Let’s spill the pop culture tea: ‘Squid Game’ is more than just gory entertainment

A crowd dressed in pink stands in front of a crowd looking up.
Anna Tolkien CM ’24 argues that the violence in “Squid Game” contributes more than just shock value. (Courtesy: Noh Juhan/Netflix)

This article contains spoilers for “Squid Game.” 

CW: Mentions of violence

The childhood game Red Light, Green Light meets machine-gun fire in Netflix’s new hit show “Squid Game.” The nine episode series will have viewers’ hands clasped firmly over their eyes and their nails bitten down to the ends. However, unlike other shows that use violence as their only point of interest, “Squid Game” uses this dichotomy of childlike innocence and extreme gore as a way to critique capitalism and human nature. 

“Squid Game,” directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk in South Korea, has taken the media by storm since its release on Sept. 17. The show follows a group of people who are in debt for various reasons and who are so desperate for money that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it. They are approached by a mysterious recruiter who offers them a chance to win 44 million won, or 38 million United States dollars. They quickly learn that to win, they must take part in horrifying challenges where the stakes of losing any of the childlike games are a bullet to the brain. 

The show centers on Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a failure of a father and son who spends his time betting on horses. He’s one of the few out of the hundreds in the game who has some shred of decency. He tries to help other players and is frightened by the extreme violence and betrayal he sees around him. 

I thought one of the strongest parts of the show was the development of his character arc as a man wrestling with his morality. In contrast to the over-the-top imagery and storylines present in much of “Squid Game,” I found the subtlety of his character to be one of the most powerful and effective ways the show got its point across about the way money can corrupt good people.

What makes this show different from “The Hunger Games” and other media of a similar nature is that all the players of the game choose to be in this hellish dollhouse. They are given the opportunity to leave and forfeit the money in episode two, which they end up taking. 

Almost all of them realize once back in the normal world, however, that they can’t resist — or in most cases, survive without — the illustrious golden vat of money that literally hangs above their head in the barracks of the game arena. I initially was left with shock and disbelief that the players would choose to go back to such a twisted place. 

However, the choice of “Squid Game” to make the players voluntarily play is a good one. It subverts the common fantasy trope of people who are imprisoned in a faraway place and who are victims of the sick games of others. Instead, it shows the grimy and oppressive side of capitalism that is so powerful it can motivate someone to choose to potentially lose their life, kill others and forfeit their humanity for a huge pile of money. It also makes the violence more tolerable for me, as I saw it as a way to emphasize how low people will sink for the promise of riches.

Another aspect of the show that stood out was its anonymity. There was an emphasis on masks: The frontrunner of the game and his henchman all had to wear masks the entire time, and many of them weren’t allowed to speak. Their silence felt like violence. As players were screaming and crying, the only sounds from the masked men were bullets. 

I saw this masking as a reflection of the anonymity of giant companies and the uber-wealthy who influence society, as well as how workers who are a part of corrupt systems shouldn’t be the face of the issue, because the real face of the issue is hidden from all of us. 

As a final sick twist at the end, we find out that wealthy elites come and watch the games live and are betting on who survives to get some sort of thrill. They are, of course, masked as well, adding to the hidden hand guiding the corrupt financial system. When Gi-hun questions one of the VIPs on how they could be so evil, he responds, “You bet on horses. It’s the same here, but we bet on humans. You’re our horses.” This brilliant line shows the desensitization of the mega-wealthy and how deep the urge to feel the thrill of winning runs in all people.

The show has received some criticism for its extreme violence. Some claim its criticism of capitalism feels utterly Gen Z and that a show criticizing capitalism while making tons of money for a conglomerate like Netflix is utterly hypocritical. Critics say that it’s “preposterous” to use “Squid Game” as a venue to talk about politics and that the show is purely just compulsive violent entertainment. 

However, I want to push back against this. Any show that enters into the public consciousness and has people talking about politics, questioning human nature and examining the masked leaders of our society has value. We need to make more content that is as thought provoking, visually shocking and unique as “Squid Game.” 

Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a media studies and literature dual major and loves her pugs, iced coffee and Timothée Chalamet movies.

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