With its intriguing twist on an otherwise trite idea, Squid Game is destined to be one of the largest shows in Netflix history, topping the streaming rankings across numerous worldwide markets. 456 damaged people are gathered to engage in a twisted game with only two possible outcomes: ultimate victory or untimely death.
The first episode alone has hundreds of innocent people murdered in cold blood, left to bleed out on the artificial ground as fellow participants stamp over their warm corpses in a desperate bid to survive. Yet even above their own mortality sits a greater goal, a promise of monetary splendour that hangs above their sleeping quarters in a literal piggy bank.
The sociopolitical message at the core of Squid Game isn’t subtle, it’s a deliberate examination of economic disparity that is growing more and more prevalent with each passing day in our own reality. The rich are in a position where money is no concern, and thus it can be used as a plaything to pit those less fortunate against one another in a morbid fight to the end.
While the idea of everyday people murdering one another in pursuit of profit might seem like an outlandish premise, it’s surprisingly grounded given wealth is often the difference between life and death in reality. Millions in the United States doom themselves to an early grave due to a monstrous healthcare system, while families in the UK are left to go hungry as the government strips away welfare to fill its pockets and act like the country has never been better. This wealth disparity is also a huge social issue in South Korea, where both Squid Game and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite are set. These stories are a ravenous attack on the modern political climate, unafraid of showing us how lower classes are becoming more and more disenfranchised as those above them hoard wealth for no reason other than greed.
Everyone in Squid Game is a victim, even if on the surface they seem like horrible people. Protagonist Seong Gi-hun is an irredeemable asshole who steals money from his diabetic mother while failing to pay his daughter’s child support, and even when he comes across untold riches, he blows it on gambling and is once again left with nothing. He turns to Squid Game out of greed, a drive to earn redemption in a world that has left him behind. Yet he’s also a victim of systemic oppression, a successful job cast aside as figures above him deemed his employment irrelevant. So he was left to stew in his own misery, his outlook on life growing darker and darker until he’s willing to throw it all away to a stranger on a subway platform.
The show is full of folks like these, each with their own unique viewpoint on life. There’s an elderly man suffering from dementia and a brain tumor who has nothing to live for, or a successful businessman who has succumbed to his own arrogance. Rotten criminals with a penchant for violence form bonds with young ladies raised in an environment defined by neglect and abuse, all of whom are put into a deathmatch in which such anxieties are found and used as weaknesses. While the first episodes are marked by fear and subservience, later episodes show participants becoming aggressive and desperate, eager to form groups and murder anybody who dare to oppose them.
All of the masked figures that reside over this game are aware of how it all goes down, having seen the same song and dance time and time again as poor souls are doomed to oblivion purely to entertain those at the top. Death is at first viewed as a shocking horror, but our characters soon grow numb to it, knowing that people will need to be killed and left behind if they stand any chance of making it out alive. It’s Battle Royale but with a greater purpose, and a willingness to delve into how a situation like this changes people.
It’s disgusting, yet Squid Game eventually makes heroes out of villains, showing that Seong Gi-hun is capable of redeeming himself, learning to recognise his own flaws alongside others who come to terms with the person they’ve always wanted to be. This works both ways of course – some resort to murder, while others strive to protect those who wouldn’t stand a chance in the game otherwise – but it’s clear the rich underestimate the poor in Squid Game, with the idea of those tracksuit-clad idiots outsmarting the system seeming inconceivable. But they do, and those at the top get what they deserve. Despite this we’re forced to say goodbye to so many characters who don’t deserve to die, yet it’s accurate to the bloodthirsty nature of the real world, and how so many people who deserve to live are cast aside by a system that doesn’t care about them. They’re a single ant in a colony made up of billions, so you scrape their remains off the bottom of your shoe and move on.