Netflix’s international hit series Squid GameThis is one of the most disturbing shows you will ever see. The Korean deathmatch drama is easy to binge, with excellent pacing that makes the episodes melt into each other, but digesting its brutal insights on humanity’s capacity for homicide is much harder. In the show’s Battle RoyaleFor the opportunity to clear huge debts, participants can either be killed or kill each other in a competition that is edifying. There isn’t some authoritarian state forcing them into homicide; these desperate people have volunteered, gambling their lives for about $38 million in U.S. dollars.
It’s worth wondering what the millions of people worldwide have taken away from the central humanistic message of Netflix’s most-watched international release ever. Even though the finale is particularly misanthropic, the series remains bleak. Squid GameThe hope remains that humans can save one another.
[Ed. note: Extensive finale spoilers ahead for Squid Game.]
The series’ Game — six rounds of competitions based on popular children’s games, where elimination means a swift execution — ends with divorced gambler Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) fighting to the death against his childhood friend, disgraced banker Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo). After a disastrous experience at his previous job, Gi-hun was forced to take out a loan from loan sharks. This led to him falling into poverty. But in spite of his moral weakness around gambling and making promises he can’t keep, he’s a good-hearted soul who becomes the series’ moral center. After defeating Sang-woo, he tries to end the Game — rather than letting Sang-woo die, he’s willing to let them both walk away penniless.
Sang-woo doesn’t want to live in the hell that is waiting for him when he goes back to his life, without the enormous cash fortune he had hoped for. Gi-hun takes all of the cash winnings and fatally stabs him in the neck. Gi-hun returns to Seoul, armed with trillions of Korean won and a debit card. He returns home to find his mother has died.
Though the audience has seen most of the game’s machinations by the finale, they don’t learn about the VIP Game Masters’ motivations until Gi-hun does. The Front Man Lee Byung-hun (Lee Byunghun), tells Gihun on the return trip to Seoul that the Game is entertainment for obscenely rich spectators. He compares it to Gi-Hun’s own gambling: “You bet on horses. It’s the same here, but we bet on humans. You’re our horses,” he says.
The finale follows the K-drama format. Gi-hun lives as a homeless man a year after the end of the game. He refuses to pay his gambling winnings out of guilt. The series’ deeper explanation, and the resolution to its moral conflict, finally arrives when he’s summoned to a meeting with the founder of the Game. Oh Il-nam is the man Gi-hun met during the Game. Although he is modest and unassuming, he can afford so many extravagant things that he feels no joy. For his similarly disaffected colleagues, Il-nam founded the Game. They became VIPs that see the players in avatars as chess pieces they can move and manipulate. Il-nam realized that he was facing the same deadly brain tumor he revealed to Gi-hun after many years of observing, and decided to sign up for the Game. “I know that I’m not going to have as much fun watching as playing,” he says.
Even Il-nam’s final scene is a game, where he toys with a person’s life. Gi-hun, a senior with a severe illness, arrives to point out the man who is unconscious on the street below. The man may have been drunk and fell some time ago. He has had snow fall on his body. Instead of sending someone to collect the man, Il-nam observes him from his stories-high perch, believing that no one will help the man he sees as “that disgusting, stinking drunk, little piece of trash.” In his last moments, he bets with Gi-hun on whether someone will help.
Gi-hun (the most compassionate man, aside from Ali the fall player), takes the wager and insists that someone stop for Ali. This short scene is played in 30 minutes. Il-nam explains how the Game works, and Gi-hun watches the clock while looking out of the window. They are both the two poles of this show. One thinks that people have an inherent good nature, while the other believes they are evil.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. Evil people are the ones who do it. Squid Game is sometimes heightened, with characters eagerly murdering each other, but at other times, it just takes the form of apathy to others’ suffering. It is as easy as intervening in the death of a human being to do good deeds. In this show, where 455 contestants (plus Hwang Jun-ho, the cop who was trying to investigate the Game) have been murdered for wealth, power, and amusement, the parable of the fallen man in the snow points out the show’s biggest theme: Is living in this flawed world, containing so many monsters, worth the pain?
Gi-hun is also victorious in this match, as the officers who were assigned to the scene pull up at the final second of the clock, just before midnight. Il-nam also wins this game, but he is killed before the officers arrive. Il-nam passes away with his belief in humanity’s value intact. Gi-hun survives, with a sliver hope that humans will save one another. It’s a nuanced end, existing in a gray area like the rest of the show.
Gi-hun doesn’t hesitate to take the comfort he is given and run with it. Kang Sae-byeok and Sang-woo keep their promise. In a thrilling final scene, he sets out on a mission to close down the Game. This opens the door for season 2. Hwang Donghyuk, the writer and director of the show says he doesn’t have any plans to make one anytime soon. It’s a relatively positive end, focused on hope, rather than leaving the audience sitting with all that blood, trauma and despair.
Squid Game’s death-match premise is a loud, colorful, thrilling surface that’s drawn in millions of viewers. The show’s core is an example of human relationships. Even the components that make the show unique in its “battle royale” genre — the volunteer contestants and the cash prize — aren’t as important as the characters’ connections with each other. Players still have the right to walk out of the Game once they are in it, although they often ignore this option from the third episode to the final. And the money doesn’t change anything; While Gi-hun wins and becomes rich, that doesn’t make him a better man, or a better father to the daughter he cares for but has neglected.
The show’s new twists keep the story interesting, but the most captivating aspect of the show is its focus on fragile relationships and moments between players. These can disappear quickly when things change or cause a man in need to part with $38 million. So it’s no surprise that the show’s final twists would center on the aftermath of these relationships, rather than trying to focus on a complete collapse of the Game system, or the cathartic, bloody deaths of the rich VIPs behind it. While there might be catharsis in an ending focusing on Gi-hun toppling the Game, the realism of the series’ thinner thread of hope is more relevant, and more touching.
When proposing an alliance to Player 067, the stubborn, withdrawn pickpocket Sae-byeok, Gi-hun is astonished when she says she doesn’t trust people enough to connect with them. “You don’t trust people because they’re trustworthy,” he tells her. “It’s because you have nothing else to lean on.” He’s laying out an important idea for the series: People fundamentally need each other, because they need something to believe in.
When Gi-hun himself loses the ability to trust in humanity for a year, he’s devastated. Only when the snow-covered person is saved does he begin to regain his trust. This sliver is found in the background Squid Game, whenever players reach out to each other — when Ali saves Gi-hun’s life without expecting a reward, when Gi-hun asks for all of the players’ names, or when Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong engage in a little small talk before their round of marbles. Even for people trying to survive hell — whether it’s in the metaphor of the Game, or out in the real world — the story suggests that people have a chance to change the world in small ways by being there for each other. Making connections may not make everything better, but it’s the only real way to survive.
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