This falls under the category of “show I started because others were talking about it.” Indeed, it has been talked about enough that even this newspaper has offered tips on how to watch it without needing to watch the copious scenes of violence that drench the show in human suffering.
The show’s ostensible saving grace (beyond Netflix’s bottom line) is that it carries some social commentary with it. As Kyung Hyun Kim wrote in Foreign Policy, “Squid Game” presents “a dystopian world of neoliberal capitalism.” Kim explained to Vox’s Aja Romano that, “[Squid Game] is trying to tell a moral tale that is probably not that different from something like Parasite that is basically a film that tries to critique the effects of new liberal capitalism and the violence and the ruthlessness and the cruelty that is associated with it.”
According to Foreign Policy’s reporters, State Department officials explained the show’s popularity to superiors in a diplomatic cable that reads, in part: “At the heart of the show’s dark story is the frustration felt by the average Korean, and particularly Korean youth, who struggle to find employment, marriage, or upward mobility—proving that grim economic prospects are indeed at the center of Korean society’s woes.”
All of this might be true. By far the most interesting twist in “Squid Game” comes after the players vote to end the game upon learning the savage rules of the competition. Over the next day, the players who voted to leave, spurned by the authorities and facing a bleak, indebted future, agree to play again of their own free will. There is also an episode where two young women, realizing that one of them will be dead soon, have an affecting and honest conversation about their hopes and dreams.
The problem is that, in the end, it’s all crude, exploitative drivel. Kim also told Vox that the show offered “a very simple metaphor” and “stock characters.” I would say that Kim was being polite. As the New York Times’s Mike Hale notes, the show “has nothing to say about inequality and free will beyond pat truisms.” And those are the sections of the show that make logical sense. There are entire plotlines — the organ harvesting, the cop infiltrating the game, the big reveal about old man Oh Il-nam’s backstory — that make zero sense if you think about them for more than half a second.
The underlying problem with the show is the claim that life under capitalism is a strictly zero-sum activity defined by a winner-take-all dynamic. One can acknowledge areas of the market where that is true without generalizing it to how all markets work.
Indeed, the real problem with “Squid Game” is that, as presented, the games are not a metaphor for capitalism so much as realpolitik. After all, the structure is designed to limit cooperation to ephemeral alliances. There are no real rules. Consider the episode when players massacre one another without any intervention by the gamemasters (who had previously declared that the games were “fair”). When survival is the most important thing, the logic of realism starts to make sense.
To paraphrase “WarGames,” this is a strange show — the only winning move is not to watch.