Whether you’re religious or not, you probably at least understand the concept of Hell, and you probably know the general rule that bad people are supposed to wind up there. Or at least, that’s what you might think. “Hellbound” delves into this exact concept, and in the span of just six episodes, this new Netflix series touches on all the complicated issues that come with the messiness of justice and religion.
This series is interesting in that there is no clear protagonist, only characters who have been forced to reckon with the disastrous disturbance in which random people are decreed to be bound for Hell. This whole phenomenon is basically every Sunday school kid’s nightmare: a ghoulish apparition appears in front of its first victim, usually giving them a timeline of when they can expect to be sent to Hell. For some, it’s only 30 seconds worth of waiting. For others, it can be as long as 20 years. In either case, the outcome is the same. When time’s up, three Hulk-like beings maul the victim, then burn them alive. As the world (and the audience) scrambles to figure out what exactly is the reason for these strange happenings, a Christian cult emerges: The New Truth Society, with figurehead Jeong Ji Soo (Yoo Ah In) explaining that these beings go after those who have committed some grave sin in the past.
As these occurrences become both more frequent and more public, the real human chaos begins. Left and right, people start demonizing anyone who’s been given this foul decree. People become obsessed with figuring out what each damned person’s “sin” is, whether it be something like using a company’s credit card or watching pornagraphy. While the world goes insane, those of The New Truth Society thrive. The recurring character, the spittle-strewing streamer Lee Dong Wook (Kim Do Yoon), perhaps speaks for the mob best. Yelling for people to confess their sin and urging people to repent, Dong Wook is a perfect symbol of the most despicable person you might find on Twitter, Reddit or YouTube. He encourages people to dig up information on everyone who’s been bound for Hell, like that of one of the first victims, Park Jung Ja (Kim Shin Rok)—a single mother of two kids who, till the very end, refuses to explain what her “sin” might be. She’s a chillingly realistic depiction of anyone who’s been a victim of a religious hate group: hiding away from the windows of her own apartment as people scream for her to repent, trying to hold onto her pride and sanity as she sends her children away from the chaos.
Meanwhile, characters like attorney Min Hye Jin (Kim Hyun Joo) and Detective Jin Kyung Hun (Yang Ik June) attempt to keep cool with their upending society. It’s an ultimate battle against the cultish mob mentality versus the sensible individuals, one that’s full of blood and sensationalism all fancily dressed up in pulpit language. As a result, the whole show feels incredibly dark (literally: the whole palette is composed of hues of grey and dark blue), with not a whole ton of hope in sight.
But now here’s the real twist: there are people who are given this decree, even though they’ve done literally nothing wrong. So all of that religious lecturing about sin and repentance becomes complicated. A sweet, teenage student; a loving husband; a baby born literally three days ago—It doesn’t make sense for these people to be damned to hell, so why them? What’s the point of all this damnation, really, and what separates the damned from the supposedly saved?
Although this review won’t get into any spoilers, it’ll instead establish this: in the end, people will believe whatever the hell they want to believe. “Hellbound’s” pointed thesis is that people will imbue religious meaning into something that’s just plain senseless and violent. Alternatively, it could work as something akin to cancel culture: yes, of course, the show points out that people should be held accountable for their crimes. But in the same breath, the show also asks its audience where we should draw the line between holding someone accountable versus burning them at the stake for something that they might not have even done. Add to all of these concepts a touch of religious fanaticism, and you have “Hellbound’s” final point: hatred for the sake of hatred is a dangerous, dangerous thing—and to mix religion with an idea of justice does not, in fact, answer society’s problems. Rather, it can quickly be turned into a weapon that places undue and excessive harm on those who don’t even have the chance to defend themselves.
And yet, despite these serious themes, this show feels hopeful somehow. In the midst of this grimness, there are still people who are hoping to maintain some form of dignity and peace. There are still people quietly fighting to not fall into the cult behavior of the rest of the world. Perhaps the final line of the show says it best: “I don’t know much about God, and I don’t care. One thing I know for sure is that the world belongs to us. We should settle our own affairs.” In the end, that’s what this show is about—how human beings should settle their affairs, and how they should look at the lines between right and wrong. “Hellbound” doesn’t necessarily attack religious institutions, but it does point out that there is something hellishly wrong about a group of people deciding how to treat people on the basis of something no one understands. It points out that we might not have all the answers to the millions of questions about right and wrong, but we can understand one thing: we need to find the actual answers ourselves.