Television

How Fear and Family Values Led to the Biggest Hit in Netflix’s History

More South Koreans are dying alone and in poverty, so why not risk it all in a fight to the death?

Two men face each other, wearing green jumpsuits with numbers on them.
Squid Game. Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Squid Game.

A giant, illuminated piggy bank filled with millions in cash hovers over Squid Game, the bloody South Korean survival drama that is on track to become Netflix’s biggest show ever. The series follows debt-riddled protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung -jae) who, along with 455 others, enters a mysterious fight-to-the-death competition for a grand total of 45.6 billion won (35.7 million dollars). Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk calls it point-blank “an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society,” and that critique has evidently been resonating with viewers in Korea and elsewhere; Netflix’s Ted Sarandos said this week that the show will “definitely” be the streamer’s biggest worldwide hit not in English, and that there’s a “very good chance” it will be its biggest original hit, period.

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Squid Game starts out fast-paced and clever, bringing to life unlikely characters, and skillfully contrasting children’s games (including the one the series is named for) with the violent drive for wealth. Still, by the end of the season, the show loses touch with its subversive zest and fails to embrace recent changes in Korean society, ending up only reinforcing backwards-looking ideas about family values.

The first few episodes are undoubtedly the show’s strongest, largely thanks to an ensemble of misfits, rarely brought together in Korean media. Gi-hun is an out-of-work divorcé who has lost custody of his daughter and is unable to provide for his aging mother. Gi-hun’s childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) is an unmarried businessman with millions in debt despite his prestigious MBA from Seoul National University. Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi) is an immigrant from Pakistan who urges his wife to flee Korea with their child after an unfortunate encounter with his boss. Oh Il-min (Oh Yeong-su), initially introduced as Player 001, appears to be a penniless old man without family. “You should be eating meals your daughter-in-law makes for you, then lying on the floor watching your grandkids act cute,” Gi-hun tells Il-min in the first episode. “What about your parents?” Il-min quips back, an exchange that subtly acknowledges changing Korean values. A growing number of young Koreans no longer feel obligated to get married, have children, or care for their aging parents and an increasing number of Koreans, particularly Korean elders, are dying alone.

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It’s clear that the show’s fictitious conflicts point to modern-day issues, both economic and social. Like the characters, an increasing number of Koreans are drowning in debt while wrestling with the pressure to fulfill their traditional duties as child, parent, and partner—a kind of social debt on top of the financial one. The show’s female contestants far from conform to stereotypes of women as docile and maternal—perhaps representing the country’s growing conversation on feminism. Kang Sae-byuk (Jung Ho-yeon), a cynical North Korean defector, stands her ground against the most hostile men of the competition and has taken it upon herself to reunite her family. (Her mother was caught in the attempt to escape and her brother is in temporary custody at an orphanage.) Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) is a shrewish woman who claims to have had a baby so recently that she hasn’t been able to name him or her yet. Never portrayed as sympathetic, unabashedly loud Mi-nyeo only uses the damsel in distress card when it’s to her advantage.

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The show thrives during the first three games, when the characters more or less band together as underdogs and the challenges themselves have structure, and begins to lose its spark when it abandons this formula in Episode 6. “Marbles,” the fourth game, has so many variations that it becomes a free-for-all. Gangster Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) and his partner switch games halfway. Sang-woo clearly loses the game to Ali, but tricks him and steals his marbles. Sae-byuk and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi) hardly play at all, opting rather to have a heart-to-heart for most of the allotted 30 minutes. The muddy plotting is accompanied by a more significant change in the show’s underlying message, which shifts from money is not everything to you are nothing without family. When Sang-woo pleads with Ali for his life, he gets down on his knees and says, “If I die here, my entire family will die too.” To which, Ali apologizes and says he too cannot die because he also has a family. Ji-yeong, who says she “does not have a family name,” reveals that she joined the game after losing both her parents. As syrupy music plays in the background, she forfeits by dropping her marble and telling Sae-byuk: “You have a reason to leave this place. I don’t.” This point is drilled home again in Episode 7, when Player 069 dies by suicide after losing his wife.

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By the last two episodes of the season, it feels like Squid Game’s creators have lost the plot entirely. Sae-byuk is fatally wounded by a random shard of glass, taking her from a strong, independent individual to a young woman in need of protection. They literally hand knives to the contestants and have them contemplate the ethics of killing each other—even though the clear objective of the game is to remain the only person alive. In typical Korean drama fashion, drawn-out conversations about familial obligations ensue. “Let’s make a promise … that if either of us makes it out of here alive, we’ll look after each other’s family,” Sae-byuk tells Gi-hun as she bleeds from one side. Even heartless Sang-woo, with his dying words, begs Gi-hun to take care of his mother—giving precedence to his duty as a son over his financial debt.

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Neither the one with the most to live for (Sae-byuk) nor the smartest (Sang-woo) is the victor, but Gi-hun, the one who conjures the past. The series opens with a black and white scene of schoolboys—presumably a memory of Gi-hun’s—playing the original squid game in an empty playground. He remembers winning and feeling as if he “owned the whole world,” just as the title of the series appears. His consistently sentimental attitude is a contrast to Sang-woo’s cutthroat but forward-thinking one. When Gi-hun waxes lyrical about heating up metal lunch boxes by the briquette stove in their elementary school classroom, Sang-woo cuts him off: “If you have time to reminisce, try to figure out what the next game will be.” Sang-woo chooses an immigrant new to Korea as his partner, while Gi-hun picks an elderly man. In the last grand reveal of the series, when Gi-hun asks Il-nam why he let him live, a grandfather clock ominously ticks in the background as Il-nam credits Gi-hun for helping him remember the past.

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Gi-hun is never given a chance to repent for his sins against his mother, as she has died alone during his time away and his guilt bars him from spending the money. Ultimately, Squid Game’s real beneficiaries are the characters who’ve symbolized faith in family all along: Sang-woo’s mother (Park Hye-jin), who is never even given a name, and Kang Cheol, Sae-byuk’s younger brother. Throughout the series, Sang-woo’s mother shows a blind devotion to her son that, at times, makes her look almost foolish. She believes him to be away on business and proclaims his good nature when the police question his whereabouts. The only desires she expresses are for Gi-hun to take good care of his mother and for Sang-woo to get married and be well. Cheol’s appearances on the show, however brief, serve a single purpose: He expresses longing for his parents and promises to trust his sister’s ability to reunite the family.

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Squid Game is entertaining and has plenty of surface-level complexity, but it’s a pity that it ends up mired in tropes about family as the be-all and end-all. The show has yet to be officially renewed, but director Hwang recently told Variety that if he were to become involved again, he would use a writer’s room and collaborate with multiple experienced directors. One can only hope a diverse creative team is put in place to develop the societal issues so cleverly set up in the first few episodes. The sadistic overlords of the Squid Game universe never get around to having the contestants play games “advantageous for women” noted by Gi-hun in Episode 4, but wouldn’t it be delightful to see a group of grumpy men get their butts kicked in, say, a game of jump rope? Could a second season give women leadership roles? Paint multidimensional characters outside the gender binary? Champion individuals, regardless of their families? Squid Game has the vision, but chokes in the face of pushing the envelope. A true critique of capitalism would also call for an end to traditional interpretations of gender, marriage, and family.

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