Terrific TV and traumatic families #SquidGame

OCTOBER 11 — Warning: This contains spoilers to the Netflix series Squid Game.

In a sense, all top-notch entertainment is “family” entertainment. 

No, I’m not saying that every amazing TV show ever produced is suitable for kids. Neither am I saying that all top movies are relevant to understanding families.

I’m making the subtler point that almost every blockbuster or hit TV series needs to be somehow framed by trauma within the family. It’s almost as if no great movie can become a great movie if it isn’t constituted by some brokenness in the main characters, some ordeal involving their family.

Consider that practically every superhero (from Marvel to DC and even Disney) has suffered a tragedy involving their parents or father-figures and so on. 

Literally every memorable character in the past 10 years (or even longer) has had to undergo deep pain involving a family member. Each and everyone of the Avengers fall into this category (eg Thor had a serious daddy and adopted sibling issue, Spider-Man lost his uncle because of his own arrogance, Iron Man’s parents were murdered, Ant-Man is estranged from his wife, Bruce Banner was hunted by his girlfriend’s dad and don’t even get me started on Natasha Romanoff’s family issues) as does everyone in DC’s Justice League (eg Superman was sent to another planet, Batman’s parents were murdered, The Flash has to visit his dad in prison, Cyborg blames his dad for his mum’s death, etc.).

(It should come as no surprise that Shang-Chi has an issue with his parents as well. And I’m willing to bet 10 movie tickets that we’ll see something similar with The Eternals.)

In case anyone is wondering “So what?” I’d invite you to consider any movie where the protagonist is free of such family trauma. Can you think of any? I can only think of Dora the Explorer (I know, right?).

The fact that there is this one non-negotiable constant — a rupture in the family — which every major movie studio exploits (or cannot neglect) in the name of big bucks should give us pause. It suggests that there is something about family or parental dysfunction which spurs great stories onwards, without which a story feels less than it could be.

This is ironic given the (general) decline of the nuclear family unit and even the very idea of traditional family structures. But, as Marvel and DC shows us, a brokenness at the heart of our family represents both the pain and the potential for heroism. To perform glorious deeds of courage demands a wound at the heart of our lives ie in our family.

But why? 

Why can’t Steve Rogers be Captain America without seeing his father-figure, Dr Erskine, get shot and killed by a Hydra assassin? Why couldn’t Aquaman rule the seas without him and his dad being separated from his Atlantean mum? In movies like these, it would’ve been easy to shift the plot a bit, avoid the heartbreak of paternal or maternal misfortune, and just proceed. Yet the writers or creators of these epics almost never do it. 

‘Squid Game’ no fun without family

The trouble-in-the-family theme is pervasive among the lead characters in 'Squid Game'.
The trouble-in-the-family theme is pervasive among the lead characters in 'Squid Game'.

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Enter a Korean super-series involving life-and-death outcomes from playing children’s games. Squid Game has taken the world by storm (in a van, full of sleeping gas) and, as expected, the trouble-in-the-family theme is pervasive among the lead characters.

The chief protagonist, Gi-Hun, is a degenerate gambler who lives with his mum after being estranged from his wife. He loves his daughter deeply but is close to losing her as his ex-wife and her husband plan to migrate to the States, thus taking the daughter away from him. 

In Episode 2, Gi-Hun opts back into the game soon after learning about his mum’s growing health problems and the prospect of never seeing his daughter again.

The North Korean girl, Sae-byeok, is fighting to take her brother out of the orphanage and we also learn that her father was killed and her mother captured when they were trying to defect. 

The supposed financial genius, Sang Woo, can’t show his face to his mum because he doesn’t want her to know that he’s millions in debt. 

Ali, the Pakistani migrant, fears losing his wife and kid. Even the surprise creator of the game, the old man, died alone with no family and no one next to him except a guy who wants to beat him up. 

Not forgetting the major storyline of policeman Jun-Ho looking for his long-lost brother In-Ho and giving up on life when discovering that the latter was in fact the “front man” of the game.

When I reflected on my experience of the series, I noticed that the most moving parts for me were precisely those moments of family precariousness. 

Compared to the agony of Sang-Woo’s mum being informed by the police that her high-flying son is being investigated for financial fraud, the deaths of the gangster Deok-Su and playgirl (and probable con-girl) Ma Nyeo felt flat. 

I’m also sure I’m not the only one who was close to shedding tears when Gi-Hun found out he was helpless to stop his daughter from leaving the country.

It’s almost as if the horror of the Game mirrored the breakdown in the characters’ family relations.

There is something about family which “endorses” a show’s plot, granting it a kind of validity and urgency which few other issues can provide. Even movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact and 2012 needed the frame of broken families to make sense of global catastrophe; it’s as if the world coming to an end just wasn’t enough to spur the plot along!

Freud to the rescue?

I suppose we’ll never understand why the film industry requires broken families for successful movies. But perhaps Freudian theory can help.

Sigmund Freud suggested that we’re all made up of a type of supra-biological DNA. As children, everybody had to negotiate our entrance into the world of law, order and norms. 

This transition, from childlike Paradise to an adult’s world of Rules, “screwed us up” psychically. We are all infected with a loss necessitated from “growing up”, it’s a wound that never leaves us, a condition through which we experience the world.

So anything which reminds us of this loss inevitably grabs our attention. Ditto, superhero movies and awesome TV shows about people getting shot because they can’t stand still when the giant doll says Stop.

Makes sense? Maybe, maybe not? 

Whatever the case, we’re a long way from Little House On The Prairie.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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