Netflix’s Newest Original Tackles Harrowing Effects of Capitalism Amidst Nostalgic Playground Games
By: Yasmine Abdeldayem
Netflix’s South Korean thriller, “Squid Game,” has grasped the attention of viewers worldwide, since its debut on September 17. Within only a month, the show’s fan engagement is overshadowing that of previously high-rated originals on the streaming service, such as “Bridgerton” and “The Queen’s Gambit.”
The show has hit #1 in 90 different countries and is the first Korean series to rank #1 on Netflix’s U.S. Top 10.
Such success is apparent on today’s major social media platforms, where fans have been avidly discussing the series. TikTok #SquidGame hashtag has garnered over 36.7 billion views.
The show’s protagonist, Seong Gi-Hun, is burdened by debt. Viewers discover that other central characters, such as Cho Sang-woo and Heo Sung-tae, are in similar predicaments, thus making them ideal contestants for an eerie game that promises them what they thought they’d lost: a chance to survive.
After accepting the recruiter’s vague but tempting offer, the characters are drugged and taken to an undisclosed location. Here, they become a part of a grand total of 456 players, all prepared to embark on this final resort to potentially pay off their debts (and then some).
The intrigue surrounding “Squid Game” is not simply due to the commentary that it unsubtly offers regarding capitalistic society, but to how this message was delivered: a series of childhood games.
The players sign contracts that dictate they are to play a total of six games, if they make it that far in the competition. The winner will walk out with 45.6 billion South Korean won, which equates to a whopping $38 million in USD.
The first game is a childhood classic: Red Light, Green Light. It appears straightforward enough: walk when the giant, disturbing doll isn’t turning its head to the crowd, freeze when it is.
Of course there is a catch, because nothing, certainly not millions of dollars, ever comes so easily. Players who fail at the deceptive but simple games are shot to death, which rapidly narrows down those still eligible for the grand prize.
The players are effectively rattled and so the majority vote to end the games and move on with their lives.
The show’s second episode, Hell, offers insight into the core characters’ lives outside the game. It becomes clear that their odds aren’t any more favorable out there, where their financial struggles and steep debts loom at every corner.
By the end of episode 2, most of the players have somberly returned to the game. They resign themselves to the second game, which involves cutting out perfect, unfractured shapes from a popular Korean candy called dalgona (popularly known as “the honeycomb challenge” on social media).
The players’ persistence illustrates a height of desperation that is not exactly unfathomable in today’s society. Money is the key to survival, so even the prospect of death does not stop an overwhelming majority of the game’s contestants from proceeding.
“Squid Game” curates an atmosphere of unease in its stark contrasts, from bodies littered on colorful playgrounds to expressions of sheer panic in rounds of tug-of-war. The bright imagery has been a notable aspect of the show, challenging viewers to affront the goriness that characterizes much of the series.
Throughout the show’s current nine episodes, viewers watch the turmoil unfold among players as they grapple with an ongoing internal debate: self-preservation and the possibility of financial security or morality?
“Squid Game” leads a strong ensemble, with characters like Gi-hun, who has a heart of gold when it comes to his teammates, and Kang Sae-byeok, who urgently needs the prize money to find her family members and take care of her younger brother.
The connection that the show attempts to establish between the viewers and the core players elevates the shock factor when the inevitable theme of violence and death surfaces in the games.
Each personality is fleshed out to the point where good and bad no longer are fitting categories for the players of this high-stakes game. “Squid Game” takes the audience to the gray area, while simultaneously nudging their attention toward the overarching systems that trapped the players in the arena.
The mysterious, masked figures that oversee the games use the world’s income inequality to their advantage and lure in people who will do anything to have a fighting chance. They insist that the game is entirely fair and treats players equally, but viewers will learn that like in so much else, there are always inconsistencies in the rules, and therefore, someone must suffer for these ruptures.
Season 1 of “Squid Game” is available to stream on Netflix now.