Seeking Salvation in Squid Game

Zachary Lee

Netflix’s Squid Game profusely bleeds the biblical onscreen. From the get-go, the hit Korean drama presents a twisted riff on the Good News: 456 people, united only by the inordinate financial debts they have no hope of paying off, seek absolution by competing in a series of children’s games to win a massive financial prize. However, there are fatal consequences to losing the games, which quickly transform into a brutal, violent, winner-take-all survival competition.

Before you can say “red light, green light,” the Christian connotations come hard and fast. Given the show’s fixation with money (the prize earnings literally remain suspended above all of the players’ sleeping chambers in a glowing piggy bank), the show seems to initially act as a parable about the dangers of deifying material wealth. When we first meet the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), he and other members of Korea’s poorest and under-resourced population are betting on a horse race. They’re all crowded in a space where the only light is that which emanates from the television screens displaying the competition. Their cries morph into a cacophony of chants as the cadence rises and falls with the race’s progression. This worship imagery appears again when the games’ players first see the prize money. The aforementioned piggy bank drops from the ceiling, providing the only source of illumination once the lights go out. The tantalizing glow fans the flame of the players’ greed (this Golden Calf parallel has all the subtlety of exploding glass).

However, Squid Game’s critiques don’t stop at creatively visualizing 1 Timothy 6:10’s warning against avarice. Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the series sardonically asks what master (other than money) there can be for the most vulnerable and exploited. Though the players may enter the game of their own “free will,” we’re left wondering whether this is truly of their own volition, given the deep economic disparity they experience. To have the ability to opt out of such inhumanity is a luxury for the privileged, the show suggests.

This becomes clear in the second episode, “Hell,” which depicts the aftermath of a uniquely macabre first game where over 200 players are killed. A majority of the surviving players then vote to end the game; to their surprise, they are sent home. Upon returning, though, their lives remain as precarious as before, given that their debts remain unsettled. They are overlooked by those in power, as the police laugh off their trauma. These survivors are simultaneously both free and shackled because of their heavy yoke. And so they all begrudgingly return to the games with renewed purpose and bloodlust (save for a few players), stripped of innocence and kindness. After all, when the life of your family is on the line (and a fortune is to be made) what’s a little murder between strangers?

The series sardonically asks what master (other than money) there can be for the most vulnerable and exploited.

Yet Squid Game stops at endorsing money’s salvific qualities. (Spoilers ahead.) In the show’s denouement, Gi-hun is dropped off in his hometown holding a credit card loaded with his winnings. Yet his return is anything but a victory lap: not only have his ex-wife and daughter moved to the United States, but his mother has passed away. There’s a cruel irony to these reveals as he only played the game (and thereby subjected himself to the horrors within) in order to save his family. He’s never felt more bankrupt despite owning a fortune. Despite the promises money makes, ultimately it cannot save him.

In this way, Squid Game masterfully articulates humanity’s thirst and hunger for a more holistic salvation. By articulating this hunger, the series sets the stage for the transformative power of the gospel. Mark 5 tells the story of Jesus going to heal the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official. On his way, a woman who had suffered from severe bleeding for 12 years reaches out and touches Jesus’ clothes. Upon contact, she is instantly healed. While Jesus could have easily continued on his way, he knew there was greater healing to be done. My friend Aly recently pointed out to me the significance of Jesus calling the bleeding woman “daughter” in front of the crowd. “He heals her physically,” she told me, “but he also restores her to community. This woman was not only sick; that sickness ostracized her from those around her because she was seen as ‘unclean.’ This is what makes Jesus calling her ‘daughter’ so powerful: he saw all of the things that were afflicting her and causing her suffering and he sought to heal her from all of it.”

This is the type of healing that the broken characters of Squid Game yearn for—one that addresses not just physical needs, but emotional and spiritual ones as well. This is the sort of healing that we cannot win or purchase, but only receive as a gift. Netflix reports that Squid Game is its most-watched program to date. May the show’s fierce longing illuminate the need for a different kind of salvation–or, rather, a different kind of Savior–one who is gentle and humble in heart, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.

Topics: TV