Spoilers for “Squid Game” ahead
“Squid Game” is a newly released South Korean drama that shot to the No. 1 spot on Netflix days after its release. The show features a survival game where participants have to play familiar childhood games to win a huge sum of money. But, as is quickly revealed in the first episode, this is no ordinary survival game, but one where the prize money and the players’ lives are at stake. Losing players are shot and killed, while the rattled and shocked winners get to participate in the next round.
“Squid Game” quickly develops from a simple show about a deadly game into a meaningful metaphor for capitalism, posing the question, “How far would you go for money?” The childish games are juxtaposed with the show’s violence and gore in a way that parallels the contrast between the carefree children who typically play these games and the adults that are pressured to participate in these now life-threatening games for money.
The show’s playground games evoke feelings of nostalgia, all while the threat of death poisons the air, creating a unique form of tension. Money hangs above players’ heads as they sleep, pushing them to win while they desperately try to avoid losing. The plot of the show has brought in many viewers from around the world and its popularity has even prompted a lawsuit against Netflix from a South Korean broadband provider that has complained about an internet use traffic surge caused by the series’s large audience.
Besides the plot of the show, “Squid Game” tells us a lot about very real problems in South Korea, such as high debts and an actively growing divide in wealth, both between the upper and lower class and between older and younger generations.
“Squid Game” highlights the huge debt problem in South Korea — a problem that has hit the younger generation particularly hard. Young Koreans, struggling under the pressure to buy an apartment or house in a volatile market that seems to only grow more and more expensive, turn to loans and financial help as one of the only ways to afford housing.
The Korea Herald quotes Shin Yong-sang, a researcher from the Korea Institute of Finance, who stated, “Currently, South Korea’s household debt is the highest in the world in terms of both size and rate of increase relative to nominal gross domestic product.” The article also cites the Bank of Korea, which listed the total outstanding debt currently held by Koreans at around 1,765 trillion won, which is roughly equal to $1.58 trillion. This signals a 9.53% increase from the year prior.
South Korea also has a rising youth unemployment rate, with contributing factors like job selection concerns and changing labor demands. Like in the U.S., graduating South Koreans stress over the correct career path. In addition, the demand for skilled workers and people with four-year college degrees in South Korea has dropped significantly, leaving many graduates out of work as skilled and semi-professional jobs vanish or remain unavailable.
Another interesting aspect of “Squid Game” is the appearance of the VIPs, rich Westerners that enter the equation toward the end of the show. The VIPs come in before “Glass Tiles,” the show’s second to last game, and sit in a posh den separated from the players by a thin window, representing an even deeper class divide. The Westerners in “Squid Game” are able to watch the game from a distance as uninvolved bystanders, a privilege that the game’s players are not allowed.
It’s revealed that many of the Westerners take bets on which player will win, laughing and joking about past games. It’s revealed through detective Hwang Jun-ho’s investigation that the games have a long history, and the VIPs even say that the competitions take place in multiple countries. It seems that these VIPs play a big part in the games’ continuation, especially after game mastermind Oh Il-nam dies in the final episode of the series. Interestingly, player Seong Gi-hun learns of a new game starting a mere year later.
The power that the VIPs have comes from money, from which stems a harsh divide between the two groups. One group participates in games that could result in death for the chance to pay off their debts, while the other is so rich that they can create demand for a game that plays with people’s lives and place million-dollar bets on who wins. This exploitation of the poor is reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.”
After winning the Oscar for best picture in 2020, notably the first non-English language film to win the category, Bong has pushed South Korean film into the spotlight. Many themes from “Parasite” can be seen in “Squid Game,” such as its criticism of capitalism and class division. Both “Parasite” and “Squid Game” show the rich benefiting from the efforts and labors of the lower class. The honest portrayal of class inequality in “Squid Game” has resonated with viewers around the world — not just those in South Korea.
“Squid Game” has garnered a huge fan base online, with Netflix even saying that it has the potential to be one of its most popular shows ever. And many viewers continue to remain invested in the show even after its final episode, as the show’s ending leaves audiences with many unanswered questions. Fans remain hopeful of further seasons thanks to the end of the series, which shows Gi-hun deciding not to leave the country when his emotions about the game’s continuation become too complicated.
Writer and director of the show, Hwang Dong-hyuk, said that he has begun thinking of some new ideas for a second season, starting with the character of the Front Man. The Front Man is a former cop, and Hwang shared that since police corruption is a worldwide problem, it’s an issue that he would like to address if there’s ever a second season of “Squid Game.”