This review contains spoilers
“Squid Game,” a nine-episode South Korean fantasy-survival drama released by Netflix last month, raises the question: “How much would I have to earn to risk my life?”
In “Squid Game,” we see 456 contestants — mostly people with a lot of debt and financial issues — compete in children’s games, like red light, green light or tug-of-war, for the chance to win 45.6 billion South Korean won ($38 million). If a player loses, they are killed. Further into the show, it is revealed that the games are run by a rich upper-class who bet on the outcomes. Ultimately, the deaths of these players are meant to be entertainment for an audience and nothing more.
“Squid Game” has taken the world by storm, reaching the No. 1 spot on Netflix in 90 countries. Clearly there is an audience for whom the themes of class divide, income inequality and crushing debt resonate. The struggle of fights to the death while the wealthy laugh paints a stark, all-too-familiar picture. When the “Squid Game” prize is over 1,700 times the amount that a minimum wage worker in New Mexico makes in a year before taxes, it's obvious why participants would want to play regardless of where they come from. As the U.S. continues to heighten the inequality that affects its citizens, this show resonates here for a reason.
Debt takes many forms, for both the modern American and for the game’s participants. We see examples of gambling addictions, money owed to mules for assisting in sneaking family across the border and an exploited immigrant worker trying to provide for his family. These aren’t so foreign to us as we stare down the high costs of tuition, healthcare, housing and more.
The debts we see are, for the most part, people trying to survive. According to the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, roughly 48% of people under 35 years old had nearly an average of $3,700 in credit card debt as of 2019. As a whole, Americans owed $807 billion in credit card debt across nearly 506 million accounts in 2019, according to Value Penguin. In the context of “Squid Game,” there would need to be 21,193 winners to wipe out all that debt, killing 9,642,815 people in the process.
The resonant themes of “Squid Game” are value, worth and risk management. For some players, participation was a no-brainer. Their situation had become so untenable that dying in the game was no worse than continuing on their former path. For others, it was about achieving a dream that would otherwise be completely out of reach without the benefit of a fat stack of cash. I think it’s safe to say most of us fall into that second category.
That’s the core of the problem, though, isn’t it? Dreams tend to be out of reach, and it’s nearly always money that is standing in the way. A few decades ago, it wasn’t as much of an issue, especially when the value of the dollar in 1970 had the purchasing power of today’s $7.05. But now we face that gap, a nigh impassable chasm for even the most basic pieces of our dreams. It’s hard not to feel helpless and stuck at the hand of some invisible system that forces us to compete in a market to survive, much like the “Squid Game” participants.
Is there a solution? Well, like “Squid Game” has taught us, the hyper-rich run, control and bet on the game. There are chances for upward mobility, but those are few and far between, and there can really only be one winner at the end of the game.
Dan Pennington is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DanDangerously