TV Review: Capitalism is the Killer in Netflix’s Squid Game

Jon Levitan

Jon Levitan is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

This post contains spoilers

There are a number of horrifying moments in Squid Game, the Korean anticapitalist drama that has captivated the world and is now, remarkably, Netflix’s most watched show ever. A husband defeats his wife in a game of marbles, condemning her to death; he later dies by suicide as a result of his grief and guilt. Organs are harvested—in excruciating detail—for sale on the Chinese black market. A character notices another bleeding out, and instead of calling a doctor, slits her throat to eliminate the competition. But in the show where debt-ridden Koreans compete in a series of children’s games—where the winner claims roughly $38 million and the hundreds of losers are summarily executed—one segment in particular has stuck with me as especially terror-inducing.

It comes throughout the latter half of the second episode (“Hell”). That episode starts with the players leaving the game after it was revealed that players who lose the game are killed on sight. The players have a clause in their contract that the game stops if a majority of players agree, and they take a vote where ‘end the game’ narrowly prevails. The gamemasters oblige—with the caveat that the game will restart when a majority of the players return—and take the players from the mysterious island where the game takes place back to their homes around Seoul. 

They return to their pre-game lives which, as suggested, is their return to hell. The players realize that their lives are just as miserable as before they entered the game. They are hounded by loan sharks, the police, and gangs. They go back to their horrible employers and toxic family situations. So, one by one, they return for the game. The vast majority of players—93 percent, it turns out—willingly walk back into near certain death instead of enduring their lives as working-class Koreans. The returns are foreshadowed in the beginning of the episode when one player argues for staying in the game. “​​Out there, I don’t stand a chance. I do in here.” Even if it’s 1 in 456 (the total number of players), the odds are better in the game than they are under modern capitalism. 

Squid Game is a story about working class people pushed to the brink by oppressive debt, abusive employers, and a state machinery that refuses to relieve their suffering. They are pushed so far that they are willing to participate in a vicious game where global elites gawk at them, betting on who will live and who will die. It also has meaningful things to say about the workplace and the immense power employers have over workers in modern economies. 

Consider the origin story of Seong Gi-hun, the main character and eventual winner of the game. For the first few episodes, Gi-hun is presented as a degenerate gambler and deadbeat dad who, on the day of his daughter’s birth, abandoned his wife as she was giving birth because one of his coworkers “collapsed at work” and died. In episode five, however, Gi-hun explains the full backstory in a conversation with Oh Il-nam, an old man who Gi-hun forms a close relationship with (in the quote below, the italics are lines spoken by Il-nam, and the regular text is spoken by Gi-hun):

I worked at this place once where we went on strike. Had a barricade just like this one. …Why did you strike? They fired a bunch of us all at once. I’ve been employed there more than a decade. I bet it wasn’t easy. I had a kid on the way too. I couldn’t afford to get fired like that. Our bosses said we couldn’t stay. I had no other option. They ruined the company and held us responsible. It made me furious. And everyone same as now, all kept watching in pairs until morning. That way, no one could kick us all out. And we were all so scared. Police might come any second…Someone died there too, right?

It’s not exactly clear initially—at least for viewers using the english subtitles, which have come under fire—but Gi-hun is talking about a sit-down strike, which is why he references a “barricade” that workers formed and forming pairs of patrols to ensure that the sit-down strikers maintained physical control of the plant. 

This story is heroic until it quickly turns horrific. By firing workers after bad mismanagement, the company forced labor to bear the losses that were management’s fault. In response, the workers banded together and successfully occupied the plant. But the employer had the state on its side, and Gi-hun’s warning that the “[police] might come any second” is seemingly confirmed by Il-nam recalling that “[s]omeone died there.” It’s clear, given context, that Gi-hun’s dying coworker he was with the night his daughter was born was not just any coworker, it was a fellow sit-down striker killed by the police, who were working to protect capital’s interests. 

Gi-hun’s tale demonstrates three ways that employers have control over their workers. Employers control their workers’ economic well-being, and can take that away at the worst time (“I had a kid on the way too. I couldn’t afford to get fired like that.”). They can inflict physical violence on their workers, or at least enlist the state to do so when workers dare to claim ownership to the workplace. And they can destroy workers’ personal relationships; Gi-hun’s decision to stay with his dying fellow striker while his daughter is born shatters his relationship with his then-wife, leading to his divorce and taking him down a debt-ridden path that ends with him playing life-or-death children’s games. 

There’s another group of workers in the show worth paying attention to: the people staffing the game and making it run. They are menacing figures: dressed in all red jumpsuits with black masks marked with nothing but a shape (circle, square, or triangle). They are a nameless, faceless army who anonymously control the players’ lives, kill the players, and dispose of their bodies. Until they aren’t. One is unmasked in episode five and it is revealed that he, too, is young and terrified. The “Front Man,” who runs the day-to-day operations of the game, kills the worker because he unmasked himself. To the gamemasters, it is essential that these workers remain incognito. Otherwise, the players may realize that the workers who carry out the ultra-rich’s dirty work have much more in common with the players than they have with the gamemasters.

Unlike past global sensations like the Hunger Games, Squid Game’s critique of capitalism could not be more explicit. The dystopia in the Hunger Games looked nothing like our own society; the United States overthrown and replaced by a new oppressive government. The critique was there, no doubt, but it was shrouded. Squid Game, on the other hand, is in your face. There is no new government or technology to facilitate the player’s oppression. It’s just modern life. It’s the second Korean anticapitalist piece of art to become popular worldwide, after Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite. That these explicit critiques are so popular may suggest that people around the world recognize how capitalism has left them exploited and oppressed, and want their art to reflect that.

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