Squid Game: A powerful exposure of how capitalists use debt to maintain power
Squid Game

What you may think are spoilers in this review are not really spoilers, not for a series like this. If you watch this nine-part series, which I highly recommend, you will see what I mean.

Seoung Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae is addicted to gambling. The wife from whom he is divorced has custody of his little daughter and is married to a wealthier guy now so the daughter is well taken care of. Nevertheless, the daughter loves him and he loves her and he needs money to buy her a birthday gift. He also needs money to pay for surgery for his sick mother with whom he lives. He has squandered most of their money on his gambling addiction, winnings from which he had hoped in vain would dig them out of debt.

Hopelessly in debt, like millions of other workers living in a society that provides credit and loans and get-rich-quick schemes rather than jobs and income, he agrees to an offer from a mysterious group to be a player in games that offer a multi-million dollar prize that will solve all his problems. It is not until after he gets taken to those games that he realizes he is trapped in a deadly series of trials that will end up with one winner and everyone else dead.

By the time he comes to realize this (in the first episode already), I realize that I am watching a powerful parody of one of the worse aspects of class warfare – the use of debt to entrap the world’s working-class majority. It is difficult for the viewer not to conclude that most of us, like Gi-hun, are prisoners of ruling class manipulators who offer credit, loans, get-rich-quick schemes – anything but good jobs and incomes – in order to maintain their control over us. The world of deep debt and oppression in which we live is the real prison from which we need to find a way out.

It is the clarity of this message coming from the makers of this film, a message they get across with artistic genius on so many levels,  that makes me particularly happy about the blockbuster success of the series.

It is true, as many reviewers claim, that the film is incredibly brutal and violent. It is rare to see a film with more brutality and violence than this one, But it is no more brutal and violent than the capitalist society it rails against. Violence and death are the tools of the wealthy capitalists we finally see are watching from behind the scenes and enjoying the death games on the mysterious island.

In Squid Game the workers are represented by 456 desperate men and women trying to make it through six deadly versions of children’s games we have all played. They all want to win the 30 million dollars (converting from the Korean currency) in the hope of being able to live a new debt-free life.

The writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk is a sheer genius! I shudder even now thinking about that huge, yellow-haired, pig-tailed mechanical doll we see in the first game with anyone caught during “red light green light” being shot to death if they move even a hair after the call “red light, green light one two three.”

There is also a look at things that happen among people stuck in a common struggle. We see really bad guys who, before they got to the games, long served as agents of the ruling class among the workers. There is Jang Deok-su played by Heo Sung-tae. He is a horrible gangster who sold people out before he got to the games and continues to do so during them.

There is Kang Sae-byok played by Jung Ho-yeon. She is a North Korean defector who has realized that the South Korea of her dreams is a nightmare of exploitation and oppression. She needs the prize money to survive the hell that is the “free” South Korea. She is supporting herself and her mother.

There is Oh Il-nam played by Oh Yeong-su. He is a gentle old man with a brain tumor who actually turns out to be a top level member of the South Korean ruling class that was helping run the games.

And there was a South Korean cop who has infiltrated the games to search for some of the people who were “disappeared” into the games and reported missing by friends and relatives. He finds out that his own brother is being paid by the cabal to keep the horror show going and that the folks in charge of “law and order” are perpetrating unimaginable lawlessness with enforcers like his brother bought off with far more money than he makes as a cop.

Each game ends with a cliffhanger after exposing more horrors than in the game before in the extent of the cruelty, poverty, and wealthy privilege rampant in South Korea in particular but under capitalism in general. You find it difficult to stop watching and are tempted to just binge watch all the way through the nine episodes. I did it in shifts of four and five.

The director weaves realistic and believable details about Gi-hun and his comrades into the story as he moves frenetically between games. The viewer becomes emotionally connected to the people in the story.

The message of how evil capitalism is cannot be lost by anyone watching this series. But we see also that some victories over it are possible. We see that players sometimes come out ahead when they cooperate rather than engage in the ruling class intended competition.  Even in those cases, however, some end up dead. A team that cooperates, although the weaker team physically, wins a tug of war game and all the members survive, at least for the moment. Everyone on the other team, however, is dragged to their deaths when they fall over a precipice into a deep pit.

In the end, Gi-hun survives. I won’t tell you how but he is not clear about whether the Squid Game will ever end. The answer to that is being left up to the viewers of the series.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.