Squid Game Kdrama: Commentary On Capitalism Or Violent Spectacle?
Heavy spoilers for Squid Game. Watch the show before reading the following article.
Netflix’s Squid Game has taken over the internet by storm. Currently the most popular show on Netflix, it is on its way to becoming the most popular Netflix series ever. The memes on the show have been absolutely relentless in the past month.
Last weekend, I succumbed to peer pressure and intrigue and binged the show in a night. Aside from Hoyeon Jung and Wi Ha-Joon’s unbearable stunningness, there were some interesting themes running beneath the gory and pastel-filled spectacle of the dystopian hunger-games-styled Korean thriller.
Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-Jae, a deeply indebted and prone to gambling chauffeur. He is invited to compete in a series of children's games for a large cash prize.
Accepting the offer, he is whisked away to an unknown location, where he finds himself among 456 other players, all of whom are deeply in debt for various reasons.
The players are forced to wear green tracksuits and are constantly monitored by masked guards, with the games overseen by the Front Man, who wears a black mask and a black uniform.
The players realise after the first game that losing the game results in their death, with each death adding $100 million to the potential 45.6 billion grand prizes. Gi-hun forms alliances with other players, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo, in order to survive the games' physical and psychological trappings.
Squid Game And Capitalism
Squid Game is not subtle in its anti-capitalist narrative. You do your best at winning the games, and if you’re lucky, you get food to eat and a dormitory to rest in. If you aren’t your dead body gets incinerated in a wooden casket.
From the very first game, “Red Light Green Light” an eerie cheerfulness with huge dolls, pastel walls and children’s games is juxtaposed with blood and gore of the literal deathmatches. Everyone who loses dies, and their deaths add to the prize money.
The contrast between children’s games and gore and death is obviously and deliberately bizarre. Even so, the first few games feel almost fair. Or at least random enough that the randomness can be equated with fairness.
However, in the 4th episode of the show, something fundamentally shifts. One of the contestants, a gangster named Jang Deok-su deliberately eats up another contestant’s share of food. When confronted by the said contestant, Deok-su beats him to death.
The gangster expects to be punished for this unreasonable and needless act of violence. Instead, the guards simply take the dead body away. Additionally, to the horror of everyone, more money is added to the absurdly large piggy bank where the prize money is stored.
The players, as well as the audience, now understand that the contestants are free to kill whenever and however they want to improve their chances of winning. Just like how capitalism isn’t limited to our workplace or finances or even economic systems but seeps into every aspect of our life.
While people were forming bonds out of genuine human compassion during the initial games. As the games get more brutal and cut-throat, their alliances are formed out of necessity and full of mistrust and disingenuous motives and actions.
Later in the show, we are shown in an unsurprising but impactful reveal that the games are held for the entertainment of the richest men in the world. The super-wealthy enjoy themselves in filthy luxury while the poorest literally fight to the death to survive.
Squid Game's anti-capitalist messaging is more blatant than the combined filmography of Bon Joon Ho. “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society,” the show’s director Hwang Dong-hyuk said in an interview with Variety.
The Ending Of Squid Game
Due to the gazillion memes on the internet, I was aware of the win-or-die nature of the games in Squid Game before I watched it.
Even so, the shock and cruelty of people falling to their deaths as they very obviously panicked after the first killing and increased their chances of dying in the Red Light Green Light game, took me by surprise.
However, by the time the glass/fibre bridge game came, I was already betting on who’d survive and munching on some very unhealthy chips.
As much as Squid Game aims to be a direct “Hah, take that” critique of a capitalist society, the story ends with some ambivalent messaging. The cruelty and unfairness of the games and the sadistic “evilness” of its organizers and spectators are highlighted over and over again.
However, the central narrative still stays focused on the intrigue of who is going to win and how. In that sense, the show becomes less “capitalism bad” and more “who will win at the bad capitalism”.
While not a perfect human being, Seong Gi-hun is a fundamentally kind man with a sense of integrity. He is put directly in contrast with Cho Sang-woo, his childhood best friend. Sang-woo is a cunning and shrewd man who will do whatever it takes to win the games.
On multiple occasions, Gi-hun rejects the principles of the game whereas Sang-woo completely embraces it. However, as Sang-woo correctly points out by the end, the two of them only got so far because Sang-woo wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when needed.
Additionally, Gi-hun also got incredibly lucky in almost every other game. In the last game, Gi-hun opted to quit the game and give up the prize money so the two friends could go home together.
However, Sang-woo killed himself making Gi-hun the winner by default. Once again, Sang-woo did Gi-hun’s dirty work for him, in-process giving the 9-episode-long show a bitter-sweet ending.
The Good Rich Man
Since Gi-hun, the protagonist is framed as a fundamentally good person with moral integrity, his winning the fundamentally unfair game still feels worthy. Here the show ventures into the fantasy of - it is really possible to win the world of capitalism if you really deserve it.
In the very final moments of the show, Gi-hun takes care of Sae-Byok’s brother and Sang-woo’s mother financially. As he is about to leave to see his daughter dressed in his best clothes with dyed hair, he happens to see another unfortunate person getting roped into the game.
In a heroic display of determination, Gi-hun vows to take down the people behind the game. This fuels the fantasy of the noble philanthropist, the “good” billionaire, going after the “bad” rich people of the world.
This power fantasy undercuts the otherwise near-perfect critique of the deeply systematic and inescapable nature of capitalism.
Ultimately as viewers, we need to ask ourselves, is Squid Game popular because of its ingenuity in the way it explores its anti-capitalist rhetoric? Or are we seduced by the brilliance of perfectly shot and choreographed violent spectacles?
Are we really going to rebel against the exploitative system that binds us (and still somehow wins) like Gi-Hun? Or are we going to stick to its unfair rules to survive/thrive by any means necessary?