Warning: spoilers ahead!
Taking social media by storm, the Korean drama “Squid Game” managed to maintain the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s Top 10 List for 29 days while amassing more than 111 million viewers worldwide. With captivating visuals, intriguing narratives, and apt cultural commentary, it’s not surprising to see why the series, which was created and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, has been able to break cultural and language barriers and resonate with so many.
“Squid Game” revolves around a group of 456 debt-ridden people in South Korea, who risk their lives by entering a deadly tournament consisting of children’s games, in the hopes of winning 45.6 billion won (approximately $39 million in U.S. dollars). The contestants play seemingly innocent games such as tug-of-war, stepping stones, marbles, and red light/green light, but soon realize that losing the games yields lethal consequences. Through unexpected character dynamics and emotion-evoking plot development, allegories about the human condition and the hyper-competitive nature of capitalist society are unraveled.
Disenfranchised characters serve as the driving force behind the thriller through their exploration of various themes. The main characters include Seong Gi‑hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict and struggling father; Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), Gi-hun’s childhood friend who is wanted for fraud and embezzlement; and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector who is trying to reunite her family. Accompanying the main characters are Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi), a Pakistani immigrant who is trying to provide for his family, and Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-soo), an elderly man with a brain tumor.
Besides the contestants, there is a detective named Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), who sneaks into the game as a guard and serves as the audience's eyes to the mechanics behind the scenes. His masquerade highlights the dehumanization of the guards and contestants; both groups are addressed as numbers and made to wear distinctive uniforms and both are under constant surveillance, discouraged from forging personal relationships with one another. The guards and contestants are shown as cogs in a machine, a commentary on how capitalism can strip people of their individuality and exploit them for their labor.
The relative simplicity of the games enables the audience to focus on character narratives and underlying themes. While each episode of “Squid Game” is embedded with its own type of thrill and meaning, episode six, titled “Gganbu,” is where the proverbial shoe finally drops. During the episode, players choose a fellow competitor to pair up with before learning that they must beat their partner in a marble game to survive. Episode six highlights the differing moralities of the characters through the exploration of betrayal, friendship, and sacrifice.
“Gganbu” is a very fitting name for the themes in this episode because it translates to a close partnership between two people. We see this alleged partnership with two pairings: Sang-woo and Ali, as well as Il-nam and Gi-hun. But it turns to betrayal, transparently exhibited through Sang-woo’s devious manipulation of Ali, who considered him a friend and ally. Knowing Ali was naive, Sang-woo secretly sabotaged Ali’s bag of marbles, causing his demise. In his last moments, Ali heart-wrenchingly calls Sang-woo “hyung” (“older brother”), highlighting how Sang-woo’s desperation to climb up the social ladder has caused him to turn his back on the ones closest to him.
Similarly, Gi-hun has consistently been kind and good-hearted towards Il-nam even when it was detrimental to him. However, Gi-hun’s moral character is put to the test when he becomes conflicted between honorably losing at marbles or taking advantage of the elderly man’s memory loss to save himself. He ends up choosing the latter, but Il-nam, fully aware of the deception, lets Gi-hun win the round because he considered Gi-hun a friend.
“Gganbu” also explores sacrifice through the short-lived yet impactful relationship between Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi). Although the two women only had brief interactions before the marble game, Ji-yeong happily forfeited her life so that Sae-byeok could survive, because she knew she had nothing left to continue fighting for while Sae-byeok had a family. In the very limited time that the audience spends with Ji-yeong and Sae-byeok, Hwang Dong-hyuk constructs a vulnerable narrative that humanizes these emotionally distant characters.
As if the series hadn’t already taken many twists and turns, the finale revealed that Il-nam wasn’t killed during the marble game. The elderly man, who is actually a wealthy financial tycoon, had been operating the games for decades and decided to enter the game himself for fun before succumbing to his brain tumor. Il-nam’s ability to participate in the games for the sake of “feeling alive,” without facing the same consequences as the other contestants, ties into the theme of wealth disparity by highlighting the unfair privileges associated with possessing wealth.
The visuals of “Squid Game” deserve just as much praise as its storyline. The iconic maze-like staircases, modeled after M.C. Escher’s lithograph "Relativity," gives an effect of delirium that goes hand in hand with the nightmarish nature of the show. Not only is the layout of the bunker reminiscent of a colosseum where gladiators would fight to the death, the walls of the room are also adorned with pictograms that foreshadow the different games that the contestants will compete in.
Of course, one can’t talk about the visuals of “Squid Game” without mentioning the unsettling doll that appears in the red light, green light game. The doll, which has inspired a number of social media trends and memes, adds to the show’s horror element through its eerie appearance and haunting tunes.
What separates “Squid Game” from many other series is its avoidance of melodramas and tropes, and its investment instead in people with whom the audience can empathize and sympathize. Since there are no real winners in the series — even the eventual victor, Gi-hun, feels that his humanity has died alongside the other contestants — “Squid Game” effectively causes the audience to reflect on the negative effects of rigid class stratification.
Olivia Kasule is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the 'Prince.' She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.