In 2009, Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk got deeply into debt. When he and his mother found gainful employment that was impossible to find, he had to resort to loans to survive. Hwang’s homeland is a desperate society, divided between those who work to death and those who, having been made redundant, are trapped in debt. But, by channeling the experience of oppressed South Koreans into one of the best TV shows of 2021, he created something whose appeal transcended national borders.
We have seen 456 debt-ridden contestants selected by an obscure company to volunteer for an actual game show in which the winner comes home with 4.6 billion won (£ 28million) if they survive a series of brutal games, while the losers return home in Sack bodies. In the first episode, contestants could only move when the face of a sinister mechanized doll turned away from them. Those who were caught were cut down by machine gun fire. As corpses littered the ground and the living congratulated themselves on having survived, it was a drama that encouraged us to take the logic of capitalism to its extreme in treating everything, including humans, as commodities, as commodities. means to achieve ends.
In a world where most of us are teetering on the brink of debt, or lying in it, Squid Game asked how ruthless we would be to get out of it. Would you be a winner of Social Darwinism, or one of the 455 other corpses whose organs are harvested to be sold on the black market? In extremis, would you like to look like the one can relate to and compassionate losing dad – player 456, Seong Gi-hun – or the selfish venal gangster player 067, Kang Sae-byeok?
But its appeal was also in something less noble. One of the reasons Squid Game overtook Bridgerton to become Netflix’s most-watched series is because it was a top-notch drama in which we barely knew who would be knocked out in the next game. This ability to create tension, where seemingly anything can happen and no character is beyond the ball, requires storytelling skills rarely seen on television today. One of the pleasures for me, certainly, was how I was repeatedly taken wrong when I was sure a character would survive but was killed. So I didn’t bet on the outcome: like Gi-hun when he gets fired at the bookies, I would be a very bad player.
Squid Game wasn’t the first show to bring a group of people together and have them kill each other to survive for the entertainment of others. But before making Squid Game, Hwang studied deathmatch precursors such as the Japanese Battle Royale movie from the early 2000s and the 2007 TV anime Gyakkyō Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor – then upped the voyeuristic staking to make its even more captivating and sadistic version. When, halfway through the series, a group of masked VIPs (most of them, significantly, Westerners) show up, they bet on who will live and die. They used people as footrests and feasted on banquets behind glass screens that offered lovely views of the carnage below.
For me, one of the curiosities of Squid Game was that the drama didn’t unfold, as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games puts it, as a TV show (there’s no oilseeds Stanley Tucci interviewing survivors on their love life before they fight to the death). But that’s to miss Squid Game: it was not a criticism of media greed, but of a company gone wrong. Maybe Hwang, who is now doing season two, didn’t want to bite Netflix’s hand that fed him.
There have been complaints that the subtitles do not give us the full meaning of what is being said in Korean. Or that Western accents were appalling, and yes, some, like basketball star LeBron James, found the ending unsatisfying. Otherwise, however, Hwang delivered what he had planned.
“The show is driven by a simple idea,” he told me. “We are fighting for our lives under very unequal circumstances. During the pandemic, the poorest countries cannot get their populations vaccinated, so they contract viruses on the streets and even die. It is not deep. But it is, Mr. Hwang. Squid Game was an allegory of the world in 2021.