The horrors of the Netflix hit are escapism for its characters — and for us.
The opening of the second episode of Squid Game pans back from the exterior of an incinerator, the suffocating flames inside visible from a tiny rectangular window. Ominous music scores a scene of mass cremation: dozens of pink-bowed boxes are being forklifted in, all of them carrying dead bodies to be burned and disposed of. One box, though, moves — the person inside is still alive, croaking and peeking a bloodied hand out, before a worker comes over, drills the box shut and readies it to be tossed into the furnace with the rest. The title card for the episode floats in: “Hell.”
It’s a delectably grisly, captivating opener, and a sample of what has made the show, now likely the most successful in Netflix’s history, take the entire world by storm. Yet it’s also a moment of thematic trickery: the “hell” is not the game that the show’s cast and the viewers have just been plunged into. It’s the hell the show mostly avoids, the reason everyone has opted into a deathmatch and why we’re here watching it all in the first place — the hell of everyday life.
The start of this episode takes place immediately after hundreds of contestants have just come to terms with the reality of a competition they blindly volunteered themselves to. The players, each of whom is saddled with insurmountable debt and financial strain, are competing in a series of childhood games for a massive pot of money. But, after playing the first game in which players are eliminated by being shot, they realize that losing means some form of a bloody death. Utterly traumatized (light spoilers ahead), they choose to vote, as per the rules according to the game’s mysterious overseers, on ending the game. By one stroke, the majority favors leaving, and the contestants are unceremoniously shuttled back to their lives.
The rest of the episode interweaves between the predicaments that the main cast returns to — the reasons they were compelled to enter into the competition in the first place. The realities are ugly. The protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), can’t find the money to pay for an emergency surgery for his elderly mother, even after begging for help from his ex-wife, who is taking his daughter away to the U.S. with her current husband. Another contestant, a man from Pakistan named Ali (Anupam Tripathi), accosts his former boss who is withholding wages from his undocumented workers, leading to a freak accident that forces him and his family to split up and go on the run. With a warrant out for his arrest and facing a litany of white-collar crimes, Cho Sang-Woo (Park Hae Soo) decides to take his own life before he receives another invitation to re-enter the competition.
By the end of the episode, in a bracing sequence, we see a montage of each of these characters standing on the side of the street, looking for a van, ready to re-enter what is practically a suicide pact — ready to leave the relative safety of what they came back to. This, life under the constant claustrophobia of financial hardship, is the real hell. It’s the thing they actually can’t choose to be free from. “Where am I supposed to go, huh? Out there, I don’t stand a chance. I do in here,” one contestant shouts bitterly during the vote early on to leave the competition. “I’d rather stay and keep on trying in here than go back to the bullshit out there.”
The game of life-or-death is in fact escapism for these contestants — and it’s also what makes a horrific gore-fest like Squid Game a surprising source of escapism TV for viewers. After a global pandemic that has exposed more nakedly than ever the ever-widening gap of wealth disparity and the way capitalism has ravaged society in the country and the world, wouldn’t we want a moment to turn away from the stark picture of economic desperation of Squid Game? Can’t we just stick to the saccharine, folksy tune of Ted Lasso and his feel-good aphorisms? No, because Squid Game offers its own perverse kind of respite — a grim, deadly way out from the downward spiral of our quotidian, capitalist hellscape, but a way out nonetheless.
We see a tamer version of this attitude playing out en masse at this very moment via The Great Resignation. In the wake of the pandemic, millions are in more dire financial straits than ever, and yet as employers push their workers to return to their workspaces, people are quitting in droves. These days, you’re more likely to inspire admiration and secondhand joy from others when you announce that you’ve quit a job rather than gotten a shiny new one. Even as economic conditions on practically all fronts of modern life are worsening exponentially, for many who are burnt out (i.e. almost everyone), it’s better to quit than to be confronted daily with a neverending maze, a system of wage slavery that was designed to work against you.
Much has been said about Squid Game’s anti-capitalist politics, how this competition serves as a darkly absurdist mirror revealing the lengths that people up against major exploitative forces — as in, the majority of people living today — have been pushed to. But the show is also a kind of grotesque fantasy: a place in which fairness and an even playing field, the games’ main overseer emphasizes, is the one true rule. As one of the contestants, an old man facing impending death (in the eyes of a capitalist system, an obsolete worker and in turn a form of useless human life), says, “Out here, the torture is worse.”
The problem is, in the real world, when you quit, most have nothing to turn to. There is no other option, no place where you can “stand a chance.” The idea of a meticulously constructed deathmatch with a jackpot at the end of the rainbow is as much a fantasy for most as the idea of a viable, stable path to freedom from financial burden. All most people can do is daydream about a better future via nine addictingly crafted episodes of bloodsport.