While you might come to the Shinsuke Sato-directed series for the bloodbath or Saw-like intrigue of its life-or-death games, Alice in Borderland has another card hidden up its sleeve: Hope. The Netflix series asks, What's the cost of survival? And, as essentially, are these players willing to pay the price? Throughout its harrowing two seasons, viewers saw Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) struggle with his triumph in the games, as his winning often led to the deaths of those he loved most. Again and again, he and Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya) lamented, pleading with veteran players and face-card citizens to explain why this was happening to them and their city. Could they ever get back to the world that was? If they did, would their loved ones be alive to greet them?
Spoiler: The answer we receive is as timely as ever. (If you have not seen the series, stop reading and do it!) On the surface, the survival horror series seems like a senseless massacre – a doomed situation we macabrely watch and bet on the odds of survivors. But as Arisu and Usagi destroy the game's house of cards, we see a genuine reflection of our present reality. As horror fans know best, there's nothing quite as healing as watching others escape seemingly inescapable odds. In their push to continue, we vicariously summon strength. We all have our final girl or scream king of choice that we cling to when we want to feel strong and resilient.
If you (understandably) need to siphon some power, this series will offer that and more. (Trust me, there's a reason the series landed in the #1 spot in non-English global television when season 2 dropped.)
Most of season 2's storyline seems to be lining up the puzzle pieces to show the pair the larger picture of the strange world they inhabit. As viewers, we want to know who is pulling the strings, focusing on taking down a target that'll solve everything. However, that setup ends up being the series' best misdirection thus far. In season 2, we learn what the stakes have been all along – finding a will and purpose to live for you. Whether or not you do, the universe will continue. That revelation feels as chilling as many of the game's deadly designs. In our era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's a harsh truth we've all had to bear witness to in one way or another.
In this stark light, the why of the show takes on a deeper meaning for viewers. Part of our quest to binge-watch this series and uncover why these games arrived sheds light on our world's thirst for answers.
Although fans of Haro Aso's manga won't be surprised at the twist, unsuspecting viewers likely will be. In the season 2 finale, we learn that everyone we've met in the games was present at Shibuya Crossing during a meteorite strike. Some died immediately. Others teetered on the edge of survival and entered the purgatory-like realm of the Borderlands. This reveal proves that those who survived the games didn't owe it to skill or luck. (Arguably, even those who lost, like Ayaka Miyoshi's Ann, ended up returning to reality.) They owed it to their heart's desire, their drive to persist, to keep moving and living – even when everything wanted them to quit.
The true question of the series isn't why this is happening: It's how do I go on?
Multiple times in the series, Arisu almost gives up, including in the season 2 finale. What inspires him to continue is the series' best monologue so far, with Usagi saying: "The answer. The reason for living. Forget about those things, Arisu. The answer is different for everyone. A reason for living… It doesn't matter if you have one or not. This whole time we've searched, we've been searching together. That alone was enough."
Her speech is a heartfelt call to Arisu and the audience. Like Arisu, we'll never know why we were alive at this time of all the possible eras in history. We'll never understand why we have to experience this pandemic and its unfairness and cruel consequences. But like the series, searching for a Big Bad or someone to blame or punish isn't helpful – as it won't stop what has already happened. Following in the footsteps of Japanese films like Godzilla and Hausu, the series also brings to mind the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When we return to Arisu's reality, the city is a cavernous echo of its former self, and no one knew death was coming.
But our lovely and weird brains want to make sense of tragedy. We want to find a pattern or way to beat the systems stacked up against us. We want a reason for who survives and who doesn't. Further, we want to know how it can be ok for us to play by the rules and still lose. As we witness Usagi's struggle to accept her father's death in the real world or Arisu's struggle to accept his best friends' deaths in the games, we see reverberations of the rage and guilt we've carried these past few years. No answer given will be enough.
If you've read this far and you're like, "Well, so much for hope, Cass!" I promise this show does get there. But like all cleverly written television shows, it doesn't shy away from depicting the things we cannot change (though we want to) on screen. If it did grant us some wish fulfillment, in some ways, that'd be crueler to accept because the world doesn't work that way. However, what it adds to the conversation is curiosity.
Usagi's speech tells us that there is no one thing or reason for us to find that'll be enough or feel enough to answer for everything. But there's a power and beauty in gifting ourselves the permission to seek what could. When was the last time you gave yourself over to wonder – to truly imagine a possibility? Big or small changes in your life are equally vital experiences. Some characters in this show survive and decide to change their unlikable traits, whereas others strike up enough courage to flirt with someone they like. When the characters return to reality, they don't really remember all they've been through in the Borderlands. However, they do feel connected to one another and, on some subconscious level, remember each other. Will they become friends again? Will Usagi and Arisu's love deepen? We don't know, but the series intentionally ends this way so we can have fun imagining all the things that could be. Bringing that energy into our lives is needed now more than ever. In the ever-so-overly-quoted words of Rainer Maria Rilke, "Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
We're only players in reality once. Our time and choices are precious. Sometimes that can be hard to remember, but that's why we have horror in the first place. The entire genre is rooting for us to continue.
Alice In Borderland is now streaming on Netflix.