You’re about to hear a lot about Squid Game — that is, if your friends haven’t already been blowing up your phone about it. Since its premiere on Sept. 17, the South Korean survival drama has rocketed to the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s Top 10 list, putting it on track to become the streaming service’s biggest show to date — yes, even on top of hits like Bridgerton, which was watched by 82 million people in the first 28 days of its release. “Squid Game will definitely be our biggest non-English-language show in the world,” Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos declared at Vox Media’s Code Conference, just days after the show’s debut.
As Deadline explained, the series’ momentum speaks to a growing interest in non-English language content among U.S. viewers. Since 2019, U.S. viewership for K-dramas has jumped 200%, and viewing of non-English language shows has grown by 71%. But Squid Game is also just good. It’s full of striking imagery and anxiety-inducing mysteries that hook you in each episode, and the colorful tracksuits and jumpsuits worn by its characters will no doubt dominate this Halloween. Here’s what you need to know about Netflix’s buzziest new show.
What Is Squid Game?
This is simplifying it, but Squid Game is like if you combined The Hunger Games with Parasite. The thriller/horror drama centers on 456 people who are living in abject poverty for various reasons — they might be refugees, or have mounting medical bills, or committed a white collar crime. They’re all smuggled to a remote island and given a choice: if they can beat six rounds of childhood games, they can win 45.6 billion won (about $38 million). It sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime, but what they don’t realize is that losing, or refusing to play, ends in death.
The show focuses primarily on eight main players. It opens with Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), who is unhealthily obsessed with gambling and struggling to support his daughter and ailing mother. He’s approached by a handsome salesman (Gong Yoo) who holds up one red card and one blue card. If Gi-hun can win a basic card game, he says he’ll pay him 100,000 won. When Gi-hun succeeds, the man gives him a business card with a circle, triangle, and square icon on it. “There are other games like this where you can make even more,” he says ominously.
This leads Gi-hun to the island, where he’s given a jumpsuit, a number, and introduced to several fellow players. There’s Gi-hun’s childhood friend, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), an investor wanted for embezzlement. Kang Sae-byeok (HoYeon Jung) is a young North Korean defector who needs the money to rescue her remaining family members. Oh Il-nam (Oh Yeong-su) is an elderly man with a terminal illness, and Abdul Ali (Anumpam Tripathi) is a Pakistani worker struggling to provide for his family. There’s also Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae), a hateful gangster who becomes Gi-hun’s antagonist, as well as Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung), a mysterious and manipulative woman. And on the other side of the game is Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon), a young police officer who sneaks into the game as a guard so he can locate his missing brother.
The games commence, and the players all realize very quickly that the game-makers are diabolically cruel. Carnage awaits them both on the gaming field and in their holding cell, where the guards passively watch as the players turn on each other.
Why Do People Like Squid Game?
Though lighter at times, Squid Game is pretty bloody and depressing. It’s hard to parse exactly why it’s appealing, but the same can be asked of why people like grim shows and movies like Black Mirror, The Hunger Games, and Battle Royale. In an interview with Bustle in 2019, professor and psychologist Sheela Raja said that viewers who watch “misery porn” like The Handmaid’s Tale tend to fall into three categories: those who enjoy the adrenaline rush of watching dystopian stories, those who relate to the depicted trauma onscreen, or those who engage intellectually with the content.
While Squid Games definitely scratches that adrenaline-inducing horror itch, it also explores a number of pressing themes. The game show format speaks to the inhumane realities and crushing individualism of capitalism, while the holding area riots and the impersonal nature of how the players are treated speaks to the cruelties of the prison-industrial complex.
These are weighty issues, but focusing on underdog protagonists seems to be the key to Squid Game’s success. “It helps enormously that, while Squid Game is critical, it is not overly cynical,” Kayti Burt wrote for Den of Geek. “This isn’t a story in which humanity is doomed because of its inherent greed or selfishness, though those traits can certainly come into play; it is a reality where people do desperate things because they are in desperate situations, and the system preys on that vulnerability for profit and in disgusting demonstrations of power. While the game-makers do not value human life, it’s clear that the story itself does — a vital narrative distinction.”
Is Squid Game Scary?
While Squid Game doesn’t have any monsters or jump scares, it’s still a pretty unsettling and upsetting watch. The childhood games the contestants play are all cruelly constructed and always end in gruesome deaths. The prison riot scenes can also be terrifying, and it’s particularly difficult to stomach the way the women in the story are treated. Many of the male characters are brutal or just plain sexist, and they don’t mind making comments about how weak and expendable the women are. (The show does little to subvert this point of view, unfortunately.)
On the flip side, there are definitely moments of levity, thanks mostly to Gi-hun’s scrappy nature. And the moments of genuine camaraderie between Gi-hun and his teammates help balance out what would have otherwise been a very grim watch. It’s still not the easiest viewing experience, but the storylines — and the way the protagonists figure out how to survive against all odds together — will likely stay with you for a long while.