Squid Game Is a Bloody Commentary on Consumer Debt

Would you risk your life to write off your loans?


Hwang Dong-hyuk's Squid Game is currently the most popular Netflix show on Earth and on track to be the most popular show the streaming service has ever produced. The nine-episode series tells the story of 456 heavily indebted South Korean men and women who agree to play six children's games in exchange for a life-changing sum of money, only to realize once the first game starts that if they lose, they die. 

The show is bloody, horrifyingly cruel to its characters, cruel in a different way to the viewer, and yet my wife and I binged the series in four nights. I'm not sure if I enjoyed it more as a brilliantly paced battle royale, or as a dark and occasionally incoherent commentary on the wealth gap and the burden of consumer debt.

Hwang said in an interview that he drew his inspiration for the show from "Japanese survival comics." For Americans who aren't steeped in manga, Squid Game shares some DNA with the Hunger Games franchise, and the broader universe of stories where several people enter a place and most of them die (Aliens, And Then There Were None). Squid Game combines that story model with an eerily childish setting, a large ensemble cast whose members span the personality gamut, and an unorthodox approach to brutality, which is visited on characters either with no emotion whatsoever or in the angriest way possible. It's also genuinely tough to predict who will die when.

All of this makes Squid Game a perfect suspense thriller, and probably explains most of its popularity. But the show also has some interesting things to say about consumer debt.

In the first episode, we meet an underemployed middle-aged man named Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) who is both a deadbeat dad and a moocher son. Seong gambles away his mother's money, dodges loan sharks, and humiliates himself for cash. He eventually wakes up inside a massive bunker wearing a numbered tracksuit. He and several hundred other contestants are soon informed that they all have large personal debts that can be erased by winning a series of games.

Like Bong Joon-ho did in 2019's Parasite, Hwang invites us to recoil at the contestants before he allows us to like them. The ones who are not outright bad still seem cursed to do bad things. As a character says to Seong in a moment of frustration, he is someone who has "to get into trouble to know it's trouble." That kind of person is pitiable, but no one who knows Seong has any pity left for him.

Yet the first time they are led by armed men through a pastelized Escher scene, you get the sense that it is far worse to be most of these people than to be scammed or pestered by them. Their failure to provide for themselves in a socially acceptable way (and to accept whatever kind of life that amounts to) has made them a nuisance to their neighbors and family but deadly to themselves. South Korea's upstanding citizens, even if they have to exert themselves to avoid scammers and crooks, have no need to play deadly games for debt relief.

Despite making explicit nods toward South Korea's haves and have-nots, Squid Game is not a neat morality play. For starters, the villains are wealthy individuals, not ephemeral systems of inequality. And unlike in Bong's film, the well-off in Squid Game are cautionary, not aspirational; all of these people have parasites.

That the contestants must slowly lose their humanity in order to win the game also muddies the subtext. Almost immediately, the average viewer should get the sense it would be better to spend the rest of your life in debt than live a comfortable life stained by this experience. And yet, Hwang's characters choose to play, both before and after they know the stakes.

Are these contestants what Bong called "ordinary people who fall into an unavoidable commotion"? Or are they just caricatures of the average South Korean credit card user? We get a brief glimpse of that real-life background in one scene featuring a news report on South Korea's total consumer debt, which is currently nearing the country's gross domestic product.

While borrowing is a universal phenomenon, South Korea has a unique case of the IOUs. The country has offered a tax rebate for credit card use since 1999, and revoking the subsidy is a tough sell politically. As of 2019, South Koreans held an average of 3.9 credit cards, compared to 2.7 in the U.S. Reuters recently reported that lending limits imposed by the South Korean government have not deterred younger borrowers, who see taking out loans to invest in stocks and cryptocurrency "as the only way to outpace richer babyboomer parents" in a country where owning property is increasingly difficult. In August, The Korea Herald reported that South Korea became the first major Asian economy to raise interest rates since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (from 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent) in order to "curb the country's household debt and home prices, which soared in recent months."

Squid Game will not provide viewers with all of the above political context, but it does make clear that our contestants will be hounded endlessly by creditors, cops, and familial obligations if they don't give it the old college try.

That setup won't please everyone ("Do they not have Financial Peace University in South Korea?" might be a thing I briefly wondered), but I suspect the show works more like a magic mirror than a tempered glass lens, the way White Lotus revealed different truths to different viewers and Parasite inspired debate about who we were supposed to dislike the most.

While Squid Game lacks a clear political message, it also doesn't need one. 

NEXT: A Different Approach to Anti-Racism

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  1. I have freed myself from all consumer debt- except for a small car loan because…. My 26 year old daughter has a higher credit score than I do. She makes 1/3 of what I do at two jobs. I own my house, Have more cash in hand than all of my debts. The banking system is a hazard to be avoided. I tell people that I am glad my credit rating is low, I don’t want to borrow money.

    1. Well done avoiding the banksters.

      1. It is a continuing game to be played. For example, the banks offer 2 rebate rates – one for food and one for online orders. So I get two cards from different banks and take advantage of both cards/ banks best rates.
        I did make (1) late payment by error and paid carrying interest for 1 month. Other than that 1 mistake, the banks are paying me to use their services. And I do not care if my credit is bad, as I would prefer not to take out loans. My credit union is OK but not always the best deal. It does take constant monitoring to know that they are not taking advantage of you.

        1. “And I do not care if my credit is bad”

          That’s a bold strategy Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off.

          1. When married, I believe my score went away. Hadn’t borrowed in almost a decade and everything was paid off. It was great.

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    2. Keeping your unsecured, revolving debt as low as possible is definitely a great thing. That said, in an inflationary environment, holding cash instead of secured debt (like a house loan) is leaving money on the table. You aren’t avoiding the banks- they are getting your money by way of the US Government and Federal Reserve.

      We just refinanced the house and had the opportunity to drop down to a 15 year loan. But when a) the house increases in value with inflation and b) anything alternative you invest in (AKA Index Funds) will likely give returns that increase with inflation, c) having payments that DON’T scale with inflation is the bank’s loss and your gain. We kept ours a 30 and invest the difference.

      As for keeping your credit rating high, we have had paid off cars for years. Our debt includes the house loan and a joint CC account. We use the CC account to pay all our bills and pay it off at the end of the month (for the frequent flier miles). With a very high credit limit that is unused, we have a high enough credit score to qualify for whatever we might need in the future.

      1. You are correct and similar to me except I have paid off the house. But I have no immediate need to purchase any more real estate now. I did get my daughter into buying her place which secures her a low payment – basically $600 a month for 30 years. Less money than most rentals. When you see inflation ahead of you, locking in low payments on a loan looks really good. Why would anyone ever take a balloon mortgage?

      2. Not owning your house is a bug liability. Debt is bad.

        1. True, and I technically still pay property taxes on my house and it is hard to say that I “Own” it. But a loan on a hard asset that the payments are being converted to minor noise by inflation does make sense. I do not recommend refinancing ( unless it saves you money and time) or borrowing against your house. It is there for emergencies. Life is a continuous struggle and borrowing for a house is good strategy for some people.

          1. Some people have other sources for emergencies, and borrowing against a house usually gets you the lowest rate you can get.

        2. I just recently paid off my mortgage. Overt kind of has a point, but I’m still glad I did. I have absolutely no debt (and almost perfect credit for now) and that’s a nice place to be.

        3. You need to be more creative in your thinking. Broad tropes like yours are rarely true across the board. I just got a large mortgage on my house. The amount is 5% of my portfolio, so my chances of defaulting are pretty much nil. In exchange for paying interest at 2.1% I don’t have to sell stocks with big gains to get cash to live on (I’m retired). At worst I’ve delayed the cap gains tax. At best, I’ll be able to sell when I’m in the 0% cap gains bracket and/or never sell and my heirs will get a stepped up basis.

      3. We do the same with our credit card, except we have a Fidelity Visa and our points go towards a retirement account.

      4. We sold our paid off house to move to an area with higher property values for family reasons. We kept most of the profits because no tax on that. Right now we are investing in improvements in the new house because not only do we live there but property values are going up here and the things we are doing will increase resale.

        Credit cards should always be paid up. Our cars are paid off. So it is just the mortgage.

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    4. I’m not sure how your credit rating is low unless you’ve literally never taken out any debt (or taken out very little). You didn’t mention a mortgage which is usually one way to get good credit by just navigating normal life.

      I have almost the highest credit rating you can have and the only debt I currently have is my mortgage. I have no car loans (although I have in the past which seems increasingly distant), all are long paid off. I have one (1) credit card which I pay off at the end of every month.

      But still, good on you for avoiding debt. I think if the choice comes down to a lower credit rating with 0 debt, that’s not a bad choice.

      1. The odd fact is actually that my daughters credit rating is higher than mine, and mine is really good also. By all rights in a sane world, her credit score should not be higher than mine.

        Also – I also have the Fidelity Visa as one of my cards and it has paid off very well due to one lucky stock pick.

        1. What I’m thinking is that a lower tendency to borrow probably makes you less attractive in the eyes of lenders. After all, these ratings are a form of signaling for lenders who buy the data, right? I might be wrong, but that’s one way I can think of that could help explain the difference.

        2. Or it is a measure of confidence in how much data they have from you. Your score could reflect that the system “suspects” you to be a good borrower, but because your sample of instances of borrowing is comparably small because of your below-average engagement with the market, the lower rating reflects caution and lower confidence levels concerning the rating. These two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

      2. When I paid off my house my credit score dropped. I don’t give a shit because I’m completely debt free except for a credit card I use for business and pay off every month.

  2. This is the first I’ve heard of this show. Frankly this synopsis makes me less interested in watching it.

    1. You can’t trust a doper like Riggs. He has no taste and he’s always stoned.

    2. My son more or less forced me to at least watch the preview, (Which was hard to avoid anyway, because Netflix is pushing it, HARD.) and I’ve got less than no interest in watching it, I’d actively go to some trouble to avoid it.

      And I gathered from the preview that the participants did NOT “agree to play”, but instead were kidnapped and given the choice of playing or being executed.

  3. Seems to concept borrow from Running Man but updated for the 21st Century crowd. Serial instead of a one-off and self-inflicted money woes instead of having committed a crime.

  4. “Would you risk your life to write off your loans?”

    No, I would rather vote for a strong collectivist government who will confiscate the wealth of others and absolve me of all responsibility.

    Maybe Netflix can make a show about that.

    1. Hmm, perhaps a Darkness at Noon or Gulag Archipelago film series?

      1. Milada and First They Killed My Father are good…

      2. I’d feel kinda bad about not watching it, but I would not watch a Gulag Archipelago show or movie. The book took the longest time to read of anything I’ve ever read. I just couldn’t bear to read more than one or two chapters a day.

    2. Pretty sure you’re still risking your life with that kind of government

      1. Yeah, now they want to borrow 10,000 dollars in my name (and the same for 350 million other Americans) to “address” climate change. Do we get it back if the multi-trillion-dollar plan doesn’t change the weather at all?

        1. Yes, but since it’ll cost that same $10k to buy a cup of coffee after they hyperinflate the currency, it’s not much of a refund.

          Ha ha, just joking. When it doesn’t work, they’re not giving the money back. They’re just going to do it again, only harder next time. The hyperinflation part was accurate though.

    3. Am fairly certain the left-leaning portion of commentariat & the like-minded fuckwits in Congress and academe, media have that covered…

  5. Squid Game is proving so popular in China that the government has been unable to block it. Which the CCP may be finding scary. It implies that they will be unable to block any sufficiently popular programming that may be highly critical of them.

  6. You risk your life by going to work every day to pay your debts. True, it’s a very small risk each day (outside of a few higher-risk occupations) but as the punchline to the old joke goes: “We’ve already determined what you are. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”

    1. *waves from the bunk of my semi*

      I see the aftermath of about one major truck wreck a week, on average. Roughly a quarter of them have enough damage to the cab that my assumption is that they were fatal.

      I think I’m going to go back to systems administration. Vastly smaller chance of dying at work.

    2. There is no life without risk, and there has not been since before the first hominid stood upright.

  7. I think the most anti-libertarian thing I’ve ever seen in entertainment is the first half of the latest American Horror Story series, which just finished a week or so ago. The whole series (10th season on Hulu, episodes one through six) is an attack on meritocracy–if you can believe it. Why is it fair that only the talented people get to be successful? Why should success only be accessible to people with talent? Hard work is a joke and a dead end in the series.

    1. This is why they call it programming.

    2. Well, maybe they were trying to scare you.

    3. This idea is what Thomas Sowell called cosmic injustice. Is it fair that some people are born smarter than others? Or more talented? Or better looking? Or taller? Etc. I would agree it’s not fair. It’s just luck. But as Sowell says, we can’t do anything about it. And hamstringing those who had that luck, or confiscating their assets, doesn’t fix it. It’s just turning one injustice into another.

      1. Well for the sake of equity, it sounds like we need to rotate everyone through all the jobs, then rotate everyone though all the houses, and rotate everyone through all the best looking boyfriends/girlfriends.

      2. One of the premises of the series is that hard work is futile, but in the real world, hard work and character can make up for a lack of talent.

        If you ever watch that series on CNBC, The Profit, this guy goes around and invests in failing businesses. The businesses are failing for various reasons.

        The businesses he invests in and tries to turn around don’t always succeed, and when the turnaround fails, and he has to walk away, it’s almost always because of a character issue–either they’re being dishonest with themselves or other people.

        Some of the most successful people I’ve known are people who surround themselves with people who are smarter than themselves. When people make the right calls on the most important decisions, it generally isn’t because they’re especially smart.

        Circa 2008, in the commercial real estate industry, the smart guys were making deals they shouldn’t have chased–just like the guys at Lehman and Bear Stearns. They were destroyed by it. Insisting that your investments generate earnings to justify their valuation, whether it was ahead of the real estate crash in 2008 or the internet stock bubble bursting, that wasn’t the smart thing to do. It was a character issue.

        When you were passing on deals that other people were doing because they didn’t pencil based on earnings, and your investors were saying that they thought you were using dinosaur thinking and maybe they should go elsewhere, your job was to stand your ground on principles that could be defended using long term trends–but went against the extremely smart money that was making hay while the sun shines.

        Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.

        In investment returns. In career success. In technical jobs. In entrepreneurial ventures. Being the smartest guy isn’t what makes you successful. Being talented can even be a burden if it makes you lazy or complacent. Hard work and character can make up for not having as much talent as other people. You need a certain amount of talent to get into the game, but that’s not the end of the conversation.

        You should see some of the architects I’ve worked with. They design things that win awards. They’re extremely talented. If they’re not asking us for a local market report before they decide what to build, I’m concerned. If what they design on a preliminary basis ignores the market data they’re given, what difference does it make if they’re talented architects? I’ll hire a guy who understands the importance of designing to market data over a guy who can design the next Eifel Tower any day.

        1. As Jurgen observed in A Comedy of Justice, cleverness has never been at the top. Diligence, on the other hand? If not at the top, it’s pretty close.

    4. What talent does Zuckerberg have?

      1. Seeing opportunities and orchestrating the skills of others in order to pursue them is a talent. It’s entrepreneurship.

        Go start a business. Hire the right people. Motivate them to do the right things. And make them do it better than your competitors.

        That’s not easy for a lot of people, and some people are very good at it. Other people were in Zuck’s position at the same time and failed where he succeeded.

        1. #YumYumYumBillionaireCockYumYum

      2. Middle of the road network and code-writing ability, tied to a stupid social network for stupid people to divest every damned stupid detail and stupid opinion of their stupid lives. Above average ability to convince others that his product is worth investing in, or using. Though, realizing that people like to bitch about stupid shit and attack each other without apparent consequence didn’t take a genius.

  8. And the Dems want to saddle every American with another 10K in debt to pay for their 3.5 trillion dollar wreck-the-nation pork giveaway.

  9. My Uncle Sam borrows money recklessly, but somehow convinces others to keep lending him more. He laughs at the enablers and just ups his borrowing even more.

    1. Sounds like we have the same uncle.

  10. Squid Game shares some DNA with the Hunger Games franchise

    I’m much more likely to believe it shares some DNA with the Japanese Novel Battle Royale which pretty much started the genre (at least in movies and books).

    1. Exactly. Hunger Games was derivative, and stupid. BR and BRII were messed up and entertainingly so.

  11. While Squid Game lacks a clear political message, it also doesn’t need one.

    A lot of foreign countries aren’t so insufferable as the US filmmaking and entertainment industries. Writers of entertainment in most other countries don’t feel the need to perpetually harangue their viewers with political messages.

  12. So the moral of the story is that rich people want to enslave us all and force us to kill each other for sport?

    1. Same old, same old.

  13. Trick or treat,
    No mean Tweets,
    Biden naps because he’s beat.

    1. Actually scary. I wonder if trick or treating will be legal this year?

      1. Trick or treating was “illegal” last year. Everyone went anyway. The cops said, “Fuck that. We’re not citing a bunch of kids for trick or treating. If you don’t want them to come to your house, shut the lights off.”

  14. If this is right up there with Parasite and White Lotus, I’ll pass.

    1. Fuck. Can’t find the stylus. Oh there it is.

      Korean is such a weird language.

      Those two movies sucked. Not watching this, if it’s similar.

      Fuck Joe Biden.

      1. You can watch it in dubbed English or Korean with English subtitles. I prefer the dubbed English.

  15. So don’t borrow so much. Work to improve your job skills so you earn more. Get a roommate to cut your living expenses. Buy an affordable used card or a cheap new car (more reliable, less repair costs.) Don’t try to max out and buy a house with the biggest mortgage you are qualified for. Debt is a choice, and an agreement you make to pay someone back later.

  16. Don’t get divorced.
    My ex wife ran the credit cards up to $70,000
    Although I kept an extra $35,000 in my IRA as her half of that debt, when we divorced, I still had to clear all that debt.
    Beware of American Express Express as they will let you keep spending with no limit.
    She also took out new cards using my credit.
    Next March I will be done with it, but settling with Amex for 40% of the owed amount will ruin my credit score and cause me to owe income tax on the amount written off.
    She was a banker when we married, so she handled the finances.

  17. Korean television and film is excellent, in my mind. A lot of great detective procedural stuff, a lot of messed up horror, better character-driven works than hollyshit has put out in decades.

  18. the wildly popular South Korean dystopian drama that pits the heavily indebted against each other in a macabre, blood-spattered race for an unimaginably large cash prize.
    Here Tom Hardy Son Louis Thomas Hardy

  19. “For starters, the villains are wealthy individuals, not ephemeral systems of inequality”

    In order to pretend the plot isn’t an affirmation of “noble” socialism, we need to waltz around the fact that the central character dyes his hair red to broadcast his communism.

    The two dividing lines between good and evil in the plot are: 1) those who are wiling to risk and sacrifice themselves for other people vs. those who are in it for themselves and are willing to destroy others to get what they want, and 2) Those who are good tend to assume that others generally want to help each other vs. those who are evil and assume that everyone is out to get each other and only in it for themselves.

    Squid Game is socialist propaganda. That doesn’t mean it isn’t executed well, isn’t a riveting story, doesn’t have great acting, character development, and great direction and editing, etc., etc. It just means that its message is clearly socialist. I can think of bands and music I really like–except for the message, too. Just because we like way something is performed, doesn’t mean we need to pretend it’s something other than socialist propaganda.

    It just means that socialist propaganda can be engaging and done well. It’s insidious that way.

    1. Gilligan’s Island was socialist. The capitalist Howells were useless and annoying. The oppressed Gilligan was the only worker.

      Star Trek was globalist, progressive and communist obviously.

      Bugs Bunny was the sometimes cross dressing liberal who outsmarts conservatives like Froghorn Leghorn and Elmer.

      If you look hard enough they are everywhere. Plotting to infect our minds with covert propaganda. Didn’t you also claim that Queens Gambit was communist propaganda? Darn commies are making some really good TV these days.

      1. #YumYumYumCommunistCockYumYum

      2. I know you’re being sarcastic but you’re spot on about Star Trek. It was a post-scarcity society where a federation supplanted today’s various countries. Gay space communism is a meme because they’ve been dreaming of it since at least the 60s, not just for its shock value.

        Good scifi is more realistic about where society is going.

  20. Headline: “Bloody commentary on consumer debt”
    Reason: “Seong gambles away his mother’s money”

    Riiiiiiiiight. Drink the Kool-Aid reason.

  21. The series’ popularity is proof that the misery of crushing debt is a universal experience but, according to Lee In-cheol, the chief executive of the thinktank Real Good Economic Research Institute, its Korean backdrop is far from coincidental.
    Elizabeth Gillies Age

  22. Good show. I have watched the first four episodes so far. The article overthinks it.

    1. Regular cognition looks like overthinking if you have three braincells.

  23. There is very little commentary in this show, and this semi-review does it a disservice by focusing on that instead of the intense drama. It’s one of the best shows I’ve watched in years. Just get into for the human element and don’t worry about anything else.

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