For the chance to escape severe debt, the characters in Netflix’s hugely popular survival drama Squid Game would risk anything, even death. Take the protagonist Seong Gi-hun. Unemployed, he spends his days in Seoul gambling on horse races and has signed away his organs as collateral to his creditors. His deficits, both financial and personal, hurt the people closest to him: He hasn’t paid child support or alimony to his ex-wife; he mooches off his elderly mother. On his daughter’s birthday, Gi-hun can afford to buy her only tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and a claw-machine toy. He has little left to lose.
In order to win back his dignity and family, Gi-hun accepts a mysterious offer to play a series of six traditional children’s games for the chance at winning millions of dollars (45.6 billion won, to be exact). He finds himself among 456 contestants who are also in extreme financial distress, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo, now a disreputable businessman; Abdul Ali, an undocumented worker from Pakistan; and Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean refugee. At one point, Gi-hun says to Sang-woo, a graduate of the prestigious Seoul National University, “I was slow, crazy incompetent … But you’re with me in this place. Isn’t that interesting?” The messaging is not subtle: Anyone, whatever their background, can be humbled by debt. In this arena, every player has a supposedly equal opportunity at striking gold if they successfully complete the games, which have a bloody twist to them. But the show suggests that humans are constantly in a state of indebtedness to a cruel system—whether that’s a macabre competition or a punishing societal structure.
Squid Game fits into a category of South Korean works that grapple with economic anxieties and class struggles, which are rooted in the country’s concerns but resonate globally. Like Bong Joon-ho’s movie Parasite, the show indicts the rich for propagating a false sense of upward mobility and the poor for buying into it. Like BTS’s song “Silver Spoon,” it speaks to the physical pains that people face when trying to rise above their prescribed stations. And like Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning, it captures the isolation and resentment of those left behind by rapid development. Squid Game uses the popular survival-game genre—reminiscent of The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, and the video game Fortnite—to tell an even more universal story, and to make its allegories to real life particularly stark.
Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk does this, in part, with stunning aesthetics. The first game’s arena is a room painted to look like an open field, creating the illusion of freedom. A giant, glass piggy bank filled with stacks of bills looms over the players’ heads, constantly reminding them of what they have to gain. The intricate, candy-colored sets and the players’ green tracksuits are often streaked and splattered with blood, reflecting the perverse way that modern suffering is frequently presented as a spectacle. (When a friend asked how violent the show is, I likened it to Midsommar.)
Players are reduced to the numbers on their shirt; they wear identical uniforms; they form alliances and rivalries. But the veneer of parity is misleading. As in real life, people lie and cheat; they also take advantage of the disabled, elderly, and female. In the second episode, the players briefly venture back to the outside world, but after being reminded of how desperately they need money, many decide to return to the arena. “Out here, the torture is worse,” says a character who goes by 001, sharing soju and ramen with Gi-hun outside a convenience store. But the literal Korean translation is a bit different from the Netflix subtitles: “This place is more of a hell.” That difference in meaning is important: “Torture” might end, but “hell” is eternal. For the players, the daily humiliations of being poor are a worse fate than risking death.
But although the weight of unpaid debts can create a living hell, Squid Game surprisingly explores another form of indebtedness: being responsible for other people. This is most apparent in Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae with crinkly-eyed warmth and wide-eyed empathy. Gi-hun creates moments of genuine tenderness, acting as a surrogate moral backbone within the arena, despite starting off as a lousy father and son. He befriends and protects an old man. He insists on getting to know the other players’ names, not just their numbers. “You don’t trust people in here because you can. You do it because you don’t have anyone else,” he tells Sae-byeok when she’s reluctant to make alliances.
Certainly, friendships within the arena are formed out of necessity, but they aren’t solely transactional. (Think Katniss and Rue in The Hunger Games.) These bonds reveal a deeper truth: that individual success is a myth. No one who survives does so on their own, but because of the sacrifices of others. In one scene, this message is represented through a game of tug-of-war, in which players are physically chained to the rope, and to one another. But it’s also highlighted through the backstories of the supporting characters. Indeed, most are there to help their family in the outside world. Ali hopes to provide for his wife and baby. Sae-byeok needs funds to rescue her brother from an orphanage and pay to smuggle her mother across the border. Sang-woo wants to care for his aging mother. Everyone’s community needs and personal financial obligations are intertwined. Debt to a cruel system is inescapable and dehumanizing, the show constantly reminds us. But beneath the hyper-violence, it also suggests that our obligations to other people can be a source of meaning, compassion, and—just maybe—salvation.