Managing Mosaic Editor
Editor’s Note: Spoilers to follow.
If you are a human being living on planet Earth, there is a good chance you have seen or at least heard of “Squid Game,” Netflix’s critically acclaimed South Korean survival drama. The series is No. 1 on Netflix’s Top 10 lists in 94 countries around the world, officially becoming the streaming platform’s most-watched show.
In essence, that squid’s got game.
The nine-episode series follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorced gambling addict. To settle his many debts, Gi-hun and 455 more heavily debt-ridden people from different strata of society and walks of life participate in six rounds of various children’s games to win 45.6 billion won, the currency of South Korea, or about 38 million USD. They are brought together in an undisclosed camp, unaware that losing even a single game would cost them their life. The show highlights the economic turmoil and class divide in South Korea, with eight characters playing major roles in the series.
The players are all desperate to pay back their creditors and elude the moral shame of debt. When the players initially question why they were chosen, a guard explains that the chosen players are “living on the brink of financial ruin,” getting “chased by [their] creditor” because of debts they can’t afford to pay off.
The show is very topical to current global politics. Personal debt is a serious problem in South Korea, and the show’s themes resonate profoundly in the United States, where nearly 75% of Americans die with an average of $62,000 of debt, according to a 2017 report from CBS News.
The parallels between “Squid Game” and the hyper-capitalistic, debt-powered economy of countries like South Korea and the U.S. couldn’t be more glaring. It’s quite explicit in its symbolic imagery, which includes white billionaire VIPs with financially and morally questionable incentives and masked, police-adjacent foot soldiers who work to keep the creditors’ own crimes confidential.
To an American audience whose public goods such as health care, housing and education, are all individually debt-financed, privatized commodities, a rigged game in which debtors compete for financial freedom hits close to home.
Besides the idea that money equals power, worker unionization is a central theme to the show. The final clause in the game’s consent form states that the game can end if a majority of players agree to do so. After the brutal Red Light, Green Light massacre, they do exactly that. The election to end the game might as well be a union vote.
One of the subtler nods to Korea’s labor movement comes in episode five, “A Fair World,” in a scene where Gi-hun witnesses his fellow competitors turning on each other in a violent free-for-all, which reawakens memories of traumatic events from his life as an autoworker. The visions portray a real-life event in Korean history — the 2009 SsangYong Motors strike. That struggle ended in violent defeat when hundreds of police charged into the factory and brutally beat down the striking workers.
In the end, Gi-hun simply walks away from his prize after his victory in the Games. The group of incredibly rich men who gave him the prize could not understand how someone could come so close to claiming their prize and choose not to. But for Gi-hun, human life always had greater value.
Forget about what you’ve previously heard about “Squid Game” and remember three things.
First, the players’ indebtedness makes them willing to risk their lives to win the golden goose (a gold-tinted piggy bank) or die trying. Being so bankrupt to desperately choose financial stability over life is one of the greatest fears of all.
That brings me to my next point: “Squid Game” is not as similar to “The Hunger Games” series as you may have thought. The difference is that “Squid Game” players are voluntary participants and Hunger Games participants are not, including Katniss Everdeen. “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk even said that the plot of “The Hunger Games” was “too complex” for the story he was trying to tell.
It’s not that “The Hunger Games” doesn’t have any important lessons. In fact, it’s one of my favorite franchises. However, while you hop on the “Squid Game” bandwagon, look beyond white-centric entertainment and continue exploring the anti-capitalist phenomenon as told by people of color. That said, I also highly recommend the Spanish science fiction horror film “The Platform” (2019) and the American dark comedy movie, “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), both of which are on Netflix.
Finally, there’s a reason why the world is watching “Squid Game” right now. Its anti-capitalist metaphors aren’t a reflection of our society; they are our society. It’s set in our contemporary reality, which makes its scathing critique of capitalism less of a metaphor for the world we live in and more of a literal depiction of life under capitalism.
Nevertheless, I can’t wait for Season Two, which is currently in the works. I hope to see a red-headed Gi-hun buy Facebook (now “Meta”) off of robot/lizard/gazillionaire Mark Zuckerberg, after triumphantly winning a game of tic-tac-toe.
Well done. I appreciate your analysis.