Squid Game Is a Bloody Commentary on Consumer Debt
Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is currently the most popular Netflix show on Earth and on track to be the most popular show the streaming service has ever produced. The nine-episode series tells the story of 456 heavily indebted South Korean men and women who agree to play six children’s games in exchange for a life-changing sum of money, only to realize once the first game starts that if they lose, they die.
The show is bloody, horrifyingly cruel to its characters, cruel in a different way to the viewer, and yet my wife and I binged the series in four nights. I’m not sure if I enjoyed it more as a brilliantly paced battle royale, or as a dark and occasionally incoherent commentary on the wealth gap and the burden of consumer debt.
Hwang said in an interview that he drew his inspiration for the show from “Japanese survival comics.” For Americans who aren’t steeped in manga, Squid Game shares some DNA with the Hunger Games franchise, and the broader universe of stories where several people enter a place and most of them die (Aliens, And Then There Were None). Squid Game combines that story model with an eerily childish setting, a large ensemble cast whose members span the personality gamut, and an unorthodox approach to brutality, which is visited on characters either with no emotion whatsoever or in the angriest way possible. It’s also genuinely tough to predict who will die when.
All of this makes Squid Game a perfect suspense thriller, and probably explains most of its popularity. But the show also has some interesting things to say about consumer debt.
In the first episode, we meet an underemployed middle-aged man named Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) who is both a deadbeat dad and a moocher son. Seong gambles away his mother’s money, dodges loan sharks, and humiliates himself for cash. He eventually wakes up inside a massive bunker wearing a numbered tracksuit. He and several hundred other contestants are soon informed that they all have large personal debts that can be erased by winning a series of games.
Like Bong Joon-ho did in 2019’s Parasite, Hwang invites us to recoil at the contestants before he allows us to like them. The ones who are not outright bad still seem cursed to do bad things. As a character says to Seong in a moment of frustration, he is someone who has “to get into trouble to
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