[Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for “Squid Game.”]
“Squid Game” is the massive hit of the year that nobody saw coming. The Korean-language Netflix survival drama premiered September 17 and steadily became a sensation in America as well as the rest of the world, despite the series’ initially minimal stateside marketing. The show has been a leading topic on social media and entertainment news for weeks, and “Squid Game” is shaping up to endure longer than most viral successes; critics have mostly praised the show as a tense drama carrying sharp social commentary, while retailers are hustling to cash in on the phenomenon. Season 2 isn’t guaranteed to happen, but it’s beginning to seem increasingly likely that viewers will be able to return to the world of “Squid Game” in the future.
It’s also the first television show from Hwang Dong-hyuk, a longtime South Korean filmmaker who has long since made a name for himself via critically and commercially successful drama films such as “Silenced” and “The Fortress.” Hwang ‘s films have received widespread attention in South Korea, but the high popularity of “Squid Game,” which he wrote and directed all nine episodes of, has catapulted the director to the global stage. It’s a passion project that was over a decade in the making for Hwang , who had long wanted to satirize capitalism — namely, the lengths that desperate people will go to to ensure financial stability, as well as the individuals and corporations who already have grotesque amounts of wealth and power.
“I conceived of the theories for the show in 2008. At the time, there was the Lehman Brothers crisis; the Korean economy was badly affected and I was also economically struggling,” Hwang said in an interview with IndieWire via a translator. “Over the past 10 years, there were a lot of issues: There was the cryptocurrency boom, where people around the world, especially young people in Korea, would go all-in and invest all their money into cryptocurrencies. And there was the rise of IT giants like Facebook, Google, and in Korea, there’s Naver, and they are just restructuring our lives. It’s innovative but these IT giants also got very rich. And then Donald Trump became the president of the United States and I think he kind of resembles one of the VIPs in the Squid Game. It’s almost like he’s running a game show, not a country, like giving people horror. After all these issues happened, I thought it was about time that this show goes out into the world.”
Those are issues that tend to resonate with film and television viewers. Many of today’s most popular television shows, from “Succession” and “The White Lotus” to “The Boys,” are pointed critiques on economic inequality, while Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” the last Korean-language title to find huge success in the United States (and the first to win Best Picture), also relentlessly skewered the wealth gap. For non-Korean speaking viewers, there’s a minor language barrier to overcome with “Squid Game” — though whether that’s even a real hurdle for viewers in 2021 is debatable — but regardless, the series’ timely themes can resonate with audiences of any language.
That wasn’t the case when Hwang began working on the script, which he originally intended as a film. At the time, studios and performers balked at Hwang ‘s “Squid Game” concept; the series centers on deeply indebted individuals who participate in a brutal game show run by the uber-rich for the chance to win around $38 million. The games — deadly twists on classic childhood games such as tug-of-war and red light, green light — were too violent. The premise was too bizarre. But as economic inequality worsened over the years, the concept of desperate people willing to sacrifice their lives (and the lives of fellow contestants) for the chance to dig themselves out of a financial hole began to seem less incredulous.
“The concept itself was not realistic at the time 10 years ago. It was too bizarre and people thought it wouldn’t be a money-making film, also because it was violent and there would be some issue with ratings and the target audience would shrink,” Hwang said. “But 10 years had passed and for Netflix, their distribution system is different from films; they have less restrictions, so I could go about my own way of making this film and I felt less pressure about these issues.”
Though the Wall Street Journal reported on October 4 that “Squid Game” was partially designed with a global audience in mind, Netflix did not heavily market “Squid Game” in the United States prior to its premiere. The show nonetheless became a massive hit in the country due to word of mouth and positive press. “Squid Game” is hardly the first unexpected success of the streaming era, nor is it the first non-English language title to find a large viewership in the United States. Still, it’s rare for a non English-language television show to garner such a colossal fanbase so shortly after its premiere.
There are a handful of possible explanations, but one of the most important ones is simple — it’s a very good television show. “Squid Game” is a gripping drama full of believable characters who are both likable and flawed. Lee Jung-jae stars as Seong Gi-hun, also known as 456, a hopelessly indebted gambling addict whose oafish mannerisms and general ineptitude initially invite exasperation, but are eventually balanced out by his acts of kindness and willingness to help his teammates. Jung Ho-yeon and Lee Yoo-mi (who portray Kang Sae-byeok/067 and and Ji-yeong/240, respectively) carry one of the show’s most memorable and emotional arcs and share a scene that is genuinely heart-wrenching.
Mystery and intrigue about the nature of the sinister Games are bountiful, and there’s more than enough gore to satiate that “Game of Thrones”-shaped hole in viewers’ hearts. (Never underestimate the American entertainment consumer’s penchant for a good bloodsport.) The show also boasts a clever and visually-engrossing color palette: The city streets roamed by destitute characters before participating in the Games are gray, dreary, rainy, and depressingly lit, which is a stark contrast to the bright, cheery, and antiseptic corridors that the players reside in during the Games.
Though “Squid Game” is named after a Korean children’s game, the show also features several deadly incarnations of internationally known competitions, including red light, green light in the first episode. No matter the game, they’re all simple to describe. Hwang believes that that helped to simplify the show’s otherwise outlandish concept, while the violent nature of the games still made “Squid Game” seem fresh.
“I just wanted to portray an irony, because most of the survival game-themed pieces, their games are very complex, you have to be very clever, and it’s serious,” Hwang said. “You understand why they’re putting their lives at stake, because the games are so difficult. I wanted to go the other way — go simple — and make people wonder why the characters would put their lives at stake for these games. […] When it was originally written as a film script, I had to concentrate on just the games because it was just two hours. But now that it’s a nine-episode long series, I could focus on the relationships between people [and] the stories that each of the people had.”
“Squid Game” is one of several non English-language Netflix shows that has found a significant stateside audience. The French-language “Lupin” and Germany’s “Dark” performed well in the United States. More recently, Netflix’s Spanish-language “Money Heist” also connected with American viewers; “Money Heist” premiered the first half of its Season 5 in September and has been one of streaming TV’s top-viewed shows, per Nielsen’s recent reports. “Squid Game” and all of the aforementioned shows can be viewed with subtitles or a variety of dubbed languages and though it is unclear how many viewers prefer to view the dubbed versions of “Squid Game” (Netflix declined to provide statistics for this article), having multiple options to overcome the language barrier is likely a boon for Netflix’s foreign language content.
Worsening economic inequality made the concept of “Squid Game” more appealing, but if there’s an upside to the passage of time, it’s that advances in streaming have opened the gates for film and television creators to have their art viewed around the world, according to Hwang .
“Before, with older media, when one country’s filmmaker wanted to go to bring their film to another country, there were a lot of barriers with time and language,” Hwang said. “For example, if it’s a Korean movie venturing into the U.S. market, we had to go to the film festivals and find a distributor in the U.S. But now we have streaming services and YouTube, so we have the infrastructure to go global in everything that we make. I think now, if there’s good content, the global audience is just waiting to watch it. I think ‘Squid Game’ is proof that this is possible. The only possible problem that’s left could be the language barrier, but I think people are warming up to that, as well.”
Exact viewership numbers for “Squid Game” aren’t publicly available yet, but the show’s apparent success has led to an obvious question: Will there be a Season 2? Hwang noted that he was laser-focused on completing Season 1 during production and hadn’t given any thought to a sequel prior to the show’s release. But given the show’s immense popularity, enthusiastic fan base, and several plot threads that could be expanded, Hwang admitted it’s possible that more “Squid Game” programming could be on the way.
“I’m getting a lot of pressure on Season 2,” he said. “I still have the story about the Front Man and his relationship with his brother, the police man. And people are also curious about where Gi-hun is headed in the finale because he turns away from the plane. I think I do have the obligation to explain it to the fans and I’m thinking about Season 2, but at the time, I was so tired after finishing Season 1, I couldn’t really think of Season 2. But now that it’s become such a big hit, people would hate me if I don’t make a Season 2, so I feel a lot of pressure and think I’d have to. The big success of Season 1 is a big reward to me, but at the same time it’s given me a lot of pressure.”
“Squid Game” is available to stream on Netflix.