Squid Game: capitalism’s essence

November 16, 2021

From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters

Brutal. Mindless. Merciless. These are some of the words I would use to describe the popular Netflix series Squid Game. Writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk created a magnificent metaphor for the consequences of capitalism. This director’s in-your-face horror captures what so many marginalized people experience. Interestingly, movie studios rejected this series 10 years earlier, claiming it wouldn’t be popular. The thought that it would be too violent was considered enough reason to reject it.


Although set in South Korea, the proliferation of marginalized people around the world means this series should resonate in any country with a wide degree of inequality. Because most of us are mired in debt, we can identify with the choice of the protagonist, Seong Gi-jun, to play these deadly games.

Gi-jun, played by Lee Jung-jae, is preyed upon by one of the many scouts who easily identify those who are down and out. Gi-jun is a gambling addict, as well as a divorced father with limited job prospects, who enters the contest to win millions.

At first he turns down the games, but when he faces thugs who are after him for gambling debts, unfortunately he reenters the game. Gi-jun faces a bleak future, and symbolizes the plight of the poor under modern capitalism. We get to know several main characters, all under duress, and sympathize with the plight of the players who have to face this ugly side of themselves.

Squid Game-themed protest at COP26 in Glasgow, Nov. 3, 2021. Photo: Extinction Rebellion Southwest Britain

One of the first games played is “Red Light, Green Light,” a game many of us know and associate with innocence. Using this game is in stark contrast to what actually happens, since the game is played gladiator style. Perhaps the game was chosen as a backdrop for this horror, to highlight how we accept the ugliness in our lives as if it’s the only way to live. This is the ultimate irony, using childhood games in this horrific sense.

The popularity of Squid Game is a sign that people are realizing the starkness of their situation under our current economic system. Psychology Today pointed out that Squid Gameis on course to be Netflix’s biggest show ever,” even though “it had virtually no serious promotion or ad campaign.” I came to the conclusion that Squid Game struck a nerve with the 99%.

One of the reasons for this popularity surely has to do with the fact this is a superb work of art. I was blown away by how well Hwang captures the bleak and ugly aspects of violence and the complete and utter desolation that so many face under this economic system. They would rather risk death than live lives of such desperation.


This gladiator-style game where winner takes all points to the real-life desperation of farmers in India, America’s horrifically high number of suicides, and extremely high levels of drug overdoses termed “deaths of despair.” I could cite horrific fact after fact and not do justice to how much the world suffers. Isn’t it time to say: There must be a better way to live?

Although there are many reasons for the popularity of Squid Game, including its genius at dialogue, setting, filming, and acting, it may also represent a turning point in confronting our current system. When so many viewers are able to withstand the blood, gore, violence, and hopelessness and stay with a nine-episode series, it has to say something about what we think about the world.

To make a stark comparison to real life as this director has done is brilliant. My hope is that this series gets us talking about the actual ugly system we live under that sees the second highest cause of death for U.S. teenagers is suicide; that our world is so ugly, young people choose to kill themselves rather than live in it. This series’ popularity is driven by our realization that we live in a modified version of this game.

—Diana Sabina

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