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'Squid Game' on Netflix is smarter than you think

Netflix's megapopular series is more than just a gory dystopian thriller.
Image: A scene from Netflix's \"Squid Game.\"
A scene from Netflix's "Squid Game."Youngkyu Park / Netflix

Over the past few weeks, the internet has been teeming with buzz surrounding “Squid Game,” the South Korean survivalist drama that hit No. 1 in 90 countries and has become Netflix’s biggest series launch ever.

What explains the show’s astonishing explosion in popularity?

(Warning: This article contains spoilers for "Squid Game.")

For starters, it is highly memeable: It features memorable visuals, a catchy score and simple children’s games played by indebted adult contestants who fight each other to the death for a life-changing sum of cash. The show at turns enchants and horrifies the viewer, and it lends itself naturally to social media banter.

But it’s also evident that its full-throttle critique of capitalist exploitation and individualism is making it resonate globally. And like with many mega-pop-culture phenomena, the points are not made subtly.

While the political position of “Squid Game” is as in-your-face as the shocking gore of the show, its ideas extend beyond pointing out that capitalism entails barbarism.

“Squid Game” is the latest entrant into a growing collection of films and shows — including “The Hunt,” “The Platform,” “The Hunger Games” series and “Black Mirror” — that use dystopian games with life-or-death stakes to dramatize the cutthroat ethics of pitting desperate masses against each other in a fight for unequally distributed resources. Each work of art literalizes commonly used metaphors for the indignities of capitalism: It is not symbolizing a dehumanizing race operating under a false banner of meritocracy; it is one.

While the political position of “Squid Game” is as in-your-face as the shocking gore of the show, its ideas extend beyond pointing out that capitalism entails barbarism. Amid some clichéd band-of-brothers tropes lie some subtle points about consent, cooperation and power that make the show more complex than it might seem at first blush.

At first, “Squid Game” seems headed in a very obvious direction. A wide-ranging collection of desperate and debt-burdened Koreans, as well as a migrant worker from Pakistan, are seduced into joining a tournament for a huge cash prize only to learn that being eliminated from any game results in being summarily executed. The plot that seems to lie ahead is a straightforward survival tale.

But after the first game, the participants make use of a contract clause allowing for the suspension of the games if a majority of players desire it, and the players return home, causing an unexpected break in the rhythm of the show. Only then, back in the real world, life doesn't seem much better. The players find themselves crushed by financial desperation and shame, and they opt to return to the tournament.

Once the games begin again, the players know what they’re getting into, and they enter a strange gray area of consent: They’re volunteering to enter the games, but they’re also being coerced by circumstance; they have no other plausible alternative for achieving the financial freedom that would make life bearable. Moreover for protagonist Gi-hun, the games provide the sensation of personal agency that he’s been craving for years after a traumatic layoff and being hounded by black market lenders to whom he owes money.

In this scenario, the operators of the game are an analogue to predatory loan sharks — ostensibly offering a lifeline to desperate people who have no other choice, if they wish to remain housed and fed. Can an action be called voluntary if a gun is pointed at your head from every direction? “Squid Game” forces us to meditate on this question.

A kind of willful delusion is required for Gi-hun to act virtuously. He leads an alliance — a tenuously held-together group in which trust is scarce and often betrayed — and is constantly encouraging camaraderie and cooperation that he knows cannot be reciprocated as the contestant pool is winnowed down and even allies are forced to take each other out. He fantasizes about winning with his friends and splitting up the cash prize as a way to motivate them to stay in the game, even though he knows it’s an impossibility according to the rules of the game. He chooses to team up with players who are weak because he likes them, even though he knows he can't save them, and it could guarantee his death.

When against all odds Gi-hun prevails, there’s no clear suggestion that his kind behavior has paid off: He succeeded far more through luck than strategic savvy or competence. What emerges is not a neat fable about the importance of being kind to others but rather a story about an indifferent universe where fortune is meted out arbitrarily.

Gi-hun does not show us that love wins, but he does show us that love matters.

Gi-hun’s trajectory showcases the idea that he’s not free to choose his financial fate. But he does have freedom to behave virtuously within the constraints of a cruel system — even if it is a temporary salve, as his friends perish one by one. Gi-hun does not show us that love wins, but he does show us that love matters — and offers us a glimpse into other possible worlds outside this one, should others embrace his absurd resolve.

“Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk also ultimately wants us to ask why these games are being played in the first place — which is not the typical course for these kinds of movies. In the finale, it is revealed that the sweet, old contestant dying of a brain tumor whom Gi-hun befriended early on is in fact the one who created the whole game. It turns out the reason he did it was because life as an unbelievably rich person was too monotonous for him: “No matter what you buy, eat or drink, everything gets boring in the end,” he confessed to Gi-hun in his dying breaths.

Here Hwang offers a theory of power that is less than persuasive: that the rich exploit purely out of boredom or in search of meaning to deal with their ennui. In reality, there’s a great deal of evidence that the ultrarich see tangible rewards for accumulating power that have little to do with entertainment: more say over how the world looks, more freedom to act as recklessly as they wish to, more comfort and power for their family and more power to leave a flattering legacy. But Hwang deserves credit for trying to peer into the minds of society’s power elite and getting at something with which I wholeheartedly agree: that so much of the suffering embedded in our economic system is completely unnecessary.