...which is a completely irrelevant warning, because the whole planet has seen Squid Game, apart from us. Or, more accurately, has seen all of Squid Game, whereas we're only up to episode 6. And, just to confuse matters further, I'm writing this as though I've only seen the first two, which is when I mentally sketched out my thinking for this post.
Because, much as I've taken to the whole peppermint-accented Grand Guignol since, I was left feeling hugely underwhelmed after the first episode. In fact, up until halfway through the second episode I was convinced that this may be building up to a textbook example of 'how not to'.
Let's just review the first episode and a half:
Seong Gi-hun is down on his luck, having accumulated enormous debts whilst becoming estranged from his daughter and ex-wife. At a train station, a well-dressed man asks him to play a game for money, then offers an opportunity to play more games with much higher stakes. Gi-hun accepts, is knocked unconscious, and awakens in a dormitory with 455 others, identified only by numbers. It is explained that the players are all in dire financial straits but will be given billions of won in prize money if they can win six games over six days. The first game is a deadly iteration of Red Light, Green Light, where anyone caught moving is shot dead on the spot.
With over half of the players killed in the first game, many survivors demand to be released. Using the game's third clause, they successfully vote to cancel the game and send everyone home, but without any prize money. Back in Seoul, Gi-hun goes to the police, but no one believes him except Detective Hwang Jun-ho, whose brother received the same invitation card and has recently disappeared...
The above is taken from Wikipedia, which fails to mention that when we meet him Seong Gi-hun lives with his ailing mother and thinks nothing of stealing her bank cards to finance his addictions. This is not a nice person. This is a person who you would be delighted to see locked up and off the streets. Yes, he can do that winning baffled look and the more time you spend with the character you forget his lack of moral compass, but repeat after me... this is not a role model.
Years ago, I attended one of John Truby's workshops. I recall discussing what may lead you to root for a hero, and high up on the list was undeserved misfortune. Not misfortune, but undeserved misfortune. That first word was really important. And this wasn't John Truby's idea, he was just passing down a nugget of wisdom that's been knocking around since Aristotle. It's innate, hard-wired. We can't help thinking in these terms.
To save you clicking on that last link, here's the crucial line from the deep thinkers at Tufts University: "The hero must not deserve his misfortune, but he must cause it by making a fatal mistake, an error of judgement, which may well involve some imperfection of character but not such as to make us regard him as 'morally responsible' for the disasters". Sorry, stealing mum's bank card wasn't a misstep, it was the actions of a character rotten to the core. Morally responsible for the kimchi he's in? Absolutely.
But that isn't even my main gripe. At the risk of sending one of my hobby horses lame through over-exertion, story requires there to be a hero (doesn't need to be singular or even human) trying to achieve something (anything!) who needs to overcome obstacles to get there. Others will say that there needs to be a personification of those obstacles (an antagonist) and our hero needs to evolve, but they're not necessities. They'll improve the end product, sure, but you can still have a story without them.
Let's tick them off. Hero. Subject to the comments above, check. Obstacles. The story is designed around the six couldn't-be-more-obstacle-like-if-you-tried games in six days. Check. Achieving something. Clearing his debt. Right?
Not so fast. Clearing a debt, or making money isn't an aim, or at least not an aim that's particularly interesting, story-wise. Doing something - robbing a bank, closing an impossible deal, driving trucks filled with unstable, leaking nitro-glycerin up a long and rocky mountain road to plug an escalating oil refinery blaze - to make the money, now that's the interesting part. Not the cash. What you have to do to get it. Do you want to see a story about a football manager funding his toddler's obscure treatment by winning the cup or getting sacked? They both sound dreadful, but the second sounds a whole different level of dreadful.
And what does Seong Gi-hun have to do to win the money? Not lose. Not do something. Avoid an outcome. It's not even like there was a leaderboard after the first game, it was simply a matter of not failing. And watching people avoid an outcome is really, really boring.
And whilst it becomes quickly apparent later on that there is an incentive to be the only winner at the end of the race, that isn't how the first episode is set out. It's a case of you don't need to succeed as long as you don't fail. There can be as many winners as you like. In theory, everybody could have won the first game. So, we have a dislikeable main character trying to avoid, rather than achieve, something, without any sense that the number of winners is in any way rationed. How did this get green lit?
It's only when Hwang Jun-ho comes on the scene looking for his brother - a positive, definite objective - for a character with undeserved misfortune that I found myself engaged. It was like a switch had been flicked. Now I wanted to know what happened next. But ninety minutes in? Seriously? I didn't know we could be so relaxed about story these days.
I'm sure John Truby would have set the whole thing up differently. Hell, I think Aristotle would have done so too.
2084. The world remains at war.
In the Eurasian desert, twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a strictly ordered city of steel and glass, and a woman he loved.
The city is the Dome, and the woman... is Adnan's secret to keep.
Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what his role really was within it. He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers. And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.
Persuaded to re-enter the Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.
24 0s & a 2
Twenty-four slipstream stories. Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.