Updated: Nov 11, 2021
By now, you must have already heard everyone raving or ranting about it. There is no escaping Squid Game on the Internet, and for a good reason: This nine-episode Korean series is so well-made and so emotionally resonant that it is poised to be the most-viewed show Netflix has ever had, nearly overtaking long-sitting faves Bridgerton and Lupin. Like its globally successful predecessors, Parasite and Train to Busan, it is not a stretch to say that Squid Game is destined to become a pop culture iconoclast in the years to come.
With barely any media campaign and zero fanfare, and primarily propelled by massive word-of-mouth and social media hysteria, Squid Game is the foreign sleeper hit no one—not even its creators or cast—saw coming. This, of course, is an incredible achievement, considering how most viewers rarely bother with anything subtitled or dubbed.
Squid Game is the latest in the line of survival-game stories, now fronted by mainstream hits such as the Hunger Games, Snowpiercer, and Japan’s Alice in Borderland. The show is also cut from the same deathly cloth as Japanese classics Liar Game and As the Gods Will, Thailand’s 13 Beloved, and of course, the OG teen death game film Battle Royale, widely considered to be one of the most influential films of the last two decades. Squid Game’s director has addressed this comparison bluntly, saying his show “shares the same framework and some dramatic stereotype tools… its content and narrative are different.” We agree. Squid Game carves its own niche into the genre—and if the glowing reviews are any indication— it's certainly become a significant contender in this genre’s bloody battlefield.
In the show, players with huge debts attempt to outsmart and eliminate one another to win the grand cash prize that would allow them to wipe their slates clean. Korean superstar Lee Jung-jae is Player 456, a desperate father addicted to gambling who joins the game without knowing what they would demand of him. Through 456’s eyes, we enter the chilling playground and meet other characters who are also crippled by debt. It is also through his eyes that we learn and struggle with what it means to be human—and remain human—in a brutal capitalist society bent on making us all less than that.
Highly stylized survival games are not uncommon in cinema or television. Some have high fashion on their side, some have pure brutality and violence on the other, and both kinds leave audiences either strangely entertained or permanently disgusted. But what Squid Game has that takes it out of the usual slaughterhouse vein is its unusual emotional resonance, especially to anyone who has ever been in debt. Many of us know of the shame of having to borrow or ask for money. We know the humiliation and stress that comes along when the banks start hounding us. Debt is a pain many of us understand intimately. Yet the show does not merely exploit this one arena and leave it at that. In true Korean multi-genre fashion, the show does not just dwell on this singular point but explores a dense number of themes over and above financial paralysis—there’s much the show says on oppression, exploitation, abuse, misogyny, and loyalty among others—and does it with blood brutality on one hand and a slick, nuanced finesse on the other.
There is also so much to be said for the acting (topnotch with not an unsatisfactory performance anywhere), for the art direction and design (beautiful yet deeply ironic), and the numerous other themes that the show so elegantly skewers: patriarchy, misogyny, elitism, the class divide, throbbing poverty, and the whims of the uber-rich. It would come as no surprise if Squid Game becomes required viewing for any college student out there studying anything from Marx to Liberation Theology. Get ready for it, kids. You know the drill: font 12, Times New Roman, double-spaced, with correct APA-7 citations and two references outside of the required reading list.
There is the expected gore and betrayal, of course. But Squid Game takes steps to show that the cast members are not just empty plot devices to be killed off for entertainment. While it explores the bleakness of debt and forces us to face the depravity of capitalism, it also gives a very human face to humiliation and desperation. In one of its most brutal moves, Squid Game lets us fall in love with all the characters in all their dirty and pained vulnerability. We hurt for the old man who has nothing left to lose and simply wants to have fun for the last time. We root for the North Korean defector who needs the cash to reunite her family. We understand how the best and brightest people from the best universities also fall prey to crippling debt. We see how our labor and trust are abused in the eyes and actions of a migrant factory worker. We are horrified at how the dead are thoughtlessly scavenged for profit.
Another essential point that makes Squid Game stand out from its death-game predecessors in the genre is its explicit emphasis on choice and agency. The players choose to play, unlike other death games where survival is a matter of simply that. A masked staffer even consoles players, telling them, “We are not trying to hurt you or collect your debts… we are simply here to give you a chance.” It blatantly asks us: if we were given the same opportunity, would we do any different? Do we really have the courage to choose otherwise? This unapologetic take at how we act when we are at our most desperate is what makes the show as riveting as it is disturbing.
There is blood and gore for sure, which is why Squid Game comes with a rating (and no, young children shouldn’t be watching it with you). Yet for all its sadistic children’s games, the show's true brutality lies in how the stories cut through our cognitive defenses and go straight to our gut. It makes no complicated intellectual discourse about the disadvantages of capitalism; it just SHOWS us what true evil is and how it transforms us into the beasts we are, given the right price and the right opportunity. It shows betrayal, but it also shows mercy. It shows cruelty and kindness. Heartlessness, and humanity. Humanity where none ought to be.
In Squid Game, the offer to take yourself out of the game is available. But could we really choose to walk away from such an irresistible offer, despite knowing the gruesome price we would have to pay? The chilling answer is, maybe not. Maybe we are not so different from the randomly numbered players garbed in green tracksuits, who freely chose to kill in the name of making things right for ourselves and the ones we love. We are flawed as f*ck, and we may do it all just for a chance at a giant glimmering golden ball of cash. And that profoundly uncomfortable truth is where the true horror—and quiet genius—of Squid Game lies.