By Maya Arruda. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wherever you go, it’s nearly impossible to avoid running into someone who isn’t talking about this show. It’s so popular that merely days after the show was released, countless fan and meme accounts sprung up with posts that seem confusing to the outside eye at best and disturbing at worst. The name of the show sounds innocuous enough but then you hear the basic plotline. I didn’t say its name, but it popped into your head: Squid Game. Netflix’s latest hit Korean drama Squid Game is known for being extremely violent, incredibly sad, and highly disturbing. Squid Game also, in addition to being a gripping survival game drama, is a masterful commentary piece on current society and the overarching politics that have shaped it.
For those who haven’t watched Squid Game, it is a show where over 400 people in debt are recruited to join a violent survival game run by a secret organization that operates in a strict hierarchy with the allure of the victor receiving a big cash prize. The main character is player number 456, Seong Gi-Hun, who is in severe debt due to his crippling gambling addiction and in danger of being completely cut off from his daughter, Ga-Yeong, when his ex-wife and her new husband decide to move to America, taking the daughter with them. The other main cast consists of Cho Sang-Woo, a businessman who became in debt from illegally trading futures; Ji-Yeong, a North Korean defector; Ali, an immigrant from Pakistan who needs money to support his family; and Oh Il-Nam, an old man with an inoperable brain tumor. All of them and more than 400 other indebted people decided to stake their lives playing deadly versions of traditional Korean children’s games for a total of 45.6 billion won (roughly $38.7 million US Dollars).
If you haven’t watched the show yet, watch it before reading further because from here on, there will be heavy spoilers. If you have watched it, great, let’s continue.
Squid Game stands great as an individual show, independent of any real-world context; however, it truly shines as what it was intended to be: metaphorical commentary on society and the politics that shape it. The hierarchy of the game represents The System, our society, with the mysteriously wealthy VIPs whose immense wealth funds an international organization that annually hosts these death games solely for entertaining these VIPs. The one in the black mask is the mid-boss, as it were; he organizes all the games hosted by his branch and serves the VIPs in order to receive wealth and authority, even at the cost of his family and losing some of his freedom to the VIPs. The workers within the game are also divided into a hierarchy with the square masks aka the managerial staff being at the top, the triangle masks aka the soldiers/enforcers being in the middle, and the circle masks aka the servants being at the bottom. The players, who are in severe debt, are the lowest of the low in this hierarchy, with all their freedom being taken away and are lured to their violent and often gruesome deaths with the sweet allure of money and the hope it represents for them for the sole purpose of entertaining the VIPs.
In this way, the system of the game represents capitalist society. The players, who are the poorest and lowest in the hierarchy, struggle and die to entertain the VIPs, the wealthy, who bet on which players they think will win like racing horses. This parallels the real world in the dynamics of the rich and the poor. In the real world, those without money desperately struggle to get by in order to essentially pay to live because we need bare necessities like water, shelter, food, medicine, and taxes: all of which cost money. And who does the money go to? Ultimately, the money spent on these basic necessities goes to the higher ups who own the companies and the politicians, the wealthy, the VIPs. In our society, the poor struggle to live while the rich leisurely watch on, able to help but unwilling due to greed, apathy, or schadenfreude. The middle class are represented by the masked workers in the game, who work for the VIPs in order to make a living. Those in the middle-class work for the wealthy, in their companies or for them directly as domestic household staff, to make a living, not beholden to the same treatment as the poor but not treated as well as the wealthy. Household help and other similar occupations are represented by the circle masks, soldiers and private security occupations are represented by the triangle masks, and smaller political and mid-high range managerial occupations are represented by the square masks. The plotline regarding the black masked boss, whose name is revealed to be Hwang In-Ho, represents people who prioritize professional success over all else, shown by how he abandoned everything in his former life- his personal belongings, his friends, his entire family- for the pursuit of success as the front man running the survival game for the VIPs; the character does not even care for the luxurious suite or any other wealth that he has obtained through his position, only focusing on running the survival game. In episode 8, rather than let his detective younger brother expose the VIPs and the organization running the survival games to the police, Hwang In-Ho hunts down and shoots his own brother for his success.
Hwang In-Ho’s actions this episode also highlight the hypocrisy and malleability of the rules by those in power in the real world. One of the rules of the survival game staff is that they cannot reveal their identity to anyone, neither the players nor the other staff. In an earlier episode, Hwang In-Ho executes a young square mask who revealed his face to an irate player in order to prevent the player from ending the square masked man’s life after killing multiple triangle masked soldiers. When seeing how young the square masked man was, the player killed himself after losing all hope at seeing a young 19-21 year old boy be so callous and emotionless towards death, both the deaths of others and his own. Hwang In-Ho with a posse of triangle masked soldiers enters the room prepared to defuse the situation if need be, only to find the unmasked staff member. In-Ho then executes the staff member for violating the rules. However, in episode 8, In-Ho takes his mask off and exposes his identity to his younger brother in order to calm his brother down, similar to the square masked staff member’s actions in that earlier episode, and he doesn’t receive any punishment for it. This corresponds to how those in power in the real world, such as wealthy businessmen and politicians, violate laws and receive less punishment, if they’re punished at all, compared to those lower on the hierarchy.
The actions of the VIPs also demonstrate the banality of evil, not an uncommon literary trope in more contemporary media. Rather than an almost alien set of insidious villains whose motives are unfathomable to human minds or villains that are more insane and detached from their fellow man due to mental disorders and traumatic experiences, the VIPs are remarkably normal, just like any sane human being you can find off the street, just with an immense amount of cash. The VIPs bicker like normal people, eat and drink like normal people, and enjoy watching games like normal people. Without any context for a scene where the VIPs were watching the death game, it almost looks like an extremely posh tailgating party where they all are competing with each other in fantasy football based off the game’s results. One of the VIPs just places his bet on which player will win solely based off the player’s number, 69, which is one of the most juvenile things I have ever seen a middle-aged old man do and is also what I would have done in that scenario. The VIPs are portrayed as bickering man-children, not anything so far removed from the actions of your average Joe, and yet they are causing incredible tragedy and death every year through their carefree actions.
Now, to focus on the content of the games themselves, each of the six games are based off a popular children’s game played in Korea. The usage of children’s games, which are usually very low stakes, as the basis to compete on who lives and who dies is both ironic and a statement on the corruption of childhood as one ages; what was once happy and innocent is now something we look back upon through the cynical lens of an adult, filled with the knowledge that everything we loved was derived by a company to squeeze money out of our parents and later capitalize on our nostalgia for those products as we see it happen again with our own offspring from an outsider’s perspective. The final game, Squid Game for which the series is named after, is a violent and highly competitive game between two people: an attacker and a defender. Despite violence not being strictly necessary in the rules, similar to how violence is not explicitly advocated in society’s laws, the game usually devolves into a fierce competition with both sides unwilling to lose, representative of how every human being strives for benefits even at the cost of someone else’s in an often bloodless sociopolitical competition, such as workers fighting for higher wages at the cost of the higher ups’ benefits or competing for a position at a workplace with other coworkers.
Few of the games are played in other countries such as tug of war and red light, green light, but some are exclusively played in South Korea. This is abundantly made clear in the show where the players had to play the South Korean game Dalgona under a half an hour time limit. Both Ji-Yeong, who’s from North Korea, and Ali, who’s from Pakistan, had no idea how to play the game and had to watch others in order to get an idea how to play, putting them at a disadvantage in the game by taking up time. This represents the disadvantages of immigrants trying to live in foreign countries. Immigrants do not understand the cultures or traditions of the country as well as its natives and have to spend time learning it themselves through observation and experience, which puts them at a disadvantage socially and professionally. This can be further seen in Ali’s storyline within Squid Game, where he as an immigrant worker is taken advantage of by his Korean boss who embezzles his workers’ pay knowing that they are unfamiliar with local labor laws and that they probably won’t report it to the police because of any anti-immigrant bias by the police and because they may not be able to speak Korean well enough to go through police questioning. The exploitation of immigrant workers happens outside of Squid Game as well and with the same reasons.
Squid Game’s cutting sociopolitical commentary using very violent and disturbing imagery should serve as a wake-up call. Money should not be the dominating factor in our society to the point where we sell our lives for it. We should not put a price tag on living, on good health. We should not allow the rich to circumvent laws or escape justice. We should not exploit others for profit, whether they be from another country or have a lower social status. Yet, this is what we see in our daily lives. The question is: are we able to stop it? Can we, as a collective, all choose to push that green button and leave this survival game behind?