An Unlikely Smash Hit, Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Exposes the Dark Side of Free Enterprise

The Korean blockbuster beat the odds and made millions, much like its wretched, debt-ridden characters hope to do

An Unlikely Smash Hit, Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Exposes the Dark Side of Free Enterprise
Squid Game Production Stills. Netflix.

Spoilers ahead

By now, if you haven’t already watched “Squid Game,” you’ve heard all about it — and probably know someone who dressed as player 456 or 067 or 001 or 199 for Halloween. The Korean thriller was released on Netflix on Sept. 17, and by October, everyone was talking about it as it became Netflix’s most-streamed original show ever — easily surpassing “Bridgerton.”

“Squid Game” has achieved a rare kind of success for a foreign language show. Executives hope the program will do well in its own market, but they keep expectations limited beyond that. They assume that few are willing to spend time with a program that requires such close attention. You can’t casually watch a subtitled show. Of course, you can watch “Squid Game” with Netflix’s questionable dubbing, but you would be doing a disservice to yourself and the actors. Don’t just take it from me — “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk took a clear stance on the dubbing debate, telling “Good Morning America,” “Please watch the subtitled one. If you don’t see the acting, the performance from the real actor, then you are not seeing anything.”

All this is to say that the success of the cultural juggernaut “Squid Game” was in no way a given — making its worldwide popularity that much more impressive.

Of course, once you’ve made it past the first episode, there is no confusion about why the show took off as fast as it did. Beyond the outstanding direction, gorgeous production design and genuine performances lies an allegory we can all relate to about serving at the altar of capitalism — how it destroys us and our families and how only a select few ever benefit from it. Yet we keep going, because what choice do we have?

Episode one, “Red Light, Green Light,” begins by taking us into the life of Gi-hun, a divorced and broke father who is living with his mother, struggling with a gambling problem and being chased by debt collectors. His young daughter is both ashamed of and worried about him. When we watch him suffer the humiliation of the recruiting game, bracing for multiple slaps to the face in public, we understand how someone so desperate would be willing to play some more games for money. It sounds easy enough, right?

Well, not quite. The terrifying realization all the players — and we as an audience — come to when the first game begins is that the slap was merely a prelude to the tolerance of violence these games require.

In the second episode, aptly titled “Hell,” we observe the bloody aftermath of the first game. Everyone is terrified, pleading with the red-suited masked men to let them go. The rules state that they are allowed to vote on leaving the game. But first, the powers that be finally show them what they are playing for. Lit like a messiah, a piggy bank emerges from the roof, and wads of cash plop down for each player who was murdered in the first round. As the money pours in, the jackpot music from a casino slot machine blares.

What seemed like an easy vote suddenly becomes a decision many of the players have to think about. An unforgiving life of scraping by in the outside world, or take your chances on becoming a multimillionaire by surviving this grown-up “Battle Royale”? As Bob Dylan once wrote, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” The vote results in them leaving, but just barely.

As the players reenter the real world, they experience just how horrible their lives are. The prospect of jail time, the creditors, loan sharks, disappointed family members and employers who exploit them — the real world is a cruel place. It is believable, then, that 187 of the 201 remaining players would choose to go back in the game, where they have a lottery’s chance at life above water.

There is a common saying that the lottery is a tax on the poor. But in the case of “Squid Game,” you’re not just throwing away $5 or $10 of grocery money. Your life is literally on the line.

The story of “Squid Game” is unique in form but not in function. In fact, another Korean drama that broke through globally, the movie “Parasite,” tells a similar story about the horrors of capitalism, albeit with less violence (well, until the last 10 minutes). The most realistic part of both parables is that the have-nots first turn on one another, rather than on a system that leaves them fighting for scraps. In “Squid Game,” they are not only allowed but encouraged to kill one another in the middle of the night. In “Parasite,” the Kim family turns on the Parks’ housekeeper Moon-gwang and her husband in order to secure their place serving the elite family.

This is the real crime of the system: It keeps you fighting against the people with whom, if you teamed up, you could force change. It’s why the rich hate unions so much and use tactics to keep workers from talking to one another, sharing salary information and moving toward a more just employment system.

It’s also impossible not to compare “Squid Game” to another show about the dreadful stench of capitalism, “Succession.” In that HBO dark comedy series, Logan Roy casually throws around the acronym NRPI, meaning “no real person involved.” To the uber rich, the working class are not people. No one of importance will care when they’re missing. They are commodities to be exploited for whatever the plutocrats need, be it low-wage workers or mindless entertainment. While “Squid Game” takes us into the mindset of the players, “Succession” documents the ones rigging the game.

And the fascinating part is how they justify it.

The Front Man, aka the one in charge of the entire game, uses a “moral code” to run the competition and to convince himself that the volatile sport is somehow fair. In episode five, ironically titled “A Fair Game,” the Front Man speaks one of his few lines after it is revealed that certain guards were giving one player an unfair advantage: “Players compete in a fair game under the same conditions. These people suffered inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we offer them one last chance to fight on equal footing and win.” He believes these games are somehow altruistic, flat-out ignoring the initial deceit used to get participants in the door.

But the most masterful (and tearful) episode of the series is the sixth. It is here that we have grown attached to our players. We believe this core group has a mutual goal of surviving and helping one another. But the cruelty of those in charge is on full display, forcing them to choose a teammate, while providing no other information. Sang-woo is all about self-preservation, so he chooses Ali, assuming that the latter’s physical strength will pair well with Sang-woo’s elite education. No one else wants to team up with the old man, Il-nam, so rather than leave him for dead, Gi-hun asks him to be his partner. And Sae-byeok pairs up with Ji-yeong, as she was the only one to ask her to join her team in the previous round.

The title of the episode, “Gganbu,” comes from a term of endearment Il-nam teaches Gi-hun when they find out they’re playing marbles. “It’s the good friend you share your marbles with, whom you trust a lot. You share everything with them — mine, yours, doesn’t matter.”

What follows is a painful lesson in friendship, betrayal and self-sacrifice.

In the end, Il-nam gives Gi-hun his last marble, reassuring him that they are still Gganbu, and thanks Gi-hun for letting him join his team, just as Ji-yeong sacrifices her life for Sae-beoyk. These decisions are at complete odds with what Sang-woo, feeling himself to be out of options, does to Ali.

Of course, after one has completed the series, this episode takes on a very different light, but that doesn’t change the roller coaster of emotion. As adults, we focus so much of our energy on careers and relationships, we sometimes forget about our Gganbu.

Once we reach the final game, the two men remaining represent enlightenment and reality.

Gi-hun, for all his selfishness when we first meet him, has become wiser throughout the game. He has been crushed by watching the people he grew close to die. He is infuriated at the heartlessness of his childhood friend Sang-woo, who seems to feel nothing at all. But the reality of the game, for those who willingly chose to come back, is that feelings are how you die. If your goal is to win, you have to put all of that aside. It beckons a reality TV cliché: “I’m not here to make friends.”

In a game where your life is at stake and millions of dollars are on the line, it’s easy to see how Sang-woo justifies his choices. It’s also easy to see how he, the one character who joined the game despite having a good education and a white-collar career his greed ruined, is just as in it for himself as player 101 — outside the game, they are both criminals. Despite growing up the same way Gi-hun did, Sang-woo doesn’t carry the heart Gi-hun has. It’s this heart of gold that Sang-woo worries about, because he, having at one point in his life overcome poverty to reach a powerful position, knows the truth about getting ahead. The world, both inside and outside the game, caters to the ruthless. To quote a beloved episode of “Ted Lasso,” “It’s the hope that kills you.”

I, for one, can’t wait to see where Hwang takes Gi-hun next season. Will he find a way to take down the game? Will he ever see his daughter again? Will we see other chapters of the game being played in countries around the world? Will the Front Man have to find a replacement now that he has to take on host duties? Is Jun-ho still alive?

Whichever direction it goes in, one thing’s for sure: “Squid Game” is a horse Netflix will continue to ride as long as it keeps the piggy bank overflowing.

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