Where even to start with Squid Game? Well, it’s on course to become Netflix’s biggest hit. That means it has global resonance, across countries and cultures, and the question that needs to be answered is, why? Why this series above all others?
Sure, it’s cunningly contrived and an eye-popping concoction with a thrilling but hellish concept at its core, but there’s got to be more to it. And there is. In our financially tough, politically polarized times, the series says this: If we are not rich, we are all in a brutal struggle to survive what is merely a game to the rich. It says we are naïve about money, power and the brutality of the system. It is a parable of capitalist exploitation.
Out there in the wide world of commentary on pop-culture phenomena there is, generally, a reluctance to frame the meaning of these phenomena in political or socially relevant terms. The first impulse is to see internationally successful TV or film as part of a storytelling tradition or a series of tropes. Sometimes, this tendency is downright perverse. Money Heist, another global hit, is usually framed as something in the heist-movie tradition, an ongoing drama with ever-increasing tension. The deepest interpretation might invoke the Robin Hood myths and present the main figures as Robin and his merry men taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
How is it possible not to see Money Heist as a scream of rage, an incitement to class war, one that emerged from the financial crisis of 2008? That’s beyond me.
Squid Game starts with a lot of heart. We are thrown into the world of the impoverished in South Korea, a world much like that offered in the Korean movie Parasite. Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a divorced gambling addict who steals from his mother, usually makes the wrong bet and owes money to many, including loan sharks, but has a deep affection for his daughter whom he rarely sees. Desperate to get money and humbled by guilt about his daughter, he agrees to take part in a series of games offering a large cash prize.
He awakes in a compound with about 400 other desperate people and they begin to partake in children’s games. Thing is, those who fail at the games are killed on the spot. This culling is a nightmare of epic proportions, made worse by the use of seemingly innocent games played by kids. When some of these desperate people rebel or plead to be released, they are reminded of the large cash prize. Some leave, but in the reality, outside the game-compound life is harsh and money is needed to survive. Beaten down by the reality of debt and health care bills, some return to seeing the games as a way out. So they acquiesce. As we do, battling to earn money to survive in what is just a slightly less brutal life-or-death contest.
The nine-part series would be a curiosity, a particularly hellish horror concept, if it weren’t for the humane aspect to it. The main figures have both charm and plausibility, especially Seong Gi-hun’s foolish, ambitious childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a banker who bet everything on a big financial wager. And then there is the intriguing, ruthless pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Hoyeon), whose ruthlessness exists only because she escaped from North Korea and wants money to get her family out of there.
There are various subplots, too, as a lone figure decides to investigate the controllers of the deadly games. What is discovered, of course, are anonymous figures (hello venture capitalists and billionaire businessmen) whose boring lives are enlivened by watching and betting on games in which real human beings die.
What you’ve got in Squid Game, for all its now-notorious darkness, is a brave, dark, ambitious tale, at times moving and at times terrifying. Its power is in its understanding that money is survival. This is not some dystopian fantasy like Hunger Games. This is present-day life in all its complex awfulness, but it isn’t a scream of rage; it is drenched in a heartfelt melancholy.
The idea that this massive hit is an allegory about capitalist exploitation is not a mere attitude contrived by a critic. Creator and director Hwang Dong-hyuk recently told Variety about the origins of the series. He says the concept originally came to him in 2008 when he was in financial trouble: “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.” He sure did, and everybody’s talking about it.
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