Squid Game is a brutal show about social inequalities — and it's Netflix's next major hit

Netflix has recently announced that South Korean dystopian horror series Squid Game -— famed for its brutal violence — could be its biggest release ever. CBC News spoke with two culture experts to understand its themes and origins.

Netflix dystopian horror has resonated with international audiences

Lee Jung-Jae stars in Squid Game, a new Netflix series in which the debt-ridden must compete in children's games for a cash prize at the risk of being killed. (Netflix)

Netflix's next big television hit is here. Squid Game is brutal, it's violent and it's taking the world by storm.

The South Korean dystopian horror follows hundreds of debt-ridden citizens as they are forced to participate in a competition of childhood games — and be killed if they lose. The winner wins a massive amount of cash.

A representative from Netflix did not provide CBC News with a specific number of viewers that have tuned into Squid Game since its Sep. 17 premiere; the streaming giant is selective about which viewership statistics it shares with the public.

But Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos recently announced that Squid Game is on a trajectory to becoming the company's biggest series ever, potentially surpassing current hits, such as Season 1 of Bridgerton (82 million viewers) and Season 1 of Lupin and The Witcher (76 million viewers).

Netflix Inc. shares closed 1.9 per cent higher in New York on Thursday to a record price of $610.27 US.

The show is a far-fetched spectacle, but its international popularity is no fluke. Squid Game's social commentary on class inequality, a common horror trope since the genre's beginnings, is resonating deeply with audiences around the world, particularly as interest in South Korean pop culture surges.

"I knew that Squid Game was going to be a death game, but I didn't realize actually that it would have so much depth to it. It's a very colourful and well-crafted show," said Hanh Nguyen, a Los Angeles-based senior editor of culture for digital outlet Salon.com.

Nguyen said that the series draws from Battle Royale, a 2000 Japanese thriller with a similar premise — and a similarly violent approach. Chris Alexander, the Oakville, Ont.-based editor-in-chief of cult and horror film magazine Delirium, said the show is uncanny because it draws on many influences.

"It's familiar and yet fresh, and I say this because the themes that it's exploring have been mined since the dawn of horror and fantasy cinema," Alexander said. "The themes of the haves and the have-nots. The themes of the people on the fringe rising up against their masters, their controllers."

WATCH | Horror expert and culture critic weigh in on Squid Game:

Horror expert and culture critic weigh in on Netflix hit Squid Game

2 months ago
Chris Alexander, editor-in-chief of Delirium Magazine, and Hanh Nguyen, senior editor of culture at Salon.com, spoke to CBC News about why Squid Game is resonating with international audiences. 2:13

In the show, the competitors are hand-picked for being down on their luck, all of them debt-ridden and strapped for cash. It's why they're easy targets for the ruling class running the game — they're made to believe that they have nothing to lose.

Those who partake in the game are taunted by a giant clear piggy bank that hangs over the warehouse where they're being kept; the prize money inside it is on display. (How the piggy bank fills up, and how the cash prize is determined, is ultimately for viewers to find out).

It's a test of human nature — and that makes for compelling characters.

"I was actually impressed that in a show about killing each other, that you are able to actually gain some respect and sense of evolution with these characters," Nguyen said. "You get to know what their motivations are and you sympathize with them."

Fresh take on longstanding horror themes

The show's characters are watched by anonymous guards preventing their escape from the site of the deadly competition. Netflix said that the show, which premiered on Sep. 17, might be its biggest series ever. (Netflix)

Since its premiere, Squid Game has been likened to all kinds of movies and TV shows from recent pop culture memory, such as Parasite, Black Mirror and The Hunger Games.

Jordan Peele's Us is a recent example of a horror film in which an underclass revolts against their oppressors, though these contemporary films are less reliant on subtext, Alexander said, preferring to wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But the roots of Squid Game reach back much further than those shows.

"Thematically, we can trace the themes that Squid Game is exploring to the early stuff, like The Most Dangerous Game," Alexander said, referencing a widely adapted short story from the 1920s. In it, a man finds himself stranded on an island owned by a wealthy Russian aristocrat who then hunts him for sport.

Netflix’s Squid Game is dominating the Netflix charts. How did this Korean dystopian drama become the talk of the internet? Plus: from Nine Perfect Strangers to Mare of Easttown, a lot of shows *look* prestige-y but is prestige TV delivering on its promise right now? 55:54

Alexander also sees elements of The Twilight Zone and George Romero's Living Dead films in Squid Game.

The show is a product of Asian fantasy genres, Alexander said, with its cartoonish set design, garish violence and outrageous storylines all countering its "nightmarish core." And, not unlike Academy Award winner Parasite, directed by South Korean maestro Bong Joon-ho, the show is deceptively innocuous before it takes a dark turn.

So while Squid Game brings something refreshing to the horror genre, it's mining from a huge canon of stories that reflect societal fears of poverty, displacement and death.

"I don't think this is anything new," Alexander said. "The backdrop is new, but the fears, the anxieties, the fears are perpetual and evergreen."

Show's universality makes it an international hit for Netflix

In Squid Game, characters are kept at an unknown site where they must compete in childhood games or risk being killed. (Netflix)

With Squid Game's wild success, it's evident that the show's themes are resonating with international audiences. According to the company, 95 per cent of the show's viewers are outside of Korea as of Sep. 28.

One explanation might be that viewers around the world are increasingly familiar with Korean pop culture.

"It's not just the K-pop bands, it's not just K-dramas," said Nguyen. "It's kind of the whole industry. I think [South] Korea has a huge, booming entertainment industry that has familiarity."

Nguyen noted that Netflix has seen a remarkably successful expansion into the South Korean market, with the company having built two studios just outside of Seoul in an effort to produce more local content.

The company said in a Jan. 2021 statement that it had spent roughly $700 million US on Korean films and television shows between 2015 and 2020.

She noted that dubbing — in which a film or television show's dialogue is recorded in a different language than its original version — has also made international content accessible to a wider range of audiences.

"I think dubbing has improved over the years to the point where a lot of these foreign co-productions are actually often dubbed by the same people who are the original speakers of the language," she said. "So they happen to know English, and they might dub some of that."

Alexander points to the 1970s as a golden era in which films from around the world were distributed and watched on a global scale.

Squid Game, a reflection of our worst fears and an inability to look away from violent spectacle, is tapping into those shared experiences, he said. It's also a signal that viewers are hungry for diversity.

"We are suddenly more open to embracing more diverse entertainments, partially because there has been a cultural shift in recent years to really focus on diversity and kind of open things up a little bit," Alexander said.


Jenna Benchetrit is a senior writer for CBC News entertainment and education. She can be reached at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.