The most straightforward thing to do would be to rename Hellbound the new Squid Game. After all, they’re both South Korean dramas about horrific death, and they’re both Netflix mega successes.
Hellbound had topped ratings in 80 different countries within 24 hours of its premiere, and had surpassed Squid Game as the platform’s most-watched program, according to reports this week.
The similarities are, of course, valid. Squid Game was such a game-changer – not just in terms of mainstreaming Korean dramas, but also in terms of highlighting the success of series that weren’t in English – that it was always going to gobble up the next big thing. Remember how, for years following the premiere of Fleabag, every female-led comedy was dubbed “the new Fleabag”?
This is a similar situation, except this time the victims are wailing Koreans who are dying in unimaginably horrific ways.
However, I really hope that Hellbound can avoid such facile analogies. It is not only worthy of standing on its own two feet, but it is also excellent.
Insanely wonderful, in fact. Squid Game is superior. Even better than the majority of stuff. If you haven’t seen Hellbound yet, stop what you’re doing right now and watch it.
It has a fantastic concept. People are suddenly visited by an unsettling visage who appears in front of them and tells them the time and date of their impending death. Then three enormous huge CGI brutes come in from another realm and pulverise that individual in a beatdown that culminates in full-body combustion, as if by magic.
Many other works might stop there – certainly, the demonic smackdowns have a sub-Marvel vibe – but Hellbound thrives in its willingness to show us what occurs on the outside. The unexpected realization that some power is purposefully selecting individuals to be slaughtered by supernatural entities reshapes society as we know it.
Messianic status is given to those who claim to have insight into the cause. Millions are enthralled by vast, odious conspiracy ideas.
The world’s population is engulfed in a sea of anxiety and apprehension. The demons themselves are quickly reduced to carnival entertainment.
Hellbound is really more evocative of two calmer, more intellectual programs in this regard. Although the catchier “here’s when you’ll die” hook is straight out of The Ring, tonally it’s more in line with The Leftovers and The Returned; programs that highlighted the fragility of the human experience and reminded us that everything may come apart in an instant. Comparisons to The Leftovers aren’t made lightly, but Hellbound is deserving of them.
As a result, I don’t believe Hellbound will be able to permanently dethrone Squid Game. In retrospect, Squid Game was a show that was created with one eye on the internet.
The costumes, masks, and chanting were clearly intended to inspire memes (which they did), and it was founded in the kind of easy nostalgia that keeps your parents on Facebook. Squid Game was a vast, wide, episodic game, to the point that my six-year-old has a very solid knowledge of it based only on online stuff.
Hellbound, on the other hand, is a far darker, more tangled story. There are allusions to online culture – most notably in the Arrowhead, a QAnon-esque organization that regularly seems to yell frantic frenzy-whipping claptrap right into a livestream – but they are used more as a means of damnation than as an overture.
Characters aren’t simply faceless numbers in tracksuits here, though, with everyone having their own narrative. You are forced to feel the full weight of each consequence with every whiplash-inducing twist – and there are a lot of them.
It’s a lot less entertaining than Squid Game, and it’s a lot more difficult to swallow.
This is why it’s so valuable. Hellbound is a genuinely outstanding drama with just the lightest of genre thrills thrown in for good measure. It may get caught up in the aftermath of Squid Game right now, but I bet it will be the program that is still spoken about a decade from now.
Thanks to Stuart Heritage at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.