TeaThe easiest thing in the world would be to call Hellbound the new squid game. After all, they are both South Korean dramas, they both deal violent death and they are both hit hits on Netflix. It was reported this week that Hellbound had topped ratings in 80 different countries within 24 hours of its premiere, surpassing Squid Game as the platform’s most-watched show.
Of course, comparisons are valid. The Squid Game was such a marker—not only in keeping Korean dramas firmly in the mainstream, but in underscoring the popularity of shows that didn’t in English—that it was always going to swallow the next thing that came along. Remember how every female-facing comedy was called “The New Fleabag” for years after that show debuted? It’s the same thing, only screaming Koreans are dying in unimaginable horrors.
However, I sincerely hope that Hellbound can shake up such easy comparisons. It is not only worth standing on your own feet, but also good happens. Like, great. Better than squid game. Better than most things. If you haven’t seen Hellbound, just drop everything and do it.
Its premise is simply amazing. Out of the blue, people are visited by a terrifying face that materializes in front of them, and tells the time and date of their imminent death. And then, like clockwork, three Hawking great CGI beasts explode from another dimension and crush the man into a beatdown that results in his entire body being devoured.
Plenty of other works would leave it there—in fact, the monstrous SmackDown has a bit of a sub-miracle feel to it—but where Hellbound thrives is its willingness to show us what happens around their edges. The sudden knowledge that some force is deliberately selecting certain people to be murdered by supernatural beings immediately changes the entire society as we know it. Those who claim to have an insight about reason are elevated to the status of the Messiah. Massive, ugly conspiracy theories have been taken over by millions. The world’s population finds itself trapped in a quagmire of fear and confusion. Soon the demons themselves are reduced to side show fare.
In that respect, Hellbound is actually reminiscent of two quieter, more cerebral shows. Although the grabber “Here’s When You Die” hook is lifted straight from The Ring, today it has much in common with The Leftovers and The Returned; Shows that shed light on the fragility of the human experience, reminding us that it doesn’t take long for everything to be completely different. You don’t compare The Leftovers lightly, but Hellbound deserves it.
Which is why I don’t think Hellbound Squid will permanently steal the game’s crown. The Squid Game was a show that was made on the Internet with one eye. The outfits, masks, and spells were certainly designed to fuel the memes (as they did), and it was rooted in the kind of easy nostalgia that keeps your parents on Facebook. The squid game was big and pervasive and relevant, to the extent that my six-year-old has developed a fairly good grasp of it, based purely on peripheral Internet material.
But Hellbound is a more profound, knotty affair. There are allusions to internet culture—most noticeable in Arrowhead, a QAnon-esque group that often appears to shout hysterical frenzy-whip claptrap straight over a livestream—but they’re presented with more damn than overture. Is. The characters here aren’t just faceless numbers in tracksuits, either, each with their own fleshed-out backstory. With every whiplash-inducing twist—and there is much more—you’re forced to feel the full weight of each outcome. It’s far less fun than the squid game, and much harder to digest.
This is why it is so worthwhile. Hellbound is a truly extraordinary drama wrapped in only the mildest of genre adventures. It may currently find itself drifting in the wake of the Squid game, but I guarantee that, of the two, this is the show that will still be talked about a decade from now.