*This article contains spoilers*
By Jess Lomax
Squid Game is far more than just a TV show. At this point, just weeks after its release, it is verging on the status of ‘cultural phenomenon’. The Netflix show, which recently surpassed Bridgerton as the platform’s biggest ever debut launch, follows 456 debt-riddled South Koreans as they fight in an underground competition for an ever-increasing prize fund. The catch? Every time someone loses a Game, they die. And the competition continues until one final contestant is left.
The premise of Squid Game relies on a significant power imbalance between the Game’s players and the ‘guards’ who adjudicate the Games. The protagonist, Gi-hun, a single father and gambling addict who is struggling to support himself and his young daughter, is joined by 455 other contestants, all of whom join the Game due to their similar – or worse – financial situations. Throughout the series, viewers watch as these players are killed, manipulated, and harassed by the guards. The contestants are reminded ‘If you follow the rules, you can leave this place safely with the money we promised’, combining hope and fear to ensure the contestants are constantly on high-alert.
Despite this, the games are not for the benefit of the guards, but for the benefit of the VIPs – rich, English-speaking business people who bet on the Games like sports. They remark that the rich and the poor are not so unalike, claiming that for both groups, ‘living isn’t fun.’ We are only introduced to the VIPs halfway through the season – their existence is teased throughout, but once we finally meet them, they are shown betting on which of the show’s contestants will prevail based on their physicality and smarts. With this, we are forced to reckon with the fact that we – the audience – have been doing much the same thing since pressing play on the show. While our money has not been on the line, we have watched and judged, letting our morbid curiosity get the better of us as these poor, struggling contestants face senseless deaths and lose all their dignity.
Squid Game is perfect entertainment because it so delicately tiptoes the line between dystopia and reality. We sit back and press play, finding comfort in the knowledge that our lives could never get this bad, that we could never get so helplessly desperate, that no such situation could ever happen to us. Despite assuming the role of a VIP, we know that our reality is infinitely closer to that of the contestants. But still, we do not feel so separate from the show as to see it as entirely implausible. In this sense, while the severe events of the show may exist purely to entertain, we watch with constant awareness that the themes of the show ring startlingly true.
There is also something to be said about the distance created, at least for a Western audience, between the subject matter and the viewer by way of the location and translation of the show. Squid Game relies fairly heavily on South Korean culture, and completely on South Korean language. When watching the show, Western viewers are not seeing and hearing the actors say their lines – if they watch with subtitles, they are reading the lines themselves, or if they watch the dubbed version, they are listening to a Western actor’s interpretation of the translated script. These mechanisms, through no fault of the show’s creators, work to create a dissonance between the Western viewer and the South Korean story.
If Squid Game were set in the UK, would we be able to watch through the same fuzzy, distant filter? Or would we be forced to face reality – that we live in a society almost identical to the one depicted in Squid Game, and that any one of us could fall prey to its vicious ways?
One of the show’s most poignant moments comes in episode two, when the contestants vote, by simple majority, to go home to their pre-Game lives. Within a matter of days, many of them decide to return. This episode demonstrates so brilliantly the dire desperation of the contestants’ respective situations – their chances of success in the Squid Game are favourable compared to their chances in a capitalist society. It is no wonder the show is becoming a hit among young audiences, who are becoming ever more disillusioned with the lack of opportunities presented to them under capitalism – anti-capitalism is now the dominant viewpoint among young people, who are disproportionately struggling in the midst of a crisis of health, economics, and housing.
Dystopia inspires us – we see ourselves in its victims, fighting for success in a society built to destroy us for the successes of other people. In most works of dystopian fiction, we revel in the successes of the underdogs – we share in their excitement as they beat the odds and escape the oppressive, sick systems in which they are trapped. Squid Game challenges this view – only the protagonist survives, and we, the audience, are forced to watch as contestant after contestant is killed, partially by their own choice to remain in the Game, but ultimately by the desperation created by drastic wealth inequality. We may not live in the Squid Game, but we live in the society for which it acts as an allegory. When watching this dystopia, we are the VIPs, but in our real lives, we are definitely more like the contestants.
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