At this point, we are deep in the Squid Game hype cycle, and for good reason: the Korean drama is not only the top show on Netflix in 90 countries, but this week Ted Sarandos, the streaming platform’s CEO, hypothesized that “it might be our biggest show ever.” That’s nuts. It’s difficult enough for new shows to break through the noise with so much TV content, but Squid Game’s success is an astonishing feat for a show that was released on the platform less than two weeks ago, to little fanfare. More shocking still: It boasts no Hollywood megastars and it’s not based on any existing intellectual property that comes with a preloaded fanbase. And yet it’s a megahit, with 95% of its audience outside Korea. The internet is awash in Squid Game memes, games, and TikTok challenges. In two short weeks, it has become a bonafide phenomenon.
If the success of Squid Game is a surprise, it’s not exactly without precedent. For one, the popularity of K-dramas has grown by 200% among Netflix subscribers in just the last two years. But zoom out more, and the picture becomes clearer. Earlier this week, Netflix released some of its viewing data. Out of its top ten most viewed series, two of them are also not in English and boast no Hollywood megastars: the French Lupin sits in second place while the Spanish-language hit Money Heist occupies the sixth position.
The dizzying success of Squid Game and the triumph of other non-English shows may finally kill the unfounded idea that North American viewers — the largest share of Netflix’s audience — are not interested in watching foreign shows. That is significant by itself. But these shows also share a common throughline: They all deal with inequality, capture the despair of poverty, and dissect class anxiety. Regardless of the country or language, capitalism is the shared villain in Netflix’s global successes. It’s a villain viewers everywhere can identify.
In case you’re among the eight people who have yet to watch Squid Game, the premise is simple: Hundreds of people living with oppressive debt are approached to take part in a series of games — all variations of childhood favorites like Red Light, Green Light, but with, uh, deadly modifications — with the promise of a cash prize that might change their lives. It’s like if the playground games you played as a kid suddenly turned into the Hunger Games.
Squid Game is effective at pulling you in. By the middle of the first episode, viewers are plunged into a world that’s as repulsive as it is gripping, complete with masked villains and hapless antiheroes who do not know what’s in store for them. The “game” sequences are breathtaking — in creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s hands, a game as familiar as tug of war is transformed into an exhilarating, high-stakes contest.
Regardless of the country or language, capitalism is the shared villain in Netflix’s global successes. It’s a villain viewers everywhere can identify.
At the center of it all is Seong Gi-hun, a chauffeur addicted to gambling and self-sabotage, played brilliantly by Lee Jung-jae. In Lee’s performance, we see all the big and small humiliations of capitalism: the feeling of your worth being tethered to your productivity; the magical thinking that once you’re rich, you’ll be a different person; the embarrassments we are willing to endure to afford what we think we deserve. As we become invested in Gi-hun, we watch him as he lets us down over and over again. He steals from his mother and forgets his daughter’s birthday. When he is handed a financial lifeline, he gambles it away.
The first episode sets up the tension by slowly luring you into its shocking climax, when players discover the true cost of playing. No matter how much you read about it, you will not be ready for the rules of the game. But Squid Game is at its most effective in the second episode, where the contestants briefly find themselves back in their regular lives. Here, the show cycles through the horrors they all exist in: the pickpocket desperate to secure enough money to rescue her little brother; the business graduate who can’t confront the ways he has let down his mother; the young migrant worker who cannot provide for his wife and his newborn. And in the case of Gi-hun, the reality that his debt has not only driven his daughter away, but also put him in a position where he is unable to help his sick mother.
Through the course of the episode — aptly entitled “Hell” — we learn of the various chokeholds these characters are in, which are cruel enough that they might even prefer to go back to wagering with their lives. Their debts — and circumstances — are treated with tenderness and compassion. These are desperate people, willing to do anything to get out of their own personal hells. Their desperation may be familiar to viewers in Korea, where household debts are snowballing, but it is universal, too: in the US, Americans have more debt than ever before. In Canada, household debts are at worrying levels.
Beyond the indignities of working only to keep your head above water, debt has devastating health consequences like depression and anxiety. Forty percent of Americans would struggle to handle an unexpected $400 expense because of debt. Meanwhile, even though inequality was already high, the pandemic made it even worse. Hell, that cuts both ways, and inequality made the pandemic worse, too. That growing wealth gap is not an accidental outcome of capitalism — it is rather predictable. The games are made up, the pot of money is fictional, and Squid Game is a drama, but its honest exploration of the weight of debt and inequality could not be more timely. Squid Game fully understands the crushing consequences of being in debt, and it’s easy for viewers to see themselves in it. “We are simply here to give you a chance,” the masked villains say, and you understand their meaning to be more sinister than that.
Squid Game deals with these themes explicitly, but it is hardly the only Netflix property to dive into the horrors of capitalism. In Lupin, Assane Diop, the noble thief, is struggling to pay the bills and is forced to rely on loan sharks in order to pull off an elaborate heist. We see Tokyo, the protagonist of Money Heist, begin from a place of desperation too as she is left shattered after a botched robbery before she’s taken in by the mysterious Professor. Even the Spanish-language hit Elite takes on class anxiety, as three lower-income students begin life at a wealthy school and struggle to fit in with their new classmates. In all of these shows, the poverty and precariousness of the protagonists are the entry points for viewers, the vectors of relatability. We cheer for them because we understand that they are up against the same forces as the rest of us.
All of these shows are thrilling and well paced, with impeccable writing. But more to the point, the fact that it is these shows that Netflix viewers have gravitated to suggests a universal center of gravity. No matter the language or location, capitalism makes us all desperate. ●