We’ve been had, and Squid Game is here to prove it.
When the end of the South Korean horror drama arrives on the ninth episode, the winner finds himself harrowed by what the coveted prize has cost his soul. In the rat race for survival, along with a better life that hinges on the never ending hustle, there’s no time to stop and see the horror our lives become. By the end, we see how the winner has sold his soul for a crappy deal that came with a few toys, and a happy meal.
A group of 456 players are mysteriously invited to take part in a set of children’s games for a grand prize of $38 million, which will be enough to give the winner the financial freedom they desperately need. The players are selected from different walks of life, with the burden of excessive debt being their biggest motivation to give the Game a go.
The first of deepening terrors comes during the first game, when the players discover that penalties for losing in the challenges will be death. DEATH. Horrified, the players initially vote to leave and return to their lives.
This noble departure doesn’t last long; their material realities as fugitives on the run from debt collectors only highlights the glow of the precious promise they’ve now left behind. When they return for the second time, they now consent to their highly probable deaths.
Led by Lee Jung-jae, who plays Seong Gi-hun, a taxi driver with a gambling addiction, the South Korean series has become somewhat of a global phenomenon. Now the most streamed Korean series of all time, Squid Game is also said to be on pace to dethrone Bridgerton as the most streamed series in the history of Netflix. And it’s with good reason. Squid Game is a trip.
Survival is the drive. The blues of a broke life pile up for Seong Gi-hun, who’s daughter is being taken away to the US by her mother and step father. His mother is battling deteriorating diabetes and even in her frail condition, is still working hard to make ends meet. It’s during the peak of his frustrations that Gi-hun is randomly invited to take part in the Game.
After accepting the offer, he finds himself in a discreet location along with 455 players, who are also drowning in debt. The players are kept under an authoritarian system of surveillance. Masked guards in pink suits keep the scene under control under the supervision of the Front Man. Gi-hun allies with other players, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo, as a the most strategic way to survive the bloody challenges.
Amongst those that end up in this team is player 001, a frail old man who who became his “gganbu”. Sae-byeok, who was also in the team, was killed by Sang-woo, Gi-hun’s childhood friend, team member and flip-flopping ally. Several other team members had to be killed by their team mates, which revealed the wickedness of the games.
In the end, Gi-hun’s victory came without an apology. He had to defeat a close ally in the games, the old and frail player 001. They’d bonded throughout their time, but in the end he had to advance himself against those he’d built alliances. As the games progressed, the players found themselves having to face tough calls. Someone else has to die for you to make it another day.
After a series of brutal games, it comes down to childhood friends Gi-hun and Cho Sang-woo. They’d played different games, with Sang-woo having played hard and stopping at nothing to win. Gi-hun is mad at Sang-woo for a series of betrayals, including him stabbing Sae-byeok to her death. In the end, Gi-hun wins when Sang-woo apologised and kills himself.
Yet despite emerging a winner, Gi-hun finds that the cost of becoming an overnight billionaire has bankrupted his soul. For a year following the day his bank account was loaded with a nine zero figure, he didn’t touch the money. After all, he returned to find his mother dead on the floor. One of his motivations was getting the money to get her medical help over her advancing diabetes.
Gi-hun is clearly troubled by the bodies upon which his new wealth rests. A year passes and he hasn’t touched the money – even oddly reverting to old patterns of asking for loans to get by. It might be late to be so concerned about the moral questions surrounding the games now – the long and short of it is he won and his life has changed.
Later, he is shocked to find out that the “gganbu” who had to be killed after losing to him in a game of marbles, was never really killed.
In a shocking plot twist that changes everything – he also finds out that the old man is in fact the creator of the games! Finding him in a medical bed after receiving a mysterious invite to the location, Gi-hun discovers that the man’s real name is Oh Il-nam, an obscenely rich fella who created the games in 1988 (the same year Korea hosted the Olympics for the first time) purely for their entertainment. We already know by now that ‘the VIPs’ are a bunch of morally bankrupt elites who find pleasure in watching the poor masses slaughtering each other for money in a broken system. Where have we heard that before?
Although his participation in the games as player 001 was a farce, what he told Gi-hun back then, that he had a brain tumour, had been true. And of course, he challenged him to another sick game. A man had been freezing to death on a street pavement, and Oh Il-nam challenged Gi-hun to guess to bet on the odds that someone who help him when the clock strikes 00:00 at midnight. As Gi-hun wins, Oh Il-nam dies.
We assume this marks the end of the games. However later in the episode, Gi-hun sees the man who recruited him doing it to someone else. He runs to stop what is happening, but arrives at the exact scene late, the train has already taken off. Later on the way to boarding a flight, he turns and calls a number. “I can’t forgive you for everything you’re doing,” he tells ta man we assume to be In-ho. He turns back, clearly about to begin his new mission.
What we know now, is that Oh Il-nam created the games to tickle the sick tastes of his sick rich network. But he is now dead. Who is now behind the games? This, and Gi-hun’s passionate manifesto, are strong indications that next season of the series is already shaping up to a different arc. It’s his final transformation, and he is ready to take down the operation and those behind it. He won’t allow people to be “horses” for the entertainment of wealthy elites.
We know that In-ho shot Jun-ho in a bid to stop him from alerting the police about the games. The signal was bad, delaying the delivering of the evidence Jun-ho had been trying to send in several texts, right up to the moment the moment he plunged from a cliff and hit the water. What we don’t know is whether the messages were really not delivered. There’s also no conclusive evidence that Jun-ho is dead.
Potentially, the biggest lesson from season one is that our relentless pursuit for material success in a punishing money system kills us.