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'Squid Game': A searing critique of inequality and capitalism

If there’s anything that all of social media is talking about right now, it’s “Squid Game.” A nine-episode drama from South Korea, it follows a group of people, the lowest of society, playing dark and twisted versions of childhood games for a winning pool of 45.6 billion won, which is about 38 million U.S. dollars.

The show follows Seong Gihun, a deadbeat father with an addiction for gambling, and an overall pathetic guy. Alongside him are players Cho Sangwoo, a disgraced businessman who got caught stealing money from his employers, Ali, a kind hearted man who is trying to raise money for his family, Oh Ilnam, a terminally ill old man, and Kang Saebyeok, a North Korean defector trying to raise money to get her mother across the border.

The show opens up with Seong Gihun — a divorced, unemployed man who lives with his elderly mom. In all shape and form, Seong Gihun represents the bottom feeders of society. He is selfish, cowardly, gullible, and will do nearly anything for loose change. But is he supposed to convey the ways that people fall to ruin, or something larger?

In the first episode, he competes against a mysterious businessman in ddakji, a Korean game involving two folded paper squares. The goal of the game is to use one square to hit the other square that is on the floor, and hit it hard enough that it flips over onto the alternative side. The businessman offers 100,000 won, roughly 83 dollars in USD, for every time that Gihun is able to beat him. However, if the businessman wins, he will collect the same amount from Gihun.

Lo and behold, Gihun loses. Why would he not? Up until this point, he has done nothing but lose, so why would it be any different now? But he does not have the money to give. In fact, it would be more absurd at this point if he had anything at all. So the man says that Gihun can pay him back with his body.

The wording is not unintentional. The way that the apathetic businessman tells Gihun that he can pay him back with everything he has, even his own being, is largely testimonial to an overarching theme in this story. Money is everything. Money owns you, and when you do not have it and you owe others, they own everything you have. Debtors own your life, your reputation, your body, your soul.

Of course, in the show, “paying back with his body” is portrayed as a mere slap to the face. But it goes on. Gihun keeps losing, and he keeps getting beat down. We see this immaculately put-together man strike down a man we have seen to be nothing but pathetic, over and over again, but there is no catharsis in this. There is no emotional “aha moment” when we see someone who steals from his own mother get hit, over and over again. The reality is, despite being the bottom of the barrel, he is still human.

He cares for his daughter, and watches almost helplessly as his life crumbles down in front of him. He cares about the other players in the game. But money will make the closest of friends turn on each other. Money will make the depraved even more so. Money will have you craning your head to stare up at a golden piggy bank as it fills with all the potential in the world, all of your debts cleared and your worries freed in the form of 38 million dollars.

The show is, not very subtly, a stark criticism of the way our humanity is lost to greed and capitalistic leeching. It shows people form relationships, only to break them immediately afterwards. It shows people disregard families, alliances, treaties, and respect for the sake of winning. It shows people sell their bodies and souls to climb out of this pitch-black void of poverty that never lets anyone leave.

“Squid Game” is captivating in a way that no show has ever been before. Despite language barriers that are often claimed to be the reason that platform users do not venture out of domestic venues, the show has ranked number one in 90 countries across the world.

The show embodies the pain and desperation felt by the “losers” of society. The show is an extreme symbol for our society, and how we act in a market that is competitive and aggressive. We lose our humanity to succeed. We lose our bodies to succeed.

The show is harrowing in a way that stands rare amongst entertainment. All forms of media hold some sort of message. Perhaps “Squid Game,” behind the honeycomb dalgona candy and the nostalgic “red-light, green-light” game, is meant to scream at us in a way that forces society to look up from the bottom of the barrel and point their fingers at those who hang money in front of us as a taunt, and at those who entertain and benefit from the cruelty of poverty.