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REVIEW: Should Christians Watch Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’?

REVIEW: Should Christians Watch Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’?
Posted by Patrick Miller

Outside of anime, Americans are not known for embracing art from across the Pacific. But occasionally, a piece of art has such broad and deep appeal that it transcends language and culture. 

Nine years ago, the music video for the song “Gangnam Style” by South Korean artist Psy made the journey. Though most Americans laughed at it, not with it. In 2021, a new piece of pop art made the trans-Pacific voyage with much less to laugh at. That piece is Squid Game. 

Perhaps it’s a sign of our outraged, verbally violent, constantly freaking out moment that it’s a hyper-violent, blood-soaked cultural commentary asking transcendentally ethical questions in a format that recalls America’s most popular video games: Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Warzone. 

These video games drop players into an arena where they battle to the death. Last man or woman standing wins. They approximate, in virtual reality, actual reality, which increasingly feels like a winner-takes-all Battle Royale. 

Squid Game follows suit: players find themselves in life and death (playground) games. And its success suggests that there is profound catharsis in watching someone else undergo the violent-discourse-horror that characterizes the culture wars in 2021. 

Which, of course, begs the question every thinking Christian is asking: is Squid Game too violent? Here’s my no-spoilers answer to your question. 

Do You Enjoy Violence?

Is Squid Game too violent? Yes. Absolutely. Squid Game will make you feel sick. 

But it’s not the violence you’re used to watching. It’s not the stylized revenge killing of Quentin Tarantino or the gratuitous murder porn of John Wick. The violence in Squid Game feels violent. Real. Gratuitous. But in the right way. Because real violence is always gratuitous, evil, and destructive.  

In episode one, during a game of “red light, green light,” computer-operated snipers murder anyone who moves after red light is declared. If I’d been watching alone, I would’ve fast-forwarded through the ensuing slaughter, because it was awful. 

You feel every death palpably, knowing none of the characters. In the game, they are just numbers. But the creators never let you feel like they are numbers. They are humans. In Christian theology, we’d say they are image bearers of the living God, imbued with inestimable worth. When the snipers start firing, you don’t think, “This is awesome,” but instead feel gut-wrenching anxiety and horror. You know it’s evil and wrong.

In fact, if you find yourself enjoying the games, I think you can be certain you’ve completely missed the point. The only people who enjoy the violence in Squid Game are the sadistic VIPs who fund the games. 

And that is the show’s most fundamental meta-critique. It turns the mirror on the viewer and asks: Do you enjoy the violence? Or do you want it to end?

I think of Peter, taking up the sword to defend Jesus. He goes straight for someone’s head but barely misses and only cuts off an ear. Jesus heals the wound. He looks at Peter with exasperation, and in Luke 22:51, says, “No more of this!” 

“No more of this!” is exactly the response the creators of Squid Game want the viewers to feel.

In fact, “No more of this!” is basically the moral heartbeat of the show, repeated from top to bottom by the few characters who don’t lose their souls to gain the world.

How Embracing Violence Makes You Less Human

All of this explains why I never found myself cheering for violence in Squid Game. Death never stops feeling shocking, awful, and nauseating. And this is as it should be. In real life, death is never fun or cool. Death is never a game. It’s always horrible. 

And the show’s heroes share your horror. They remain morally sensitive. Even in the final hour, they choose to hate death. And by that choice, they remain human. The superb acting underlines this point: these characters show the gravitas of death on their faces. They are agonized when their friends die, sickened even when their enemies fall, and earnest when they sacrifice their interests for the sake of others.

But, of course, that’s not everyone in the game. The most hardened and twisted players become numb to the violence. When they do, they become animals. They lose their humanity. Again, the superb acting underlines this: these characters spit with anger, bare their teeth, howl with violent delight, stoop over their prey like predators, and show no remorse for their wrongdoing. 

In the Hebrew Bible, humans also become animals when they grow numb to death. Sin is depicted as a violent animal tempting Cain. When he gives in, he becomes the animal. Daniel depicts the violent empires of Babylon, Persia, and Greece all as monstrous predators glutted on blood. 

Embracing violence makes us less human. And thus Squid Game turns the mirror on us again: Are you numb to the weight of every human death? Have you become an animal? Or do you—like the show’s heroes—still feel the moral weight of every human life? 

We live in the era of cancel culture, social media takedowns, and self-righteous crusades against thought crimes. All of this virtual violence tempts us to become digital Darwinians, who buy the lie that survival of the fittest is just the way of the world. We become online animals just to survive, and, like the hardened players in Squid Game, we use the big game to justify our violence. 

But this is not the path to survival. It’s the path to losing your humanity. 

The Squid Game Iceberg

Asking “is Squid Game too violent?” only sketches the tip of the Squid Game iceberg. Under the surface, Squid Game is a punk rock, postmodern takedown artist whose slam dunks would make the worst Twitter troll proud. Like a good Dave Chappelle Netflix special, Squid Game leaves no one unscathed. 

It is a sober (and cynical) take on secularism’s ideological bankruptcy. In fact, bankruptcy doesn’t go far enough. Secularism is, like every player, in such terrible debt that no amount of blood, luck, or toil can pay it off.  

But that is the  second part of this already-too-long review.

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Posted by Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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