Squid Game
Squid Game: The megahit series has crossed over 130 million views within just three weeks of release on Netflix Image Credit: AFP

I just finished watching the Netflix hit show Squid Game and here is a quick admission: I haven’t watched anything like this in a long, long while. This is Korean drama at its very best — the plot, the twist, the actors, the aesthetic - everything.

The premise of the series is straightforward: 456 people are in debt, and they are participating for untold riches of 45.6 billion won (approximately $38.6 million) in a series of feats that are whimsical, riveting and terrifying in their entirety.

Netflix’s biggest original series launch is estimated to be worth almost $900 million for the streaming giant. More than 132 million have already watched some parts of the show in its first 23 days. The nine-episode thriller earned a 100% approval rating from critics at the aggregator major Rotten Tomatoes.

Squid Game
The Netflix series "Squid Game" is played on a mobile phone in this picture illustration. Image Credit: REUTERS

The show has now inspired online merchandise, such as the Squid Game players’ dark green tracksuits and numbered shirts. Viral following on social media, spin-offs, Twitter trends and the debate continues.

So what is it about the show’s premise that has enthralled global audiences, bringing streamers from India to Brazil together, breaking one record after another? First things first. Squid Game is top-notch content. The character arcs are arresting. There is conflict and excitement. It is horror blended into reality TV. The show made me sigh, smile, get on the edge of the seat. It made me angry as well.

Sure it has all the makings of good TV but what explains the insatiable fascination that the show has generated the world over? Here is what I think. The show is super creative but it goes a little deeper than that. Squid Game has a strong social and intellectual message.

There is a subtle critique of unfettered capitalism, where greed and inequality often triumph over humanity and goodness; where competition kills compassion (just like the participants in the show get bumped off one after the other).

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A global resonance

In the post-pandemic world where a lot of people — the world over — are grappling with job losses, increasing household debt and income inequality, Squid Game hit a raw nerve. Burdened with financial woes and lack of employment opportunities, people often seek escapism and the show offers that distraction. Hence the instant resonance.

I think the show also works because it takes a simple concept and reconstructs it into a reflection of our society. The players are challenged to try and balance their genuine need for money with their inherent morality. It is this contradiction that runs all through the plot — one where participants must adjust their own humanity with the brutality of the outside world.

While Squid Game lays bare South Korea’s real-life personal debt crisis, the characters in the show have a universal appeal because the streaming audiences can easily identify with the socioeconomic messaging.

The fact that world’s 40 richest people own the same wealth as the poorer 3.7 billion people is a fact of existence. The wealthy often get away with anything while the dissipating middle class slaves away — a reflection of society in the real world.

In a takedown on capitalism, the show drives home an important point that money — and the quest for making more of it — is the only thing that matters.

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Image Credit: Reuters

This indeed opens the gulf further between the rich and the poor. Therefore anything goes — even if that means your fellow contestants ‘elimination’ for the ultimate “prize” — a life-changing amount of cash.

Squid Game explores just how far some of us -- in this case a bunch of fictional characters -- would be willing to go for financial security.

Another thing that makes this dystopian drama so engrossing is the brilliant aesthetic. Making an excellent use of vibrant, colourful settings, you feel like transported to a world of Maurits Cornelis Escher.

The mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints have a playfulness about them and yet you know there is something morbid happening in this place.

The characters wear school-like track suits, sleep on stacks of bunk beds and play the deadly 'children’s games' in a summer camp-style setting. The visually-arresting viewing experience attempts to sidetrack us from the ghoulish violence lurking at every step.

In reality we live in silos of peace and plenty but there are places in the world where dog-eat-dog is a norm.

Squid Game is brilliant because it is fiction. Fiction is superior and hence able to mock and offend. The show is, quite simply, reflective of the reality of the world we occupy.

Viewer discretion is advised: There is too much graphic content. Keep the kids away.