What is our collective fascination with watching the suffering of others? Has a global pandemic that has endured for more than a year not been motivation enough to prefer pleasant, lighthearted fare, at least for the time being? Yet, somehow, even in this current moment, the number one show on Netflix in an astounding ninety countries is the South Korean series Squid Game, which finds people in true, inescapable desperation fighting to survive. It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly addictive.
For the uninitiated, just what is Squid Game? That’s part of the central mystery of the show, introduced in stages as characters begin to understand the magnitude – and malevolence – of their circumstances. A narrator speaks in the pilot’s opening scene of a setup that resembles popular sports, in which a failure to complete the objective results in a player’s death, which is of course only simulated. Later, adults who are drowning in debt are invited to participate in a simple game, one that will pay them 100,000 won (Korean currency) if they win and result in a slap to the face if they lose, a substitution for them repaying the same amount. Drawn in by the seeming simplicity and potential for tremendous payoff, 456 people agree to participate in something they know little about and soon discover is deadly.
Anyone watching will surely know that things are much more complicated and treacherous than they at first seem, and yet audiences will be hopeless to turn off the show midway through an episode. The featured protagonist is Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who owes so much money that he has been forced to sign away his kidneys if he fails to repay his debt and who is facing the prospect of losing his daughter, who is set to move to America with her mother and stepfather. The way in which he continues to burrow further into a hole with his incessant gambling makes him seem truly doomed. Even before he begins the slap game, he asks the mystery man who approaches him whether he is selling a pyramid scheme, dubious about the notion that he or anyone else can essentially get something for nothing.
But it’s the allure of the unknown that draws in both Seong and his fellow players and the millions of viewers who have been binging this nine-episode series. Rather than reveal the specific amount of the cash prize that winners will receive at the start, a giant pig is shown that could contain almost unimaginable sums. The rationale behind the figure becomes a central plot point extremely relevant to the nature of the game and its players’ survival, but that’s also how the game works: once you’re in it, the only way out is to win. It’s better than a reality show since the stakes are infinitely higher and, as long as you don’t think about it too long, no one is actually getting hurt.
This is hardly the first time that a show or movie has delighted in portraying misery. An evil masked grandmaster watches the first horrifying game from a luxurious perch, with lovely music scoring the scene in stark contrast to the brutality he is witnessing. In all likelihood, most Netflix subscribers will find more in common with that faceless villain, sitting in the comfort of their own homes on couches watching people whose situations they couldn’t even begin to imagine. The presence of subtitles is merely a reflection of the series’ country of origin, since its currency and culture can easily be swapped out for societal inequality and systemic issues anywhere.
In an age where everyone is seeking respite from the problems of their own lives, traveling to a vicious reality that most resembles the landscape and format of a video game where death can come at any moment seems to be the most appealing outlet. Surpassing other megahits like Bridgerton, Lupin, and The Witcher in terms of viewership numbers is no small feat, especially for a foreign-language series, and it’s no surprise that the anticipation for a very likely second season has already begun. It’s a far cry from series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk once having to sell his laptop for much-needed cash, which is itself an interesting parallel to the show’s focus on socioeconomic inequality, and the show is watched by so many that the real phone number displayed on a business card has resulted in thousands of unwanted calls to its owner. This show knows what audiences want to see, delivering a haunting, nonstop survival game that, the more violent and grim it becomes, will only continue to pull in new fans eager to see more.
Season one of Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix.