Squid Game, the violent South Korean critique of capitalism that’s become a surprise global phenomenon on Netflix, ends in such a way as to suggest the potential for a second season. Even if you haven’t finished the series — and if you haven’t, you should get on it, because there are spoilers ahead — you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the show’s plot: 400-plus economically disadvantaged people agree to play children’s games like tug of war and red light/green light in a strange, dystopian complex, for the amusement of wealthy masked voyeurs. If they succeed, they move on to the next game, and the chance to win a life altering cash prize, equivalent to about $38 million. If they lose, they die.
In the end, one player is left standing — flush with cash, though traumatized by the atrocities he’s seen and in which he’s participated. There are lingering questions about the shadowy organization behind the games: Who are they? What’s their deal? How long has this been going on? How do they get away with it? What’s happened to the other winners of previous tournaments? But the biggest, most pervasive question is probably the easiest to answer: will there be a second season?
Nothing has been officially announced yet, but it’s a safe bet that Netflix wants more Squid Game. Though the steamer rarely reveals actual viewership numbers, Netflix announced yesterday that the series has reached 111 million viewers so far. It has remained in the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s own list of its top 10 most streamed content for weeks now. And there are the memes and media coverage and merch. In the quest for viewership, you don’t walk away from that kind of global attention. It’s ironic, given the show’s themes, but capitalism basically demands more Squid Game.
Meanwhile, series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has indicated that he’s cautiously open to the idea of returning to the Squid Game complex for another round. “There’s nothing confirmed at the moment, but so many people are enthusiastic that I’m really contemplating it,” he told CNN recently.
In terms of storytelling and world building, there’s certainly more to explore. The final episode lays the groundwork for what could be a standard revenge narrative: Having survived the games, Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) sets out to discover who is behind the whole thing now and bring them down. Without a doubt, that’s exactly what many Squid Game fans — the folks who will surely be dressing up in track suits and white Vans for Halloween — want: more dystopian stakes, more action, more bizarre and terrifying twists on familiar playground games, more bloody violence. It’s easy to imagine that kind of follow-up being another massive hit, scoring even more international subscribers for Netflix.
What’s harder to imagine is how a second season would maintain Squid Game’s critique of global capitalism. Of course, it’s debatable how effective that critique is in the show’s first season. The New York Times’ Mike Hale criticized Squid Game for layering a thin veneer of fairly obvious social commentary over gratuitous violence and a body count that amounts to “empty, bloody calories.” Slate’s Isaac Butler compared it unfavorably to Parasite, noting that while Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film continuously complicates its ideas and themes, Squid Game makes just about every point it’s going to make about violence and income inequality within the first few episodes and then continues its grisly massacre.
Still, an undeniable part of the show’s appeal is that it is an unflinching reflection of what many working people the world over understand implicitly: that capitalism is a game none but a very select few can win. It’s a contemporary parable about the way capitalism traps the poor and drives them to extremes. Parables work because they’re short and self-contained. They use contrivances to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson within a specific set of circumstances. Once you begin to broaden the scope, the story becomes something else, and the lesson gets lost.
You can see the pitfalls of this kind of thing in Hulu’s ongoing adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel works because it gives us a brief glimpse into the experience of a woman living in a reproductive dystopia and leaves us with chilling ambiguity. The lesson is: this is what could happen; do what you can to prevent it. Of course, it’s natural to wonder what happens to characters after the final frame, after the curtain falls. Life, after all, goes on. But by attempting to answer that question—Then what?—in Season 2 and Season 3 and Season 4, The Handmaid’s Tale has in many ways lost the plot. Each consecutive season has inflicted more violence and trauma on its characters and by proxy its audience. These may be the kinds of things that would happen if June (Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow handmaids were real people in these circumstances, but what is the point of watching people be brutalized over and over again? What are we as viewers supposed to gain from that? Meanwhile, the show’s rare moments of triumph strain credibility. A story that was once an urgent warning about the perils of complacency when it comes to reproductive freedoms is now routinely referred to as torture porn.
Squid Game risks something similar if Hwang and Netflix decide to continue the story. The show, as Butler insists, has made its point. Whatever comes next risks devolving into further gratuitous spectacle: more artfully deadly games, more gruesome fights, more bodies piling up. That may be enough to bring a lot of fans back for a second season. And if that’s the case, you have to wonder: At what point do those fans trade their track suits and white Vans for glittering animal masks and satin robes?