Published: 21st October 2021
Why is the Netflix show Squid Game so popular and why is it spawning a protest culture?
For pop content to ignite conversations and strifes about deep-rooted socioeconomic issues is a rare feat. We explore the depth and extent of the Netflix show Squid Game's fame
Watching Squid Game sometimes felt like someone had taken all the fun out of Takeshi's Castle. After all, a brunch of people playing innocuous games shouldn't end in a bloodbath. There is, however, more to the Netflix show than meets the eye. For one, it wasn't a shot in the dark by the OTT platform. Netflix invested about $680 million into Korean dramas and films after the 2019 movie Parasite captured the world and four Oscars.
Squid Game cost Netflix $21.4 million. Up until now, it has earned $900 million and was watched by 142 million households across the world, according to data shared by the streaming site. So how does a Korean language show, where actors are immersed in playing intrinsically Korean games, become Netflix's most-watched show to date? Here are some answers.
1. What are some of the themes in the show?
The nine-episode series follows a group of indebted people in South Korea, who are enticed into signing up for a game where they stand to win 45.6 billion Korean Won if they succeed at a host of children's games. Losers will be eliminated, quite literally. The games are controlled by an army of masked guards, who function within their own sets of strict rules and hierarchy, led by the 'Front Man.'
Despite the brutal nature of the games, the participants choose to stay in that secluded location and try their luck, far away from a world that has treated them, as one of the players says, "worse than dogs." The show attempts to lay bare the socioeconomic inequalities in Korea, with which writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk has struggled first hand. Like the movie Parasite, it also attempts to highlight how the capitalist world skews the odds in the favour of a lucky, wealthy few, for whom the rest of the world labours.
2. Why did it take off the way that it did?
If you're thinking gratuitous violence, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. However, that's just one of the many contributing factors to Squid Game's popularity. The show's depiction of apathy and empathy, shrewdness and misguided loyalty, are spectacularly, relentlessly in-your-face. They eke out these characteristics from within the players as they compete for the grand prize, painting an apt picture of the emotions we grapple with on a daily basis, as stakeholders in a world defined by competition. Then there is also the absolute irony in the constant claims by the creators and keepers of the games that this dystopian island is their one shot at a "fair and equal" competition.
All of these characters have blood on their hands, but you end up empathising with the situations that led them to that stage, be it the lead character Seong Gun Ho's descent into a gambling addiction after a deadly encounter at a labour strike after being laid-off by his ex-employers (inspired by an actual strike in Korea in 2009), or the migrant worker from Pakistan, who is mistreated by his employer. You even empathise with the cunning Han Mi Nyeo as she says that she has always been smart, but never had a chance at an education. Inequity is the subtext that runs throughout the show, just as it is in our world.
3. How is the show's popularity being reflected worldwide?
News broke this morning that thousands of workers, part of the South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions donned the costumes of the masked guards in order to protest for workers' rights and job security — things they say they struggle for just like the players in the game. There are ongoing protests by workers in the US and in China for better working conditions and better treatment of workers. Discourse online, whether among students or workers worldwide, is asking questions that director Hwang intended the show's viewers to ask, "who has turned us into racehorses?" Squid Game is but a drama. It has managed to stir the pot for a bit, and that is about as much it can do.