Television

Netflix’s Biggest New Hits Have Audiences Bingeing Economic Uncertainty

From dystopia to domestic work, viewers seem drawn to shows about the dark side of capitalism.

Squid Game and Maid.
Squid Game and Maid. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Siren Pictures. 

In the first episode of Squid Game, the protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a former automobile factory worker with crippling debt and a gambling addiction, is trying and failing to get a prize from a claw machine. It’s his daughter’s birthday, and he is spending his last coins on the game as a desperate, last-minute attempt to secure a gift. He’s gambled all day, betting on horses, only to lose his winnings and get beaten up by loan sharks. A few frustrated outbursts later, he finally secures a prize for his daughter—but realizes, upon giving it to her, that it contains a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun. It’s an apt metaphor for the show’s entire first season, a dark parable about violence and capitalism that has become a global phenomenon in the six weeks since its release.

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Squid Game isn’t the only show about economic desperation holding down a spot in Netflix’s Top 10. Maid, which after only a month has passed The Queen’s Gambit to become the most-watched miniseries in Netflix history, sees young mother Alex (Margaret Qualley) walking the tightrope of economic insecurity as she attempts to forge a better life for her daughter, having fled an abusive relationship with only $18 to her name. If Squid Game invokes a dystopian critique of capitalism, Maid chronicles the daily reality of being caught in its gears. Both shows have gained global traction for their powerful depictions of income inequality, but they each leave viewers with a radically different message—revealing the capacity for fantasy to convey unpalatable truths, and the ways realism can sometimes fall short of the mark.

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Through its unflinching depiction of economic struggle, Maid brings viewers eye to eye with the everyday reality of millions of Americans—and the reality of a system that purports to offer help, but often punishes people for needing it. The series opens with Alex fleeing her abusive spouse in the middle of the night, her young daughter Maddie in tow. After spending the night in her car, she faces off with social services in an attempt to secure government assistance, only to be met with a series of bureaucratic catch-22’s. “I need a job to prove that I need daycare in order to get a job? What kind of fuckery is that?” she exclaims, when she is told she can’t qualify for subsidized housing or childcare without proof of employment. It’s the first of many times she will find herself up against a byzantine system of rules and regulations, ostensibly designed to lift people like her out of poverty but demonstrating how challenging it can be to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” when you have no boots to begin with.

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Leveraging the power of fantasy to express hard-to-swallow truths, Squid Game follows the logic of meritocracy to its most extreme conclusion, and reveals the implicit violence at its heart. When a mysterious organization recruits Gi-hun and 455 other cash-strapped individuals to stake their lives for a large cash prize, its masked Front Man sells it as a second chance at a fair fight: one last opportunity to for impoverished individuals to earn a way out of their dire economic circumstances and repay their crushing debts. But despite this promise of equal opportunity, it soon becomes clear that the games are just as punishing as the lives they left, and with deadly stakes. Win, and you stand a chance at claiming millions of dollars in prize money; lose, and you face a violent death. When the players protest these brutal conditions, the game’s shadowy operators insist that they have every opportunity to succeed if they simply follow the rules of the game. The parody of meritocracy is clear: The failure to succeed within a rigged system is your problem, not ours.

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Unlike Squid Game’s blood-drenched arena, the consequences of poverty in Maid are demonstrated in the form of constant economic precarity, with Alex’s fragile progress constantly at risk of being decimated by circumstances outside her control. She may be able to earn a living through hard work and grit, but the uphill battle comes with the constant risk of a backsliding—whether in the form of the car crash that’s used against her in a custody play by her child’s abusive father, or the loss of housing that forces her to return to his trailer with Maddie before he once again goes too far. In chronicling the numerous setbacks that take her back to square one, the show illustrates how when you’re living in survival mode, each instance of misfortune is likely to spawn a hydra of other disadvantages. With no financial buffer, Alex is vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace, but can’t afford to lose her job; she is stuck in an unsafe apartment that is making her and Maddie ill, but can’t afford to move. In theory, she has choices—the ultimate signifier of capitalist freedom—but without resources to safeguard her future wellbeing, her options are all bad.

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Squid Game also offers its characters the illusion of choice. The players—migrant worker Abdul Ali, corrupt businessman Cho Sang-woo, North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok—have all been psychologically profiled to ensure they are desperate enough to tolerate physical abuse in return for money. After playing a lethal rendition of Red Light, Green Light which leaves hundreds dead, the survivors are given the opportunity to leave and end the game, but upon re-entering the outside world, most discover that their odds of survival are just as dire. “It’s a worse hell out here,” says Player 001. “Out there, I don’t stand a chance,” another player reasons. “I do in here.”

In Squid Game, capitalism’s life-or-death stakes are front and center: not only are we frequently shown a scoreboard of the survivors, but when a player dies, their portion of the prize money rains down into a clear glass piggy bank. Maid keeps another kind of tally: the ongoing calculation of Alex’s dwindling resources, which often appear in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The sums rise and fall throughout the show, privately underscoring the peril she is in—and the very real significance of everyday decisions, such as whether to buy food or cleaning products for her job. This financial scarcity, coupled with Alex’s often-precarious living situation, inserts a sense of quiet desperation into scenes where the people around her have no understanding of what’s at stake: “Six dollars for ice cream?” Alex asks with a wince, forking over half of her assets to Maddy’s preschool teacher. At other times, she is unable to afford the ferry to work, or her phone bill, and ends up worse off for it—underscoring the fact that being poor can be very, very expensive.

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Through documenting Alex’s daily battle to survive a series of self-perpetuating disadvantages, Maid demonstrates that the real-life penalty for poverty isn’t execution by armed guards, but death by a thousand cuts. Yet despite the show’s observance of this grim economic reality—one that is only getting worse, as the wealth gap continues to widen—its conclusion is surprisingly optimistic: Alex succeeds against all odds, and is able to attend college with the help of a daycare grant, student loans, and subsidized housing. There’s no doubt that this hard-earned happy ending makes Maid’s heartwrenching depiction of poverty more palatable; but while the show is progressive in in documenting the systemic challenges facing thousands of Americans, its conclusion inadvertently reinforces the same bootstrap mythology it intends to critique.

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It’s a stark contrast to the conclusion of Squid Game, where Gi-hun emerges from the competition with millions of dollars in winnings, only to find that the cost of victory was too great to enjoy its fruits. At this point, he has witnessed countless executions; the murders of his friends; husbands and wives turned against each other in the battle to survive, and demands an answer from the Front Man as to the competition’s true purpose–only to be incensed at his explanation that all his suffering served as entertainment for the rich and powerful, who gamble on the players as though they were horses. “Just think of it as a dream,” says the Front Man, congratulating him on his performance before dropping him on the street with his winnings. “It wasn’t a bad dream for you anyway.”

This hollow victory is part of what makes Squid Game such a searing capitalist critique: in translating the violence of the system into a life-or-death struggle to survive, we are made to understand that the human cost of winning will never be worth the prize. While Maid’s gritty depiction of poverty shatters the myth of American meritocracy, Squid Game goes further—asking not just for a level playing field, but why we must fight to survive in the first place.

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