Why Squid Game is the most brilliantly subversive series since Black Mirror

Squid Game, Netflix’s most recent enormously popular series, appeared out of nowhere. The Korean series, which is available in North America with English dubbing and the option of subtitles or closed captioning, is on track to become Netflix’s most popular non-English-language show to date — possibly even its most popular show overall.

Squid Game features a group of people who are compelled to engage in a series of life-or-death games, similar to Battle Royale, Hunger Games, and the recent Japanese series Alice in Borderland. And, while it has a lot in common with those projects, it also has a lot in common with the equally stunning and mind-bending psychological anthology series Black Mirror, which investigated class inequality, capitalism gone awry, and the power that comes with privilege, among other complex topics.

Squid Game and Black Mirror, in particular, are some of the most compelling analyses of these subjects on television.

Seong Gi-Hun smoking a cigarette, Cho Sang-Woo sitting in a suit beside him from Squid Game.

No choice left

Although there are apparent parallels between Squid Game and Battle Royale or Alice in Borderland, the comparison to Black Mirror is more subtle. Thought-provoking discussion on societal concerns is at the center of both broadcasts.

Black Mirror examines technology, our reliance on it, and the potentially disastrous consequences of elevating our obsessions to horrifying new heights (or, some might argue, even continuing on their current paths).

Meanwhile, Squid Game changes the focus of the discussion to economic disparity. And, unlike in Battle Royale or Alice in Borderland, the participants in Squid Game’s frightening and terrible human torture games are technically — and shoddily — qualified.

The protagonists in Squid Game risk their lives because the alternative is to return to a world where they are ignored, confronted with apparently insurmountable problems at every step, and have accumulated more debt than they could ever pay off in their lives.

Even if characters choose to use and rely on the technologies and systems that lead them down a path with disastrous consequences, what happens in Black Mirror is often a by-product of societal trends and cultural developments. In the episode “Be Right Back,” for example, a lady decides to employ artificial intelligence (A.I.) to “bring back” her deceased boyfriend, despite the fact that she is well aware of the dangers.

Both programs focus on characters that take a risky road because they feel they have no other choice, whether due to economics or technological limitations.

A worker in Squid Game standing in front of the many participants in numbered jumpsuits.

Slaves to the system

In both Squid Game and Black Mirror, the protagonists are frequently victims of societal inequity, punished for their misfortunes, and compelled to turn to terrible tactics in order to survive.

While the organizers of the Squid Game prey on the weak and disposable, Black Mirror depicts a world in which humans have effectively become blind followers of whatever dystopian future is presented to them – mere cogs in the wheel and worshipers of whatever technology god they have chosen to worship. In both shows, the mechanisms that surround you and support others around you are used against you.

In the Black Mirror episode “Arkangel,” helicopter parents can prevent their children from viewing questionable imagery in real life, while the episode “USS Callister” explores how those who have been marginalized can enter a virtual game and exact revenge on those who have ignored them in the real world. The “players” in Black Mirror are not just captives to social norms (“15 Million Merits,” “Nosedive”), painful social media comments (“Hated in the Nation”), and even their own crimes (“White Bear”).

A woman with a mask chasing down a player in the White Bear episode of Black Mirror.

Capitalism and coercion

Another way the two series are similar is that they both focus on patriarchal, capitalist society and how people in authority may manipulate, control, and use others for their own personal gain, including entertainment.

The decisions players make in Squid Game are heavily influenced by themes of power, greed, and economic inequality. People who are resigned to a life of crime and violence in the real world are encouraged to use their strength and confidence in the games to pick out the “weak ones.” Those that lie, manipulate, cheat, and steal in real life devise strategies to use these “talent” in video games to eliminate their opponents.

Similarly, “Men Against Fire,” one of the most memorable episodes of Black Mirror, portrays a highly competent soldier who uses special glasses to target and kill wild mutant adversaries. He eventually learns, much to his dismay, that the goggles had him killing poor, helpless immigrants for the government with no remorse. In a sense, he’s being held captive in his own Squid Game for the advantage of those in authority.

Workers from Squid Game standing over a casket.

Similarities aplenty

It’s no surprise that Squid Game has been compared to “Battle Royale meets Black Mirror.” It’s a program about people who are down on their luck and desperate with nothing to lose at its core, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. A culture that favors the powerful and ignores the weak is what has led them to this point. Squid Game, like every episode of Black Mirror, leaves you guessing until the very end about how things will turn out.

Squid Game is more violent than all of Black Mirror’s episodes put together, but it’s also just as frightening, subversive, and thought-provoking. And, perhaps most crucially, both shows have something to say about human nature and societal issues.

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