This series is a global phenomenon that works as a powerful metaphor about society and underlines its flaws. “Koreans love to be No. 1, but No. 1 at the cost of kind of airing your dirty laundry is a somewhat different thing," said Professor CedarBough Saeji.
Fantasies of luck and wealth turn these people against each other, and all this betrayal plays out in deeply personal, practically intimate ways. The violence and compelling characters makes it easy to overlook the theme at the show’s heart—the explosive growth of debt and economic inequality in contemporary Korea. Kind and pure Ali has become a fan favorite, but his backstory of abuse and exploitation is still a reality for many.
Most smartly, Squid Game taps into a cultural obsession with gameshows. The players are being watched, but the viewer is only one step removed, and it’s impossible not to put yourselves in their shoes. An episode of backstories makes it clear that anyone can fall into debt through bad luck, while the visuals are full of familiar touchstones. There are maze-like corridors, tinkling soundtracks and oversized slides, like the world’s worst children’s party. Within this world, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk sets up compelling dilemmas – would you betray your friend to escape death? – and lets them play out in agonising stretches.
For Hwang, the show's narrative reflects the "competitive society" we live in today. "This is a story about losers," he said -- those who struggle through the challenges of everyday life and get left behind, while the "winners level up."
But Hwang brushes off the criticism by referring to his notes for the project, originally conceived as a feature film, in 2008. “I freely admit that I’ve had great inspiration from Japanese comics and animation over the years,” he said. “When I started, I was in financial straits myself and spent much time in cafes reading comics including ‘Battle Royale’ and ‘Liar Game.’ I came to wonder how I’d feel if I took part in the games myself. But I found the games too complex, and for my own work focused instead on using kids’ games.”
Many commentators have contextualized “Squid Game” within South Korea’s societal woes. Its rascally but luckless protagonist, Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to loan sharks after being laid off from a manufacturing job years ago and having a subsequent bid at entrepreneurship go belly up. (Not helping matters: his gambling addiction.) In a country where indebtedness has been skyrocketing — one recent estimate has the nation’s total household debt now exceeding its GDP — Gi-hun, a sad-sack divorcé partly supported by his elderly mother, is an Everyman.
By now you've probably heard of "Squid Game," a dark social satire in which desperately impoverished people are enticed to compete in children's games with deadly stakes for the chance to win a life-changing cash prize.
By creating a world where every contestant is so desperate that they are reduced to a childlike state, literally and figuratively, the show produces feelings in the viewer that hark back to your own playground memories: picking teams, sharing food, joining gangs, making friends, confused lust, rejection, acceptance and, ultimately, survival.
Unlike many examples of this genre, Squid Game is set in our contemporary reality, which makes its scathing critique of capitalism less of a metaphor for the world we live in and more of a literal depiction of life under capitalism.