In the last month, one of the most bizarre television series ever made became a major international sensation. It is the most popular ever series shown on Netflix, with over 111 million viewers. The hit South Korean drama Squid Game has proved surprisingly popular with a normally subtitle-phobic Anglophone viewing public. Luridly violent and with an amazingly sinister childlike set design, it has captured the public imagination in Britain in a way few cultural phenomena have managed to do since the advent of diffuse streaming services; discussed everywhere from the culture section of newspapers to school playgrounds to the office smoking area. How has this strange cultural export managed to make such an impact?
Squid Game’s most sanguinary moments recall a sort of perverse Takeshi’s Castle, if it had been designed and directed by Quentin Tarantino, or the Spanish Inquisition. The brutal game sequences have even raised a bit of old-fashioned moral panic, to the point of that worthy body, Central Bedfordshire Council, warning parents not to let their children watch the show in case they copy the games. Perhaps this is at the root of the programme’s attraction – simply the sort of reality television beloved of the British public anyway, like an extreme version of the nineties classic Gladiators. It satisfies two viewing impulses: one the need for tense, intelligent dystopian drama, and the other a simple and visceral game show – and guiltily, I think we all have to admit to wanting them to skip the exposition and get on with the next game.
I would argue that the success of Squid Game goes beyond this simple reading of the game as scratching a violent itch in the viewing public’s brain, although that certainly helps its popularity. The series is rooted in the parlous state of South Korean society in the face of an epidemic of personal debt, which leaves people in a position where they will never be able to pay off what they owe. Shockingly, household debt in South Korea is now equivalent to more than 100% of GDP.
Increasingly if South Koreans put every penny of what they earned in a year towards their debt, they would still be unable to pay it off quickly enough. This precariousness is at the heart of a series which contrasts the remorselessness of modern South Korean society with the simple joys of childhood – the latter being perversely and savagely twisted.
As much as the plight of Seong Gi-hun and Kang Sae-byeok make the burden of debt and a harrowing socioeconomic situation seem foreign and far away, perhaps the reason the series has had so much impact in the West is the uncertainty we all feel after the coronavirus pandemic, and even further the generation that has known little of adult life except in the shadow of 2008. While it’s been a curious joy to see that sales of tracksuits and white Vans trainers worn by the competitors have skyrocketed, and to experience a rare moment of cultural cohesion across demographics, how many of us asked ourselves if we too would participate in a game that wiped away our debt? We now live in societies in the West that leave people in the red before they enter the workplace. With the pernicious rise of payday loans and the growing acceptability of buy-now, pay-later services for online retail, perhaps the premise of Squid Game is less remote, less foreign than we might initially suppose.
That Squid Game now represents a serious success on Netflix rather than a cult classic says interesting things for a usually sceptical viewing public towards foreign-language series. But, perhaps people were simply willing to overlook subtitles the vicarious and gory pleasure of watching fictional violence. But I would argue the series was made more piquant by how many people across the world sympathised with the plight of Squid Game’s contestants – or saw themselves, if not quite that far down the rungs, at least on the same ladder.