by Simona Grabel, PhD

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. ~ King Lear

As shameful as it was to have watched the entire Squid Game Netflix series, I can safely say that it shows us something deeply true about human nature.  This truth applies to the characters (the wanton boys and the flies), and to us, the viewers.

Without giving away too much of the plot, (but still: Spoiler Alert!), the story has us follow the main character, Seong Gi-hun, a hapless Korean man, as he voluntarily is drawn into a mysterious series of bloodthirsty competitions with his many cohorts.  The competitions revolve around childrens’ games, such as the Squid Game, Red Light – Green Light, Tug of War, and Marbles.  The last man (or woman) standing will be the winner of a giant, overhanging clear ball filled with money, an almost embarrassing display of human greed and desperation.

We understand the characters’ addiction to the gambling in the Games, which includes gambling with their own lives, and the slaughter of competitors.  Their basest impulses and instincts are given free rein in an unspeakably bloody arena.

So, why childrens’ games?  There is an idea of a longing to relive a joy of childhood, which apparently cannot be experienced in adult lives, particularly in the pitiful, impoverished lives of the characters.  The oldest player in the competitions, Oh Il-nam, seemingly sympathetic, is ultimately unmasked as the most power hungry of all, yet wielding a strangely poignant desire to recapture a nostalgic, innocent pleasure. How uncomfortable a sight!

The Games provide a golden opportunity, at last, for some grown up children to take care of their mothers. Gi-hun, a deadbeat Dad to his young daughter, is also a deadbeat son to his own mother, who lives with him in shameful poverty.  The quest to become a reliable and prosperous son blinds him to the terrible deeds he is inducted into. Is it blindness, or a willingness and drive to kill the “flies” that are in his way?

Another disturbing feature of the Games involves the view from on high.  There we see the ultra-wealthy Americans, behind their bizarre masks, who are the spectators and customers for the violence and gore beneath.  They are the gods who comment on and subsidize the sport.  What remains unsaid, of course, is that we, the viewers, are equally observers of the gratuitous, but gratifying destruction of the flies.  We are all the Lord of the Flies.  And entertainment is our overlord, as we pathetically seek ways out of our boredom.

Furthermore, in our identification with the main character, we keep coming back for more.  Are we longing to understand the point of these games, and to have the ending, at last, revealed?  Or is there some baser, voracious “id” instinct at play?  John Irving once said that readers keep reading a book to find out what happens in the end.  Gi-hun seems to want to know that ending, too, even though it is his own story.

So, my fellow “Ugly American,” watch the Squid Game at your own peril.  Assuredly, you won’t feel better about yourself or mankind.  But that enticing curiosity and strangulating horror may keep you glued to the screen.  The tentacles of love and hate reveal themselves in the Squid.

Let the Games begin!

Simona Grabel, PhD is a Psychotherapist Member of BPSI, practicing in Lexington, MA.  She is a graduate psychoanalyst of the PINE Psychoanalytic Center, and a graduate of BPSI’s Advanced Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program (ATP).

Simona Grabel can be contacted by email here.


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