Top image: Netflix
Mention Hellbound, and the next line that people will utter is, “It’s more popular than Squid Game, you know?” Whether it will be is something only time will tell. But in the meantime, the comparison to Squid Game is as inevitable as the name dropping of popular shows for better SEO. It’s got gore and violence, a social commentary, and fairly good production values (although they skimped on the CGI, but more on it later). But it differs in one major way—the uncomfortable question that it raises about deities and supreme beings. That lies chiefly in its premise: the story takes place in a world where sinners are pummelled to death by supernaturally strong black giants, who appear for this one task before disappearing just as quickly as they appeared.
Impending doom wouldn’t be as impending if you didn’t know it was coming, which is why a presumably divine force (often in the form of an unearthly face) will appear to the sinner and tell them of their date and time of death. The rest of the show revolves around humanity’s reaction to such a visceral display of divine retribution, and the subsequent questions it raises.
Of course, the world wasn’t always like this. In the universe of Hellbound, this phenomenon began several years ago. Since it’s relatively new and unknown, the world trembles as they wonder what’s next—or rather, who’s next. Predictably, there are those who seek to monetise this and broadcast the murders of sinners for profit. Others seek to give their commentary through live streaming. Organisations rise to take advantage of the public’s fear and ignorance (not that these organisations know any better, just that they pretend to), and in the show, the resulting cult that forms is the New Truth Society.
The shows is split into two parts—the first three episodes centre around the rise of the New Truth Society and its charismatic leader Jeong Jin-soo (Yoo Ah-in), who has his own mysterious secret. The second half of the series takes place five years later, after the New Truth Society has risen to power and societies opposing them have formed. The last three episodes revolve around Bae Young-jae (Park Jeong-min), a cynical television producer who unwittingly gets drawn into the machinations of the New Truth Society.
But though the series shows a great fascination with human nature and how quick people can be to capitalise on disaster (an apt metaphor for the pandemic), it raises a huge question about God’s own morality in its second half. To be clear, this is not necessarily the Judeo-Christian version of God, nor is it ever explicitly spelt out which religion this God is from. There are a few parallels to charismatic churches (this writer is a former believer) in its depiction of the New Truth Society. Still, otherwise, it doesn’t explicitly point out whose God it is.
But it does ask: Is God good? Is God fair? Does God even care?
In a way, this is a reflection of Stephen Fry’s infamous criticism of God — “How dare you create a world in which there is much misery that is not our fault?” Up to this point in the series, there has been no doubt in the infallibility of God (or the divine power behind the executions in the series), since the struggle is usually to find out why the sinners have been so judged, rather than whether those sinners are deserving of the judgement. And in so doing, the series casts a pall on all the brutal executions that have come before it. Was it just? Was it right? Was there even a divine purpose to it?
It makes you wonder, for a moment, why God can allow such things to happen. Or does God intentionally will such incidents to occur? Even within Hellbound itself, God lets humanity interpret this turn of events as it will, allowing some to profit from it, without ever giving any proper explanation why. To be clear, this is a show where sinners are explicitly told they will die and then beaten to death violently. God can obviously take a direct hand in matters, but doesn’t when it comes to explaining its will.
The question boils down to this—why do bad things happen to good people? It’s a question that people have asked for centuries of their religions. And the only answer to that is that God can be capricious and spiteful. It doesn’t matter what faith you’re from, all you need is to see some sort of divine injustice, and this question will form in your mind.
Before you can ponder too long on the topic, the show springs several twists on you, as it bends the rules that it so painstakingly created in the first five episodes. Perhaps it’s so that it’s not such a downer of an ending—there will be a Season 2, right?.
Or, perhaps creator Yeon Sang-ho has already revealed the nature of God in Hellbound’s universe. He described the series as one of “cosmic horror”, akin to Lovecraftian tales like Beyond The Mountains of Madness. HP Lovecraft (where the term “Lovecraftian” comes from) was an author who wrote horror stories about eldritch, otherworldly horrors, about things that man was not meant to know, about powerful and unfathomable creatures to which we were of no consequence. It’s speculation, but it’s certainly a more comfortable notion than that of a cruel God who delivers judgement on a whim.
Hellbound isn’t just a series about human nature and our relationship with God. In a way, it is about God, and the infuriatingly opaque way that a supreme deity operates. Things might change as the series progresses and more about the nature of God is revealed. But for now, the world certainly looks bleak with this God in charge. And in the world of Hellbound, there’s little anyone can do about it.
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Writer: Choi Kyu-sok
Cast: Yoo Ah-in (Jeong Jin-soo), Kim Hyun-joo (Min Hye-jin), Park Jeong-min (Bae Young-jae), Won Jin-ah (Song So-hyun), Yang Ik-june (Jin Kyeong-hoon)
Running Time: 6 episodes of 50-60 min
Genres: Fantasy, Horror, Thriller, Post-apocalyptic