“Is this the real-life or is this my beautiful dark twisted fantasy?”
- Kanye West, probably.
What can I possibly tell you about Squid Game that you don’t already know yet? You have seen memes by your favourite brand, your annoying second cousin won’t stop raving about it and your almost-boyfriend but not quite a boyfriend who hates television binged it in one night, all the while your resident K-drama expert acquaintance has written essays on how it’s just the tip of the iceberg and there’s better content.
If you, like me, mentally signed out of all the conversations and visual media around the subject, perhaps this piece is for you.
Should you care for Squid Game if you haven’t seen it yet?
Absolutely yes, it hooks you in right from the start. There is a creeping sense of the disparity between the haves and the have nots. The pilot doesn’t quite come close to the absolute carnage that follows over the next few episodes but it does paint a grim picture, one of rampant consumerism, social alienation and debilitating loneliness along with hardships that one feeds with poor life decisions, one after the other.
At this point in our lives, watching misery play out on others, even fictional characters is triggering to one’s mental well-being. The timing of Squid Game really capitalizes on that moment. Most of us have vicariously lived through influencers pretending all is fucking well in their world when we have lived through terrible times over the years including demonetization, political unrest and riots, university attacks, the second wave among others, and have seen countless suffer and lose their lives due to each of these and more. Watching a version of someone else's fight to make it in a game show manner is every bit voyeuristic and somehow immensely bingeable. There is an equal sense of relatability as there is a sense of calmness; you're constantly thinking— this could have been me.
The premise for Squid Game is simplified as a South Korean fictional survival game show where contestants have to fight for their lives to win. Over 6 rounds and 38 million USD cash, we see 456 contestants fight to survive, almost like they’re characters in a game who have been programmed to perform for the entertainment of those who control the game. Your sympathies are divided between Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), and their respective mates in the game Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su) and Abdul Ali (Anupam Tripathi). The camaraderie between these men carries the show forward on one end, as we witness hostility between them and Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae) a goon, and his crony mates in the game. We see immense animosity between Jang Deok-su and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector with her past somehow linked to him, and Han Mi-nyeo (Kim Joo-ryoung) a shady lady who’s constantly playing people against each other.
Other than the contestants, the operation is led by a masked frontman (Lee Byung-hun), who is being chased down by Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon) a cop, while looking for his brother who disappeared under mysterious circumstances and is somehow linked to this secret game. The game is conducted through set rules and the business inside the game venue is maintained in a militaristic order, complete with instructions on when to sleep, eat, etc for everyone including the guards.
One of the big reasons I felt why this worked with millions of viewers internationally is the way the game is conducted through automated reminders and maroon body-suit minions with shapes on their face masks to identify their hierarchy. There is no shred of identity and they act like automated bots who belong to nobody. These men could be anyone around us and we’d be negotiating for our lives with them. This somehow adds to the universal of us versus them. The "us" represented by South Korean and immigrant participants is a symbol of those who are marginalized and the masked men represent the authorities who are so out of reach that they seem outworldly.
There is no doubt that each performer stood out in their role, whether they appeared through all the episodes or it was a blink and you miss appearance. I admit, I’m hardly the authority on Korean television and can offer a myopic view, based on my limited experience here, however, I definitely did feel the subtitling was done by someone who was high on weed cause it was a job poorly done and Netflix needs to be called out on that.
There is not much one can articulate on the plot without giving out spoilers at large but the only thing I’d like to point out here is Netflix’s aggressive attempt at dominating the regional audience across countries and bringing the best of talent to the world, almost playing the plot like a game in world domination. Between Sacred Games and Squid Game, the dystopian Netflix Originals have pushed the boundaries to take over all conversations and play out the subtle, Netflix marketing card beautifully. Every brand I look at, from F1 teams to local companies selling phone covers, they’re all employing memes based on Squid Game for nearly a month and the popularity doesn’t seem to die down soon.
Can we say that Squid Game is a cultural moment bestowed upon us by its creator/director Hwang Dong-hyuk via Netflix? We most certainly can take that as the marker of success and the force Netflix has on its audience globally. Could Squid Game perform just as well on any other platform today? The question is tough to answer with certainty since the marketability of these OTT platforms differs wildly. A White Lotus could have been commercially a bigger success had it been on a different platform in India, but at the same time, Squid Game might not have done as well as it did in this short span of time (under a month) on any other platform as it did on Netflix. It’s all a game of chance, and as Squid Game frontman tells us, it’s about offering a level playing field, one that isn’t available for their participants. In this case, these OTT platforms do not operate on a level playing field. You can have a great television show that will go unnoticed because globally the brands won't engage with a media product that isn't marketed as well as Netflix does.
What is the outtake on this piece? It goes without saying that this cultural moment brought to us by Squid Game is going to unleash a plethora of K-dramas in the public domain at an unseen pace. I’m not discounting that we have K-drama aficionados in India and elsewhere outside of South Korea and yet, the force at which we were hit by Squid Game tells us, Netflix may have cracked the code on winning those who were unfazed by the hypnosis of Korean culture on Indians. We are in for exciting times to come, and hopefully, Hotstar will learn a thing or two on marketing good television, and others in India will understand that Korean television is the real deal, outside of the cringe Netflix India is hell-bent upon shoving down our collective throats.
The series is available for streaming on Netflix in India.
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