With Squid Game having reached No. 1 on Netflix’s Top 10 list in 90 countries, and Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos claiming that there’s “a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever,” it’s clear that the series has resonated with viewers around the world.
In the U.S., it’s been No. 1 since Sept. 21, and is the first Korean series to hold that spot. While an alarming amount of American media seems intent on mining nostalgia even with original properties like Stranger Things, relying on familiarity to draw viewers in, it’s refreshing to see an original series explode into the mainstream.
Of course, the concept of Squid Game is far from original; we’ve seen deadly games played for entertainment in Battle Royal, The Hunger Games, and Westworld. It’s the theme (and execution), that resonates so strongly with audiences.
One of the consequences of chasing childhood nostalgia is that few stories feel as though they reflect the present moment (not that they have to, obviously – escapism is much of the reason we love fiction).
But film and television that truly taps into the zeitgeist is becoming increasingly rare, especially in today’s strange times, which are admittedly, difficult to emulate; Game of Thrones feels like the last show that “everyone” was watching, before viewers fragmented into the spectrum of streaming services and got lost in the recommendation algorithms.
While its gruesome violence is wildly exaggerated, Squid Game manages to reflect the feeling of the present moment, in the same way the decrepit, deceitful rulers of Game of Thrones reflected audience’s apathy and anger toward the political process.
Interestingly, many Korean films that have recently found popularity in the US share the theme of class struggle; Burning, Train to Busan, and, famously, Parasite. Squid Game’s anti-capitalist allegory is less subtle and more accessible than these films, while the series simmering tension and ever-escalating stakes make it easy to binge-watch.
Debt and death are commonplace in today’s landscape, and Squid Game features plenty of both, with desperate players risking their lives for the chance at winning the jackpot, all for the amusement of billionaires. Despite its wild and sometimes absurd twists and turns, the series never loses sight of the economic inequality that motivates almost every single character.
Protagonist Seung Gi-hun is revealed to fallen into debt and despair after losing his job, due to him going on strike and being savagely beaten by the police; the way he tells it, the executives “ruined the company and held us responsible.” He even has a flashback to this moment during the games – the show isn’t particularly concerned with being too on-the-nose.
Gi-hun, who is introduced as an unlikeable person, spending his mother’s hard-earned money on his gambling addiction, soon shows himself to be one of the most empathetic personalities in a game filled with opportunistic sociopaths. Gi-hun may have failed, badly, at capitalism, but he succeeds at retaining his humanity during the most desperate hours of the game.
Squid Game succeeds due to its unnerving relatability; a faceless corporation which refers to its players by number rather than name, demanding they risk their lives, with the promise of the piggy bank always looming over their heads, really resonates with viewers – especially during the pandemic.
Written in 2009, Squid Game has proved incredibly prescient (ironically, the series was almost smothered by the system it criticizes, having been rejected by studios for a full decade, before being greenlit by Netflix).
Like Game of Thrones, the staggering success of Squid Game will surely inspire a tsunami of imitators; it will be interesting to see if the social commentary will be replicated, along with the dangerous games.