About halfway through the new Netflix horror series Squid Game, one of the contestants, a career gangster named Jang Deok-su (played by Heo Sung-tae), comes upon a gruesome new strategy. Thus far, he and several hundred other men and women, dressed in identical green polyester track suits, have been told by an anonymous army of enforcers that they are in a six-round tournament of literal elimination. Each round is a different challenge based on a children’s game, like marbles or tug-of-war—but each is also played to the death and for an unimaginably large jackpot. Every person who loses dies, and their deaths add to the prize money. Despite these macabre stakes, a sense of fairness has prevailed in the game’s first rounds: Do your best in competition and, if you survive, retreat to the school-gym dormitory to eat and sleep. But Jang sets out to test this boundary. He steals an extra helping of food and then, when the man deprived of his meal puts up a fight, kills him in public view.
Jang expects to be punished for this. Instead his victim’s murder is tabulated as a death in the game, and the jackpot is increased. Jang laughs with relief and self-satisfaction. He realizes that he is free to kill, whenever and however, to improve his chances of winning. Now, not only the structured games; the meal and sleep breaks, too, are elimination rounds.
In the gym, Jang’s fellow contestants see the new score and panic. Not many of them are accustomed to mortal combat; they have come because they are poor and mired in debt. The night of Jang’s transgression, the savvier among them form groups and pull their spindly metal bunk beds together for protection. Team members take turns playing sentinel while their comrades catch a bit of sleep. Still, people kill and die. (Think Hunger Games or Battle Royale with Tarantino-style violence.)
The following night, the series’ main protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict and delinquent dad and son, hallucinates while he is on watch. He sees canisters slide across the gymnasium floor, spewing orange smoke. A man in a hard hat and red bandanna, the uniform of labor protest in South Korea, dodges a flurry of police batons. “Gi-hun!” the man cries out before an officer cracks his skull. When Seong is startled back to earth by one of his teammates, he explains what he’s seen. He had worked at the Dragon Motors auto plant and gone on strike. “We set up a barricade like this…. The company fired us, saying they had no money.” Much like the Squid Game, real life in South Korea is a zero-sum fight.
All but the youngest Koreans will recognize this lightly fictionalized reference to a labor confrontation seared in the country’s memory. In 2009, the carmaker Ssangyong (“Twin Dragon”) Motors pleaded poverty and laid off 2,646 employees at its headquarters plant in Pyeongtaek, a city south of Seoul. In response, nearly a thousand employees went on strike, some for as long as 77 days, occupying the factory site and facing a violent assault by Pinkerton-style security forces and Korean police. For years afterward, the surviving workers sought reinstatement and compensation in the courts, and 30 employees and several of their spouses died, mostly by suicide.
This history animates Seong’s character. After losing his factory job, he becomes a gig driver and tries and fails to run one of South Korea’s ubiquitous fried chicken restaurants. His marriage implodes, and he moves into a half-basement apartment (remember Parasite?) with his mother, a low-wage street vendor. He places bet after losing bet at the horse races and goes into debt to loan sharks, which is how he ends up on Squid Game Island.
But Seong’s path to the Squid Game tournament is disturbingly common. Many of the other contestants are similarly scarred by bad luck, their jobs, and this thing we call the global marketplace. We learn of their stories in episode two, which is titled “Hell,” though it takes place off the island, back in the contestants’ former lives. Seong’s main rival, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), is a brilliant businessman who’s on the run for embezzlement and forgery. Kang Sae-byeok (whose name means “dawn”), played by the model Jung Ho-yeon is a migrant from North Korea who’s being extorted by human smugglers and has become a pickpocket to try to reunite her family. And a Pakistani guest worker and new father named Ali (Anupam Tripathi) is cheated by his boss at a small machine shop.
These players—there are 456 of them—are plucked from the streets of South Korea on account of their desperation. With their consent (sort of), they are drugged and ferried to the secret island, a literal manifestation of Jackson Lears’s capitalist casino. Swarms of armed enforcers regulate their six rounds of play and keep them generally in line. The world’s wealthiest men gather to watch the players compete. The show’s writer-director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, knows something about the do-or-die marketplace: He tried to get the series made for a decade and lost six teeth from the stress.
Squid Game is not a subtle show, either in its politics or plot. Capitalism is bloody and mean and relentless; it yells. Each episode moves from one game to the next, in a series that, by the end, combined with some awkward English-language dialogue, feels hopelessly strained. But the show redeems itself with its memorable characters (all archetypal strugglers) and its bright, video-game-inspired design. The art director, Chae Kyoung-sun, said that she wanted to build a “storybook” world—a child’s late-capitalist hell—and she has done so brilliantly.
Squid Game is the most popular Netflix show ever made. In its first 10 days, it ranked number one in 90 countries and was so popular in its home nation that it strained the Internet’s infrastructure, leading the service provider SK Broadband to file suit against Netflix. With superlative ratings has come an avalanche of commentary. Viewers in South Korea have used Squid Game as shorthand to discuss joblessness and real estate scandals and to parody the economic promises of President Moon Jae-in. Critics in the United States have praised the show in weirdly Brechtian terms for using genre conventions to satirize capitalism and offered comparisons to the Academy Award–winning Parasite.
Many of the Korean films and TV shows that have broken through in the West—Parasite, The Handmaiden, now Squid Game—are gory parables about class. (Most K-dramas, which are even more popular around the world, do this in spades, though usually with a bootstrap twist.) We are eager to project ourselves into these stories, and South Korea appears to be just the right distance away: Strongly influenced (some would say “occupied”) by the United States, the country is high-tech and hyper-capitalist yet appears to retain Old World values (filial piety and clannish loyalty). All this makes for a perfect site of rebellious fantasy.
In Squid Game, Seong’s Dragon Motors backstory gets the series closest to allegorizing capitalism, a stated intent of the writer-director. The contestants echo a uniformed rank-and-file, while the enforcers, strapped with machine guns, clad in hot-pink jumpsuits and combat boots, and anonymized by helmets, mirror the police who were set upon the Ssangyong workers. The commandant of the island (a sort of death-camp paymaster) and the visiting VIPs who pay to spectate are also depersonalized. In baroque gilded masks, the men gaze out over the gladiatorial field while luxuriating in an abundance of food, drink, and naked women. They speak English and Mandarin, but their wealth erases every national and moral boundary.
Hwang envisioned these men as “real-life power elites and billionaires or gods who rule the world”—the sort of men who run companies like Ssangyong Motors. At the time of the strike, Ssangyong had been acquired by the Chinese state–owned Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, and the bosses’ distance from the Pyeongtaek factory undermined the workers’ leverage. (Ssangyong is now part of the Indian car giant Mahindra.) Though the union believed that the business was solvent and that the firings had to do more with strategy than necessity, it took 10 years for some of the laid-off workers to get their jobs back.
In 2006, three years before the Ssangyong occupation, another real-life Squid Game erupted in a different part of Pyeongtaek. At the time, the United States and South Korea were eager to break ground on Camp Humphreys, the largest overseas US military base in the world. The decision to consolidate the 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea on one mega-base had been made decades earlier, but the residents and rice farmers continued to resist being evicted. Some 18,000 riot police confronted 5,000 activists, injuring and arresting hundreds. The setting was darkly cinematic: a tract enclosed by barbed wire, helmeted soldiers, and on the losing end, an undifferentiated crowd.
While watching the second half of Squid Game, I kept thinking about Pyeongtaek. I was last there in 2018 and felt overwhelmed by its collisions of mass industry, unbridled housing development, migrant farm and factory labor, and neocolonial militarism. As a second city—a secluded island, compared to Seoul—it doesn’t look much like a capitalist avatar. But as Hwang has noted, that is part of the contradiction: “the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.” He finds it “tragic,” he said, that so many people around the world—facing the economic and somatic devastation of the pandemic—identify with Squid Game. So what comes next? “We need to ask and consider and find out who has structured the economy this way,” Hwang declared. “Who has turned us into racehorses?”