In 2009, Squid Game’s creator Hwang Dong-hyuk got himself deep into debt. When both he and his mother found paid employment impossible to come by, he had to turn to loans to survive. Hwang’s homeland is a desperate society, divided between those working themselves to death and those who, having been made redundant, are trapped in debt. But, in channelling the experience of downtrodden South Koreans into one of the finest TV shows of 2021, he made something whose appeal transcended national boundaries.
We saw 456 debt-riddled contestants selected by a shadowy corporation to volunteer for a real-life gameshow in which the winner goes home with 4.6bn won (£28m) if they survive a series of brutal games, while the losers go home in body bags. In the first episode, contestants could only move when the face of a sinister mechanised doll is turned away from them. Those caught out were mown down with machine-gun fire. As corpses littered the floor and the living congratulated themselves on surviving, this was a drama that encouraged us to follow the logic of capitalism to its extreme by treating everything, including fellow humans, as commodities, as means to ends.
In a world where most of us teeter on the edge of the pit of debt, or are lying in it, Squid Game asked how ruthless we would be given the chance to get out. Would you be a social Darwinist winner, or one of 455 other corpses whose organs are harvested for sale on the black market? Would you, in extremis, resemble the relatable and compassionate loser dad – player 456, Seong Gi-hun – or self-serving venal gangster player 067, Kang Sae-byeok?
But its appeal also lay in something less high-minded. One reason Squid Game overtook Bridgerton to become Netflix’s most-watched series is that it was edge-of-the-seat drama in which we hardly knew who would be terminated in the next game. That ability to create tension, whereby apparently anything could happen and no character is beyond the bullet, takes storytelling skill rarely seen on TV today. One of the pleasures for me, certainly, was how I was wrong-footed several times when I was sure one character would survive but was killed off. Just as well I didn’t bet on the outcome: like Gi-hun when he gets fleeced at the bookies, I’d be a terrible gambler.
Squid Game wasn’t the first show to put a bunch of people together and have them kill each other to survive for others’ entertainment. But before making Squid Game, Hwang studied fight-to-the-death precursors such as early 00s Japanese film Battle Royale and 2007 TV anime Gyakkyō Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor – then upped the voyeuristic ante to make his version even more grippingly sadistic. When, halfway through the series, a bunch of masked VIPs (most of them, significantly, westerners) pitch up, they bet on who will live and die. They used people as footstools and feasted on banquets behind glass screens that offered fine views of the carnage below.
For me one of Squid Game’s curiosities was that the drama did not play out, as say Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games did, as a TV show (there is no oleaginous Stanley Tucci interviewing survivors about their love lives before they battle to the death). But that’s to miss the point of Squid Game: it was not a critique of media rapaciousness, but of a society gone wrong. Perhaps Hwang, who is now making series two, didn’t want to bite the Netflix hand that fed him.
There have been complaints that the subtitles didn’t give us the full sense of what is being said in Korean. Or that the westerners’ accents were dreadful, and yes some, like basketball star LeBron James, found the ending unsatisfying. Otherwise, though, Hwang delivered what he planned.
“The show is motivated by a simple idea,” he told me. “We are fighting for our lives in very unequal circumstances. During the pandemic, the poorer countries can’t get their people vaccinated, so they are contracting viruses on the streets and even dying. It’s not profound.” But it is, Mr Hwang. Squid Game was an allegory of the world in 2021.