole: the melody, the hook, the lyrics, where we were, what we felt. And they are emotionally adhesive, especially when they’re encountered in our youth.” (Del Shortliffe, Norwalk, Conn.)

In The Times, Jason Farago’s review of the exhibition “Surrealism Beyond Borders” noted that it, like several other recent shows, “conceives of Surrealism as not quite a movement, but a broad, tentacular tendency. Its forms and its aims mutated as they migrated, and therefore simple narratives of this-one-influenced-that-one won’t cut it. This is something grander, messier and much more compelling: an unstable cartography of images and ideas on the move, blowing across the globe like trade winds of the subconscious.” (Robert Dana, Minneapolis)

Finally, here’s Ligaya Mishan in The Times on night-blooming flowers: “Starting around dusk (depending on where in the world you are, how warm the day, the ponderousness of clouds), the pale, waxy buds, which resemble elongated artichokes, start to open, the pink-tipped sepals peeling back millimeter by millimeter until, by midnight, the secret is told: the blossom announcing itself, so white it seems to glow, with skinny yellow streamers at its throat. Its life is a matter of hours; in the light of day, it retreats and shrivels, a ball gown turned to rags.” (Carole King, Nashville, Tenn.)

Credit...Frank Bruni

I give Regan almost no people food, lest boundaries be blurred and a whole lot of begging at the table begin. But I make an exception once or twice a week, in the form of a whole outing, a beloved ritual.

We visit the nearby Starbucks drive-through, where I get a basic coffee or such just so that I can request, for her, a puppuccino. A puppuccino is a free small cup of whipped cream that’s not advertised but that all the baristas are poised to serve and that many of us who have dogs are wise to.

I believe that I’ve successfully taught Regan the word. She definitely knows the prelude to a puppuccino: As soon as we slip into the drive-through lane, she perks up, and by the time I’m at the service window, she’s jittering. And when I hold the cup to her snout? Her concentration, as she angles and extends her tongue to reach the farthest wisps of the treat, rivals that of a safecracker.

With minimum effort, I bring her maximum joy. I’m a benevolent deity, dispensing dairy in lieu of grace.

Credit...Clockwise from top left, Jack Maple, Frank Bruni, Judith Kelley, Frank Bruni.

Nothing grows as fast as fungi, at least to judge by some of the mushrooms that I see.

Consider the yellow ones beside my driveway at dawn. They weren’t there at dusk the day before. I’m sure of it. Or if they were, they were too wee and wan to wrest the stage from the grass around them, inconspicuous extras waiting in the wings.

But just 12 hours later, they’re full-fledged divas. Are they ghastly or gorgeous? A terror or temptation? For me that’s the wonder of mushrooms, the riddle. They could be poisonous. Then again, they could be soup.

They dazzle me regardless, refugees from a surrealist canvas, Dali in the dirt. They’re poetry: Sylvia Plath proved that, using verse to turn them into feminist metaphors for overlooked strength, for stealth assertion. “We diet on water, on crumbs of shadow,” she wrote in the role of a colonel in a mushroom army. “Our kind multiplies.”

Her kind was there the other day, on the edge of a trail that Regan and I explored. The trees in the area were especially tall and densely clustered, and there, nuzzling the trunk of one of them, was a mass of orange mushrooms so fiery and flamboyant that I almost gasped. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to run from them. Instead, I just tiptoed up to them, as if approaching a slumbering beast, and snapped a picture.

I’m not alone. Jack Maples, a photographer I know, sent me shots of mushrooms — fluffy, knobby — that he had recently encountered. Judith Kelley, the dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, did the same, and she and I together spotted an extraordinary mushroom, one that looked like the fungal equivalent of a tequila sunrise cocktail, during a hike with Regan on Sunday in Duke Forest. On a group email thread, Jack and Judith and I marvel over this dizzying riot of growth, these overnight transformations of the terrain around us. We’re ’shroomstruck.

I surprise myself. I’m no naturalist, no botanist, just a city boy who has traveled fast from paucity to plethora in terms of the flora and fauna in his days. I see deer in the distance. I find fungi underfoot. I traverse the world differently from before, my senses quickened, my eyes peeled wider, a spring in my step.