By Saffron Dale
Squid game, a Korean children’s game where players are divided into two teams: the offence and defence. Even the game that the South Korean Netflix show Squid Game is named after, symbolizes the divide that exists in late capitalist society between the bourgeois and proletariat, or the winners and losers. Director, Dong-hyuk even states “this is a story about losers”.
This is seen through the show’s premise which features 465 indebted players who agree to participate in a series of children’s games to win 45.6 billion won (or £28 million). So, what’s the catch? The only way to win the money is to be the last man standing, quite literally, as every loser is shot dead. This article will explore the show’s commentary on late capitalism and the phenomenon it’s become on TikTok, feeding into a system that the show so vehemently critiques.
The show’s focus is on the lead character, Gi-hun, a gambling addict and part-time chauffeur, who is in dangerous amounts of debt. As his mother is hospitalised and Gi-hun can’t afford medical expenditures, he agrees to participate in the deadly squid games, competing for an extortionate cash prize.
Here Gi-hun finds 464 other players who are just as desperate and indebted as himself. We learn that debt and wealth dominate the players’ lives, with the 45.6 billion won prize contained in a golden globe above their heads. Most shocking is perhaps the voluntary nature of the game. After discovering that the games’ survival rate is 465-1, the players take a vote and are allowed to return home. Yet, most of the players decide to re-enter the game after just a few days of living their miserable realities. From the sound of it, you probably can’t comprehend why anyone would re-join such a life-threatening game, but as a viewer, you learn that the players’ isolated and impoverished lives seem worth risking in exchange for excessive wealth.
As the show progresses, the players drastically decrease as newfound friends begin to betray and even kill one another with the hope of winning. Perhaps most devastating is when Ji-yeong sacrifices her life for Sae-byeok as she believes Sae-byeok’s life, outside the games, is more worth living. This act of sisterhood counteracts the sexism displayed by nearly all the male characters in the show.
Disappointingly Sae-byeok doesn’t make it to the final two, which was perhaps my biggest criticism of the show. I thought that the all-male final was outdated given that Sae-byeok was clearly more intelligent than Gi-hun. Yet, Dong-hyuk claims that both Gi-hun and the other finalist, Sang-woo, were like two clones of himself. For me, one represented the waning morals that desperation births and the other, the upholding of morality.
Of course, good beats evil but Gi-hun isn’t happy a year after winning the 45.6 billion won. Gi-hun still appears to live a relatively humble but miserable life. After viewers discover that the old man, Il-nam, founded the games rather than being another indebted player, Il-nam comments that he created the games since he was bored and needed to feel alive. Probably now the two richest characters in the show, both Gi-hun and Il-nam are either depressed or emotionally numb. Here, capitalism fails to satisfy even the rich.
However, lightening the dark tone of Squid Game is the circulation of memes and reactions to the show via TikTok. These TikToks primarily consist of viewers ranking the show’s characters in order of attractiveness or joking about the Honeycomb game (or maybe this is just my FYP!). Nevertheless, having deleted TikTok whilst watching Squid Game and redownloading it afterwards, I undoubtedly gained a different perspective on the show. Rather than taking the show so seriously, I couldn’t help but find some of the anxiety-inducing scenes funny.
However, does the circulation of memes feed into the capitalist social structures that Squid Game so heavily criticises? For instance, sales in the white Vans contestants wear and the popularity of dyed red hair has sky-rocketed since the show premiered. Therefore, the capital that the show demonstrates permanently entraps us, is now being used to make us look like the suffering players.
Squid Game deserves its Rotten Tomatoes score of 96%, of course with 4% knocked off for Sae-byeok not making it to the final, as the show is undoubtedly a masterpiece. With its Parasite-like subject-matter, it’s even more fitting in the current climate where we are coming out of lockdown and society is returning to normal. It is interesting that Squid Game makes the statement that it’s “just as bad out there as it is in here”. Perhaps, like players who decided to return to the deadly squid games, we’ll be hoping to revert to a simple lockdown rather than the fast-paced, cut-throat world we inhabit on the outside.
Image: Dark Rum via Flickr