The most-watched TV show in Netflix history surges to top charts worldwide. Two weeks following its release, the show reached No.1 in 90 countries around the world. So what is it about this show that has it rising to historical fame? The hit Korean drama Squid Game follows the characters through a series of childhood games with some modifications. Set in present-day South Korea, the thrilling Squid Game has exposed systematic class inequality by turning innocent, youthful games into deadly suspenseful challenges.
Squid Game has resonated with people worldwide for many reasons, leading viewers to question how far they will go for money. One may ask while watching, how far will you take things to make a “better” life for yourself? Compared to the Hunger Games and Parasite, this series highlights how the elite class can easily torture ordinary citizens for their viewing pleasure. As players fight to the death in challenges that will leave viewers on the edge of their seats, we watch in contrast how the players are diminished to be no more than numbers in a game to the game controllers. Everyone participating in the game is desperate for money after being forced into debt by predatory loan sharks and are pushed to their limits in an attempt to earn it.
The show has been in the works since 2008, making it no surprise for how impressive the execution is and well-received by audiences it has been considering the time put into creating the show. In an interview with Variety, Hwang Dong-Hyuk, the writer of the series, shared that he had notes on this show since 2008 when he initially was writing for it to be a film. He added that much of his inspiration for this show has come from Japanese cartoons. He has turned his inspiration into a worldwide phenomenon that resonated with people from different countries and languages. Perhaps this show has reached such vast audiences because of how art has imitated life in this show. Each of the characters in the show help further to explain the dynamics of Korean history and life.
Through following the individual storylines of each character, it is easy to see how this show has been fitting for a wide variety of audiences. The effective character development gives a deeper look into what motivates individuals to participate in this bloodbath of a game. On first impression, it seems to be greed for the majority of the players because many of them are presented as manipulative or even criminal, a broader view into the motivations behind the player’s actions that left them in dire financial situations.
Gi Hun, our main protagonist, is a character that starts out hardened and seemingly takesadvantage of everyone in his life. He is initially depicted yelling at his mother and gambling all of his money away. While this is the introduction that we get to Gi Hun, his attitude shifts as the season continues. The more we, the audience, get to know this character the more we are able to understand how he ended up as a player in the squid game. Gi Hun’s work background is explained through him being a laid off union worker that has now developed a gambling addiction. However, this storyline of the ‘laid off union worker’ is not far from reality, just in this past week around 500,000 workers in South Korea left their jobs on strike. Union workers are currently protesting their inconsistencies in work, the lack of power and autonomy that workers have and lack of protection for workers. Many people fall easily into debt without the long hours of work required to keep up with a Union job. “Today, South Korea ranks third in highest annual working hours and as of 2015 it was third in workplace deaths among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development” (Jia Hong and Ju- Hyun Park).
One of our other main characters is Kang Sae- Byeok, who has been one of the leading faces of the publicity for the show. From fan edits to instagram followers, within a week of the show airing actress HoYeon Jung went from 400k followers to now being verified with 22.5 million followers. Her performance as Sae- Byeok was so stellar it is almost hard to believe that this is the young actress's first role. Aside from the charming actress, the character Sae- Byeok told an important narrative of the struggles of being a North Korean defector. She is introduced to the show as a common young pickpocketer that seems to have gotten herself mixed up with the wrong crowd. While she is a young pickpocketer it is initially difficult to understand why she may sign up to join the quid game. As the show goes on it is moving to see that she is playing to gain money to get her brother out of an orphanage and gain money to get her mother out of North Korea. Through slight remarks from the other players in the game there is an acknowledgment through the show that there is a form of discrimination that North Koreans face in South Korea. Financially North Korean defectors are often not versed on the capitalistic lifestyle of South Korea which leads to many defectors living in poverty in the South. Through the character of Sae- Byeok the show gives perspective to that discrimination and how it manifests itself in the social structures in South Korea.
Finally, one of the characters that left a strong emotional impact on audiences was Ali Abdul. Ali Abdul, a Pakistani immigrant, is initially introduced to audiences through his brave act of saving Gi- Hun’s life in a round of the squid game. Following his character through his actions of kindness and compassion towards the other players throughout the game. As the audience gets more background into Ali’s financial situation that leads him to play the squid game, we see the real ways that he is taken advantage of by his place of work. Ali is an immigrant worker in what seems to be a repair shop of some sort and has had his checks withheld from him for months. Ali desperately needed the money to support his wife and child, so he wound up playing the squid game. Through his character, cultural differences are highlighted as well as the discrimination that immigrants face in society. Other players cast snide remarks towards Ali about his status as a “foreigner” despite his willingness to aid different players throughout the rounds of the game. While the systematic racism that Ali experienced on the show was apparent, his character still gave a refreshing perspective on what it means to be brown. Ali, throughout the whole show was portrayed as one of the most “morally sound” players. He never intentionally tried to hurt anyone, he never took advantage of other players, and his manners towards others was highlighted. Many media outlets try to feed this single story of a rude, untrustworthy, ungrateful immigrant. Especially with Ali being the only South Asian representation in the show, it was reaffirming that he was written to be a kindhearted relatable character, which is more realistic than the negative stereotypes that are often fed to us by the media.
Much of the backlash has not been directed towards the show but rather towards Netflix. After many native Korean speakers have come forward, there has been a dispute on the mistranslation of lines throughout the show. In particular, there has been a misrepresentation of dialect from the character Han Mi- Nyeo, whose character primarily speaks with a lot of slang. The poor translation of her dialogue has been critiqued as a misrepresentation of her character. As a character that is supposed to represent a different dialect than other players and a more intimidating woman, her translations are essential to understanding her point in the series. A Tik Tok video has quickly gained popularity with millions of views of the Tik Tok user @Youngmimayer correctly translating scenes from the show. Netflix is one of the largest streaming platforms globally, and with that title, the responsibility of accessibility falls on its shoulders.
Squid Game brings an action-packed storyline that is beautifully expanded upon in each episode. Don’t be fooled, just as much of an action edge- of your-seat kind of show this is, this show may also be a tearjerker for some viewers. Through the hardships and desperation of the characters the sacrifice of their own lives all in the name of climbing out of financial ruin was devastating. Overall, this is a must-watch show for any action lovers out there looking to evaluate the deeper constructs of social class.