My Thoughts on Squid Game
Disclaimer: This essay contains pretty extensive spoilers for Squid Game. I personally don’t care much about spoilers and I think Squid Game’s impact is not diminished by spoilers, but for those who do, fair warning. In any case, I will be writing with the assumption that the reader has seen the show.
Also worth mentioning that Squid Game is extremely bloody and grim, and while I won’t be including images because this is a low-effort ramble, I will be discussing many such scenes frankly. If that is likely to trigger existing trauma for you, or just squick you out too much to engage with the arguments, I will just reiterate there’s no need to push through it just to read this; go enjoy yourself instead.
I finally got around to watching and finishing Squid Game and, as I expected, it was incredibly grim, bloody, and depressing, I also thought it was really compelling, and having watched it after much of the Discourse and aftermath of the show’s public reception, like the Mr. Beast fiasco (discussed below for those unaware), I feel like the show’s commentary on debt, wealth, and capitalism writ large has become even sharper and more poignant, even in such a short time.
What follows is a casual effort to articulate my thoughts on the show and what I have seen of the public response. Fair warning, I make no effort to edit or revise these thoughts for brevity or good rhetorical structure, nor do I make any effort to make sure what I am saying is novel. I reserve the right to bore you as I think out loud. Or, well…on the page, at least.
Squid Game is Not an Allegory
I think a lot of people tend to assume that the most incisive way to understand a given piece of fiction is as a deliberate metaphor. A lot of discussion of Squid Game seems to follow from the assumption that the games in the show are meant to depict the literal structure or daily realities of capitalism. I don’t think this is a particularly useful or interesting way to understand Squid Game; instead, I think the show is a lot more literal and blunt.
The show is about the fact that debt and poverty make people fundamentally vulnerable to…well, any depraved whim of the wealthy. The show practically shoves the audience’s face in the horrific trauma and loss of life that results from a series of events a handful of wealthy gamblers treat as entertainment. We are obviously supposed to feel outrage, despair, plain horror, etc at the events that unfold in front of us. We are supposed to feel sheer, utter gall when Oh Il-Nam, in the last moments of the show, said he did all these things because they were fun. Wealth evacuated his soul of all compassion for others (or perhaps lack of compassion was a prerequisite for acquiring his wealth) and he treats their lives and livelihoods as playthings to be bet on.
This isn’t an allegory for anything at all, it’s merely dramatic hyperbole for the real situation. As we’ve seen in recent battles over labor conditions, one of the major tools used by the pilots of capital to divide workers against themselves is multi-tiered systems that identify certain workers as inherently better than others, as measured and signaled in terms of their wages. Dismantling these multi-tiered subsystems is a crucial goal of multiple recent strikes in the US, for one. This, of course, is merely one instance of the broader pattern which also encompasses false distinctions between “skilled and unskilled” laborers and between various different professions. The horse race-style gambling in the show is an effective twist, but the basic pattern of workers being forced to squabble amongst themselves for the patronage of the wealthy is just the actual situation in which we live ratcheted up to 15.
There’s another interpretation, somewhat invited by the show, that there is a certain moral ordering amongst the contestants, that certain ones are more deserving of their fates than others. The deaths of Kang Sae-Byeok, Ji-Yeong, and Ali Abdul are treated with much more grief than those of Jang Deok-Soo and Han Mi-Nyeo, for example. And I will admit, there were certain characters for whom I had overt distaste by the time they died, like the extremely judgmental and pious man proselytizing to all around him.
I think this tendency to morally rank the characters in Squid Game is, itself part of the pernicious tendencies the show is critiquing. To paraphrase Seong Gi-Hun’s challenge to Cho Sang-Woo after the fifth game, they’re all rooting around in the same shithole. The basic reality is that it simply didn’t matter if they were clever, scrappy, hardworking, pious, dishonest, violent, or incompetent out in the world; they all ended up here, in hell. Debt and deprivation came for all of them in largely the same fashion, no matter how much control over their lives they believed they had. For this reason, any distinction asserted about the moral worth of one of the contestants over the other is essentially meaningless. These life or death games they are forced to play by the wealthy are still, essentially, random; they make no distinctions between good and bad people.
About Oh Il-Nam
I know at least one person who did not like the twist that Oh Il-Nam was actually the creator of the games. To paraphrase my (somewhat faint) recollection of their objection, they felt the revelation cheapened the premise of the show, reducing the games from a facet of the overall systems the show was excoriating to the whims of just one man and his specific evil friends. I was spoiled on this plot twist long before I watched the whole show for myself, so I had a long time to ruminate on it as I was going through the show, and honestly? I think the revelation that Oh Il-Nam was was the creator of the games only reinforces and bolsters the show’s scathing critique of capitalism and wealth.
For one, as I mentioned earlier, the triviality of Il-Nam’s motivations (because it was the only way he could have fun) simply reinforces his callous disregard for the value of the 454 human lives that were gruesomely ended in the process, and of the one utterly traumatized man he left alive. When we hear that from Il-Nam, the typical reaction is of being galled and disgusted with Il-Nam’s casual attitude. “You can’t do that, you sick bastard!” But of course, Il-Nam can do that, and he did for many years, because massive wealth gave him the power to do that and furnished him with an endless array of victims who could not refuse when he crooked his finger. The fact that a man could do such horrific things for such ridiculous reasons and nobody stopped him simply underscores the main lesson of the show, that debt is a horrific burden that makes people vulnerable to all sorts of depravity.
The revelation about Il-Nam also devastatingly reframes the character’s behavior throughout the whole show. Previously, the character’s wide, joyous grins in the middle of incredibly deadly scenarios seemed to be a result of pure delusion, a sick man not keeping good track of the situation. In retrospect, he was simply enjoying himself because he knew that he was not in the same sort of danger that everyone else was. Just as he was safely parachuted from the games when he finally lost (largely by choice), we can assume there were contingencies for extracting him from the other games should he have lost those as well. Where everyone else is struggling for their lives, it is Il-Nam’s privilege to merely pretend that he is struggling. Poverty and debt are a costume he can don for thrills and shrug off when he is satisfied.
Finally, when we discover Il-Nam’s true role in the games, he tries to justify his callousness and contempt for human life with a cynical view of humanity. Yet again, he prompts Gi-Hun to join him for a game, a bet on whether anyone will come to help a homeless man in the freezing cold. Il-Nam repeatedly asks Gi-Hun if he trusts people, cynically commenting on how nobody stops to help the man and no doubt relying on Gi-Hun’s trauma at Il-Nam’s hands to legitimize his arguments. It is, essentially, a non sequitur. After all, Il-Nam is certainly wealthy enough to help a million homeless people if he so chose, but instead he spends his money funding annual competitive death traps on a remote island. Gi-Hun is one of the few contestants who actually did put his faith in others until the very end, even giving Sang-Woo a chance to join him and leave the games alive, and any cynicism he shows could only be the result of the horrific events Il-Nam engineered. The whole justification reads as the ideology of someone who doesn’t actually care why they are doing something so long as they get to do it, a cop-out to explain the unexplainable with a hand-wave. This too, is exactly what we see of real-world billionaires and millionaires; cynical and callous self-regard above all else.
About Cho Sang-Woo
An admittedly funny trend on Twitter in the wake of Squid Game’s release was when many people started out liking Sang-Woo, insisting he was very nice, only to see his actions later on and loudly condemn him as a monster. Of course, I think we are supposed to be outraged by his behavior, and to sympathize with Gi-Hun’s disgust after seeing Sang-Woo kill a man with his own hands in the fifth game. But I am going to make an argument that Sang-Woo’s behavior, while morally objectionable, does not necessarily reflect on him in the way it might seem at first.
WAIT! STOP TYPING! Hear me out for a second.
Sang-Woo is probably the most ruthless of all the players. Even the gangster Deok-Soo is ultimately not so much ruthless as simply a selfish bully. Sang-Woo is the one most willing to abandon any pretense of strength, dignity, or goodness in order to survive under the terms of the game. But, importantly, Sang-Woo (and everyone else) has plenty of good reasons to believe this kind of ruthlessness is a basic prerequisite of surviving the games.
It bears repeating that losing is a death penalty under the circumstances of the games; if you want to live, you can’t lose, whatever that requires, and we can’t blame anyone for wanting to live. Ali and Gi-Hun are unable to really accept this reality, are unable to adapt to the horrific circumstances they find themselves in (how could they?), and so either die or survive by being in a lucky position to temporarily ride the coattails of more ruthless people, respectively.
Sang-Woo’s real sin is not the ease with which he resorts to ruthless action, but the fact that he is too proud to really recognize that he is largely not in control of his destiny. His angry, disparaging rant to Gi-Hun after the fifth game betrays the fact that he wants to believe hard work and ability meritoriously delivered him to the final round, that he is alive because he is, on some level, better than everyone else. It’s easy to imagine this is the same attitude that made him a financial trader. But as Gi-Hun points out, he’s rooting around in the same shithole as the people he’s looking down on. He’s in the exact same situation, regardless of talent or hard work, and Sang-Woo’s shame and inability to recognize this situation for what it is shows in those many instances where he interrupts Gi-Hun’s praise for him as “the pride of Ssangmun-Dong”.
If Sang-Woo had simply admitted that he did the things he did because he wanted to live and he saw no other way of achieving that goal, I think he’d be a much harder person to hate. For all his arrogance and ruthlessness, he is also being predated upon by much wealthier people. Sadly, Gi-Hun has quite a bit of trouble recognizing this situation as well, as shown by his almost violent disgust for Sang-Woo after the fifth game. Gi-Hun can’t accept that he has to become such a vicious person to survive the games, whereas Sang-Woo readily adapts to the circumstances but doesn’t really recognize them for what they are. In this way, neither man really manages to see through the true nature of the brutal abuse they are being put through.
The real reason that asserting a moral ranking of the games’ players doesn’t work is that the very existence of the games distorts the basic moral terms we expect of social interaction. The games themselves (and the broader capitalist system they serve as a critique of) force people to make brutal, zero-sum choices between their own wellbeing and that of others. And the leverage (pardon the pun) that is used to force people into these vicious contests is debt and the concomitant threat of poverty. Even opting out is basically a non-starter; almost all the players that survive the first game voluntarily leave only to confront their mounting debts and deprivation that chase them right back.
We Have to Talk About That BS With Mr. Beast…
This is easily the most outrageous and ghoulish thing about the release of Squid Game, and it’s not even part of the original show. Whether you agree with my thoughts above, I think it’s indisputable if you were paying attention that the show is expressing a deep disgust with capitalism and that, y’know, the wealthy people running the games are the bad guys. But as many have seen in the wake of the show’s release, there are many people who (perhaps willfully) misunderstand the show as a critique of North Korea(??) or as pro-capitalist(???).
For those unaware, I will share my vague recollection of the details that I refuse to fill out more by googling because I don’t want to contribute any more clicks to these POS’s than I already am by mentioning them. Basically, some asshat YouTuber who goes by Mr. Beast decided that he was going to recreate the sets of the games from the show and solicit real-world players to compete in games for some cash prize.
I do not know if the contestants were paid actors, or if the people begging this YouTuber for a chance to compete for life-changing prize money to cover medical bills and mounting criminal fines and the like were real social media accounts or astroturfed for ghoulish marketing. It honestly does not matter. What matters is that this guy and a presumably somewhat significant audience thought that the games of Squid Game were meant (or could serve) as straightforward entertainment rather than a dramatic hyperbole meant to excoriate capitalism and predatory debt. In other words, they were identifying with Oh Il-Nam and his rich friends, and not with the contestants (read: victims) of the games.
I don’t know if I have anything more profound to express here than disgust, but I think it’s worth bringing up for one way it resonates with the actual show (beyond just being nearly as disgusting as the villains are). I think Marxists would see this widespread identification with the wealthy, spectating capitalists as a failure of class consciousness (but don’t quote me on that). My point is, as the contestants of the games in the show fail to recognize how profoundly they are all in the same boat, so too does the audience Mr. Beast imagines for this recreation fail to recognize that they are rooting around in the same shithole as Seong Gi-Hun and all the other poor saps stuck in that situation.
This basic failure to see the constraints of the situation we are in and to cut each other some fucking slack is exactly the thing that perpetuates the horrors we live with. For all it’s insight, I think the show cosigns Gi-Hun’s disgust with Sang-Woo (and expects us to as well) in spite of the very premise it has set up. Even when the show briefly attempts optimism and hope by having a stranger show up for the homeless man Oh Il-Nam and Gi-Hun are betting on, it can’t really imagine a way out of the depravity it depicts. Gi-Hun ultimately abandons a chance to see his daughter again to re-enter the games the following year, or perhaps to seek vengeance some other way. His imagination is trapped and he can’t see a way forward or out, even as he’s about to take it. For all its scorn of capitalism, Squid Game doesn’t have the imagination to see an alternative.
I think seeing an alternative starts with class consciousness, with recognizing that we are all essentially in the same boat and putting the primary blame for our overall predicament squarely on the blame of the people with the most power to change the situation most drastically. That doesn’t mean letting individuals without that kind of power off the hook for being shitty; pretty much everyone has agency and the capacity to do harm, and they should be expected to avoid doing harm as much as possible. But the fact is that very powerful people, typically the wealthy, have set us up in an often zero-sum situation that will require a truly titanic struggle to unravel.
People like Mr. Beast’s audience are simply foolish for identifying with the spectators of the games enough to want to watch something with the same vicious premise but closer to home. I don’t think such people will develop more compassion and clarity any time soon. But as for the rest of us, we have to resist the reflexive, defensive cynicism that these brutal circumstances tend to create. We have to cope, heal, and take some radical leaps of faith in each other.