Warning: contains spoilers
Squid Game follows Seong Gi-Hun, a South Korean gambling addict who, strapped for cash, falls prey to a mysterious man in a subway station who offers him an opportunity to make thousands of dollars—all Seong has to do is call the number on his card. When he calls, a mysterious voice tells him to wait outside his apartment at midnight, and when he does, he is picked up in a van and knocked unconscious by a sedative gas. Gi-Hun and a few hundred others meet the same fate and are gathered on a remote island to play a series of children’s games with high stakes—if you lose, you get shot and killed. If you win, you stay alive until the next game and keep playing in hopes of winning a multi-million-dollar prize.
The show has a lot to say about moral corruption, and the violence that people engage in to make money. Whenever someone dies, money is added to the game’s jackpot prize—essentially, attaching a price to human life. Once this becomes clear, the players have a vote whether they want to stay and keep playing or leave the game and go home. In the first round, the majority chooses to leave the game—by one vote. However, another message is sent to the players offering them to come back if they wish—knowing the possibility of death and the guaranteed trauma of seeing their fellow player be violently murdered. The fact that a democratic majority vote has the power to release them from their imprisonment on the island seems like a sardonic comment about how democratic votes might, on a surface level, seem to guarantee freedom that doesn’t ultimately materialize. But as the numbers of people who stay in the game tick upwards, anxiety mounts; it could go either way, and it’s possible that not everyone in the group values their own life, or the lives of strangers, so highly.
Naturally, enticed by the growing grand prize, Gi-Hun decides to return to the game. Perhaps this willingness to die for money is a commentary on the fact that money is life—having it or not having it determines one’s access to health care, basic necessities, and quality of living—but the sheer volume of gory violence in the show seems a little self-indulgent. The unassuming and nerdy businessman Cho Sang-Woo (who is later revealed to be a white-color criminal in desperate need for money to settle his debts) is arguably the most selfish and violent character in the show. His brutal murder of Kang Sae-Byeok, the only woman that makes it to the final three, could be a commentary on how bloodthirsty and greedy white-collar or capitalist actors are; but this feels like a generous reading. While his antiheroic character development was believable, to what extent is the show representing brutal violence against women as normal?
Kang Sae-Byeok and Han Mi-Nyeo, the two women protagonists, both die at the hands of other players—not by the game-makers. Their deaths in this manner frame Sae-Byeok and Mi-Nyeo as passive victims, even when they’ve used their intelligence and willpower to make it far in the game. One male player brutally beats up Kang Sae-Byoek in the game’s early stages, and Gi-Hun even attempts to join in on her abuse and hit her, seeking revenge for the money she stole from him before the game started. Gi-Hun is supposed to be above violence and ‘better’ than that; and yet, he is compelled to physically abuse a woman for a petty theft. It’s only once Sang-Woo kills two people in cold blood does Gi-Hun attempt to physically harm him.
Despite the somewhat sensationalized violence, the show has some surprisingly sentimental moments. Gi-Hun’s choice to leave a good chunk of his earnings from the grand prize—spoiler, he wins—to Sang-Woo’s mother, for example, and the fact that he gives Sae-Byeok’s little brother a home with Sang-Woo’s mother, was an act of kindness and generosity from a character who started out as relatively selfish. But what does that say about his generosity? Does it imply that when Gi-Hun wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t able to be generous and kind, but once he has millions, he can be? Gi-Hun had plenty of opportunities to show kindness to his daughter and mother by simply showing up for them and being a present and engaging father and son. Instead, he ditches both of them to play the game. In other words, he puts off being generous to them in hopes of being able (with money) to be generous to others.
Gi-Hun returns to the game so he can pay for his mother’s healthcare, but when he gets home after being the sole survivor and winning the money, she is dead in the apartment, having died alone while he abandoned her in order to play. In the first episode, he attempts to win money for an expensive birthday present for his young daughter by betting on horse races, only to find out she is moving to the US with her mom, who he is separated from. By the end of the show, he’s about to board a plane to go visit her and attempt to be a present and caring father to her (for the first time in the show, since he is so wrapped up in gambling that he often neglects her). But at the last second, he turns around and walks back, refusing to board the plane and instead choosing to fight against the organizers of the Squid Game and attempt to stop them from doing any more violence. The show’s ultimate lesson is that relationships are more important than money—or so I thought. Are we supposed to view this ending with favour, and root Gi-Hun on, and hope he beats the bad guys? Why can’t he be a loving father and not choose violence? Maybe this was the point—to show how greed corrupts one’s mind so that one can justify brutal violence.
Taken as a whole, Squid Game is extremely entertaining. Regardless of the surplus of violence, the show prompts important questions about wealth in society, and examines how relationships break down in the face of too little, and perhaps the same pattern happens when one has too much.
His brutal murder of Kang Sae-Byeok, the only woman that makes it to the final three, could be a commentary on how bloodthirsty and greedy white-collar or capitalist actors are; but this feels like a generous reading. While his antiheroic character development was believable, to what extent is the show representing brutal violence against women as normal?