by Adde Hemingway
Review contain spoilers ...
A project 10 years in the making, a global audience captivated, a complex collection of characters that we love and love to hate; “Squid Game,” a survival drama series written and directed by the South Korean artist Hwang Dong-hyuk, has turned the genre on its head and taken the internet by storm.
Since the show’s release on September 17th, the series has hovered at no. 1 on Netflix’s charts and has generated over $891 million in impact value from a single season. Every day there is a new meme, a Tik Tok challenge, a parody that generates millions of views and keeps people talking about this thrilling series. “Squid Game” Halloween costumes are selling out faster than they can be restocked at popular costume stores, so expect to see streets scattered with black masks and jump suits come October's end.
Why has “Squid Game” gained this astonishing popularity?
Writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk has developed eight other projects, all receiving favorable reviews, but nothing close to the attention drawn by “Squid Game.” Plus, how many survival series have we already known and loved? “Squid Game” is a step above because it gives us insight to who in our capitalistic, wealth-driven society, decides who climbs the economic ladder and forces us to examine the system that forces individuals into positions where a death-defying game run by psychopathic billionaires is their best opportunity for economic advancement.
This captivating drama/thriller takes place in current day South Korea and follows a cast of anguished individuals looking down the barrel of financial ruin, suffering a smattering of hopeless personal crisis. Desperate for a way out of crippling debt, frantic for opportunity, they are invited to a secret location where they are given the chance to participate in a game, the winner of which receives a prize of 45.6 billion Won (approx. $38.4 million USD). All they must do is participate in a handful of classic children's games in which their life hangs in the balance. As the games get more challenging and it becomes clear it's kill or be killed, we are given insight to the motivations behind the orchestrators of the game, the players, and the perpetual hopelessness of the system that led them to it.
Money is the best universal motivator, everyone wants more, and everyone is willing to do something to get it. That “something”, however, is relative to what you have, what you need, and what you are willing to do to get it. All the players involved in the Squid Game have a harrowing backstory: enduring a personal disaster and stuck in the quicksand of financial despair, turning down a chance at a prize of that magnitude is unfeasible. As we go down the line of characters, it becomes difficult to determine who is more deserving of the win. A gambling addict drowning in debt, desperately trying to gain custody of his daughter, a woman seeking asylum for her family stuck in North Korea, a sympathetic fraud on the run, an immigrant struggling to create a better life for his child and wife; it's unclear who deserves the money most as all are willing to endure grueling and treacherous tests for it. What we ultimately learn from the Squid Game, however, is life is an unfair game - not all get what they deserve.
In episode two, "A Fair World", In-ho, (the front man) the masked leader, states that "Everyone is equal while they play this game. Here every player gets to play a fair game under the same conditions. These people suffered the inequality and discrimination of the world. We are giving them one last chance to fight fair and win." While the masterminds behind the games claim to have made a fair game that guarantees every player the same opportunities for success, what becomes clear is that not even the most controlled of environments can create an equal playing field for every individual. The clearest example of this is during the honeycomb game where players were required to remove a geometric shape cooked into a sugar candy. Each player, before the game was revealed got to select their shape from either a circle, a star, a triangle, and an umbrella. Not knowing the rules of the game, several unfortunate players chose the most difficult shape to excavate. One player, dismayed at the realization his shape was more challenging exclaimed, "why were some of us given easy shapes and some of us hard ones?" People are born into different situations with different challenges and varying abilities that either set them up for success or act as an obstacle. The game cannot be fair because fairness is a concept made impossible by human expectation. Much like the system that led them to risk their lives for a better one, the game is inherently unfair. The only way to win the game is to use what you have to your advantage.
As the game progresses and more players are eliminated, we discover the true intentions behind the orchestrators of the Game. Under the guise of philanthropy, there is a darker purpose to the Squid Game. When eliminated players are carried out of the building, they are brought by a group of rouge henchmen to remove and harvest their organs. While the contestants kill each other for a single cash prize, the creators of the Game are making more money than the players could fathom off the bodies of the losing players. Additionally, a shocking twist at the show’s finale reveals the game to be nothing more than a form of entertainment to a bored, dying man and his wealthy friends. He explains that money has sucked the joy out of life and creating the Squid Game was a way to have ‘fun’. After all, what is more entertaining than watching people you don’t know or care about participate in life threatening challenges of your own demented creation?
“Squid Game” is an elaborate and shocking glimpse into a system that favors the rich and views human drama and suffering as a form of amusement. The wealth distribution in our current world is so distorted, it makes it possible for the rich to manipulate the lives of the lower class who are constantly at their mercy. Capitalism cannot exist without two extremes: the extremely wealthy and the extremely impoverished. “Squid Game” is an unsettling view of what happens when these extremes collide.