If the success of Squid game is a surprise, it is not exactly without precedent. For one thing, the popularity of K-Dramas has grown 200% among Netflix subscribers in the past two years alone. But zoom out and the image becomes clearer. Earlier this week, Netflix released some of their viewing data. Among its ten most watched series, two of them are not in English either and do not have any Hollywood megastar: the French Lupin takes second place while the Spanish-speaking hit Money theft occupies the sixth position.
The dizzying success of Squid game and the triumph of other non-English speaking shows could ultimately kill the unfounded idea that North American viewers – the bulk of Netflix’s audience – are not interested in watching foreign shows. This is significant in itself. But these shows also share a common thread: They all deal with inequality, capture the desperation of poverty, and dissect class anxiety. Regardless of country or language, capitalism is the common villain of Netflix’s global successes. He’s a villain that viewers everywhere can identify.
Squid game is effective in attracting you. In the middle of the first episode, viewers are immersed in a world as repulsive as it is captivating, with masked villains and hapless anti-heroes who don’t know what to expect. The “game” sequences are breathtaking – in the hands of creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, a game as familiar as tug of war is transformed into an exhilarating, high-stakes competition.
The first episode builds the tension by slowly pulling you into its shocking climax, when players discover the true cost of the game. No matter how much you read about it, you won’t be ready for the rules of the game. But Squid game is at its peak in the second episode, where the contestants briefly reunite with their normal lives. Here the show travels through the horrors in which they all exist: the pickpocket desperate to get enough money to save his little brother; the business graduate who can’t face the ways he let his mother down; the young migrant worker who cannot provide for the needs of his wife and newborn baby. And in Gi-hun’s case, the reality that his debt has not only driven his daughter out, but has also put him in a position where he is unable to help his ailing mother.
Over the course of the episode – aptly titled “Hell” – we learn about the various strangles these characters find themselves in, which are cruel enough that they even prefer to start betting with their lives again. Their debts – and their circumstances – are treated with tenderness and compassion. They are desperate people, ready to do anything to get out of their personal hells. Their desperation may be familiar to viewers in Korea, where household debt is snowballing, but it’s also universal: In the United States, Americans are more in debt than ever. In Canada, household debt is reaching worrying levels.
Beyond the indignities of working just to keep your head above water, debt has devastating health consequences like depression and anxiety. Forty percent of Americans would struggle to manage an unexpected expense of $ 400 because of debt. Meanwhile, even though the inequalities were already high, the pandemic made it even worse. Hell, it goes both ways, and inequality has also made the pandemic worse. This growing wealth gap is not an accidental result of capitalism – it is rather predictable. The games are invented, the money pot is fictitious, and Squid game is a tragedy, but its honest exploration of the weight of debt and inequality could not be more timely. Squid game fully understands the overwhelming consequences of being in debt, and it is easy for viewers to see them through. “We’re just here to give you a chance,” the masked villains say, and you understand their meaning is more sinister than that.
Squid game explicitly addresses these themes, but it’s not the only property of Netflix to delve into the horrors of capitalism. In Lupin, Assane Diop, the noble thief, has trouble paying the bills and is forced to rely on loan sharks to succeed in an elaborate heist. We see Tokyo, the protagonist of Money theftAlso, start with a place of desperation as she is left broken after a botched robbery before being taken in by the mysterious teacher. Even the hit in spanish Elite takes the anxiety out of the classroom, as three low-income students start their lives in an affluent school and struggle to fit in with their new classmates. In all these programs, the poverty and precariousness of the protagonists are the entry points for viewers, the vectors of relativity. We encourage them because we understand that they face the same forces as us.
All of these shows are exciting and well paced, with impeccable writing. But more precisely, the fact that it is these shows that Netflix viewers have drawn suggests a universal center of gravity. No matter what language or place, capitalism makes us all desperate. ●