close reads

A Game of Marbles Turns Squid Game’s Anti-Capitalist Critique Inside Out

This game ultimately changes players on a fundamental level, transforming them from people who stand with each other to people who stand against each other. Photo: YOUNGKYU PARK/Youngkyu Park/YouTube

Spoilers ahead for “Gganbu” and the rest of Squid Game.

Is there a theme more unifying in global pop culture than “capitalism is bad?” Spin the pop-culture globe and plop your finger down anywhere, and there awaits a version of this story: Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever, Rubaiyat Hossain’s Made in Bangladesh, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You (and, well, all of Loach’s other films), Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, Adam McKay’s The Other Guys. It helps that the statement is true, of course, and that the drastically entrenched gap between the haves and have-nots feels increasingly irreversible thanks to swollen corporations, climate change, and inexhaustible greed. “Wealth inequality” is a politely quaint way to say that approximately 2,000 billionaires hold more money than 4.6 billion people, according to Oxfam, and people all around the world can relate to the injustice of that. And probably some of those people count among the viewers who have helped make Squid Game the most in-demand show in the world.

Released with little fanfare on Netflix on September 17, Squid Game has dominated the streaming service’s top ten since. Comparisons are easy to make between the nine-episode series from South Korean writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk and fellow countryman Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 Oscar magnet Parasite, a film also marked by characters drowning in bills, basements and tunnel systems hiding an array of secrets, and — most importantly — a shared disgust with the social and economic status quo. If Squid Game and Parasite were the shaking-hands meme, their uniting factor would be “Eat the rich.”

Those broad similarities, though, and a shared exploration of capitalism’s corruption of conscience, shouldn’t obscure what Squid Game does so well, which is to revel in the refusal of subtlety. (A useful reminder that a breadth of approaches and styles exist in the incredibly active Korean entertainment industry.) The violence: great bursts of blood so red, so viscous, and so spattered that you can almost smell the metallic tinge in the air. The production design: like a kid’s playhouse/haunted house hybrid, with pastel paints, twin bunk beds, multicolored light bulbs, a guillotine, and sniper rifles poking through the walls. The misery: unstoppably endless, with observational dialogue like “We’re in hell here. There’s no rules in hell.” And the characters: embodiments of Hwang’s central argument that individual betrayal, on a person-to-person level, is the most soul-crushing byproduct of a domestic portrait of high real-estate prices, high inflation rates, and astronomically high household debt. Sound familiar?

There is no satirical bent to Squid Game, and no obliviousness on behalf of either the game’s players (who choose to compete against each other for the extremely slim possibility of a multibillion-won jackpot) or its organizers (who consider the game a distraction from the mundanity of their extremely comfortable lives). Everyone, from the competitors who were researched to ensure that they were desperate enough, to the researchers compiling the evidence of that desperation, has their eyes wide open to the fact that capitalism causes a number of plagues. And in Squid Game’s best episode, “Gganbu,” Hwang makes plain how the demands and disappointments of capitalism inspire and enforce the selfishness that the economic system requires for living within it. We’re transformed from the inside out while in its grasp, and whatever power might be found in solidarity, we are forced to sacrifice for the acquiescence of survival. There’s a commonality to that message that transcends genre and borders, and in “Gganbu,” the performances of the series’s ensemble cast, the nuances of Hwang’s script, and the brusqueness of the episode’s bloodshed combine to convey compelling urgency and haunting melancholy.

As the sixth episode of nine, “Gganbu” serves as the narrative turning point for Squid Game’s concluding act. Before then, Squid Game sets up its premise outside Seoul, South Korea. Our introduction to the game’s stakes is Train to Busan’s exceedingly handsome Gong Yoo, a salesman who uses ddakji, with tiles made of folded paper, to test whether would-be gamers will tolerate being physically abused for money. (How that particular version of ddakji brings to mind Sorry to Bother You’s “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me” is one overlap between Squid Game and Boots Riley’s anti-capitalist film, as is both projects’ obsession with horses.) The people approached to play ddakji are actually being recruited by a mysterious organization that secures their blood signature, promises them the opportunity to win a ton of cash, sedates them, and wakes them up on an island equipped for a series of dangerous games, with six scheduled to take place over six days.

There are 456 gamers on the island in total, and they’re hesitant about stepping out of line. Everyone running the island is wearing a mask, and they all seem to have military training and guns, and no hesitancy in using them. Plus, there’s the jackpot, hanging above their heads in a gigantic transparent piggy bank with gold accents: 45.6 billion won, or about $38.5 million. That amount can change lives — especially for people drowning in debt, which all of these individuals are — and it can buy silence. So all 456 gamers sign another set of waivers, and are given three rules by the Front Man (Lee Byung-hun): a player is not allowed to stop playing, a player who refuses to play will be eliminated, and games may be terminated if the majority agrees.

The latter point seems promising. Surely once people start dying — and 255 of them do after the first deadly game of Red Light, Green Light led by a gigantic robot doll — they’ll decide that the money isn’t worth it. And at first, the group does, ending the game by a margin of one vote. But after one day back in the real world, with its indignities, anxieties, and myriad bills past due, most everyone decides to come back. Money, and the veneer of hope it can provide, is a powerful thing, and the players return like moths to a flame.

There’s Seong Gi-hun/Player 456 (Lee Jung-jae), who after being laid off from his job at a car factory (a nod to the 2009 SsangYong Motor strike) has slid into gambling addiction, owing money to banks, private lenders, and gangsters. He crosses paths with his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo/Player 218 (Park Hae-soo), a former finance wunderkind who lost his clients’ money in the volatile South Korean stock market and is now wanted by the police for fraud and embezzlement. Gi-hun forms a bond with the game’s oldest player, Oh Il-nam/Player 001 (Oh Yeong-su), who is charming and wise but sliding deeper into dementia, while Sang-woo takes under his wing the deferential, physically strong Pakistani migrant worker Ali Abdul/Player 199 (Anupam Tripathi), whose employer has been withholding his wages. And floating on the outside of this foursome is Kang Sae-byeok/Player 67 (Jung Ho-yeon), a defector from North Korea whose savings were stolen by a scammer who promised to retrieve her parents, and never did. Without that money, Sae-byeok can’t look after her younger brother, who is now living in an orphanage.

Each member of this group can empathize with the others’ need to win because they’ve all been chewed up and spit out by the same corrupt system, and initially, they seem willing to work together and protect each other. In “The Man with the Umbrella,” Gi-hun’s method for licking a shape out of dalgona honeycomb candy is copied by Il-nam. In “Stick to the Team,” when other players led by the ruthless and double-crossing Jang Deok-su/Player 101 (Heo Sung-tae) wage a nighttime attack to eliminate further competition and more quickly bump up the winnings, the five rush to one another’s aid. Later on, Sang-woo urges Ali to hide his injured hand (“Don’t let them see. You seem weak”), and Gi-hun, Sang-woo, and Il-nam successfully lead their team during a life-or-death game of Tug of War. There is strength in numbers, and these relationships help keep the players alive.

A speech the Front Man gives in fifth episode “A Fair World,” though, captures the murkiness at the heart of these games: “Every player gets to play a fair game under the same conditions. These people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we’re giving them one last chance to fight fair and win.” And later on, at the beginning of “Gganbu”: “Each and every one of you is considered an equal within the walls of this facility. You must be guaranteed the same opportunities without being disadvantaged or facing any kind of discrimination.” That’s some real pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, the-free-market-evens-itself-out nonsense, since Squid Game also shows the island’s staff withholding information, manipulating certain situations, and making changes to the games in real time.

The games are engineered, as they progress, to inspire in the players the worst qualities their game’s wealthy and powerful organizers would ascribe to lower-class people, ignoring that they have created the conditions for this kind of scarcity and strife. The gamers put their hands out and ask for more food. They attack and inflict violence upon one another. They go from arguing with the staff to arguing amongst themselves. Nearly every alliance ends, and they do so because the individuals within them need to do whatever they can for one more day alive, and one more chance at money that could combat widespread poverty among the elderly (more than 40 percent) and unemployment among the young (nearly 22 percent). Combined, those elements equal an ethical dilemma entirely engineered by the game’s organizers that reinforces the monstrous VIPs’ opinion that these people deserve to be looked down upon and mistreated. It’s a circular chicken-or-egg Catch-22, and it’s always the rich and powerful pulling the strings.

This brings us back to “Gganbu,” which most purely captures the stacked-deck nature of the island. Until this point, games have either required players to advocate for themselves as individuals and play against the game’s organizers, or to play alongside others in a team. Those are the established rules so far, and the players expect them to continue when for the fourth game, they’re asked to find partners and shake hands to signify their collaboration: Gi-hun and Il-nam, Sang-woo and Ali, and Sae-byeok and another young woman, Ji-yeong/Player 240 (Lee Yoo-mi). The twist, though, is that the players aren’t forming partnerships, but selecting their next opponents.  Each player is handed a pouch of marbles, and the goal for each pair is to decide on a game and play it. The winner secures all their opponent’s marbles, and the loser dies.

So the island is pre-emptively quashing a players’ union? Basically! Allies (close friends who share everything, as Il-nam explains the term “gganbu” within the episode) are forcibly turned into foes, and the tragedy of these 61 minutes is how swiftly certain people switch moral sides when money is dangled above their heads, literally and figuratively. Hwang signifies the heartbreak of this with plaintive piano keys, closeups of characters’ collapsed faces, and compositional reminders that the game’s pink-onesie-wearing enforcers are always watching — hovering in the corners and background of the frame.

And so Sang-woo tricks Ali, secretly swapping his pouch of marbles with a pouch of rocks. Gi-hun takes advantage of Il-nam’s confusion, convincing the man that he’s lost marbles he’s actually won. Their behavior is in total opposition to the kind of people they were just a few hours ago, and the acting in all these scenarios is subtle but impactful. Park’s steady gaze and back-slapping camaraderie when Sang-woo asks Ali to trust him, contrasted with how he walks out of the arena without a backward glance after Ali is killed. Lee’s irregular gait and frenzied reactions to Il-nam’s tangential stories, and then his softened, defeated expression when he starts to cheat the older man. “Will you act and seize the last opportunity we’re offering here?” the Front Man had asked, but the question really is more like, “Will you let us destroy you, for a price?”

Fantasies of luck and wealth turn these people against each other, and all this betrayal plays out in deeply personal, practically intimate ways. Enemies are no longer certain other people, but all other people. Song-woo had previously paid for Ali’s bus fare home; now he abandons him to his death. Gi-hun had previously cared for Il-hun like a son; now he intends to leave him trapped in his own memories. Before “Gganbu,” Squid Game emphasizes how capitalism destroys in a top-down way, but after it, the series takes an inside-out approach. Whatever drew players to this game ultimately changes them on a fundamental level, transforming them from people who stand with each other to people who stand against each other.

That metamorphosis also informs various other plot developments in the series’s remaining three episodes, which further explore the morality schism. In eighth episode “Front Man,” Sae-byeok discourages Gi-hun from attacking Song-woo in his sleep — only to herself then be killed by Song-woo offscreen. Did he do so as an act of mercy, as he insists to Gi-hun? Or did the literally cutthroat behavior manufactured in “Gganbu” permanently change who Song-woo is? Hwang is as purposefully opaque in his final rendering of Song-woo as he is crystal clear in revealing Il-nam as an amoral villain. The primary architect of the game, Il-nam posed within it as a way to entertain himself before he succumbs to a brain tumor: “I wanted to feel something just one last time before I die.” The fact that the only way Il-nam and his wealthy friends could “feel something” was to inflict death upon hundreds of people they consider lesser-than is not great, and neither is Il-nam’s attempt to push his amoral worldview upon Gi-hun: “Can you still trust anybody to be good, even after everything you’ve been through?”

That uneasy question, and how it simultaneously absolves Il-nam of guilt while ignoring the capitalism-caused despair he manipulated to murderous ends, finally pushes Gi-hun into action. After a year of ignoring his 45.6 billion won, Gi-hun uses the money to fulfill promises made to Song-woo and Sae-byeok, dyes his hair red (a shade chosen by Hwang to signify the character’s “inner anger”), and abandons a trip to visit his daughter in the United States. Instead, Squid Game implies, Gi-hun decides to face off against the game’s organizers. Is this all an attempt to right his conscience? Does his declaration of, “I’m not a horse. I’m a person” mean he’s trying to reclaim his humanity by fighting the Front Man, the American and other foreign VIPs who watched and bet on the game, and whoever stepped into Il-nam’s shoes? And how is this restorative quest complicated by the fact that Gi-hun is using what could be construed as blood money to prove that he can be good?

Perhaps these would be narrative paths for a second season of Squid Game, which awaits renewal. But even if this season were to stand alone, lurking behind its delightfully stylish aesthetics (the teal tracksuits, the malevolently Cirque du Soleil–style games, the glittering gold animal masks) is the series’s most unsettling reminder: People choose to hurt each other when they don’t have to, and they’ll do it for money that the people pulling the strings won’t even miss. “It was a dream. Just think of it that way,” the Front Man tells Gi-hun after his win, but a nightmare is a type of dream, too, and it can feel just as inescapable as the capitalist traumas that pass for entertainment in Squid Game.

More From This Series

See All
‘Gganbu’ Turns Squid Game’s Capitalism Critique Inside Out