Squid Game has become Netflix’s most popular of programs and it’s easy enough to see why. The show features deadly games akin to Battle Royale where contestants kill each other for money. The concept doesn’t sound new but the creepy childhood aesthetic to the games adds extra creepiness.
Thankfully, the show is more than just a sports match. It’s actually one of the most robust and gut-wrenching depictions of class struggle and the greed of capitalism. The bluntness makes this particular show feel like an extended episode of a pitch-perfect Twilight Zone story.
On the streets of South Korea, various people struggle to make ends meet. Some of them have gambled and lost. Some of them have made terrible life choices. Some of them are the victims of immigration that has made their lives a living hell.
The bottom line is they all need money. Chief among those desperate souls is Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae). He’s a divorced father who lives with his dying mother. There’s a lot of money he owes towards loan sharks and the relationship with his daughter has faded over time.
Gi-hun is approached on the subway by a man who offers to play a childhood game of paper with him. If Gi-hun loses, he gets slapped. If he wins, he’ll win an exorbitant amount of money and be given a chance to accept a bigger game with more players.
The groundwork for torturing people like Gi-hun has been set with that first game. He receives several slaps before he ever wins that money. If he’s willing to take that much abuse how much more will he take?
Gi-hun and over 400 other individuals submit to more games on a hidden island. The game organizers state that the games will be fair and that everyone has a shot at winning billions. This fairness is a lie.
It’s a lie that is reflected in the contract everybody signs. The contract has a few rules and they’re kept suspiciously vague. For instance, nobody questions what being “eliminated” from the game entails.
The Deadly Games
The players discover what “eliminated” means when they play the first game. Red Light Green Light seems like a simple enough game of not being caught during a red light. Those who are caught, however, are shot and killed.
The players quickly realize they’re involved in games where you either live or die. The first game, played with a giant doll stating the color of lights, leads to hundreds dying quickly. There’s more than just debt on the line.
Forced To Play
The games, run by the masked figure Front Man, are posed as being a part of choice. After all, all the players chose to be here and chose to sign the contract. They even have the option to leave by vote.
The second episode manages to be the most surprising. All the players vote to leave or stay to win billions. By a narrow vote, they get to leave the game and go home.
The home they return to, however, is one where they still owe money. They’re still struggling and have even more dangers and bills that arise. The players have little choice in their paths and the majority return to the games.
We get to learn a bit about some of the players in the second episode. Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is an old friend Gi-hun and is in big trouble for his bad investments. Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) is a North Korean defector who is having issues trying to bring over her family.
Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) is a gangster who digs danger and isn’t afraid to slaughter his way to the top. Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi) is a Pakistanian immigrant who hasn’t been paid and is struggling to get his family out of South Korea. Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) is an eccentric old woman who is a bit of a turncoat.
We get to know enough of their plight to root for some and fear others. We want Ali to make an escape for his brave ethics. We fear just how easily a bully like Deok-su will toss others under the bus to win.
If you’re somehow one of the few who hasn’t seen the show yet, I won’t spoil who lives and who dies. What I will say is that each game is compelling in how they are framed as though they are fair to play for all. Every game requires that somebody die and often involves the sacrifices of others to win the money.
More importantly, the players have no idea what the game will be until they make a choice. You may have to choose a team and end up slaughtering your whole team to win. There’s no way to prepare the games unless you cheat (which some players do).
It’s a method similar to predatory loans. People are given limited time for choices they need to make soon. The long-term implications may not be as known or understood. You’re jumping into danger.
As if the games needed to be more obvious in highlighting class struggle, the observers of such games are rich elites. Wealthy men watch the games from a cushy penthouse while they delight in wine and sex. They place bets on who will win and joke about the odds.
Though the purpose of the games is stated later on, the meaning should be obvious through these characters. The games are for fun and entertainment. The reveal of these characters in the second half creates an almost meta approach to how the show is seen.
The games are continuously framed as being balanced even though there’s rampant cheating. This cheating occurs through both the players and the game runners. But why do the game runners need to keep framing the games as such?
It’s more than just a matter of convincing the players that the games are fair enough to play. The games reflect the way that billionaires function. They step over others to attain their wealth and then sell the notion that they worked for that money.
Nobody earns billions from the work they do on their own though. But this is the way billionaires operate. They need you to believe that it’s fair others should suffer so that you can be rich.
The Corruption of it All
It should be obvious by the text of the series but Squid Game is not meant to be a sport. You shouldn’t be watching with excitement for who will live. This kinda watching is pretty much condemned when the elite start providing their own commentary.
Perhaps this presentation has distorted how viewers have interpreted the series. The games are not fair and there is no strategy to winning them. It’s why the host of “How To Win Squid Game” articles are junk.
Fighting the System
The allegory of the unevenness of capitalism really needs to be understood here. The refusal to observe it has led to citations of plot holes. I have literally heard people say Squid Game doesn’t make sense because the games are not fair.
It’s why a lot of people don’t understand the ending to the series. There is a winner but also a refusal to just take the money and forget about the games. Rather, the winner decides to wage a war against the games to ensure nobody else suffers the same way again.
It’s a radical ending that highlights how greater systems need to be challenged rather than accepted. It’s like saying you shouldn’t care about the homeless because you have a home. The winner doesn’t accept this world and decides to change it. It’s also what makes Squid Game merch and video games kinda gross for missing this point.
Conclusion: Squid Game
Everything about Squid Game just works so damn well. The allegory is blunt, the staging is great, and the character drama is spot on. Extra kudos are in order for the exceptional cast who deliver just the right levels of compelling desperation.
The show is more than just a flashy display of Running-Man-style games of death. It’s a piercing commentary on how the nature of capitalism incentivizes cruelty and breeds greed. It’s not only one of the most vocal on this topic but also the most iconic.
The greater meaning of Squid Game will hopefully outweigh the abundance of memes, merchandise, and brain-dead thinkpiece articles on the show actually being pro-capitalism.
Did you see Squid Game on Netflix? What did you think of it? How does it compare to the other South Korean class struggle hit of Parasite? Let us know in the comments below.
A brutal and effective allegory of class warfare posed in a blunt and entertaining thriller setting.