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.