Warning: This article contains massive spoilers for Squid Game. Do not read this article if you have not already watched Squid Game, and plan to do so.
Squid Game is a lot of things, and, unlike what so many social media posts are claiming, overrated is not one of them.
The thing is: Squid Game is a Netflix series with, admittedly, not the most unique plot in the world (plagiarism of Japanese movie As The Gods Will came into speculation here) — but we have all seen Hollywood remakes, right? It’s, unfortunately, nothing new. (Besides, Director Hwang Donghyuk had Squid Game strung along for ten years, unable to sell the idea to any production companies.) What Squid Game does effectively makes up for the not-so-unique plot: it addresses so many societal issues that, for years, did not often get the spotlight in popular Hollywood films. This includes, but is not limited to: capitalism, nationalism, access to education, religion vs. atheism, human morality, homophobia, and so much more. Be prepared, if you watch this show: you’re certainly going to have to be ready for more than gore and suspense.
Each episode of Squid Game is jam-packed with thematic, societal issues, and enough foreshadowing to last a lifetime — so, with that, here’s what the nine episodes of Squid Game have to say about society.
Episode One: “Red Light, Green Light”
“At that moment, I felt as if I owned the entire world — exhilarated.” — Seong Gi-hun
The first episode of Squid Game is what you might see in a slice-of-life television show like Shameless; poor people are doing what poor people have to do: struggle to stay afloat. Immediately, we have the absent, gambling-addicted father trope, the old mother in bad health who is damn sick of taking care of her very-much-adult child, and a money-related conflict that might just result in severe bodily harm. What this episode does extremely well, though, is foreshadow events to come. When Gi-hun picks the blue square from the ‘salesman,’ for example, we know which side of the game he is going to end up on. When we meet the old man (Il-nam), too, and we see he is the first player, among younger people from roughly 20 – 40 years of age, certainly we can pick up on the fact that he’s a special player, somehow — even if we do not know why yet. The horses that Gi-hun bets on in this episode are a metaphor for how the rich people behind the creation of the game see the players: as entertainment, something to bet on, as disposable beings. This episode treads dangerous waters, in depicting poor people as good-for-nothings — but, don’t worry, that will change quickly.
Episode Two: “Hell”
“Do you think money solves everything?” — Seong Gi-hun
The foreshadowing continues! In this episode, we see how each of our main characters end up dying. Saebyeok presses a knife to a man’s throat in the exact spot that Sangwoo slits her throat in a later episode. Sangwoo attempts to kill himself, lying fully clothed in a bathtub, which mimics his final moments as one of the game’s finalists, just before he successfully kills himself, this time for Gi-hun’s sake. We also meet the old man again — this time, in a scene completely alone with Gi-hun. Il-nam convinces Gi-hun to return to the game, saying things like, “It’s worse out here than it is in there.” This moment reflects one of the last scenes in the first season, in which Gi-hun and Il-nam talk about why Il-nam created the deadly game in the first place. What this episode really drills into our heads, though, is that the people involved in the game are under the foot of capitalism. Money is at stake, here, and these people are not at fault for their actions. So far, criticism and observations made about Squid Game imagine the thematic structure of the show to be some sort of tap into the human psyche, unveiling that we are all bad people who do bad things, but that’s really not the point. People are not inherently bad; capitalism is.
Episode Three: “The Man with the Umbrella”
“It doesn’t matter how tough you are, you’re not going to win in this place. Not on your own.” — Jang Deoksu
We’ve reached the part of this death-game-show in which alliances are formed and solidified. The players are trying to keep themselves and each other alive, and we audience members begin to find clarity in which players are actually, morally good, and which ones are just horrible people. (There is a lot of discourse over this amongst fans, specifically over Minyeo’s character. I’ll happily put myself on her side and argue that she was one of the most clever characters in the show, annoying or not.) This is also where we start to see more subplots expanding, like Jun-ho’s endless search for his brother, and whatever the doctor is up to. Players are finding ways to figure out the games ahead of time so they can strategically prepare for them and have a better chance of survival. What this episode really reflects, though, is luck. Some characters chose much easier shapes to cut out of their dalgona (honeycomb cookies) than others, but most had no idea what the game was, so they chose with absolutely no basis. This is very symbolic of people who grow up with money, and people who don’t. ‘Started from nothing’ stories are very rare; far too often, if you are born into a poor family, you stay poor. Not everyone can be rich in a capitalist society; life becomes a survival ‘game,’ in which everyone who does not have money is desperate to get it. Well-offness is based, unfortunately, very heavily on luck, just like the player’s chances of survival are based very heavily on what shape they chose.
Episode Four: “Stick to the Team”
“I’m good at everything except the things I can’t do.” — Han Minyeo
Teamwork! Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Luckily for our main characters, teamwork was the key to tug-of-war. Whereas strength would have been ideal, Il-nam gives his other team members an elaborate strategy to win. They were lucky, still, in being able to win against ten men, versus having an old man and three women on their own team (who, by the way, faced a lot of sexism from Sangwoo, who did not want to work with women at all). Even with their disadvantages, it was essentially their trust in each other (regardless of the fact that it came from a place of desperation) that won them this grim challenge. This episode also features more foreshadowing surrounding the old man: first, that he knows exactly how to win, and, second, that he is the only person on the team that’s not actually locked to the rope. If any audience members haven’t already figured out the ending, we’re surely thinking now about why Il-nam stands out so much.
Episode Five: “A Fair World”
“You know, if there’s anybody you should be thanking, it’s [the people who helped you], not God.” — Ji-yeong
It’s quite brief, but very significant: religion vs atheism makes its way into the beginning of this episode. One of the newer team members, player 244, begins praying after surviving tug-of-war with our main characters. Ji-yeong begins to berate him, telling him that God did not save him; Il-nam, Sangwoo, and Gi-hun did. Besides, she argues that he killed those people. They all killed those people — does praying make up for that? There’s a valid argument on both sides of their brief discourse, and they do not come to a resolution, mostly because there isn’t one. Another very brief but important issue brought up in this episode is Minyeo’s racism to Ali. She berates him for not being a citizen of South Korea — essentially, for being a foreigner: “Hey, do you have a visa? I bet you don’t. You’re an illegal alien. . . . Why keep this strange foreigner when we could just ditch him?” Unfortunately, Ali never got the chance to defend himself, and no one else defended him, either. I’m disappointed that the show never went anywhere with that, considering foreigners, especially immigrant workers, tend to be heavily mistreated in South Korea and various other Asian countries. I suppose you can only give spotlight to so many societal issues into one show, but, considering Ali was undoubtedly the best character in Squid Game, he deserved the time to speak about being a foreigner in South Korea and have some on-screen support for it.
Episode Six: “Gganbu”
“Does tricking your friend like that make sense to you?” — Oh Il-nam
By far one of the most heart-wrenching episodes in the first season, “Gganbu” (roughly translated, ‘gganbu’ is closest to ‘comrade’ in English) is all about betrayal. Players are forced to team up one-on-one, and most of the players end up choosing someone they trust or genuinely like. Unfortunately for them, only one person from each pair is destined to make it out alive. Sangwoo ends up tricking Ali for his marbles and leaving him for dead; Gi-hun continuously tricks Il-nam, but, despite doing so, is still spared by him and allowed to move forward in the game; Ji-yeong realizes she has practically nothing to live for and sacrifices herself for Saebyeok, who has a younger brother waiting for her. This episode, especially Ji-yeong and Saebyeok’s interactions, are a call to how important family is: Ji-yeong does not have family to take care of or even return to, but Saebyeok does. When Ali and Sangwoo argue briefly over why they should make it out alive, they talk about their families. Oddly enough, Gi-hun does not talk about his daughter or even his mother, whose health issues heavily influenced him to return to the game, much throughout the show, and certainly does not talk about them in this episode. The argument many fans make that Gi-hun is not a good father is pretty much an objective fact, at this point.
Episode Seven: “VIPS”
“Did you really believe I’d die so you could go on?” — Han Minyeo
This episode is a difficult one to grapple with, considering the brief homosexual scene between Jun-ho and one of the VIPs. This is the only exploration the show takes into homosexuality, and it is really not handled well at all, which reflects South Korea’s still-conservative attitude towards homosexuality — portraying homosexual men as weird, old, capitalistic perverts. This scene would not have been as harmful if there was any other inkling towards homosexual relationships that were not taboo, but Squid Game fails to include a non-harmful portrayal of gay people. This episode also touches on revenge: Minyeo swore to kill Deoksu, and she is finally able to. Unfortunately, she has to kill herself as well, but she saves everyone that is stuck behind her and Deoksu as she jumps off the glass bridge with him in her arms. It’s both a heroic and vengeful act, on her part. Sangwoo also kills the last of the players that has not become one of our main characters throughout the show in order to save himself and, consequently, Gi-hun and Saebyeok. The three make it to the finals because of the sacrificed player, who guided them to the very end before Sangwoo had to kill him off.
Episode Eight: “Front Man”
“You should be happy that there’s someone who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.” — Cho Sangwoo
All of the main characters in Squid Game died in heart-breaking ways, and while Saebyeok is no exception to this trend, her death was cheap. The glass exploding in the previous episode is ultimately what killed her off, although Sangwoo did slit her throat to quicken her death. Gi-hun stepped away from her to try to get someone to help her, as she was bleeding out (but we know that none of the masked figures were actually going to give her medical help), so Sangwoo has the opportunity to eliminate her. While every show or movie is bound to have a cheap death thrown into the mix of symbolic ones, I’m particularly frustrated that it was Saebyeok’s in Squid Game. She was a very complex and cunning character, who was helpful in her own, cold and distant way. She deserved, at the very least, an honorable death. I didn’t expect her to sacrifice herself for someone else, but she could have had the chance to fight until the end. Maybe that is my own sensitivity to her being my favorite character, alongside Ali, but the existence of a cheap death in a show all about not-so-cheap death is annoying nonetheless.
Episode Nine: “One Lucky Day”
“Listen carefully. I’m not a horse. I’m a person.” — Seong Gi-hun
And the winner is . . . Gi-hun! Of course. We started with, followed, and ended with Gi-hun; he was bound to win the game all along. I definitely did not expect Sangwoo to kill himself for his former friend, especially after being so selfish through the other levels. Ultimately, though, Gi-hun won . . . but at a very large cost — his own sanity. The game traumatized him badly — so much so that he doesn’t touch the money he won, and lives as he had before entering the game in the first place. He’s poor, borrowing money from others, and practically living on the streets. This episode is about regret, guilt, and . . . moving on? The last point is ambiguous. Gi-hun eventually does use his money, after gaining some closure from Il-nam (the mastermind who created the game, as aforementioned) witnessing his final breath, and is going to the U.S. to see his daughter when he decides to call the number for entering the game again. He berates them, then turns to leave the plane. The ending is very ambiguous, which is a call to how recurring this whole death game is — a symbol for how capitalism never stops, and will always have a hold over people.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of loose ends at the end of the first season. We never find out about Minyeo’s ‘child,’ for example (if she really had one), or whether or not Gi-hun will go see his daughter and be a good father for once. What about Sangwoo’s family? We know what became of his mother, but what about his wife, his children? What about Saebyeok’s mother? Gi-hun can’t take care of everyone, but there’s not enough closure. Maybe that’s for the best, considering Gi-hun only knew the dead player’s storylines faintly, and we are now following his point of view. It’s frustrating, nonetheless.
There are no current plans for a second season of Squid Game, but fans certainly want it. What might that look like, now that Il-nam is dead? Maybe Inho will take over, since he was practically second-in-command, anyway. Maybe Il-nam isn’t actually dead, and that was just another trick he played on Gi-hun so that he would not murder him. Who knows? Will Gi-hun also get sucked into the game as a leadership role on the masked side of the game, the way Inho likely did? Surely, if a second season of Squid Game does come into existence, it will hit us with even more twists and turns that none of us can prepare ourselves for.
Featured Image Courtesy of MARCA.