Why 'Squid Game' resonates around the world

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, November 24, 2021
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A scene of "Squid Game" Season one. [Photo/cfp.cn]

I was a bit late to the game. I didn't watch the first episode of "Squid Game" until early November, more than a month after its debut, and only after multiple friends recommended it many times. 

"What do you think of 'Squid Game'? … Have you seen 'Squid Game'?" I was getting ready to hate it. I rarely watch dramas and didn't even have a Netflix account at the time. But now, having completed the series, I remain a subscriber, paying 9,500 Korean won ($8) a month to the 34th largest company in the world. 

I found myself loving "Squid Game" for what it says about the human spirit and – let's be honest – for its highly entertaining and unconventional storytelling. I fell in love with the characters, from Seong Gi-hun, the hopeless gambling addict who risks his life competing in children's games-turned-deadly out of love for his daughter, to Kang Sae-byeok, the refugee who fled North Korea and must save her brother, to Abdul Ali, the migrant worker whose abusive boss stiffed him on his wages. They, and the other players, all displayed courage, wit, and compassion as they fought against the forces of a corrupt and decadent society.

The question many are asking is: What does this say about South Korean society? Sure, South Korea is facing constantly skyrocketing house prices, a stagnant job market for recent graduates, an aging population, and social problems that divide old and young, men and women. The conglomerates that control real estate, employment and financial markets are bloodthirsty villains – like the Front Man in "Squid Game" – who make everyone compete for the daily bread they need to survive.

But isn't that true the world over? After all, audiences around the world relate to the struggles of the characters, in whom they see themselves. "Squid Game" reached the No. 1 position on Netflix's chart in over 80 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. The Washington Post's TV critic suggests that the show resonated so much with Americans because it spoke truths about the American capitalistic reality that Hollywood dares not speak. 

Every single member of society is a participant in the brutality, whether we would like to be or not. One person's necessary action to stay alive throws another to the wolves. Even the masked enforcers are nothing more than low-level lackeys who must do as they are told in exchange for their meager rations and cramped accommodation. They are the police officers or salaried middle managers – the cogs in the machine – of everyday society. 

While abundantly clear to anyone on an individual level how deranged the system is, everyone goes along with it, because what can one person do to change anything? Better to do what we can and make a little money to help a few people along the way, they rationalize, than to be beaten down by the system. The rules of "Squid Game" offer a way out: vote to change the system. But if they ended the games early, they would just be thrown off the island and back into society.

In reality, the "games" taking place on that isolated island are not so far removed from the society from which the participants were recruited. The games are those very games we "compete" in every day. The green numbered tracksuits are our suits and ties. 

It sounds like a depressing realization, and it was for the main character Gi-hun when he won the final death match. But there's a word of advice at the end from a surprise character: Playing the games is more fun than watching. 

Life is full of challenges and suffering. There's no escaping it. Ultimately, it's not because of the economic or social system. Although some policies and systems may be better than others, no one can escape the pursuit of power, wealth, status, love and lust. The Old Man and the Front Man are just a couple of charlatans. Having created their own world and put man in it, even they cannot control man's free will.

Of course, the astonishing visuals, the acting, the utterly entertaining drama, suspense and gore were also a big factor in attracting audience's interest. Not everything needs to be a political commentary.

The nine episodes of the series were enough. It could have ended perfectly, but before the main character could wrap things, he had to turn around and set the stage for season two. I suspect it will be seen as ruining a good thing. But how could they leave that much money in the piggy bank?

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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