“Hot Skull” Netflix series review


I’ve never written a TV or movie review before.

My relationship with TV shows and movies is generally one of shallow passive consumption; I watch purely for entertainment. I don’t discuss or critique the things I watch, and I certainly don’t have very discerning taste in this arena (…in contrast to my engaged, critical relationship with books, and my discriminating preferences for the latter 😊 ).

However, “Hot Skull” (“Sıcak Kafa” in Turkish) resonated with me on a number of levels – most majorly, that the main character is actually a linguist(!) and the show’s plot centers on a virus transmitted through language. Unsurprisingly, I have some opinions to share.

If you haven’t see the show, there may be a few (general-ish) spoilers in what follows.



Season 1 of “Hot Skull” was released in December 2022 on Netflix. It was filmed in Istanbul, Turkey, and is entirely in Turkish (I watched with English subtitles).

IMDb / Rotten Tomatoes synopsizes:

“In a dystopian world, as an epidemic spreads through verbal communication, a tyrannical institution pursues a linguist immune to the disease.”

The official Netflix synopsis:

“Based on the novel HOT SKULL by Afşin Kum, set in a world shaken by an epidemic of madness that spreads through language and speech, the reclusive former linguist Murat Siyavus, having taken refuge at his mother’s home, is the only person mysteriously unaffected by this disease. Hunted by the ruthless Anti-Epidemic Institution, Murat is forced to leave the safe zone and flee within the flames and ruins of the streets of Istanbul, where he searches for the secret of his ‘hot skull’ – a lasting mark of the disease.”


Overall observations and opinions

There are two aspects of “Hot Skull” that struck me immediately.

First: The main plot-driving concept – that of a deadly virus transmitted via language – was also utilized in an older Canadian movie called “Pontypool” (also based on a novel, by Tony Burgess)…so although the premise may seem unusual, it’s not new. This post of mine from several years ago references “Pontypool”.

Second: There are some obvious parallels between the Hot Skull sci-fi world and the real-world Covid situation, even though the book that the show was adapted from came out pre-pandemic, in 2016. In both show and real world, there is a ubiquitously-seen apparatus that individuals must wear over certain sensory organs which ostensibly protects them from infection – during Covid it was masks over the mouth and nose; in the show it’s headphones over the ears. There is the tactic of quarantining. And in the show, there is an authoritarian organization which, under the guise of maintaining safety and working towards a cure, pursues its own corrupt agenda (your mileage may vary in drawing parallels to real life institutions here).

Overall, I found the show gripping, and well done on multiple fronts. One might argue that I was essentially the ideal audience for such a series. Perhaps this is why a couple major plot holes didn’t spoil my watching fun (I discuss these under “Questions and critiques” below, however). Elements I thought were particularly notable: the gritty atmosphere, the acting, the integration of occasional surrealist scenes in the otherwise realist (albeit somewhat dystopian) narrative. I also loved hearing the Turkish, as I’d been trying to learn it over the past year. And then of course, the linguistic virus concept.


Why nonsense talk is creepy, and other linguistic commentary

So what exactly is this “epidemic of madness that spreads through language and speech”?

Not much detail is given about how the virus works (addressed below), but we observe the people infected by it, and at a minimum can observe that, after becoming infected, they begin to speak nonsensically. The English subtitles call this “jabbering”, and those infected, “jabberers” (I don’t know how close these translations are to the original terms – if you speak Turkish, please let me know in a comment!). These jabberers speak constantly, in long monologues, without the expected conversational pauses.

This phenomenon simultaneously enthralls and horrifies me, as I suspect it does others. Nonsense talk feels creepy. Why? One facile answer may be that we associate gibberish with people who are on drugs, or who have mental illnesses – we can’t easily anticipate what such people want, what they’ll do next, etc., and thus we’re instinctively on guard. A more general, and linguistic-focused answer, is to be found in the realm of pragmatics: the Gricean Maxims.

The Gricean Maxims come from Paul Grice, a philosopher of language, who outlined them in his cooperative principle in the 1970s-80s. They capture the assumptions we hold when engaged in conversation with our fellow humans. The maxims are:

  • Quantity – say no more and no less than is necessary to be informative
  • Quality – be truthful (/genuine)
  • Relation – be relevant
  • Manner – be clear and unambiguous

These are meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive (see here on descriptivism/prescriptivism). When individuals violate these maxims, we do our best, as cooperative listeners, to try and make sense of what they’ve said anyway. Context is key – the same phrase, perfectly sensible in one context, can be nonsensical in another. When someone’s speech lies beyond all our efforts at sense-making, interactions break down very quickly. Add a virus into the mix, and you have the easiest recipe for societal-level fear, distrust, chaos.

But the “jabbering” of the infected is not pure language soup. In the very first episode, we hear the epidemic is caused by a “semantic virus”. The syntax of jabberers’ speech is in-tact. This means the nuts and bolts of how they form sentences – morphology like gender/number/tense agreement, and word order, etc. – remains unaffected. It’s the difference between syntactic well-formedness and semantic well-formedness. Noam Chomsky created the now-classic “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” to illustrate this kind of grammatically well-formed, but semantically nonsensical utterance. Interestingly, people with a type of aphasia called Wernicke’s aphasia (most often caused by stroke) demonstrate similar language issues. They speak fluently and grammatically, but their speech lacks meaning.


Questions and critiques

How long does it take for the virus in the “Hot Skull” world to be transmitted to a new individual? Is a mere word sufficient, or must there be enough language to be identifiable as jabbering? The show doesn’t address this at all, although transmission seems relatively instantaneous once someone hears a jabberer. Which brings us to the most gaping plot hole: It’s been eight years since the epidemic began, and society hasn’t adapted in even the most common-sense of ways to contain the virus. Everyone still communicates verbally. (What’s more, people seem shockingly lackadaisical with their headphone usage.) If viral transmission is so quick upon exposure to jabbering, why are other methods of communication, e.g. writing, not being used instead of speech?

That begs another question: What about sign languages – do they transmit the virus as well? If it spreads through language generally, then the answer should be yes, as sign languages are human languages with as much grammar and rich expressivity as their spoken counterparts. Citizens wear headphones as protective equipment, but obviously covering the ears only applies to verbal communication. And if the virus only spreads through audible language, then learning sign language would be an effective containment strategy.

A final critique: In Season 1 of “Hot Skull”, very little linguistic insight or plot-driving comes from Murat, the linguist main character. Disappointing! It reminds me of the movie “Arrival” – one of the only other shows I know about where the star character is a linguist – also utterly unsatisfying in its lack of substantive linguistics. Instead, Murat does a lot of code-deciphering and number-genius stuff (supposedly a side effect of experimental treatment he went through)…which is made to seem related to his identity as a linguist, but which is tangential at best. His only language insights are not related to how the virus works or spreads, but more trivially, to the etymology of certain words and other characters’ names.


Sadly, I learned while writing this post that Netflix did not green light a Season 2. So I should probably just learn more Turkish and read the original “Sıcak Kafa”. My book-lover soul would be happy to get back to its original critique zone, in any case.

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