Watercooler moments are back, and the subject to know is Squid Game.
Netflix dropped the dystopian South Korean drama on Sept 17 and in just a few weeks, it’s on track to become the streaming site’s most popular series of all time, leaving reigning number one, the spoon-licking frill-fest Bridgerton, choking on its dust.
Quite a feat, when you consider that Bridgerton was consumed by a captive audience who had little better to do in lockdown (82m households had watched it by the end of 2020), while foreign-language Squid Game - which isn’t just occupying the top spot in the UK but in 90 other countries too, including Qatar, Oman, Bolivia and the US - has been released after real life has resumed. Restrictions may have lifted, but we’re choosing to stay in and watch.
The show has done better out of the starting block than other Netflix hits, like Money Heist and Sex Education, according to Parrot Analytics. Word of mouth is the biggest catalyst - I had at least five recommendations from various WhatsApp groups over the weekend. It entered the US Top 10 list on September 19 at 8, shot up to 2 the next day, and claimed the top spot on September 21, where it has remained ever since. If you needed further proof of its immense popularity, you need only check the excellent memes that are no doubt flooding your newsfeed.
It proves that bonnets and heaving corsets aren’t necessarily the winning formula for creating a viral show. Not only has Squid Game crossed borders (95 per cent of viewers are outside South Korea), but its overcome gender, age and language barriers and cemented itself as a true pop-culture phenomenon. But why is it so insanely popular?
The nine-episode series sees debt-riddled players invited to compete in children’s games like Red Light, Green Light (known as What’s the Time Mr Wolf? in the UK), marbles, and tug-of-war by a shady organisation. Names are swapped for numbers and they’re given green shell suits to wear; destined to become this year’s Halloween costume of choice. So far, so culty.
Winners make it to the next round and closer to the 45bn Korean Won prize money (around £28m). The cash hangs suspended in a bloated transparent piggy bank above their beds, serving as another torture tactic; their first and last waking thought, the answer to their financial bin fire.
If they lose? It’s a bullet to the brain, mercilessly delivered by masked guards in red tracksuits. A voice on the tannoy cheerfully announces that each life lost raises the jackpot. Inevitably, murderous player-on-player carnage ensues and a deadly facet of sleep deprivation is added to the mix. This, folks, is anything but child’s play.
A mystery overlord keeps tabs on who’s still breathing, gliding over a digital checkerboard like Darth Vader’s long lost cousin. He’s not the puppetmaster though; there’s a sense someone higher up is pulling the strings, confirmed when we see him phones in updates in English.
That’s the only English you’ll hear in Squid Game - unless you select the dubbed version, which should be considered a crime against viewing. Switch on the subtitles - if nothing else, they’ll force you to put down your phone and give the show your full attention. Squid Game deserves it.
Sure, it’s not exactly a new concept - Battle Royale, and the Hunger Games, Purge and Saw franchises all revolve around high-stakes games and bloody violence ( it’s also been likened to Parasite and Oldboy, other Korean-made offerings with the sort of explosive plot grenades that leave you reeling long after the credits roll). The difference is that, in Squid Game, players are given the choice to play. Ultimately they do, because this life-or-death tournament is nothing compared to the misery of their real-world existence . These desperate people have nothing left to lose, just their lives.
It’s incredibly graphic - which might at least partly account for its huge popularity among game-savvy teenagers - but the squeamish needn’t run for the hills. Squid Game’s success isn’t solely down to viewers’ voyeuristic bloodlust. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, director Hwang Dong-hyuk, surprised by the show’s immense worldwide popularity, said it’s down to the futility of adults risking their lives to win childish games. “The games are simple and easy, so viewers can give more focus on each character rather than complex game rules,” he added.
And what a set of characters. A game of marbles is pivotal; so fraught and gut-wrenching I could have done with a foil blanket and hot drink by the end. It’s where we really unpack the players and discover how they wound up in this diabolical place. They may be in crippling levels of debt, but they’re not all racetrack gamblers. We meet a disgraced surgeon, a North Korean escapee, an elderly man teetering on the edge of dementia, an exploited illegal immigrant, up to his neck in it after being swindled by a cruel boss.
Then there’s our lead, player 456, a jobless gambling addict who’s lost the respect of his family and cadges betting money off his mum. Reprehensible, but not totally beyond redemption. There are caricatures: the bully with facial tattoos, the hardened shrew who weaponises sex, the braying VIPs given dialogue so jarring it feels like turbulence. But for the most part, these are characters you feel invested in. The sets too, are beautifully rendered; a towering girl robot with laser eyes, a treacherous glass bridge illuminated with columns of light, MC Escher staircases in playground pastels.
So perhaps there’s a simpler reason as to why Squid Game has made Netflix’s shares skyrocket: it’s just really great telly. It’s tightly written, each episode packed with enough pace to make it truly binge worthy. Universally engaging themes of wealth inequality, capitalism, honour, justice, and survival offer compelling reasons to keep watching well beyond bedtime. Ultimately Squid Game’s lure is in the art of strategy: will players team up to stay alive or screw each other over in their quest for cash?
If nothing else, you’ll leave with some useful moves for your next game of tug-o-war, and plenty to discuss at your next water break.
Squid Game is on Netflix