Netflix’s international hit series Squid Game is a devastating watch. The Korean death-match 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 Royale-inspired competition, players either kill or are killed for the chance to pay off immense debts. 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. But as bleak as the series gets, and in spite of the particularly misanthropic twist in its finale, Squid Game ends with the hope that people can still save each other.
[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). Gi-hun fell into poverty after a disaster at his old job, which led him to borrow a life-ruining amount of money from loan sharks. 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.
But Sang-woo refuses to face the hell waiting for him if he returns to his old life without the huge cash windfall he was hoping for. He fatally stabs himself in the neck, leaving Gi-hun to collect all the winnings. Gi-hun is dropped back off in Seoul with billions of Korean won on a debit card. Once he gets home, he discovers his elderly mother, whose medical care he was trying to pay for, died while he was off at the Game.
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. On the ride back to Seoul, the Front Man (Lee Byung-hun) tells Gi-hun that the Game is simply entertainment for obscenely wealthy 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.
In familiar K-drama fashion, the finale fast-forwards from there. A year after the game ends, Gi-hun is living as a beggar, refusing to spend his winnings due to his 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. The man turns out to be Oh Il-nam, the old man Gi-hun befriended during the Game. In spite of his unassuming exterior, he has so much money that he no longer feels joy over anything but the most extreme, extravagant spectacles. He founded the Game for his equally disaffected peers, who became the VIPs who see the players as avatars, chess pieces to move and manipulate. After years of spectating, Il-nam really is facing the deadly brain tumor he told Gi-hun about, so he decided to enter 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. When Gi-hun arrives, the bedridden senior points out a man passed out on the street below. He explains that the man fell a while ago, possibly passed-out drunk. Snow has fallen over 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 humane man in the show besides the fallen player Ali, takes the bet, insisting someone will stop for the fallen man. The short game is played out in a long scene, with 30 show-reality minutes passing as Il-nam explains the Game, while Gi-hun alternates between staring out the window and checking the clock. The two men are the poles of the show: One believes people are inherently good, the other that people are inherently evil.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. The evil people do in 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. The good people do can be as simple as intervening to keep a man from dying. 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 wins this game as well, when patrol officers pull over to address the fallen man at the last second, the stroke of midnight. But Il-nam sort of wins, too; he dies before those officers arrive. Il-nam dies with his disbelief in the value of humanity still intact, but Gi-hun lives on with the sliver of hope that people will work to save each other. It’s a nuanced end, existing in a gray area like the rest of the show.
But Gi-hun takes the reassurance he has been given, and runs with it. He keeps his promise to Kang Sae-byeok (HoYeon Jung) and Sang-woo, giving their left-behind family members half his winnings. He even embarks on a quest to shut down the Game itself, in a dramatic final scene that sets up the possibility for a season 2. (Though writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk says he has no plans for one any time 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. But at its core, the show is a case study in 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. Once the players are in the Game, they still have the option to just walk away, but they mostly ignore that freedom from episode 3 to the finale. 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.
These new spins help keep a familiar story fresh, but what makes the show mesmerizing is the way it focuses on the fragile intimacies and moments of trust between the players, which can either disappear in a second when circumstances change, or prompt a man to give up $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. He only starts to regain it when the snow-covered man is saved. That sliver of hope runs throughout the background of 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.
Squid Game is currently streaming on Netflix.