Note: This article contains spoilers for Squid Game.
“Out there I don’t stand a chance. In here, I do.”
Uttered by one of the many hapless characters early on in the show, the aforementioned quote perfectly encapsulates the central theme of Netflix’s latest smash-hit, Squid Game, which is essentially a tragic tale of survival of the fittest in a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world.
Ever since debuting across the globe on September 17, the South Korean sensation has leapfrogged notable mainstream projects to triumphantly claim the number one spot on Netflix – an astonishing feat worthy of a truly incredible show.
Appalling and arresting in equal measure, Squid Game has subsequently emerged as a virtual behemoth in the streaming domain, with millions of households watching on with bated breath, as a myriad of emotions wreaks havoc upon their frame of mind.
In tune with the formulaic battle royale genre, 456 ‘contestants’ fight it out in a bid to desperately cling on to the dying embers of a flickering life, fleetingly resurrected by the prospect of winning an eye-watering sum of 45.6 billion Won.
But what sets Squid Game apart from its predecessors is not only its profound ability to build upon the blueprint provided by works such as Battle Royale and As The Gods Will, but the sheer seamlessness with which it achieves a riveting coalescence of fact and fiction.
The Squid Game Syndrome preys upon a society in shambles
The cheerful overtones and pastel-laden facade of the first episode of Squid Game far belie the sinister social commentary simmering beneath, which seeks to lay bare the ailing structure of human society, in all its shambolic glory.
From dingy bylanes to opulent dens, Squid Game thrives upon the juxtaposition of the elite and economically bereft, resulting in a pulsating critique of capitalism at large.
Set in a contemporary society where wealth disparity, inflation and debt are at an all-time high, the show holds a glaring mirror to society’s shortcomings in a brazen fashion, replete with introspective candor and allegorical assertiveness.
The above statements can be traced back to a recent interview with Variety, in which the show’s director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, provides further context on what essentially lies beneath the surface of Squid Game:
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.”
Moreover, despite having a burgeoning entertainment industry situated at the pinnacle of an ever-evolving and expansive global content consumption module, Korean society too, is fraught with bedlam of a rather barbaric kind.
“Outwardly, Korean entertainment seems to be doing very well. Think of BTS, ‘Parasite,’ ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Crash Landing on You.’ But South Korean society is also very competitive and stressful. We have 50 million people in a small place. And, cut off from the continent of Asia by North Korea, we have developed an island mentality.”
This ‘island mentality’ is perhaps best expressed in the form of the characterization of Oh Il-Nam, the old man and founder of Squid Game, who in his ‘isolation’, seeks an escape from the ennui of elitism.
Additionally, the island itself can be interpreted as a microcosmic offspring of a rather deviant macrocosmic structure at work.
A structure that thrives upon the principles of Schadenfreude.
“You bet on horses. It’s the same here, but we bet on people.”
– The Front Man
It is this sense of yearning that eventually motivates Oh Il-Nam and other members of the uber-wealthy class to conceive an annual Gladiator-style death match, in which harmless games of yesteryear become tinged with treachery and turmoil.
Characters in Squid Game stand out amidst the cacophonic battle of hope and hubris
In the post-Parasite era, the brilliance of Squid Game further lies in its ability to enable society’s outcasts to fight for a stake in the stage of life, albeit at the hands of the whims of the wealthy.
At the center of the narrative lies Lee Jung-jae’s Gi-Hun, a deadbeat dad and gambling addict on the run from loan sharks, who embodies the perilous life of an ‘everyman’ bogged down by the vicissitudes of life as we know it.
Despite having fallen on hard times, his moral fiber remains intact and shines forth in his interactions with his competitors – a neglected, dying old man (Oh Il-Nam) a North Korean defector (Kang Sae-Byeok), a Pakistani immigrant (Ali Abdul) and his childhood friend turned fraudulent banker (Cho Sang-Woo) – who are by no means ‘righteous’ heroes.
Yet they all possess the uncanny ability to move and mesmerize audiences like no other, for it is in the sheer expertise with which Squid Game succeeds in representing a melting pot of diversity in motion, that truly helps elevate the series itself to a level of transcendental significance.
Be it to fend for a brother or wife, each of the forlorn five above are representative of humanity in distress, a universal theme which not only permeates far and wide but also strikes a unanimous chord with the majority.
The themes of sacrifice and salvation shine forth in moments such as the heart rending exchange between Sae-Beok and Ji-Yeong, which places the very concept of foes and friends under the scanner.
From capturing the locale and essence of the people, to fostering the growing popularity of places and phrases (Gganbus unite!) in the Western dialect, Squid Game is thus a poignant and powerful portrayal of the underdog’s elusive search for their due place in the sun and their ability to someday exclaim:
“At that moment, I felt as if I owned the entire world, exhilarated.”
– Inspector Royal, Squid Game.
Note: The article reflects the views of the writer.