Korean thriller Squid Game is a massive overnight hit, potentially Netflix’s biggest show of all time! Squid Game comes in the wake of a number of movies and TV shows that use potent, gripping metaphors to dissect capitalism. Popular examples include the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer and Parasite, the work-as-slavery plot in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and the death game blockbuster The Hunger Games. But like most big-budget media properties that try to critique the systems they exist in, Squid Game ends with a fundamental ambivalence—one that flinches from its own critique at the last minute with a “fantasy” ending that undercuts its own key message.
Korean thriller Squid Game is a massive overnight hit, Netflix’s biggest show of all time, but why? On top of its game-play, gore, and gripping can’t-look-away “death game” plot, it’s also a critique of capitalism and inequality—and fiction in this particular subgenre is in.
The series follows Seong Gi-Hun, a deeply indebted gambler who’s so hard up for money he agrees to play a series of deadly children’s games for a prize of 45.6 Billion Won, or about 38.3 million US dollars. In this plot about forcing the financially desperate to gamble their lives for a shot at riches, Squid Game literalizes the traps that capitalism sets to keep citizens obeying its cutthroat rules, even as they’re deprived of security, respect, and their own bodies.
Squid Game comes in the wake of a number of movies and TV shows that use potent, gripping metaphors to dissect capitalism, like the train in Snowpiercer or the upstairs/downstairs dynamics of the house in Parasite, both directed by Bong Joon-ho, to the up and down spaces of Rian Johnsons’ Knives Out or Jordan Peele’s Us, to the work-as-slavery plot in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, not to mention the death game blockbuster that dominated the 2010s, The Hunger Games.
Evidently, it’s in vogue—and highly lucrative—to produce entertainment criticizing the wealth inequality and unfairness of today’s culture. But like most big-budget media properties that try to critique the systems they exist in, Squid Game ends with a fundamental ambivalence—one that flinches from its own critique at the last minute with a “fantasy” ending that undercuts its own key message. So what exactly is Squid Game saying about capitalism, in the end?
The Death Game Of Capitalism
Squid Game’s grim-yet-candy-colored “death game”—fueled by widespread desperation and the logic of lotteries—is positioned as symbolizing the capitalistic world we all live in and accept as normal. The whole premise of the game at the story’s center is built on a fundamental assumption of capitalism: that people must trade all of their time and even their bodies in exchange for the means of survival.
The Salesman: “You can use your body to pay up.” - Squid Game 1x01
The early episodes of the show establish that this is a society where life without money is pretty much unlivable. Because Gi-hun’s net worth is negative, as a human being he’s also looked on as less than a zero is why the players sign away all their rights to Squid Game, and as the games go on, they’re also a metaphorical illustration of how capitalism motivates people to give up their humanity and increasingly turn on each other. In the first two games, in theory, all the players can win. Without inherent competition, the Squid Game players are able to form deep, genuine connections with each other. But after the extra “special game” where the game’s organizers purposely encourage the players to kill each other off and form packs, starting with tug of war, the games become explicitly zero-sum; The joy of winning is linked to knowing you’re simultaneously sentencing others to death.
From there, the games increasingly mirror the logic of capitalism by encouraging the players to betray their teammates ever more ruthlessly to emerge on top. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the marble game, which pits partners who paired up to play together against each other. So the games are built to prove that—like in the broader forces of capitalism—when the chips are down, it’s every person for themselves.
The challenges are also full of seemingly random starting advantages and disadvantages, which essentially equate randomness with fairness—though in reality, a big part of playing effectively is about figuring out how to obtain those advantages outside of the actual game time. So these scenarios illustrate how capitalism encourages people to manipulate, scheme and bend the rules to get any possible leg up out of self-preservation.
The second main observation Squid Game underlines about today’s capitalist society is that it’s, in fact, one big lottery. In the game, just like in the outside world, doing everything right (like working hard and being smart and responsible) doesn’t guarantee anything—because there are challenges that are just fundamentally unfair and sheer luck plays a major role.
At the beginning of the series, Gi-hun is known to everyone around him as a gambler, but his state is really a broader metaphor for how anyone in poverty lives. Since he’s in deep, deep debt, the only way he could ever come out of it to become a “winner” in life, is if he gets really lucky. He chases that luck through games that are stacked against him, ending up ever-deeper in debt—until he needs to play “lottery”-like games even to do something like obtain a birthday gift for his daughter.
The main driver of the capitalist game is this simple gambler’s promise—the myth that if you work hard enough, struggle long enough, and get lucky enough, you—yes, you—have a chance to be a winner, the exception to the rule,
Johnny: “Any one of you can turn Power Caller, and be rolling in dough.” - Sorry To Bother You
The Front Man justifies the game’s cruelty as an opportunity for riches, just as the capitalistic hustle motivates people to endure terrible conditions and hardships with only the promise of possible stability.
The Front Man: “Here, the players get to play a fair game under the same conditions. These people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we’re giving them one last chance to fight fair and win.” - Squid Game 1x05
Though we initially see Gi-hun as his world does, as a feckless gambler, we later learn that Gi-hun actually had a steady job at an auto factory for years. Though the common narrative would have us believe that people are in debt and living in poverty as a result of their own decisions, the true story is that Gi-hun is forced into taking bigger and bigger risks, including gambling on horse racing, starting his own business, and, eventually, playing the Squid Game—all because of his old bosses’ irresponsibility. In fact, this plot is partially inspired by the real history of organizers at Korean automaker SsangYong Motor. As Squid Game writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk put it, “In a capitalist society, anyone can find themselves in Gi-hun’s position at any time.”
This society is separated into three distinct classes of people—above the desperate players at the bottom are the workers, who do have a level of security but don’t actually have any freedom or power; they’re still part of the same conformist structure that forces them to do its dirty work and uses a strict top-down power system to punish them if they step even slightly out of line. Finally, on top is the much smaller number of ultra-wealthy elites like the Squid Game Host and VIPs, who are so removed from seeing the lower classes as real people that they get a thrill from observing the squalid desperation of the competition.
VIP #1: “Trust me, the screens we have at home are plenty big, but nothing beats seeing it with your own eyes.” - Squid Game 1x07
The luxurious lifestyle of the people on top is another force perpetuating inequality: as long as the rich can use material pleasures to distract themselves and dissociate, dismissing the poor as a distant, lesser species, this removes their sense of collectivist responsibility to their fellow human beings.
The Front Man: “You bet on horses. It’s the same here, but…we bet on humans. You’re our horses.” - Squid Game 1x09
The Hunger Games makes a similar point in connecting how well the rich people in the capitol were eating to their willingness to let the rest of the people in the poor districts suffer. In the final twist, when it’s revealed that Gi-hun’s friend, the elderly Oh Il-nam, was the rich mastermind behind the games, he becomes a human symbol of the villainous, callous system that makes it impossible for people like Gi-hun to survive. But he reveals he, too, was driven by his own misery within this world. He complains that having too much money sucked the joy out of life for him and his fellow rich people, and he created this whole game because he was seeking the fun he felt as a regular child with his friends. Ultimately, as sick as Il-nam’s explanation is, his statements reveal that (wherever you fall in this system) capitalist bottom lines are bad for all three classes of people who are isolated and dehumanized by a joyless, all-powerful game.
Is Capitalism Kind of Ok As Long As The Right Guy Wins?
As much as all this feels like an in-your-face takedown of today’s society, Squid Game ends up sending some mixed messages about what it’s actually advocating. First of all, as much as the story underlines the game’s cruelty, most of the actual intrigue of the story lies in who’s going to win. The narrative is interested in which values and advantages rise to the top of both Squid Game and capitalist society—whether that’s raw strength, wily intelligence, experience, purity of heart, resilience, or human integrity. There’s a sense that the fittest do survive longest—and the feeling that the most deserving player wins in the end…kind of contradicts all of the points about how capitalism is an unfair lottery that doesn’t reward human goodness.
In the later episodes, it’s one of the players, Sang-woo, who’s treated as a primary antagonist for using his intelligence to manipulate others and stealing every dirty advantage he can.
Seong Gi-hun: “You killed someone because this might end?”
Cho Sang-woo: “Yeah! You and that girl would have been the majority you needed to get out! Going home without a single cent. I couldn’t do that!” - Squid Game 1x09
Still, from Sang-woo’s perspective, he’s merely buying into the game’s (and capitalism’s) “every man for himself,” fight-to-the-death logic. In his view, Gi-hun’s moral hang ups are a liability, and Gi-hun has only actually advanced this far because his teammate Sang-woo made all the difficult calls for him. After all, selflessness is usually punished in Squid Game—Ali, the most purely kind and trusting character dies due to his lack of cynicism and self-preservation (weaknesses that Sang-woo exploits).
Unlike Ali, Gi-hun does display gifts that capitalism favors like ingenuity and resourcefulness, being savvy and observant, manipulating when he has to, and just getting very lucky, but ultimately the real reason the story selects him as a winner is because he somehow manages to remain a kind and good person.
Kang Sae-byeok: “You’re a good person at heart.” - Squid Game 1x08
Gi-hun and Sang-woo are juxtaposed in multiple moments—Gi-hun almost tricks his partner in the marbles game like Sang-woo, and he thinks about killing Sang-woo just as Sang-woo kills Sae-byeok—and in the final shot, as the rain falls, the image emphasizes that they’re both men without umbrellas, childhood friends forced to fight to the death because they both have no safety net.
But what separates the two men is that Sang-woo is fully committed to this game, whereas Gi-hun rejects it, repeatedly affirming that some things are more important than money. He votes to stop playing at the beginning, and again turns down the prize right at the end so that he and Sang-woo can vote to leave, both alive. At that point, Sang-woo kills himself, once again doing Gi-hun’s dirty work for him and following through on his total commitment to this game so that his mother will get some of the money. Whereas Gi-hun believes no amount of money is worth dying for, to Sang-woo this amount of money is worth taking any life in the game, including his own. On some level, Sang-woo’s action is also an endorsement of Gi-hun as inherently worthy of being the winner—Sang-woo knows his old friend will use the money for good. So as traumatized as Gi-hun is, his victory is a “happy ending” in that it’s framed as the best person winning.
Moreover, his win fuels the fantasy that it is possible for even the worst-off person to win capitalism if they really deserve it, since Gi-hun is also the “offense” in the Squid Game who’s handicapped, representing the person with no advantages who takes no moral shortcuts and still wins. Overall, this conclusion of the “right person” winning runs counter to all the commentary that capitalism is a game of randomness, indifferent to morality and heavily rigged against the disadvantaged.
At first Gi-hun tries not to touch the funds he views as blood money, but after taking care of Sang-woo’s and Se-byak’s families and planning to go visit his daughter, and happening to see another desperate person about to get roped into the game, Gi-hun suddenly has a purpose for his wealth—he vows to go after the perpetrators.
Seong Gi-hun: “I’m not a horse. I’m a person. That’s why I want to know who you people are and how you can commit such atrocities against people.” - Squid Game 1x09
As an avenging agent of the Squid Game’s victims, Gi-hun is a lone wolf with nearly-unlimited resources ready to take down the system. In other words, he’s a good rich person going after bad rich people. The good rich person fighting bad rich people has long shown up in the image of the noble philanthropist, the thief with a heart of gold, or the superhero like Iron Man and Batman. In fact, this myth is one of the most effective to prop up the entire system—because any given viewer can hold onto the hope that not only will they be the lucky winner, but they’ll use that amazing future wealth to be the good guy.
Even if the messages in Squid Game and similar popular stories today are anti-capitalist, is that the real reason viewers enjoy watching the show—or do we come in large part for the violent “bread and circuses” spectacle of the Squid Game itself? The very first episode already aligns us with the callous “spectator, as we watch the Front Man look on while sipping whiskey —just as we at home might be enjoying a relaxing beverage while watching. And by underlining how ruthless the capitalism game is to those at the bottom, the story may (instead of inspiring us to bravely fight to abolish the death game) just scare us into, like Sang-Woo, ensuring by any means necessary we, as individuals, don’t lose.
Cho Sang-Woo: “I’m willing to do almost anything to win this.” - Squid Game 1x08
A Spin At The Death Game
While Squid Game’s entertainment serves the ultra-wealthy, the DNA of the “death game” goes back to antiquity, when the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses” to refer to bloody contests that served to placate the masses. The modern incarnation of bread and circuses is intricately tied to mass media.
Gale Hawthorne: “If no one watches, they don’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.” - The Hunger Games
In one of the earliest death game movies, 1987’s The Running Man, criminals participate in a game show where they try to escape assassins in an effort to earn a pardon. And the show is a way of providing entertainment for the masses to distract people from their conditions. Similarly, The Hunger Games depicts a dystopian world that relies on the spectacle of a death competition to control the population and crush potential rebellion.
While The Hunger Games might be the most popular version of the death game for American audiences, Squid Game’s most direct forerunner is 2000’s Battle Royale. The society in Battle Royale forces a school class to kill each other, in part using the same justification of randomness-as-“fairness” as Squid Game. On some level, it’s not surprising that the genre took off in Japan and Korea: during the 1990s, Japan experienced its “Lost Decade,” suffering soaring unemployment and a crumbling financial system. Today, Korea suffers its own high unemployment rate and a simmering debt crisis. That sense of despair emanates from nearly all of the characters in Squid Game, even relatively young players.
Many popular anti-capitalism stories of our era end on a pretty bleak, cynical or defeatist note, suggesting that there may not be a way out of capitalistic misery. But Squid Game reminds us that there is another possibility: one of the rules states that players are allowed to collectively call an end to the contest. After a razor-thin majority actually votes to do this, though, the Squid Game players return to the cold, uncaring society that sees them as disposable individuals. Unable to find each other or work together, the characters choose to go back to the game. Squid Game centers how the monolithic capitalist society isolates us by reducing our lives to a series of individual transactions, trapping us through personal rewards and punishments so we can’t fight for the shared interests of us all.
Ultimately, Squid Game is a TV show that has made Netflix a very large amount of money, to the point that real-life VIP Jeff Bezos tweeted enthusiastically about it. So is there a way to authentically critique capitalism while capitalizing from that critique? And does any story about capitalism’s evil really take us very far unless it presents some kind of concrete, compelling alternative?
The most important message we can take from Squid Game is not to value money so much that you devalue humanity, or equate others’ value with their net worth. While the lie of Squid Game is that these people are “lucky” to play because they have nothing to lose, of course they’re gambling the most valuable thing of all. The pursuit of money actually takes Gi-hun away from the things he cares about; by the time he returns home, his mother (whose treatment he needed money for) dies. When Il-nam looks down from his fancy deathbed on a down-and-out man lying on the street (who actually does get help), the mirror image reminds us that, as much as we separate people into tiers and classes, in reality our lives pass and reduce us all to the same death in much the same way.
Il-Nam: “Life goes by quick. In one minute…gone in a blink.” - Squid Game 1x09
What makes Gi-hun special is that he does still care about others, and refuses to accept that anyone is disposable. And ironically, it’s this authentic human element he retains that makes him the best player.
VIP #1: “This game is over.”
VIP #2: “Yep.” - Squid Game 1x09