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The return of the squid
Creative Sensemaker

The return of the squid

Thursday 11 November 2021

As season two of Squid Game is announced, the Netflix sensation strengthens its grip on the global imagination as a parable of the age of debt


Warning: Contains spoilers

“There’s been so much pressure, so much demand and so much love for a second season. So I almost feel like you leave us no choice!” So said Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of Squid Game, in Los Angeles on Monday, sending waves of excitement through social media, news channels and fan sites. Like a ravenous cephalopod rising from the ocean depths, the streaming sensation of 2021 will be back for more.

Though Netflix is notoriously wary about releasing audience data, it has been less bashful than usual about the global success of season one – which has become its most-viewed title in more than 90 countries, cost the company only $21.4 million to produce, but, using its own internal metric of “impact value”, has generated almost $900 million for the streaming giant. 

Hwang Dong-hyuk on set

Which is quite something for a South Korean dystopian drama that had been stuck in development hell since 2008, and was initially expected to achieve a cult following at best. Yet the often brutal saga of 456 contestants, spirited away to a remote island, fighting for their lives and a cash prize of $40 million dollars in a series of do-or-die games, struck a raw cultural nerve around the world.

To an extent, of course, Squid Game has been a beneficiary of the well established surge of fascination with South Korean entertainment and art – the so-called Hallyu, or Korean wave, epitomised by the triumph of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite at the 2020 Oscars, but also evident in the growing Western appetite for K-pop and the SM Entertainment metaverse (see Creative Sensemaker, 7 October), K-drama – hits such as Descendants of the Sun (2016), Boys Over Flowers (2009) and Winter Sonata (2002), and South Korean memes and viral YouTube clips.

Parasite (2019)

Yet Hwang’s genius in creating a genuinely global show reflects more than fad and fashion. The story of Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a hard-luck case on the run from loan sharks and the bank, wooed into a mysterious game that may transform his fortunes, cast a spell over hundreds of millions of viewers within days of its release in September.

Each of the characters – Kang Sae-byeok (HoYeon Jung), the testy tough girl wanting a better future for her brother; Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), the golden boy turned white-collar criminal; and Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), the cop looking for his brother – has his or her own backstory. But what makes the spectacle of the games so sinister and so compelling is the way in which they are homogenised into a cohort of disposable, numbered contestants, infantilised by their green-and-white tracksuits and dormitory sleeping arrangements, drilled into submission by armed guards wearing masks and distinctive magenta uniforms.

The brilliantly conceived aesthetic of Squid Game is essential to its appeal, and eclectic in its roots. Even as the players troop to the next ordeal, they recall figures from Gustav Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Purgatorio, transplanted to a garishly coloured reimagining of M.C. Escher’s steps. That the challenges they face are murderous versions of childhood games – “Red Light, Green Light”, the tug of war, “Squid Game” itself – only adds to the sense of menace, amorality and dislocation.

Dante and Virgil passing amongst the wailing souls, Canto XX, Purgatory, Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, engraving by Gustave Dore, 1869 edition.

Like many South Korean directors, Hwang is also heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick, so it is no surprise that the costumes – especially those of the billionaire “VIPs” who come to the island to watch the final rounds – so clearly recall the masked ball in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or that such pointed use is made of Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ (now inextricably associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey).

In the reduction of the contestants to mob savagery, there is also a clear debt to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), not to mention more recent portrayals of contests to the death such as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) – one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies – and The Hunger Games (2012). 

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Though it depends upon the manic energy of reality television, Squid Game is an essay on human nature, its darkness and its capacity for redemption. In the final episode, Gi-hun and the game’s dying creator, Oh Il Nam (Oh Yeong-su) – a plutocrat so bored by prodigious wealth that he smuggles himself into the contest as an ordinary contestant – make a wager over a freezing man huddling in the street outside: will somebody come to help him before midnight? The bet dramatises the oscillating verdict of the show on the extent to which humanity can ever truly be rescued from the Hobbesian state of nature and a life that is “nasty, brutish and short”.

What truly gives Squid Game its serrated edge, however, is the centrality of debt to the story: all the contestants are facing financial disaster of one sort or another, and are willing to die for the (remote) chance of a life-changing cash bonanza. Perhaps the most disturbing episode of the series is the second, in which, after a vote to leave the island, many of the competitors return – preferring the lethal casino of the game to their hopeless lives on the mainland. As Oh Il Nam remarks: “Out there, the torture is worse.”

Indebtedness, of course, is a familiar, if under-acknowledged cultural theme. It is what drives Emma Bovary to suicide, and destroys Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905). It is in debtors’ prison that David Copperfield visits Mr Micawber. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Jane Fonda and Gig Young memorably re-enacted the grotesque lengths to which the Depression-era “marathon dancers” would go, for weeks on end, to win a big cash prize.

As Margaret Atwood writes in her crisp exploration of indebtedness, Payback (2008): “There’s nothing we human beings can imagine, including debt, that can’t be turned into a game – something done for entertainment”. Which is precisely what gives Squid Game its terrible power.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)

In this sense, the series is very much a product of its era: the age of post-Crash insolvency, soaring household debt, the end of the lifelong career, and the dramatic spread of financial insecurity to the middle classes, alongside the new “precariat” of workers living hand to mouth. Though a fair amount of debt was paid back during lockdown, the upward trend of indebtedness persists.

Squid Game preys greedily on what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism” – the subconscious recognition that the victory of capitalism is total, the consequent “privatization of stress”, the resignation and cynicism that is bred by life in this “collective psychic infrastructure” and the flailing attempts by humanity to find some form of fulfilment in a world in which they are led by consumerism and indebtedness to a hypermodern form of indentured servitude. 

Squid Game toys at Yiwu Wholesale Market, the largest small commodities market in the world

This is the backdrop to Hwang’s addictive drama. How bleakly apt, too, that this supposedly anti-capitalist show should already have spawned a busy trade in merchandise: Squid Game masks, plush toys, costumes, T-shirts, stationery. No less than in the era of papal indulgences, there’s a buck to be made from every morality tale.

How, indeed, could there not be a second season? How could we resist becoming players and consumers in the game ourselves? Isn’t the whole point that the roulette wheel never stops spinning? See the dark shadow of the squid just beneath the waves, coiled and hungry, ready to return for more, more, more. 

Here are this week’s recommendations.


Watch

Cry Macho (general release, 12 November)

To derive maximum enjoyment from this movie, you have to grasp its proper context – which is to say that Clint Eastwood (perhaps optimistically) expects a level of movie knowledge of his audience. First, this is – depending upon how you count screen appearances – at least the 63rd film in which he has featured. Second, it is the 39th he has directed, half a century after the first, Play Misty for Me (1971), and the eighth in the past decade. Third, this modern Western – based on a 1975 novel of the same name by N. Richard Nash – has to be understood as an exercise in reflection and retrospective amusement by a screen legend who, in the six decades since he starred in Rawhide, has more or less come to personify that particular genre. In his Oscar-winning masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood deconstructed the Western, interrogated the “Man With No Name”, and reassembled a whole category of movie from scratch. Though Cry Macho is not in the same league, it may represent a farewell to the form by its star – who is 91; if so, it is, by definition, a cinematic landmark.

Set in 1980, the story follows Eastwood’s Mike Milo – a washed-up rodeo star, soaked in booze and rattling with pills – as he goes looking for his former boss’s teenage son Rafo (Eduardo Minett) in Mexico. Along for the ride is Rafo’s cockerel, Macho, who gives the movie its title – and recalls Clyde the orangutan, who stole the show from Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980). Best enjoyed as an amiable commentary upon a life in movies  (consider the lines: “I used to be a lot of things, but I’m not now” and  “I don’t know how to cure old”) and in tandem with the recently released documentary Clint Eastwood: A Cinematic Legacy (VOD, YouTube).

Tiger King Season 2 (Netflix, 17 November)

Released only days before Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown in March 2020, the first season of Tiger King quickly became an early cultural phenomenon of the pandemic: a trash TV show that viewers who would usually confine themselves to prestige television suddenly found time to consume voraciously (as they did a more recent BBC documentary on the saga by Louis Theroux; see Creative Sensemaker, 1 April 2021).

Joe Exotic, the king himself and former owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, is now serving a 22 year sentence for his part in a plot to kill Carole Baskin – his great nemesis, and the chief executive of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal sanctuary near Tampa, Florida. Baskin, for her part, is busily trying to prevent Netflix from using footage of her in a heated First Amendment dispute – unimpressed, no doubt, by the prospect of further allegations that she was somehow involved in the disappearance of her first husband, Don Lewis, in 1997 (claims that she vehemently denies). There is every sign that the second season will be just as tasteless, camp and lurid as its predecessor. The question is: can this particular cultural virus survive in the post-lockdown world?

Mothering Sunday (general release, 12 November)

March 30 1924, and Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young), maid at the grand home of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivie Colman) heads off for a passionate assignation with Paul Sherringham (Josh O’Connor). It is clear that this will be the lovers’ last tryst, as he is to be married to Emma Hobday (Emma D’Arcy) and pursue a legal career. Based on Graham Swift’s 2016 novel of the same name, Eva Husson’s film is a cool and beautiful panorama in which the mores of class and social position continue remorselessly, in the chilly shadow of death cast by the losses of the First World War. Both of Paul’s brothers are among the fallen – as is the Nivens’ son, James, who was, we learn, close to engagement with Emma.

Firth and Colman are outstanding, communicating by their very reticence the agony of loss. Alice Birch’s screenplay operates in two other time frames: the 1940s, when Jane, now a writer, is married to a philosopher, Donald (Sope Dirisu), and many decades later, with Glenda Jackson assuming the role of the older literary grandee (and apparently channelling the late Doris Lessing). Like Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) – another tremendous novel about a successful writer that has its roots in emotional drama between the wars – Mothering Sunday is a study in bereavement in its many forms and the unpredictable capacity of human beings to cope with grief as time passes. An exquisite movie.


Read

Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 – Alina Chan and Matt Ridley

A decade from now, will those who persisted with the theory that Covid-19 was a man made product of laboratories in Wuhan be categorised as conspiracy theorists, or as doughty warriors for truth? Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Matt Ridley, one of the best contemporary writers on science and technology, refuse, in this absorbing book, to rule out the possibility that the SARS-Cov-2 virus escaped from a biotech laboratory. In doing so, as they readily acknowledge, they exile themselves from the expert consensus that the pandemic is zoonotic in character – which is to say that the pathogen leapt from bats or pangolins to people in China two years ago.

At the very least, this is a gripping tale, full of missing documents, bureaucratic obstruction, arbitrary police detention and unexplained coincidences (notably that three of the first cases had worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology). At a minimum, this book should persuade you that “gain-of-function research”, in which viruses are manipulated in laboratories to explore their potential, needs to be much better regulated – and it is hard to dissent from the authors’ contention that big questions remain unanswered. (Do check out – if you haven’t already – Ceri Thomas’s Slow Newscast from July on the mystery of Covid’s genesis.)

The Every – Dave Eggers (Penguin, 16 November)

Among the many dystopian fictions already spawned by the age of Big Tech, Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013) stands out as perhaps the most readable and absorbing (and certainly more easily digestible than Shoshana Zuboff’s brilliant but densely written work of analysis, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism). The Circle – a tech company mightier even than Facebook, Twitter or Google – had its own Orwellian mantras: “Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft.”

In this absorbing sequel, the mighty corporation merges with the biggest digital commerce site in the world (please note: the hardback version of the book is conspicuously unavailable on Amazon) to form a giga-monopoly: the Every, run by Mae Holland, the first book’s principal protagonist. Playing David to this online Goliath is Delaney Wells, a former forest ranger, who is set upon sabotaging the Every with a series of apps that will undermine its credibility: “She did not care if she did it in the civilized, covert, information-dump sort of way her predecessors practiced, or through a more formal assault. She intended to harm no one, never to graze a physical hair on a physical head, but somehow she would end the Every, finish its malignant reign on earth.” The strategy goes badly awry in ways both satirical and unsettling. Eggers has a gift for aphorism, and captures the social meaning of the digital revolution as well as any contemporary novelist (“shame ensued, and shame was deserved, and shame was the internet’s currency and lever for change”). 

Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time – Teju Cole (The University of Chicago Press)

Best known for his novels Open City and Every Day is for the Thief – both of them dazzling – Teju Cole is also an essayist of great distinction and one of the most important contemporary practitioners of a form that is enjoying a true renaissance (Olivia Laing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Solnit, Lorrie Moore, Jia Tolentino, George Packer, Leslie Jamison… the list goes on).

Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Chicago in 2019, these 26 pieces are an extraordinary exploration of themes ranging from the art of Caravaggio and the photography of Lorna Simpson, via the Marvel movie Black Panther and the influence of Edward Said, to the meaning of migration, nature, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and much else. Cole’s erudition, eclecticism and empathy are remarkable, but it is his capacity for lyrical writing that stays with the reader and marks him out as one of the most significant cultural figures of our times.


Listen

Valentine – Snail Mail

Three years since her remarkable debut, Lush, Lindsey Jordan returns with a second album that expands her range from indie-folk guitar music to a richer, more expansive sound, co-produced by Brad Cook (Snail Mail is also now officially a trio, featuring bassist Alex Bass and Ray Brown on drums). Mostly written in the bedroom where she grew up – Jordan, now 22, went home during lockdown – Valentine deals with the singular experience of fame (“Those parasitic cameras, don’t they stop to stare at you?”) and the universal abrasions of heartache. “You wanna leave a stain, like a relapse does,” she sings to a former lover on ‘Ben Franklin’ – an oblique reference to Jordan’s spell in rehab last year. With its agonised line ‘When did you start seeing her?’, ‘Headlock’ is reminiscent of Joe Jackson’s classic of jilted incredulity ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’. “Why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?” she sings on the title track – a forlorn question that unites this excellent album with the sharpness of a rose’s thorn.

Muse – Sheku & Isata Kanneh-Mason

The seven Kanneh-Mason siblings – their ages ranging from 11 to 23 – are a phenomenon of modern music. Here, pianist Isata and her cellist brother Sheku (see Creative Sensemaker, 14 January 2021) collaborate in a fine recording of Barber’s Cello Sonata (1932), Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor (1901), and transcriptions of songs by both composers. Working together at their Nottingham family home during lockdown, the duo encouraged audacious interpretation in one another, and the fruits are rich indeed in what sounds more like a vivid recital than a regular studio production. Barber and Rachmaninoff make considerable technical demands of performers, but the Kanneh-Mason family is more than equal to the challenge. 

‘Through It All’ – Lady Wray

Nicole Wray – AKA Lady Wrayhas been a force to reckon with since her 1998 debut single ‘Make It Hot’, and adds lustre to her reputation with this excellent six-track EP. Since launching her career with the help of Missy Elliott (who signed her on the spot after an audition in Virginia), Wray has developed a distinctive R&B sound (with the help of producer Leon Michels) that owes as much to Sixties girl groups as it does to the mellower varieties of hip-hop. At least three of the tracks were recorded in single takes, when the singer was heavily pregnant – added to which is the ever-present influence of Gospel, or what she calls “those inner hands”. An artist in her formidable prime.


… and finally

Here’s Dave Taylor on the Tortoise trip to Abbey Road Studios to mark its 90th anniversary that he hosted last week

“Magical things happen in recording studios – and we were lucky to conjure something last week for a few lucky Tortoise members in the room where The Beatles recorded Revolver, the album most people think stands as their finest achievement. 

We were in Studio 3, discussing the impact of technology on creativity and had a brilliant session with Abbey Road’s managing director Isabel Garvey and innovation manager Karim Fanous, who took us all the way from the astonishing experiments of The Beatles in that 1966 recording session all the way to the impact of AI on how songs are written and recorded. 

You can have a listen to our ThinkIn and hear about the way The Beatles used tape loops and backwards guitar solos to truly turn the studio into a musical instrument. And my advice to you: cue up ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the stand-out track from Revolver – because whether you are hearing it for the first time or the 1,000th, you will be ready to make the case for it as one of the most important songs ever recorded; two minutes and 57 seconds that changed everything.”

Warmest thanks to Dave – you can listen to the session here.

A ThinkIn at Abbey Road Studios

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs Noh Juhan/Netflix, CJ Entertainment, Getty Images, Alamy Images, Michael Ochs Archives, Warner Bros, Lionsgate