Squid Game: Exploitation, Autonomy and Ennui

The following contains spoilers for the entirety of Season 1 of Squid Game on Netflix

There can be little denying that Squid Game is entertaining. But do we understand it?

I don’t mean the plot, as Gi-hun and others crushed by onerous debt enter a series of deadly contests modelled on children’s games and so on. That’s clear enough. But to what extent is this realistic? To what extent an allegory?

I have seen Squid Game described as satire, but as we watch it are we laughing?

I have to admit that as I got there, I couldn’t help but find the ending of Squid Game to be a bit unsatisfying, and not just because it is left open for further seasons. I have had to think a bit about why that is.

Perhaps the twist undermines some of the emotional resonance of earlier episodes, but I don’t quite think that’s it. No, more deeply it lies in the sense that I wanted Squid Game to be even bleaker somehow, with less gestures at any possible way out or thought that the good guy could win. But why in the world would I want that? I love Gi-hun.

There is another thought I kept having as I watched Squid Game that I now think may be related. I wanted the structure of the game to be more consistent and have more of a veneer of fairness—to be able to play with the idea that this was all actually fair—but we’re not given that despite the rhetoric of the Front Man. It’s obvious this is empty talk and we hardly need to look behind the scenes to know it.

Those looks behind the scenes bothered me, too. In Episode 1, the whole thing seemed so stark, so chic, with the striking outfits of the guards and their anonymity. It was kind of a bummer to learn that there were human beings behind those masks, and to delve into both their personal messiness and the messiness of their illicit schemes.

Guards in masks stand before the assembled contestants in Squid Game

It’s a weak criticism, though, to suggest fault with a work of art because it doesn’t satisfy one’s pre-existing desires. Nothing could be novel if we demanded that everything do that. The best TV pushes us instead to interrogate our desires and expand our perspectives—it offers food for thought that the mind can’t stop chewing on.

I’ve realized what I wanted was for Squid Game to exculpate me for my enjoyment. Instead, it put me on the screen in parodic form. What I wanted was a neat and familiar critique of capitalism that I could run through my understanding of Karl Marx, and a thought about justice I could relate to John Rawls. What I got instead complicates those notions even as it explores them, and lands in a place far darker than either of those conceptual frameworks can comprehend.

It would have been more consoling for the unjust system to be more implacable; to be able to think that there was nothing for it due to its crushing and inescapable logic; to be able to lament the old song of how they won’t be free until they achieve class consciousness and won’t achieve class consciousness until they are free.

Instead Squid Game presents us with cracks all over the place, line of flights everywhere but which seem to lead nowhere. The system is not consistent enough to be overthrown.

Of course we can take the game as an allegory for capitalism, but that is complicated from the get-go insofar as the game is implicated in capitalism. And of course we can and should interrogate how the notions of consent and fairness operate within this frame. But the usual caveats and attempts at nuance break down. Our concepts circle back on themselves like an ouroboros, eating their own tail as we’re led to think about the games in analogy not just with an economic reality but with the reality of life itself more broadly.

And worse, it implicates us.

In Episode 9, Player 001 suggests that the problem is fundamentally boredom, and his decision to play in the games undermines our facile attempts to think them in terms of exploitation. For him, at least, perhaps they brought a confrontation with being-towards-death that opened his ownmost possibility of being. But that’s just sad.

And everywhere the thought seeps through the cracks. But are we not entertained?

The Front Man sits on a couch, watching players die in the games

Justice is Fairness

One could argue that the first two games in Squid Game are fair, in that the same rules apply to everyone. It is also at least theoretically possible that everyone could have succeeded at these games—there is nothing about the rules of Red Light, Green Light or Honeycomb to rule this possibility out.

Nevertheless, we should note that the failure to stop in the first game is not so much a violation of the rules as a part of the game itself, which would simply be no fun if everyone succeeded. It would be a sign of a poor game master, if you think about it. Thus for the penalty to be execution is not only extreme but a kind of violation of the spirit of what we do when we play, which is to chuckle at the difficulty of something as simple as stopping one’s body from moving. To laugh at how we are not fully in control of ourselves in the way we’d like to think.

This is to say nothing of the inherent unfairness of applying the same expectations to everyone regardless of their abilities. This would be the Rawlsian point—justice is fairness, and it isn’t fair for the less fortunate or the disabled to lack an opportunity simply due to the results of a natural lottery beyond their control.

A large female doll has its back turned as two guards stand at its sides, wearing circle masks, in Squid Game

Cracks in the façade of supposed equality already begin to appear in Squid Game with the differing shapes of Honeycomb, but these only make the game more difficult for some than for others, as opposed to impossible. By the time we get to the last game, though, the task has become truly impossible for some in all but the most technical of senses, as succesfully crossing the glass bridge depends on gleaning knowledge from those who’ve gone before you and fallen to their deaths.

And if you’re about to tell me how that isn’t the last game because the Squid Game is the last game, well that hardly seems to be game as so much as it does to be a fight to the death. The Front Man virtually says there are no rules, when it comes down to it.

The worst infraction on the notion of fairness occurs, however, with the fighting that takes place before the Tug of War. The players are encouraged to kill each other, some are even killed in their sleep—this is chaos, but not unplanned.

As the games proceed, any notion that our friends will be able to make it out alive together, to a life with money that awaits beyond, is crushed by the games themselves. This is the point of making them play marbles, I would suggest: to break those bonds and reveal the brute self-interest in the face of survival.

It’s all a kind of apologia for ruthless capitalism, actually, as though the games themselves present an argument that at base it is a dog eat dog world (and sometimes vice versa), and we only pretend otherwise.

It is in this regard that Gi-hun is an important counterexample, and it is important that we feel grief at what happens to Ali—who decides to believe his friend and dies for it—but it’s also no surprise that The Front Man is a former contestant.

He probably truly believes it is all fair, not because he can appeal to good arguments so much as because having gone through this ordeal himself he has to look back on it and think that anyone could succeed in order to assuage his own conscience. It’s the fallacy of anecdote—that any one person can do something doesn’t mean that anyone can do it.

But in another sense he’s not wrong—we are all equal in the face of death, which is always senseless. There are reasons, sure, but no justifications, and this is what Squid Game makes clear. A terminal medical condition is no more justified than a bullet to the head for breaking a honey cookie. The difference is just in thinking we ought to be able to prevent the suffering caused by human beings intentionally, but the truth is we can’t.

So we’re equal in that we all die without justice. From a certain point of view perhaps the games are as fair as anything can actually be—the unfairness is universally distributed. Thus the punishment for the one who seeks the ever so slight advantage of knowing what the game will even be.

Consent and Exploitation

On the face of things, the players in Squid Game consent to participate, and not just by signing a form in Episode 1. That’s hardly informed consent, after all, since it isn’t until after the signing of the form that they learn that the games will be deadly, and surely informed consent must be the ethical standard, insofar as it doesn’t make sense to say that someone agreed to something of their own free will when they didn’t know what they were agreeing to.

The notion of informed consent is actually rather hard to pin down, of course, at least in terms of what is required to secure it. Is it enough to provide the relevant information, for example, or is it necessary to make sure that the person understands this information? And if it’s the latter, how are we supposed to go about making sure they understand?

These difficulties are bypassed in Squid Game, however, insofar as the players choose to come back to play after having been freed by the majority vote. If this vote had gone the other way (as surely it sometimes must), there would be another issue to think about in terms of whether this would involve a tyranny of the majority, but at least in the iteration we see, this is not what happens. The players get to leave and those that continue on after this point would seem to do so of their own free accord in that no one forces them to return. And they know full well what they are getting into.

A woman screams, with blood on her face

Of course this leaves to the side the potential argument that what we’re dealing with is exploitation. For a choice to be truly free, the argument would go, there must be other available options. Take someone working for starvation wages at a sweatshop. Is the fact that they work that job “of their own free will” a defense of those sweatshop conditions?

Some would say it is, but if the choice is between making just enough to avoid starvation on the one hand and starvation on the other, might one not contend that this is a forced choice and their will is not free? When the robber says, “your money or your life,” you cannot choose to keep your money and give up your life—you would lose both.

Thus some might suggest that the players in Squid Game have been pushed to such desperation by the forces of late capitalism that their capacity to consent has been undermined. This is the structure of exploitation, even if the forces behind it are nebulous and only their aggregate is the cause.

And yet…

Autonomy and Ennui

The notion of exploitation depends on a thought about the inherent value of life itself; what Immanuel Kant would call the intrinsic worth of a person. We possess this, says Kant, because we are autonomous beings, who thus have a dignity beyond all price. We can decide what to do with ourselves, in other words, which makes us each a unique source of value in the universe.

This also gives me moral duties to myself, on Kant’s view—to respect my own dignity as a human being, my own autonomy. It’s an interesting tension that he articulates in suggesting that it is possible to fail to do so, as though one might decide to not be free.

Kant tries to thread this needle by distinguishing between our emotionally driven desires on the one hand and our rationally determined goals on the other. It is in the latter that autonomy lies—what one truly aims to do with oneself, for reasons, as opposed to what one feels like doing because of fickle emotion. Or think about something like drug addiction. Presumably no one thinks the options through and sets the goal for themselves of becoming a drug addict, but yet addicts exist…

This leads Kant to contend that suicide is always morally wrong; that it is a failure to respect one’s own intrinsic worth, as though life only had value if it were going well enough. But more to the point, to bring this back to Squid Game, Kant is contending that suicide can never be rational, and thus never truly an autonomous act.

This is questionable, and—even if participating in the games isn’t blatantly suicidal—thrown into question by the fact that Player 001 is actually the man behind the games who has inserted himself into them, to experience the thrill of them before he dies.

Player 001 with a smile on his face

In Episode 9, he tells Gi-hun that his motivation for creating the games was basically boredom. Ennui might be the right term—a certain weariness with the world that he claims both the very rich and the very poor share (which certainly doesn’t exclude those of us in the middle).

In the pleasure of being a spectator to the events, we can surely see the joys of exploitation, but Player 001 complicates such an explanation by entering the games himself. It’s almost as though he is seeking out the kind of confrontation with death that Martin Heidegger claimed opened one’s ownmost possibility of being—a door to authenticity. From this point of view we would have to contend that Oh Il-nam wasn’t pretending as he went through the trials of the game, but that on the contrary this was his truest self emerging…a thought that slips away all too quickly, of course, as he must have feigned his dementia during the marble game at least, and rather than being killed he was whisked away when he lost. Is it possible his life was never truly at risk? Surely it was at least in the tug of war and the nighttime chaos that surrounded it.

Regardless, the important question lies in our boredom and what we might do to assuage it. It’s of an existential variety, a feeling that perhaps nothing is worth doing—a question that cuts to a concern with the meaning of life.

We are all postmoderns now in that we are all agreed that there really isn’t one of those, at least not one that would apply universally.

Instead we’ll say, “to each their own. Who am I to question the life you’re living, as long as you’re not harming anyone?”…but where do we derive that caveat? What is its justification?

In Squid Game we see that slip away.

Kant’s claims about intrinsic worth falls flat. Who could truly believe such a thing any longer? It’s like believing that there is some grand narrative arc to History, as though there is some goal it is progressing towards. No, if History has an end it is surely only insofar as it is over.

So here we are, after the end, living anyway. Why?

The ethos of the capitalism that structures the world insists we ought to value money and material success, but there is something empty in that. All we have to do it look at those born into great wealth to see that they aren’t happy, or if they are it is in their striving to do something more, not for the sake of more money so much as for the sake of the project itself.

But with no means to assess the value of these projects, why not the Squid Game?

That people die is not answer; people die everyday all over the place, and most aren’t having any fun.

Is it not perhaps the case that the popularity of Squid Game lies precisely in its existential appeal; its offer of an escape from the mundane? As we watch, do we imagine ourselves as participants and derive from that a thrill?

A VIP in a gold animal mask sits on a couch while a waiter offers wine

If we are spectators we would seem to be represented by the VIPs within the story. I think it’s no mistake that they are so crudely drawn, and that their dialogue is so stilted. It rather resembles bad overdubbing and operates as a kind of diegetic criticism of those who watch Squid Game dubbed. Do they even realize that the VIPs’ lines are actually in English?

The process of overdubbing the audio track of a film or TV show serves to erase the performance of the actors who appear on screen, as they (or at least their language) is deemed to be too foreign. Something more familiar is thus overlain, to tell you what they said while displacing the unique voice doing the saying.

This is not to deny that quality work is done by voice actors who record these tracks, but rather to call attention simply to the structure of dubbed audio itself and how it functions, creating a certain kind of distance that provides a stumbling block to empathy.

The VIPs do not view the players as human beings with complex inner lives so much as they view them as pieces on a board, which of course doesn’t keep them from playing favorites.

As viewers of Squid Game, how do we view them?

Does a critique of colonialism lie in the fact that the VIPs speak English, along with the Front Man in these scenes? Should we place blame upon the West that gave rise to capitalism as a system that would come to structure the world, without leaving any avenues of escape?

Ali looks on, with tears welling in his eyes

The question of blame is perhaps not to the point. Squid Game undercuts that, too, by pinning it to Player 001, whom we had previously developed great affection for, and who dies in Episode 9. The game exists, and must be abolished. Who started it is irrelevant.

Whether it can be ended is a more difficult question, particularly if we’re not just talkng about the games Gi-hun and others participate in within this story but the broader game of capitalism itself.

But Squid Game offers another goal along the way that we might aspire to, embodied in Gi-hun. He remains honest, kind, and loyal throughout everything. He remains a friend, even to Sang-woo as the latter becomes a monster.

If there is a value to life—a truer response to our collective ennui than the thrills of exploitation and schadenfreude—surely it must lie in some way here; in our being together not for the sake of profit or even survival, but out of friendship.

Of course from the point of view of the powers that be, this seems woefully naïve. It struck me as woefully naïve on a first pass. And we shouldn’t deny that it is. Perhaps instead naïve is precisely what we should dare to be in the face of a world that aims to suck us into its crushing cynicism.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. Very thoughtful article, but I just want to clarify that, as someone who usually prefer the English dubbing to the original vocal track, it is because I do not speak the language of the actors, and reading text boxes that appear at the bottom of the screen causes me to miss the action and visuals.
    I miss the actor’s faces as they say the line, I miss what is going on in the scene, I miss important visual information because I am constantly reading what the actors are speaking instead of just hearing it (as was intended). It has nothing to do with wanting to erase anyone. And incidentally, yes it was easy to immediately notice that the VIPs were speaking English and those sections were not dubbed.

    • Yes, I wouldn’t want to imply that anyone as a viewer wants to erase the performances and apologies if I sort of did imply that unintentionally. I mean to be making a claim about the effect of dubbing itself. Of course subtitles are also imperfect. And also I am a bit of a snob about this, I realize. I hope you can excuse that.

      Mostly I thought it was interesting when this occurred to me about the VIPs. Many have pointed out how their dialogue is sort of bad or feels stilted or however we might put that. I thought it was interesting to pursue the idea that it was that way intentionally, though I don’t really know of course. Perhaps the fact that they are speaking English and the Front Man always speaks English when talking to them is sufficient to get at the point I wanted to be making

      • I totally agree with you about the VIPs. While watching I felt that their crass dialogue and behavior was definitely intentional. It was more shocking to see how flippant they were regarding the games and the contestants, and even towards the Squid Game staff and Front Man. After episode 1 I had an image in my head of a sophisticated cabal of evil elites that are the VIPs, however they are just dumb horny rich Americans. And I think that was the point. It served to make the games even more disgusting and repellent, that all that needless death was only to serve as entertainment to these idiots.
        Also, I am sorry if I came off a bit too snippy in my previous comment. I really appreciated this article, and I was a big fan of the show.

        • No problem at all! And yeah I feel like that was the point with the VIPs. I saw various people complaining about them being poorly acted and so on, and I suppose maybe but I think it feeds into the perception of them and is more interesting than if they were sophisticated. Glad you liked the article. Thanks for reading!

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