Film & TV

To The Top Of The Leaderboard: Squid Game’s Worldwide Success

Image by Chetraruc from Pixabay

By Eszter Gurbicz

A few weeks ago I decided to hop on the bandwagon and watch the new worldwide success Netflix show everyone was talking about: Squid Game. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long to finish the series but doesn’t this happen all the time? Something becomes popular and everyone starts watching it, regardless of whether they are interested in the theme or not. We all just want to know: what’s so special about this new show? The same happened last year with series like Emily in Paris or Bridgerton when suddenly most of us found themselves binge-watching whole seasons of Netflix hits. This time, surpassing the hype around the previous shows, Squid Game conquered audiences at surprising speed and became Netflix’s most watched series to-date. 

The Background of Squid Game

The idea for Squid Game was conceived back in 2009 by director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who only found an interested production company – namely Netflix – ten years later. The nine-episode long series could be made as a result of the streaming site’s efforts to expand their programme offerings, bringing many foreign shows to their audience, including a variety of Korean dramas and series such as this one. 

The theme itself is not entirely new in cinema. It’s a survival drama which has been compared to The Hunger Games and Japanese comics, which the director admits had been an inspiration for the series. The show also acts as a critique of capitalist society and is inspired by the economic inequality issues in South Korea. As the director explained to Variety: “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life”. And he did so in a way that captivated audiences worldwide. 

But what is the reason for its success? What made this different? It couldn´t just be the Netflix algorithm that pushed the series up to the top, right? While everyone has different reasons for enjoying Squid Game, here are some of the show´s memorable ideas and strengths that might have contributed to its success. 

To start with, we need to mention the amazing cast of the show. Acting can have a huge influence and in this case, the audience was not left with any regrets- maybe except the “VIPs” whose lines sounded anything but natural. Regardless, the great acting elevated the show. Perhaps, the character who drew the most attention was Kang Sae-byeok, played by model-actress Jung HoYeon. Considering this was her television debut, she did an outstanding job and according to Forbes she gained 14.6 million Instagram followers since the series launched on Netflix. 

Another important aspect of the show was the costume design.  It was simple as well as memorable, but more importantly, it provided uniformity, which further strengthened the underlying message. In Squid Game, uniforms replace individuality with group identity. Not only this, but the use of masks for the workers and the use of numbers instead of names for players are strategies employed for the same purpose: they deprive them of their ‘humanity’. Both the players and the employees are degraded into numbers and shapes and only see each other as either superior or inferior subjects, therefore cannot feel empathy to one another. This allows them to play, work, and act the way they do. 

A different role of the costume design is to represent “fairness”. It is emphasised several times that the games are meant to be a fair playing field for participants, that everyone is treated as equals and have equal chances to win. However, it can be noticed that the game only masquerades as fair and democratic. They act like players can make their own decisions, but how much is there to decide, really? Lastly, the pink and green colours of the uniforms are also used as “childish” colours which stand in juxtaposition with the events seen on the screen. The same is true for the sets, and the overall effect of the scenery draws the audience in. 

I would also like to mention the soundtrack, which accompanied the show so well. It helped deepen the feeling in the audience- fear, worry, excitement, suspense, mystery, suffering.

Overall, the series has a dark spin on everyday games and themes, which creates discomfort in the audience and pushes us to watch more. Perhaps the dystopian tone purposefully plays onto the general desire of escapism from reality, which we might find disturbingly similar to the one seen on screen. It is a representation of the capitalist society but at the same time it’s pushed to the edge, twisted, so we don’t feel called out or too involved. Feeling close and distanced at the same time, maybe that´s what made the series so popular. 

It also prompts us to consider a few questions. Firstly, who is the real villain of the story? Is it the character who follows the system for his survival or is it the system itself? Or perhaps the people who create the system- who we actually can’t see and name- are the ones to blame for the horrors of their (and our) reality? Secondly, what is the larger message they’re trying to tell us? This question is very well answered in the last episode, so for those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s time to start watching!