“Why are you here?”, the lowlife gambler asks his childhood-friend-turned-white-collar criminal.

It’s an unassuming question between two polar opposite men which reveals a harsh truth about the Squid Game, where an anonymous segment of South Korea’s bottom 99 percent of economic earners compete to the death for a 45.6 billion dollar Korean-won reward.

Players in the squid game stand in a room under a ball of illuminated money behind the TV show title "Squid Game"

The official poster for the hit new TV show “Squid Game”.

To specify, the gambler, Gi-hun, questions why his successful friend came to participate in this secretive, brutal Olympics of suffering. Neither of them even consider the how, almost as though the details behind their coming together aren’t relevant to their strange predicament.

Despite the hosts’ insistence regarding the voluntary, democratic nature of the games, none of the 456 competitors are comfortable enough in their everyday life to turn down the mysterious organization’s offer. The outside world has left them desperate for the payday to end all paydays–even if they encounter their own vicious end in the process.

Despite being grouped together with hundreds of social outcasts, Gi-hun, portrayed by Lee Jung-jae, is the designated heroic everyman in the nine-episode “Squid Game”. It’s a show which strips down contemporary issues surrounding income inequality, government inaction and systematic murder, while maintaining a similarly minimalist presentation.

What makes this infectious saga worth its $900 billion box office-equivalent evaluation is not its predictable story or glossy production values. Rather, it’s how creator Hwang Dong-hyuk takes advantage of the narrative blank canvas of a setting as well as a broad, diverse list of cast members to form a universalist tragedy of desire and sacrifice.

The compound on which the Games take place is something of a character itself—static, yet complex. It resembles a miniature dystopian society, oscillating between dehumanizing conditions and belittling artistic motifs.

Human contestants sleep in warehouses on towering bunk beds. Faceless security guards order the players around in single-file lines and call them and each other by assigned numbers. Surroundings alternate confusingly from disorienting, M.C. Esher-inspired staircases to brooding, dark stages.

These ham-fisted parallels to concentration camps are made more apparent as guards emotionlessly and systematically execute players over the smallest mistakes in their gameplay. Though it’s a classic case of the least-important-characters-out-first trope, the show excels in placing Gi-hun and his closest allies’ mortality in constant doubt.

On that note, the show’s multinational and multi-racial cast of characters is an important support to its internationalist agenda.

Confined to strategy sessions at their bunk beds and panicked dialogues between game sessions, these characters and their spontaneous interplay bring life to an otherwise limited story.

However, it is the characters’ differences in personality, age, ambition and self-worth which, when clashing at the worst possible moments, make for the most riveting television in several years.

The broad array of relatable characters has a tangible effect on Netflix audiences everywhere. From the Front Man and the stowaway police detective and to the elderly Player 001 and Gi-hun himself, the show unforgettable challenges the moral purity of each individual character with every exchange.

Contrastingly, this ceaseless peril comes at the cost of emotional depth.

The fact that the most lethal TV program of 2021 revels in cartoonish gore and jump scare-laden headshots is not a surprise, but Dong-hyuk’s overeagerness to exhibit the mass graveyard’s worth of lifeless human bodies dominates the show’s presentation and results in sparse payoff.

Nevertheless, there is a clear point being made in the story. The remote island on which “Squid Games” takes place is oppressive and obtuse, but it’s no more alienating and ruthless for its visitors than the real world is.

During the second episode, one nameless contestant practically begs amid the growing body count to keep the games themselves alive, crying “In here, I stand a chance, but out there? I got nothing out there.”

The irony of such a statement, especially as he and hundreds of other contestants inevitably meet their doom, does not go unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. In a world where economic wellbeing is predicated on opportunity cost and risk, suicide is no game—it’s the piggy-bank-painted golden rule of this post-capitalist life.

Wyatt Layland can be reached at jaedynyoung@sagebrush.unr.edu or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.