Netflix’s new global hit Korean series Squid Game brings attention to the issues of capitalism in our current society.
Squid Game, written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is a survival drama where heavily indebted players compete against each other to win $38.5 million. The players play a total of six games, each inspired by a traditional children’s game—but with a deadly twist. The drama focuses on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a divorced gambling addict who needs money to pay for his mother’s hospital fees and custody of his daughter, as he battles with other game participants to win the cash prize. Of the 456 players, there is also Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), an investment banker millions of won in debt, and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector desperately needing money to reunite with her family.
On top of an interesting premise with a hint of gore, Squid Game showcases the psychological terror of capitalism by analyzing realistic financial struggles and competitive societal nature.
Much like how capitalism relies on the idea that freedom of choice is equivalent to happiness, the illusion of choice—a model where players are happier when exercising free will—was demonstrated in the drama. Specifically, in episode two, the players are given the option to quit playing the game and go back to their original lives or to continue playing to win the grand prize. In this scenario, however, the players are given a choice to make but no matter what they choose there will always be the same outcome—either death by a gun or death on the streets. This represents how some workers in society must continue working their job even though it torments them—in order to make enough money to support themselves or their families.
The games also serve another purpose: to benefit the wealthy social class. Just as Gi-hun was known to bet money on horse races, extremely rich men, known as VIPS, bet money on the players. This illustrates the exploitation of the lower social class by the higher class; the wealthy VIPS spectate and bet money on the game-winners for entertainment.
The depiction of the upper class taking advantage of the lower class is demonstrated by Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su), a vulnerable old man with a growing brain tumor. What is hidden from the other players is that Il-nam is in fact the host of the games. Il-nam is an embodiment of the upper social class sadistically toying with the lower class. In episode nine, Il-nam shares his reasons as to why he created the games in the first place. Oh Il-nam is actually extremely rich, so rich to the point that he was so bored with his life, he wanted to create something he could use for entertainment. He sought out people he could easily manipulate into playing the deathly games: impoverished people in need of money to survive.
Throughout the series, many instances of capitalism in real life are demonstrated through scenes in the show. For instance, the players are constantly being set against each other with the cruel gimmick that for every deceased player, money is added to the prize pool. By doing this, there is always constant tension between the players of the game; if one dies, that means more money for the others.
The manager of the games, known as the Front Man (Tom Choi), gives the players the impression that everyone is treated as equals—of course, excluding Oh Il-nam, the creator of the games. This is another example of capitalism in the show. Much like in real life, workers are told that they are equal to one another; ignoring how the system is always rigged by the upper class. While the staff of the games were hung to prove to the other players that everyone was treated equally, Oh Il-nam was invincible and only participated in the games for his own excitement.
The split in reality between the upper and lower class is apparent throughout the drama. For example, when Gi-hun decides to trade the 38.5 million prize for Sang-woo’s life, the VIPs are so caught up in their money ideals that they could not understand the act. When given large amounts of power and seemingly endless money, the upper class could not understand the morals of a conscientious person with a lower social status.
All in all, Squid Game delves deep into the capitalist society that we all live in, serving as a cautionary tale that, no matter what, morality will always trump money.