Squid Game follows Seong Gi-hun (played by South Korean actor Lee Jung-jae), a fortysomething Korean man with a gambling addiction who is in severe debt. He’s recruited to enter the Games alongside 455 other contestants where they play a series of six children’s games. Those who successfully complete all six games win a share of 45.6 billion won, which is equivalent to $38,460,271.20 USD.
However, there’s a sick twist. All eliminated players die.
Major spoilers are ahead.
The Director and Critics Praise Squid Game for Being Anti-Capitalist
Though the majority of the press surrounding Squid Game is due to its worldwide popularity, it’s also being praised for its supposedly anti-capitalist message. Director Hwang Dong-hyuk seemingly confirmed this sentiment when he said, “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life. But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life. As a survival game, it is entertainment and human drama. The games portrayed are extremely simple and easy to understand. That allows viewers to focus on the characters, rather than being distracted by trying to interpret the rules.”
Since hating capitalism is trendy (think of popular hashtags like #eattherich), it didn’t take long for media outlets to praise Squid Game for its so-called anti-capitalist themes. I think it’s important to note that many of these outlets also praised the show for its storytelling and artistic direction (which I agree were amazing), but the anti-capitalist sentiments were the main themes of these reviews.
Buzzfeed News wrote, “These shows also share a common throughline: They all deal with inequality, capture the despair of poverty, and dissect class anxiety. Regardless of the country or language, capitalism is the shared villain in Netflix’s global successes. It’s a villain viewers everywhere can identify.”
Den of Geek wrote, “In our society, this kind of worker-vs-worker rhetoric takes the form of employers telling workers their workload is harder or they can’t go on vacation or get a raise because of fellow employees who leave or go on maternity leave... In reality, these are all normal aspects of managing a business that employers should plan for, and their failure to do so is not the fault of their workers. Much like in Squid Game, it benefits managers and owners if workers are too busy being mad at each other to have time or energy to fight the system and those who make unjust rules in the first place.”
However, upon closer inspection, Squid Game appears to actually show communism and authoritarianism more than it depicts capitalism, and it’s all seen in the environment of the Games.
The Games are presented as a solution to the economic struggles of the contestants, similar to how communism is preached to those in financial distress. The harsh reality is that communism always ends in misery and bloodshed, and with an elite class exploiting everyone below them.
The Games Have a Micro Communist Setting Where the Elites Thrive
Squid Game is a survival drama, which has led to American audiences comparing it to The Hunger Games series. Both series are about average citizens fighting to the death for the elite to enjoy, and the winner of the Games is rewarded with unimaginable wealth, as well as severe PTSD for all of the violence they witnessed and took part in (as seen in how both Katniss and Gi-hun were traumatized by their victories).
The biggest difference between Squid Game and The Hunger Games is that The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian society, while Squid Game takes place in modern-day South Korea with more childlike games. However, a dystopian setting is created within the environment of the Games itself. Similar to The Hunger Games, Squid Game is all about poor people fighting to the death for the pleasure of the elites. In order to win the money, the majority of the contestants on Squid Game are stripped of their dignity, humiliated, and killed during the games. All while the elites watch and monitor the contestants.
After the first game, which is a "red light, green light" type of game, where contestants are eliminated (and killed) for not stopping during the "red light" portion, the contestants get a choice to leave the Games. While many contestants choose to leave the Games, they go back home to realize they're still broke and feel meaningless. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), the elites kept track of the contestants who left and invite them back. Many end up returning to fight to the death for the money, showing democracy is only an illusion. The elites knew they would be back.
When they return to the Games, the contestants play a game that requires them to be in a team of two. So, of course, the contestants pick the player they're closest to. One picks his wife, only to find out that they're pitted against each other and the loser dies. It's really sickening, but the elites love it.
The Guise of "Equality"
The Games are run by a Front Man in a black mask, who we later learn is a previous winner of the Games, and he gives off serious President Snow vibes. Like Snow, he has been desensitized by the Games and has become a power-hungry tyrant as a result.
The Front Man’s most disturbing moment comes in the fifth episode. After finding out that some of the guards recruited a contestant who used to be a doctor to harvest dead contestants’ organs (gross), the Front Man goes into a tirade about how equality is the most important aspect of the Games and executes the guards and the doctor for violating these rules. He believes that “equality” is important in the Games because all contestants face an oppressive and unequal world outside of the Games, implying that he’s a good and moral person for giving the contestants a fair shot, but there is no such thing as equality in the Games (for starters, you can never remove or level the inherent and unique qualities, talents, and experiences that individuals bring with them).
This is also reminiscent of communist revolutionaries turned dictators like Vladimir Lenin of the Russian Revolution and Fidel Castro of the Cuban Revolution. Both men went on tirades about how they were good and moral people for giving their people equality, but all they did was make their people equally miserable and exploit them while they and other elites thrived.
Treating People Inhumanely
Similar to The Hunger Games, the elite class is entertained by the violent torture of average people in Squid Game. In the seventh episode, elite VIPs are invited to watch the final few games and bet on contestants to win. They treat it like how we treat watching sports or reality game shows, reminiscent of the violent practices at the Colosseum in Ancient Rome or the public executions being a source of entertainment in Tudor England.
Gi-hun ends up winning the Games, but even though he wins millions, he's dead inside from the experience. Until he receives an invitation to go back.
The biggest twist of Squid Game is when we find out that the Front Man isn’t the main antagonist, but the old man (who you’ve probably seen in memes) that Gi-hun befriends at the Games. A year after winning, Gi-hun is invited to the old man’s deathbed, where he discovers that the old man is an ultra-wealthy financier and one of the founders of the Games.
The old man tells Gi-hun that he created the Games when he and his friends realized they were bored with their ultra-wealthy lives. Instead of buying tickets to a sporting event or bingeing a show on Netflix or getting involved in their community like normal people, they created the Games to watch people fight for their lives for entertainment. As the founder got older, he got bored with watching the Games and thought it would be more entertaining to participate in the Games itself. It’s sick, twisted, and disturbing in every way you could possibly think of.
I would argue that the old man’s ability to view other human beings as things for him to toy with and to kill doesn’t stem from his ultra-wealthy status. That’s a character flaw that would be present whether he was wealthy or poor. His wealth is merely an amoral tool that allowed him to make and fund the Games (he could have done something helpful or beneficial with his money but chose not to). Money, like power, usually just amplifies already existing character traits.
There’s No Such Thing As a Good Communist Society
Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it gives people the agency and the opportunity to make something of themselves and to improve their economic situation for their own good and that of their family and their community.
There are many differences between capitalism and communism, but one of the starkest differences is that there is such a thing as a good and moral capitalist society, but there’s no such thing as a good and moral communist society.
Are there oppressive capitalist countries? Yes. But from previous regimes like the Soviet Union and current regimes like Cuba, China, and North Korea, there has never been a communist society that didn't resort to authoritarianism. Capitalism and authoritarianism can exist at the same time, but they don’t thrive on each other as communism and authoritarianism do. Without authoritarianism, communism falls apart. In Squid Game, the Games can’t exist without authoritarianism, making them an allegory for communism, and mostly, the elites versus "the peasants."
Squid Game has been praised for its powerful storytelling and its artistic direction, but it’s also being praised as an anti-capitalist story, which is completely missing the point. If you look closely at the show, you'll realize it's more about the elites versus us and how we're just toys for their entertainment.
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