It was a little over 40 minutes into the first episode of Squid Game when my eyebrow arched in confusion, I squinted closer at the TV, and, without realizing it, stopped breathing. Over the next minute, I reflexively started to lean back into my couch, as if my body was trying to run away from the TV, and began to make this weird combination gasp-yelp sound. I sort of shielded my eyes, but also couldn’t look away. I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking about it?
When I talk about how disturbed I was by Netflix’s hit series Squid Game, it’s not in the way that, at brunch with friends, someone might exclaim, “Oh my God, you guys, this show totally creeped me out,” for dramatic effect and attention. The violence, the psychological warfare, the haunting real-world feasibility of something seemingly so outrageous: it pierces you, but then it stays there. It’s the show’s own brutal gameplay with the audience. A metaphorical stabbing.
Few series in the age of streaming have ever become word-of-mouth phenomena at the scale and speed with which the South Korean thriller has since its Sept. 17 debut. Especially in this last week, that peculiar title—what the hell could a “Squid Game” possibly be??!—has been everywhere, spreading its tentacles, so to speak, to news headlines, social media feeds, and group texts, where friends and family debate each episode’s twists and commiserate over the trauma.
Proving both how clever and exquisitely cinematic the series is, but also maybe how desperate people are not to be left out, Squid Game is currently the No. 1 show on Netflix in 90 different countries. The streamer is on record saying it is on track to be its most-watched series ever.
So here we have this interesting dichotomy: Squid Game may be the most upsetting series I’ve ever seen, and it also may be the most globally popular series in modern times.
The less a person knows about Squid Game, the better for their enjoyment. Or, um, the intensity of their waking nightmares after watching. (Good luck to all of us the first time we hear “red light” again.) But here’s a brief primer: The series, which can be watched on Netflix in Korean with English subtitles or dubbed in English, comes from South Korean director and writer Hwang Dong-hyuk.
A down-on-his-luck gambler with a mountain of debt, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), is recruited by a mystery man to participate in an ambiguous game that he promises will allow Gi-hun to settle his finances and start his life over. He arrives at a secret venue to find 455 other contestants—he is number 456—all in similarly dire straits, confused about what they’ve gotten into but tantalized at the prospect of a cash prize.
Once they sign a strangely sparse contract, it is explained to them that if they make it through six games without being eliminated, they will win 45.6 billion won, or what amounts to $38.7 million. At first, these seem like childhood games, like Red Light, Green Light. (Squid Game, for example, is a variation on tag.) But the contestants soon learn—to their horror and the reason I may never sleep soundly again—that “being eliminated” means being killed.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed different reasons that people have become Squid Game evangelists.
There’s a certain thrill to being as shocked and as horrified as the characters in each episode of the series. (The cliffhanger-happy series once ended an episode in the middle of such a tense moment that I impulsively yelled, “Fuck you!” at the TV. And then clicked play on the next one.) That’s intoxicating, even if it is rooted in such darkness, and people want to share that high.
A more sinister extension of that is payback. Someone convinced me to traumatize myself with this show, so now I’m going to pass that on, until we’re all collectively disturbed together.
More than one person has described the show to me as “fun,” which is absolutely wild.
Watching the nine episodes is an intense experience. I think there’s a certain appeal in watching something that is so meticulously drawn. From the way the set pieces are laid out, the framing of certain (spectacular) shots, and the music cues, there is a morbid whimsy purposefully injected into the show. It’s black comedy at its bleakest, a tonal juxtaposition that is to be admired. I think it’s so effective, especially in a genre that is so extreme in its gore, that it masquerades as “fun.”
Then there’s the age-old reason: Curiosity kills the cat—or, in this case, the human spirit, which no longer exists after watching. Everyone is talking about it. Especially as it’s caught fire this last week, Netflix has dutifully made sure it shows up on as many home screens as possible. Who wants to feel like they missed out? (As someone who finished the season and may never smile again, maybe it’s OK to miss out!)
Watching Squid Game is such a visceral experience, but in a way that we’re not used to when it comes to television.
We all have memories of the TV scenes that are so sad that just the thought of them makes you cry. (In fact, that was a viral meme on Twitter this week.) But the feelings I can conjure more explicitly are the times I watched something so upsetting that I nearly vomited—and in one case did. The hanging fake-out scene at the beginning of Handmaid’s Tale season 2. The beach scene in Years and Years. Now, any number of Squid Game sequences join the list.
It’s funny how little patience we seem to have for things that make us feel good. The Schitt’s Creek final season into Ted Lasso season 1 admiration was short-lived to the point of receiving intense backlash this year over shows that are “too nice.” We keep finding our way back to the things that are disturbing. What’s interesting is who feels it intensely, and who arrives at it from a remove.
The show is everywhere. It’s arrived on TikTok, where the hashtag #squidgame already had over 11 billion views earlier this week. People are having a blast making jokes about how they’d pose during “Red Light, Green Light.” That particular game’s giant porcelain villain is already achieving gay-icon status. The series has been meme’d countless times. The instinct to mine the series’ darkness for comedy is fascinating to me—or maybe that’s just an inevitability in today’s social-media world.
Comparisons between Squid Game and both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale are obvious. One friend asked me why someone would want to watch something that’s like The Hunger Games, but more realistic. For a lot of people, that’s exactly why they’re so attracted to the series, which I think says a lot about us as a society. On the other hand, that’s also what makes the show so effective and its impact so undeniable.
There is only one thing that I will slightly spoil, and it’s not the biggest plot point, but it’s important for talking about why the show works. Yes, an arena-style death match has been done before in pop culture. But what sets Squid Game apart is agency. The contestants choose to be there in the first place. And once they found out about the deadly repercussions, they were allowed to leave—and did. Then they came back.
This isn’t government corruption and abuse as blood sport. It is desperation as blood sport. It is an indictment of the class divide that they become willing participants, twice. The stakes outside of the lethal games are as severe as the ones there.
I think we’re in the first wave of conversation/fascination over Squid Game’s unprecedented popularity. (I certainly am only in the first wave of NEVER SHUTTING UP about how traumatized I was by it.)
It’s a foreign-language series that became an almost instant hit, at a time when Americans, whose pop-culture tastes have been notoriously xenophobic, are becoming more and more excited by global content. Like Parasite, it uses genre as a Trojan horse for discussions about capitalism and class. We’re a culture attuned to hyper-violence, but the series manages to show it in a way that you never become desensitized. What does that mean? (That’s not to mention how much we need to debate the ending, which I didn’t love…)
When it comes to talking about and dissecting Squid Game, we’ve only just heard “green light.”