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If you are a person who uses the Internet, you’ve likely encountered the hype surrounding “Squid Game,” the South Korean survival drama series that, believe it or not, has nothing to do with squid.

“Squid Game” is the anti-”Ted Lasso.” It’s violent and dystopian, a nine-episode Netflix series unfurling to a world that’s been through quite enough real-life dystopia, thank you very much.

And yet, it’s impossible to deny the meteoric rise of “Squid Game.” The show, which premiered Sept. 17, quickly became the platform’s number one show in the U.S. — and in dozens of other countries, too. In a recent interview with journalist Kara Swisher, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos said there is “a very good chance it’s going to be our biggest show ever.”


If you haven’t binged the gory nine-hour series, here’s the skinny on “Squid” (with minimal spoilers).

What is “Squid Game” about?

Our main character, Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), has a gambling problem and an ex-wife who’s about to whisk their young daughter off to the United States. In need of fast cash to pay off a gang of loan sharks and keep his daughter in South Korea, Seong agrees to become a contestant in a super-shady, yet-to-be-explained game. Clearly he’s got great risk assessment skills.

The character of Seong Gi-hun, donning the number 456, joins the deadly competition in "Squid Game" to pay off mounting debts.
The character of Seong Gi-hun, donning the number 456, joins the deadly competition in "Squid Game" to pay off mounting debts.YOUNGKYU PARK

He’s soon taken to a remote island where he has to go head-to-head against 455 similarly indebted players in a series of schoolyard games overseen by a gaggle of anonymous red-suited staff and a mysterious “Frontman.” The prize for winning? About $40 million. If you lose? Death.

What ensues is a saga that includes a giant animatronic doll, a sugary treat called “dalgona,” and plenty of twists and turns for Seong and the other contestants. It’s “The Hunger Games” meets “Saw” meets I’m sleeping with the lights on tonight.


What is the cause of this mollusk mania?

“Squid Game,” created by writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, got scant promotion in the US, the head of global TV at Netflix, Bela Bajaria, told Vulture. Instead, the show’s popularity was driven by “an organic fandom,” she said. A sort of word of mouth — or, more accurately, word of social media, where everything from “Squid Game”-inspired challenges, recipes, and Halloween costumes are multiplying — gave the show its far-reaching tentacles.

The results have been completely off the charts. On TikTok alone, the hashtag #SquidGame has 28.3 billion views. In South Korea, an internet service provider, SK Broadband, is suing Netflix to cover the costs of the deluge in network usage that followed the debut of “Squid Game.”

It’s even caused off-screen mayhem: In the pilot episode, there is an eight-digit phone number printed on a business card. A South Korean woman with that number received so many calls and text messages that the streaming service said they would edit the shot with the phone number out of the show entirely.

How did the show come to be?

Even though “Squid Game” is establishing itself as an entertainment juggernaut, it took over a decade to even get made. Hwang initially set out to make “Squid Game” as a feature film in 2008, when he was living with his mother and grandmother, the Wall Street Journal reported. Cash-strapped and reading comics like “Battle Royale” with a similar win-or-die premise, he set out to make “Squid Game” as a social commentary, Hwang told 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,” Hwang said. “But I wanted it to use the kind of characters we’ve all met in real life.”

When he first pitched the story to local studios, it was rejected for being “too grotesque and too unrealistic,” the WSJ said. In fact, at one point, the writing process was put on pause because Hwang had to sell his $675 laptop.

But in 2019, Netflix picked up the show in the midst of a substantial investment in Korean films and TV shows. There has also been a recent swell in the popularity of Korean media, like the Oscar-winning film “Parasite.” The streaming service found the financial desperation depicted in the show timely, WSJ said, and the pandemic brought the concept into even sharper focus.

"Squid Game" writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk briefly stoped writing the series, about class inequality, because he had to sell his $675 laptop.
"Squid Game" writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk briefly stoped writing the series, about class inequality, because he had to sell his $675 laptop.YOUNGKYU PARK

“The world has changed,” Hwang said. “All of these points made the story very realistic for people compared to a decade ago.”

What’s the deal with the subtitles?

“Squid Game” has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, ranking as the number one Netflix show in over 90 countries, from Egypt to Chile to Jamaica, according to streaming rating website FlixPatrol.

But language barriers remain. The series has subtitles in 31 languages and is dubbed in 13, including English, but some viewers argue that messages still get lost in translation.


One TikTok, made by native Korean speaker Youngmi Mayer, went viral for pointing out the differences between the spoken Korean dialogue and the English closed captions, which she said miss important nuances. An easy fix? Several Twitter users suggested clicking on “English” subtitles instead of “English CC.”

Will there be a season 2?

The massive success of “Squid Game” raises the question: Is the game over, or will the story continue with a season 2? Hwang was noncommittal at first, telling Variety in late September that he had no “well developed plans” for a sequel. But he added that if he were to embark on a second season, he would enlist a writers’ room instead of going it alone again.

But on Monday, Hwang seemed to have changed his tune, telling The Sunday Times that he would want a second season to home in on the story of the elusive Frontman. Bejaria, the Netflix exec, seemed optimistic, telling Vulture the streamer was “trying to figure out the right structure for him” as Hwang works on a new movie.

In the meantime, you can watch or rewatch the show, or just browse the top-quality “Squid Game” Twitter memes. But just remember: If a strange man approaches you in an MBTA station and asks you to play a game of “ddakji,” run far, far away.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com