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The wrong person won Squid Game

Netflix’s hit series undercuts the radical potential of the battle royale genre — which makes it more horrifying

Jung Hoyeon as Player 067, Kang Sae-byeok, looking sweaty and overwhelmed in the Korean drama Squid Game Photo: Netflix

[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for Netflix’s series Squid Game.]

Squid Game, Netflix’s surprise new horror hit, is clearly focused on one person from the start: Gi-hun, the kind-hearted gambler who eventually wins the titular game. But very early on, I began to think Kang Sae-byeok, the savvy loner formerly of North Korea, would win. If not, I thought she would at least escape, maybe taking the hapless Gi-hun along with her. In almost any other version of this story, she would have — but Squid Game writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk refuses to challenge the game structure at the story’s core, so she, like almost everybody else, is lost to the game.

To be clear, I don’t think Sae-byeok “deserved” the games’ prize money more, or that Gi-hun or anyone else deserved to lose either the game or their lives. But in most battle royale or dangerous-game stories, the skills and defiance Sae-byeok demonstrates would have marked her as the clear winner. And the fact that she isn’t in this case says a lot about Hwang’s intentions with the show.

The rules of the genre

Failed businessman Cho Sang-Woo looks around a Squid Game room while an armed, pink-jumpsuited soldier stands behind him Photo: Netflix

In most battle royale media, from the genre-naming Battle Royale to Hunger Games and The Purge, the overall story arc is about testing the game’s boundaries and exploiting its vulnerabilities. These stories are usually set in alternate realities where unimaginable violence is routine. They invoke the same horror inherent in Shirley Jackson’s controversial short story The Lottery, which says tradition, culture, and other controlling forces in our lives can convince us to do terrible things — things which seem perfectly natural until they happen to people we care about.

That all holds true for Squid Game, but the show also incorporates elements from other recent horror movies, like Ready or Not, Escape Room, and The Hunt. These movies invoke another classic story, The Most Dangerous Game, about a shipwreck survivor who must survive until dawn while being hunted by an ultra-rich murderer.

Both the battle royale genre and the dangerous-game genre are fundamentally about games, but they differ in their approach to the villain. Battles royale interrogate how society and its structures control us, with rules, rewards, and punishments. They usually offer a face for the controlling force, like Battle Royale’s ex-teacher Kitano or Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman. But those are just a representation of the larger culture that insists violence is necessary for social cohesion. These people didn’t create the law, they merely work to ensure it remains unchanged, because they benefit from the power they get from the status quo.

But for most-dangerous-game stories, the villain is an individual or group of people who are usually abnormally wealthy and actively participating in the game themselves. Their worlds don’t necessarily condone murder for entertainment; they’re actively working outside the law, because they have enough money and power to do so. Though they have the power to break the law because of an unfair system, usually wealth or power inequality, that system usually isn’t the primary element being critiqued.

Accepting the rules

Pakistani Squid Game player Ali looks up soulfully from a group of contestants Photo: Netflix

Squid Game is an impeccable marriage of these two genres. As in Battle Royale or Hunger Games, the squid game wouldn’t exist in a fair society. The fact that the story takes place in modern-day South Korea rather than a fictional alternate world speaks to a growing understanding of the inequalities inherent in modern capitalism. In the second episode, by the slimmest margin, the victimized players vote to end the game and leave. Democracy prevails! But then the real world is unleashed on them in full force: the medical debt, the begging, the collectors, the swindlers. The majority of the players return to play, now fully aware they are risking death. I’m curious what happens to the handful of former players who didn’t return, valuing their own lives above a nebulous and unlikely payout. But of course, these stories aren’t about the people who manage to escape the game.

Every person who returns to the game believes they will win (or rob) the games and become a millionaire. And to be fair, their odds in a pool of 201 survivors are much higher than they are in the outside world. It’s only partly accurate to say they joined the game on a voluntary basis. When failure means being brutalized in a bathroom by thugs, or killed outright by vengeful gangsters, any choice made to avoid that outcome is coerced.

But Squid Game also shows that people can fall into debt and poverty because of individual human choices — their own or others. Maybe that means a gambling habit and a disregard for your daughter’s birthday, a pickpocket lifting your big score, or a crook taking your money while promising to get your mother out of North Korea. Or maybe it’s because of the boredom of a few pathetically wealthy sociopaths.

Who makes the rules

A row of pink-jumpsuited, masked workers from Squid Game Photo: Netflix

Late in the series, Hwang introduces viewers to a set of faceless rich gamblers, who lounge around watching participants die, while adding mild commentary. They aren’t the ones who organize the game, they merely benefit from its entertainment. We also learn that Oh Il-nam, the endearing elderly man whom Gi-hun befriends, is both a participant and the creator of the game.

This delicate balance between structural critique and individual human behavior is why I thought Sae-byeok would win. While on break from the game, Sae-byeok visits the immigration broker who is supposed to help her mother escape North Korea. While preparing a beautifully elaborate cup of coffee, he explains that sneaking across a border costs so much, you see, and the last man he sent money cheated him, so they have to start all over again. Getting her mother out will cost Sae-byeok a ruinous amount of money — money she could be using to reunite with her brother.

After listening patiently to the broker’s wheedling, she throws his scalding coffee in his face, holds a knife to his neck, and tells him how the situation is really going to go. Although she tries to follow procedure, she knows that isn’t always the best way to get things done. Sometimes, if you lack power or aren’t recognized by the system, it’s entirely ineffectual. Sae-byeok understands that power only responds to power, and that violence is a type of power.

Philosopher Louis Althusser, in his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” describes two structural elements that control our day-to-day lives. Ideological state apparatuses convince people to participate in a set of rules voluntarily by offering rewards or threatening exclusion. Schools and churches and workplaces usually fall into this category. Repressive state apparatuses like the criminal justice system have the power to enforce behavior with violence or coercion. The two elements often interact, and rely on each other to maintain control.

The players in the squid game have the chance to leave, making it hypothetically an ideological apparatus. They’re told their participation is voluntary. But the rules allow for this only because the organizers understand that the players are under threat of repressive apparatuses — like the law closing in on failed businessman Cho Sang-woo for embezzlement, or the criminal syndicate trying to wring payments out of Gi-hun and gangster Jang Deok-su.

Who the rules break

Squid Game protagonist Seong Gi-hun sits up in a bunk, looking startled, in an early episode of Squid Game Photo: Netflix

Gi-hun’s backstory captures Hwang’s incredibly complex understanding of how these apparatuses interact. In the cheekily named episode “A Fair World,” Gi-hun has a PTSD-like flashback while guarding his sleeping friends in the dorm. He reveals to Il-nam that he worked for a car company that suffered massive layoffs. He and his coworkers barricaded themselves in the factory to protest. Then the police were called in — the ideological apparatus turning to the repressive. Gi-hun watched as they assaulted the protestors and killed one of his co-workers. It’s clear that Gi-hun has some unresolved emotional damage from this event, which likely contributed to the failures of his subsequent businesses and his marriage, and his gambling habit. The more restrictive a system, the more rules there are, and the worse the punishment for defiance.

But all systems include grey areas where the laws aren’t defined, or can’t be enforced. This is what I find so thrilling about the battle royale genre. I love watching people familiarize themselves with the rules, then find a way to work with them, or just ignore them entirely. It’s incidentally why I’m obsessed with Taskmaster, a British game show where contestants have to complete challenges that are arbitrary and often ridiculous. Although it has a comedic and joyful energy, and basically no stakes, Taskmaster is similarly about obeying the rules and suffering, or finding your own way to succeed.

The challenges in battle royales or dangerous-game stories, or in Taskmaster, are inevitably unjust. Neither the rules, the rewards, nor the punishments are applied fairly to everyone. Regardless of how much the game master in Squid Game insists that everything is equal, there are still pockets of disobedience. Some are horrifying, like the doctor Byeong-gi, who the squid game workers give special privileges in exchange for harvesting saleable organs from game victims, sometimes while they’re still alive.

Who breaks the rules

Kang Sae-byeok, who should have totally won Squid Game, stands behind bulky gangster Jang Deok-su Photo: Netflix

At other times, disobedience is the only way to survive. While the rest of the contestants are knocked out to be delivered to the game, Sae-byeok covers her mouth to avoid being gassed. She’s able to sneak in the tiniest pocket knife I have ever seen. The rules can’t be applied if nobody is aware you’re breaking them, and Sae-byeok cleverly navigates them to get an advantage.

Battle royale and dangerous-game stories usually have conceptually similar endings. It’s presumed that dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people followed the rules of the past games, and died as a result. But the stories we set in these genres normally highlight the players who defy the rules, and by doing so, topple or fundamentally damage the structure or individuals that allow the game to exist.

Squid Game, both the show and the eponymous event, rewards players who stay within the boundaries — the limits created by people in power to send the players into a meat grinder. In a traditional battle royale, this ability to navigate the rules would mark Sae-byeok as the one to watch. Gi-hun demonstrates some creativity in his approach to tasks, like licking through the back of the honeycomb candy in the second task. But for the most part, he plays by the rules with very little derivation. While Gi-hun is patiently waiting to sleep and be fed in the dorm, Sae-byeok is crawling through air vents to peek at vats of melting sugar.

The final battle plays out exactly as the people in power expect it will. In the end, the radical potential of the battle royale genre is undercut by Squid Game’s refusal to challenge the structural root of its existence. Nothing has been challenged, nothing damaged. The game collects contestants and continues without a pause. The final scene of the show demonstrates how incredibly grim this fact is — more hopeless and horrific than almost any other story in either genre.

Lying on his deathbed, the duplicitous Il-nam bets Gi-hun that nobody will help an unconscious man lying in the street before he freezes to death. But Gi-hun doesn’t realize he can help that man. He’s seen the need, and he has the resources to save the man’s life: time, awareness of his situation, and a functionally infinite amount of wealth. But instead of intervening, he waits, hoping somebody else will do the work.

I wonder what Sae-byeok would have done in that situation. It’s likely she would never have gone to visit Il-nam in the first place, and not just because she was never close with him. I can’t imagine her suffering the need to indulge Il-nam’s behavior, his desire for closure or control.

If she were there and did make that bet, would she have saved the man on the street? The Sae-byeok at the start of the show probably would have let him die. But I think by the end of the series, especially after her experience with recently released prisoner Ji-yeong, she would have neatly ignored the spirit of the bet to save him. Gi-hun is more passive, and doesn’t appear to realize his hands aren’t tied. It’s why he was never the game’s strongest contestant, and why Sae-byeok has earned such a breakout fandom — she’s the more conventional audience avatar, the one who makes surprising, definitive choices.

By the final scenes of the show, Gi-hun seems to have taken control of his life. He’s retrieved Sae-byeok’s brother from the orphanage and found him a home. (Though notably not taking care of the boy himself.) He’s got a cool new ’do (chosen at random based on a poster) and a ticket to visit his daughter. But he can’t help but be drawn back into the game. Perhaps in the highly theoretical season 2, he’ll finally step up to disrupt the games once and for all.

We are not passive viewers in society. Our actions and inactions form or uphold the structures that we then have to live in. Sae-byeok understood that the rules were stacked against her, so there was no need to follow them. Il-nam understood that it’s better to play than to watch. Will Gi-hun ever be able to understand the same?

All nine episodes of Squid Game are streaming on Netflix.