When it comes to the themes of the show, there isn’t much to debate, considering how staunchly unsubtle the anti-capitalist messaging is; the deadly games are eventually revealed to have been orchestrated by bored billionaires, who find amusement in pitting debt-laden players against one another.
Every single player who joins the games is motivated by desperation, drowning in debt under capitalism; at one point, the poverty-stricken protagonist even has a flashback to the time he was savagely beaten by police officers during a labor strike.
Creator of the show, Hwang Dong-hyuk, is pretty open about his intentions, revealing that the show was written during a difficult time in his life, when he was financially struggling. He stated:
“I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”
But a number of cultural commentators seem to have taken offense at the message, and have taken to outright denying that those anti-capitalist themes exist in the show, despite the creator’s clarification. In fact, some are even insisting that the show is secretly a pro-capitalist allegory, somehow.
To be fair, an artist can’t dictate how their art is received, regardless of their intentions – there is no such thing as a wrong interpretation. But there does seem to be a bit of cognitive dissonance going on, as some tie themselves in knots in an attempt to twist the story to their liking.
Evie Magazine recently published a piece arguing that the show’s depiction of cruel, all-powerful billionaires using debt to manipulate players, is actually a warning against the dangers of communism:
“Squid Game has been praised for its powerful storytelling and its artistic direction, but it’s also being praised as an anti-capitalist story, which is completely missing the point. If you look closely at the show, you’ll realize it’s more about the elites versus us and how we’re just toys for their entertainment.”
YouTuber Tim Pool, infamous for his eye-wateringly terrible takes, holds the same opinion, claiming that the show is clearly satirizing the brutality of communism, and that Hwang doesn’t understand his own work. In his video, Pool notes that the show’s contestants all wear identical tracksuits (mimicking a workplace uniform), but argues that this is symbolic of life under communism, stating:
“In communism, everybody wears the same clothes.”
Both arguments lean heavily on a single scene, in which the Front Man of the games reveals that the network of organ-harvesting cheaters have been brutally executed, and emphasizes the importance of “equality” between the players – this is the evidence heralded as an anti-communist allegory.
In the context of the story, however, this reading doesn’t make much sense – the scene is clearly poking fun at the myth of the meritocracy. The show openly contradicts the Front Man’s message, with unfortunate players who chose an intricate candy shape facing the barrel of a gun, or forced to jump on the glass panes first, having unknowingly picked the wrong number.
Not to mention the fact that the oldest player, Oh Il-nam, was secretly a billionaire, and enjoyed the protection of the guards. Cheating was, if anything, encouraged by the sadistic organizers of the games. Amusingly, numerous outlets have pointed out this intentional contradiction as a “plot hole.”
Squid Game, conceived by a man struggling to hold his head above water under capitalism, is almost certainly not about communism. Plus, being anti-capitalist doesn’t necessarily equate to being pro-communist, so the attempt to reframe the meaning of the series comes across as oddly defensive.
Sometimes, we find ourselves enjoying a work of fiction that is antithetical to our own personal beliefs – and that’s fine. We don’t have to pretend the messaging isn’t there, but simply enjoy the story for what it is.