The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why does ‘Squid Game’ resonate so well in the U.S.? It may be its portrayal of economic despair.

Park Hae-soo, left, and Lee Jung-jae, second from left, in “Squid Game.” (Youngkyu Park/Netflix)

Three weeks after its release, “Squid Game,” the surprise ultraviolent megahit from South Korea that Netflix has said may become its “biggest show ever,” seems to defy explanation. Centered on a series of childhood games with lethal penalties — such as “Red Light, Green Light,” with players who fail to freeze on time riddled with bullets — the dramatic thriller pits sympathetic characters, who are indebted, impoverished or otherwise desperate for cash, against each other in a winner-take-all battle royal. Out of hundreds, one will return home a multimillionaire. The rest will be incinerated.

Initially, it’s the fantastical cruelty of the games that shock. In the round of “Red Light, Green Light” in the pilot, more than half of the 400-odd participants end up dead, many of their bodies piled by the door in failed attempts to flee the arena. But the players aren’t just pawns; if the majority of the competitors wish to abort the game with no one winning the prize money, they can. Which means the more upsetting revelation is how many are willing to continue playing and risk their lives and others’, all for a vanishingly small chance at hitting the jackpot.

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.

And yet, compared with several of the other players, Gi-hun doesn’t have it so bad. He’s not in trouble with the law like his childhood friend, the calculating Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), a graduate of an elite university who should be set for life but is instead being investigated for fraud he probably committed. Gi-hun is also in a better position than Ali (Anupam Tripathi), an undocumented immigrant from Pakistan whose wages are being stolen by his employer; Il-nam (O Yeong-su), a terminally ill man who’s become yet another statistic in South Korea’s epidemic of elderly poverty; and Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean refugee who needs to pay a broker an impossibly large sum to reunite with her mother, who’s stuck across the border.

Forbes contributor Joan MacDonald says the depiction of inequality in the South Korean survival drama “Squid Game” has made it easy for viewers to relate to. (Video: The Washington Post)

But if “Squid Game” reflects the dysfunctions of South Korea across its social classes, it’s just as worth asking why it’s become the biggest scripted Korean phenomenon stateside since “Parasite,” which became the first non-English-language film to win the best-picture Oscar last year.

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There are the usual industry reasons: South Korea has become a global exporter of culture (especially through movies, television and music), a fact to which American consumers are finally catching up. And Netflix, which has heavily invested in K-dramas in recent years, regularly encourages subscribers to overcome the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” as “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho memorably called them, with foreign programming and international reality franchises. (Heel-diggers can also watch “Squid Game” with dubbed dialogue.)

But I think it’s just as probable that “Squid Game,” like “Parasite” before it, channels a kind of economic despair that most mainstream American film and television are loath or simply unwilling to explore.

Parasite” centers on a family of fraudsters posing as the help, who eventually discover a couple barely eking out an existence in the basement of the mansion where they work — a microcosm of a society in which the working-class and the precariously poor are locked in a battle for survival. (The scary basement man wasn’t so scary once; like Gi-hun, he was a failed small-business owner who became indebted to violent moneylenders.) I wasn’t convinced of the film’s genius until its final scene — spoiler alert — when Bong adds the myth of social mobility to the list of self-delusions that simultaneously fuel and blind his scammer protagonist. While the charlatan won’t ever stop daydreaming of magically zooming up the social ladder, the film is clear-eyed about the desolation that lies before him.

“Parasite” and “Squid Game” are hardly unique in South Korean film and TV in their hopelessness about the capitalistic grind and the extreme lengths to which the economically desperate are willing to go. Korean cinema, especially, has long served as a bastion of social critique, with blockbusters (such as domestic hit “Veteran”) and art-house films (“Burning”) alike tackling the injustices of income inequality. Notably, though, it’s the bleaker visions, such as “Parasite” and now “Squid Game,” that truly break through to American audiences, perhaps because Hollywood has by and large yet to grapple with the intractability of economic inequity, even in a nation where half the populace would have trouble paying for a $400 emergency expense — and that’s before the pandemic flipped everything upside down.

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Our movies, especially, are structured around individual heroes, the exceptions and the anomalies. The closest analogue to “Squid Game” is “The Hunger Games” quadrilogy, another story in which impoverished players compete until one survivor is left as a spectacle for the rich. But “The Hunger Games” concludes with a typical Hollywood ending: the overthrow of the corrupt government and the hopeful establishment of a new and kinder administration.

A bootstrap-fetishizing film like “Hillbilly Elegy” and a progressive TV series like “Maid” may portray poverty in vastly different ways, but they more or less resolve the same way: with the protagonist going off to college, finding a way out of their humble circumstances. Even when a film is rooted in economic difficulties, the way “Nomadland” is obliquely but undeniably about elderly poverty, there’s a nobility to the main character’s resilience, with the terrifying precarities of her peripatetic lifestyle hardly acknowledged.

There is, of course, great homegrown entertainment about the working class. NBC’s “Superstore,” which wrapped up its six-season run last year, was an uncommonly smart (and funny!) sitcom about the ways minimum-wage workers are regularly and systematically screwed over by their employers, and ABC’s “The Conners,” now in its fourth season sans Roseanne, remains a bittersweet delight. But neither of those shows really capture the rage and despair of our broken capitalistic system, in which young people are crushed by debt, social mobility feels like a joke, power and capital are hoarded by unreachable oligarchs and elected officials are too impotent or indifferent to help. Television and film can serve as a distraction from these urgent issues — and anyone who’s seen “Sullivan’s Travels” knows that’s important, too — but audiences are clearly clamoring for something more.

I don’t want to minimize the artistry and craftsmanship in “Squid Game,” even if the writing increasingly falters as the season goes by. (The villain’s confession speech, woof!) The performances — especially by lead actor Lee — are fantastic, and the production design is whimsically creepy, wittily satirical and memorably distinctive. (What other show looks like “Squid Game”?) It is absolutely a step in the right direction that services such as Netflix give audiences easier access to cultural products from other countries, in other languages and social contexts. But their success should also inspire us to rethink what kinds of stories we haven’t been telling about ourselves and which truths we’ve been unwilling to face.

Squid Game (nine episodes) is streaming on Netflix.

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