Searching for God’s Grace in Squid Game’s Bloody Violence

Article ID: JAR2112 | By: Kevin Schut

Television Series Review

Squid Game (Season One)

Netflix (2021)

Created, written, and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk

(Editor’s Note: This is a spoiler filled review.)


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​I wanted to avoid Squid Game (Netflix, 2021–). I study pop culture for a living, but I don’t watch, read, listen to, or play everything. There is just too much stuff out there, so I can afford to be picky. At first, Squid Game was definitely not on the menu. I mean, I heard about it. And what I heard was enough: another entry in the gory, dystopian genre of forced human death games, like Guns Akimbo (2019), The Hunger Games (2012), The Running Man (1987), The Most Dangerous Game (2020–), all the way back to the ancient Roman arenas, at least. I like action, but I’m not really that interested in slaughter.

But I knew I shouldn’t really dismiss the new Netflix hit out of hand. Some arena stories are worth watching. The Hunger Games, for example, is a powerful story that talks about justice and morality in the face of oppression.1 And I have also been fascinated by streaming services like Netflix internationalizing premium TV content with shows like Money Heist (2017–2021) and Lupin (2021–). South Korea especially has transformed itself into a powerhouse of pop culture, exporting singers, gamers, and award-winning films in recent years.

But it was the ubiquity of Squid Game that started to slowly change my mind. Within the first month of its release, Netflix subscribers had logged more than one billion hours watching Squid Game and it quickly became the number one series Netflix had ever released.2 It was on every pop culture blog, podcast, and even jumped to the headlines of mainstream media. Some of my Korean students made a parody video for an assignment. So, when I was asked to write this article, I figured that was God’s way of pushing something onto my agenda.

For those who, unlike me, have managed to avoid discussions of this series, Squid Game is a nine-episode fictional TV drama series. It tells the story of financially desperate Koreans who end up competing in a mysterious, lethal game, for a major financial reward. In the recent tradition of high-end TV drama, it is full of graphically depicted violence and is occasionally sexually explicit. The series has an impressively distinctive visual design, featuring a weird blend of mid-20th century icons, bright pastel colors, and stark industrial furnishings and settings. The audio work is likewise remarkably unique and noteworthy. Full of action and cliff-hangers, it is hard to stop watching.

But something can be exciting and morally bankrupt. So, let’s consider what kind of show this is. Before we start, be aware that this is a reasonably spoiler-heavy analysis. If that’s a problem, I’d suggest you watch the series before you read this — if you can handle the blood and the one (highly telegraphed in advance) explicit sex scene. You have been forewarned.

Christians and Difficult Media Content. Does the story being told justify all the really awful stuff we have to watch? Because, make no mistake, there is plenty of disturbing, challenging material in this show. There is a lot of foul language and there is an explicit sex scene (it could be worse, but it doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination). And the big thing, of course, is the violence. This show is swimming in physical mayhem. On the mild end are the beatings. There are a lot of shootings — most of them headshots that result in sprays of gore. There are a lot of dead, mutilated bodies and stabbings, and a terrifying nighttime free-for-all murderous melee.

So what are we to make of this? Christians have long been opposed to viewing violence and sex for the purposes of entertainment, dating back to the early days of the church, which criticized the many disturbing Roman spectacles in the arena and on stage. Some in today’s church often apply the same lens to media representations in TV, movies, comic books, and video games.

We could note that the near bloodlust frenzy many church-goers seem to muster as ardent fans of football or hockey teams suggests possible inconsistencies. Or those Christians who say historical war violence and killing in the R-rated film Saving Private Ryan (1998) is acceptable. But the hypocrisy of critics is not a great defence. Violence is a result of brokenness and sin — it is wrong. It may be that we need to learn to live with it to some degree, but it is not something to be celebrated or enjoyed. And while sexual intimacy is, in fact, a good gift given by God, the church has been fairly consistent in teaching that such mutual enjoyment belongs within marriage, not on a stage or screen for someone else to watch.

Critics of graphic violence and sex on screen often point to Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things” (NIV). Some interpret this to mean that violent and oversexualized media are impure and therefore watching such material is the opposite of what Paul exhorts Christ-followers to do.

I certainly would never say that Christians unquestionably should watch TV shows with graphic violence, explicit sexuality, crude language, and the like. Is it possible that such content may cause spiritual harm? Absolutely. When we consume stuff like this precisely because it appeals to our bloodlust or sexual lust, this is not spiritually healthy — and that’s pretty easy to do.

But sometimes Christian criticism of shows like Squid Game needs some nuance. To start with, using media is actually a pretty complicated thing. What we see on a screen is not the same thing as the physical world we live in. Our stories and images matter, but our brains are constantly interpreting and evaluating the media we engage. Screen violence can attract or repel.

A second problem with much of the criticism of sex and violence in media is that it focuses too much attention on a limited set of problems. Plenty of movies, TV shows, and games feature selfish people, or gluttons, or power-hungry and manipulative characters. Sex and violence grab headlines, but less obvious dimensions of a story can be far more dangerous. Many Christians, in my opinion, blithely drink in the spiritually toxic practices and assumptions of consumerism without ever noticing.

Of course, not every critic falls into these traps, and I haven’t exactly defended graphic depictions of sex and violence. I think, however, that we can make a case that at least some Christians in some situations will benefit from engaging stories with difficult and apparently offensive content.

For one thing, I take very seriously the call to be in the world and not of it. The ministry of Jesus was shocking, offensive, and generally uncomfortable for the conventionally righteous people of His culture. It’s hard for me to believe that a man prominently associated with former prostitutes and money-hungry tax collectors, a man who said His critics called Him a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:19), was someone who had never seen a libertine party. Jesus was without sin, but that doesn’t mean He shied away from His thoroughly sinful culture. Instead, Jesus engaged with the world He lived in.

I believe Christ-followers are called to do the same. We are called to live with the people of the world and draw on God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to revive and renew it, to spread hope and love and joy and peace and healing. We go where people are, both physically and culturally.

In addition, like the apostle Paul on Mars Hill, Christians can use popular entertainment as a connection point for sharing good news. Major hits like Netflix’s Squid Game are part of our cultural vocabulary. We don’t all have to be caught up on every hit TV show or video game or social media influencer. But some of us should be. There are many ways to defend the gospel and talk to people in our culture — the avenue of pop culture should be one of them.

This isn’t a license to do whatever we feel like. Christians can overdo the quest for cultural currency, using it as an excuse to do unhealthy things. This engagement with the world should be a careful, thoughtful, prayerful process, and not everyone is called to do it the same way. But a blanket condemnation of Christians watching Squid Game or other premium drama with potentially offensive content is also problematic. This is especially true when critics attack shows or games that they haven’t touched themselves. Deciding not to engage a particular text is entirely reasonable; deciding to then publicly slam that same unwatched material is embarrassing.

On top of that, the most powerful and true moments of grace and joy and forgiveness in our stories do not come from very nice narratives. Many viewers might argue that stories of good people in peaceful places are boring. I’m not sure I agree. I really do appreciate visions of heaven without any mention of hell. But to be true to our life in this world, we have to recognize the reality and pain of sin, death, and suffering. And we need to showcase the saving power of God in the midst of brokenness. This happens most powerfully in stories that recognize this brokenness.

The light shines in the darkness. Tolkien calls the sudden turn of joy “eucatastrophe.”3 He recognizes that good stories pull forth beauty and remind us of the reality God wants. But, Tolkien also argues, the goodness can’t be too cheap. If the forces of evil aren’t really that evil, if the threat the protagonists face isn’t really that hard to vanquish, then the victory isn’t really that meaningful.

What’s the Show About? The main protagonist of Squid Game is Seong Gi-Hun, who, we discover almost immediately, is a loser who is down-and-out on his luck. He lives with and sponges off his elderly mother, is divorced and a terrible father to his young daughter, has a gambling problem, and is in debt to some very violent people. He lies easily, is selfish, and has few real friends. As he reaches the limit of his financial desperation, he is approached by a well-dressed man who essentially pays Gi-Hun to be hit in the face. At the conclusion of this humiliating exercise, the desperate man receives an invitation to participate in a mysterious contest with a major prize.

We are also introduced to several other characters who are likewise in dire straits. All of them (along with several hundred other people: Gi-Hun is competitor 456) end up drugged and shipped off to an island with a hidden facility run by masked guards. There, the contestants are pitted against each other in a series of old-fashioned Korean children’s games. They quickly discover to their horror that the losers of each stage are killed without mercy. The bulk of the episodes are dedicated to the step-by-step twists and turns of the terrible struggle to survive and possibly win the game.

An Old-Fashioned Morality Play. While many people describe Squid Game as a social critique of wealth inequality, I agree with Mike Hale of the New York Times that that is somewhat misguided.4 Unlike the hit film Parasite (2019), this TV series has a rather shallow take on socio-economic class struggle. It doesn’t really try to explain how inequality happens or is maintained.

So what does the series focus on? As a whole, I think this series is a morality play, almost like an incredibly violent and sexual Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is set up as a series of moral challenges that various characters face and either pass or fail. All the contestants are burdened with debts or a desperate need for money. The devil, in the form of the murderous plutocrats hellbent on corrupt entertainment, dangles cash in front of them in exchange for participating in the ghastly games. Then, in contest after contest, the participants face challenges that measure their righteousness.

When caught in a deadly game of red light/green light where the losers are shot to death, will Ali risk his personal safety to prevent Gi-Hun from falling and dying? When the contestants engage in a murderous war in the dark, who tries to protect whom? When the game requires a team, such as a tug-of-war contest, who will side with the weaker participants? When the loser in a game of marbles is shot, will contestants treat their friends fairly or sacrifice them in order to proceed? In each case, the stakes are life and death, so the moral dimensions are particularly stark. And at the heart of the story are the choices each character makes.

The show is particularly good at humanizing the competitors. The faceless, pastel-clad guards, the mysterious Front Man who runs the games, and the evil wealthy psychopaths behind the whole thing are mostly stock characters without any depth — I don’t think it’s a coincidence they all wear masks. The contestants, however, are very real and relatable. Even the criminal Deok-su and the loud, manipulative, highly irritating Han Mi-nyeo demonstrate at moments that they long for security and companionship, while dreaming of a better future. Cho Sang-Woo, Gi-Hun’s childhood friend and a failed financial genius, can’t face disappointing his mother, Ali has a wife and young child, and the pickpocket Sae-byeok desperately wants to rescue her mother from North Korea and save her brother from his orphanage. It means that when they face difficult decisions, we find their dilemmas uncomfortably relatable.

Many moral failings are predictable. After a brief (graphic) sexual hook-up between the violent Deok-Su and the needy Mi-nyeo, he drops her like trash at the first task where he sees her as a liability. Others are more surprising. Sang-Woo consistently disappoints: although he clearly has a conscience, he regularly shelves it in order to make hard (read: wicked) choices that enable him to survive. But the show also consistently shows moments of humanity in the midst of dark circumstances. Sae-byeok is saved by an act of self-sacrifice. The likable Ali continually protects his friends.

All of this is epitomized by the character development arc of Gi-Hun himself. Again, he starts as a thoroughly dislikable man. But once he is placed in the crucible of the games, he becomes a beacon of decency. He speaks publicly about fairness and consideration. He tries to make real friends. When he commits to a team, he refuses to double-cross anyone. And most importantly, he befriends and protects the tottering old Il-Nam, a man with a soon-to-be fatal brain tumor. Although Gi-Hun is tempted to desert his new friend, he mostly passes his moral tests with flying colors.

This redemption reaches its completion at the end of the game when Gi-Hun refuses to murder his childhood friend — even though Sang Woo thoroughly deserves it. After winning the competition and returning to find his mother dead from diabetes, Gi-Hun is so thoroughly devastated that he won’t even touch the prize money. It is only a final meeting with the mastermind of the games that awakens a desire to use his money as a positive difference, and at the very end of the series, he has turned his face toward fighting the evil of the game in some as-yet-to-be-determined manner (season two is on the way).

What becomes clear is that Gi-Hun embodies at least two key Christian virtues: love and hope. His actions declare a fundamental concern for the wellbeing of others. Not only does he refuse to attack and sabotage other competitors, but he actively works to protect the weak. This is biblical love, putting others before self.

Likewise, Gi-Hun is stubborn and irrational in his belief that he and everyone else can survive. Any rational person looking at the structure and odds of the game would realize that helping others was kind of pointless, given that only one person would win. But Gi-Hun defies his oppressors, caring for others, and trying hard to make sure the team wins — not just himself. He loses this hope for a time following the trauma of the games, but it is rekindled when he witnesses a simple act of kindness. This is the biblical hope of God’s good news. A light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. And in the end, this stubborn hope is vindicated. The toll of sin and death is real and painful, but Gi-hun emerges a new man.

This is particularly interesting given how rarely anything openly religious ends up in the show. The one explicitly Christian character, who has a minor role in a few episodes, is a thoroughly dislikable, humorless zealot. Sae-byeok’s friend Ji-yeong also has a horrific tale of abuse at the hands of her father, who was a pastor. On the face of it, then, the show is hostile to religion — Christianity in particular. But in both cases, we can easily read this as a critique of religion devoid of grace. In fact, the entire show speaks of undeserved salvation in the face of impossible odds, which is the Christian story in a nutshell.

Is This a Story Worth Telling? Could you have the goodness with less graphic violence? I think so. And that’s why I wouldn’t say Squid Game is a perfectly okay show. But Gi-Hun’s resistance to the puppet masters of the Squid Game becomes more impressive and more meaningful precisely because of the many bullets, mutilations, beatings going on around him. Could more of that happened off screen? Probably. But I think to tell the story properly, some of it had to happen on screen.

Even the sex scene between Deok-Su and Mi-nyeo, as much as it bothered me, really provides another dimension to their characters, and fully highlights both their need for true companionship, and their moral weakness when they find it impossible to follow through on their commitments to each other. Did we need to see that much? No. But was it completely gratuitous pornography? Also no.

Again: I cannot recommend this show for all viewers. It is disturbing. The apparently unironic celebration of the show in YouTube videos and costume parties shows that many people missed the point. But for those with eyes to see it and ears to hear it, even in this dark fictional world, we can find the voice of God and true expressions of hope. —Kevin Schut

Kevin Schut is Professor of Media + Communication and Program Lead for the Game Development Program at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, Canada. He is the author of the book Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (Brazos Press, 2013) and has published a wide range of scholarly and popular articles on numerous cultural issues surrounding video games.

NOTES

  1. Holly Ordway, “Truth in Darkness: The Hunger Games as an Unexpected Resource for Apologists,” Christian Research Journal, November 22, 2013, https://www.equip.org/article/truth-darkness-hunger-games-unexpected-resource-apologists/.
  2.  Scott Campbell, “Netflix Subscribers Spend over 1.6 Billion Hours on ‘Squid Game,’” We Got This Covered, December 4, 2021, https://wegotthiscovered.com/tv/netflix-subscribers-spent-over-1-6-billion-hours-on-squid-game/.
  3.  J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf, including Mythopoeia (London: HarperCollins, [1947] 2012), loc. 854, Kindle.
  4. Mike Hale, “Haven’t Watched ‘Squid Game’? Here’s What You’re Not Missing,” New York Times, October 11, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/11/arts/television/squid-game-violence.html.
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