We have seen this story before. Many times before, in fact. The nihilistically grotesque Platform, Battle Royale, and of course the granddaddy of all human failings, Lord Of The Flies. These stories are appealing because the heady truths they uncover are easier to swallow when presented as entertainment. It’s fun to debate would you or wouldn’t you purge your asshole boss when it’s all fiction. But, on the other hand, it is decidedly less funny when we hear a real news story about workplace violence. At first glance, South Korea’s Squid Game is another in the long line of serviceable but not particularly creative takes on this theme. By episode three, however, the characters take over, and the themes of capitalism and unfairness unchecked become something to prop up the characters.
Like Lord Of The Flies, there are the overtly strong and weak, the timid and the brave, and the violent and the egalitarian. Strangely all of the people who find themselves in the Squid Games are opportunists in one way or another, and all are desperate. Even the vilest have histories that have brought them to this terrible place where everyone must make horrible decisions or die. Thus, as easy as it would be to focus on the players’ bad behavior, that sullied lens is always pointed directly at the society that allows such a thing to exist in the first place.
Even those who manage the games aren’t the primary focus of our anger. Yes, they are also bad people as they callously gun down players and box them into pink bowed coffins for incineration. But you get the impression they are no less desperate than the participants of the game. Even within the confines of the rigid structure, there is a thriving gig economy dependent on the same bodies that are sacrificed during each game.
Women struggle to sacrifice their sexuality in exchange for protection while others hold onto every shred of dignity they have left. Some cling to their lives with savage brutality, and others cling equally to their decency. Players like Gi Hun use it as protection against the death and unfairness of the games.
The trials themselves are perverse warpings of childhood games. It makes it that much worse when the games are to the death. Day-glo serpentine stairways straight out of an Escher piece deliver the contestants to either the playing field or their living chambers. It is one more indignity these poor people must endure and a prime example of the psychological torture the game makers inflict on them. The cruelty is intended to force all good from the victors. The contestants are herded together into teams and then broke apart in other games just for the enjoyment of those who bet on them.
What is Squid Game?
The final game is the one we watch Gi-hun play at the beginning of the series. This version is a much more deadly one, but the kid’s game is the final test. Sang-woo and Gi-hun face off with the VIPS watching. The head of the game has returned from his mysterious absence, and those who listened carefully recognize his voice(more on this later). It is by design that this final test is this specific game. As the predominantly white VIPS watch the last two players engage in a culturally relevant pastime, cultural appropriation also skewered. Those who bet on the players don’t see them as anything but horses to cheer for or against, and the fact that they are human beings with lives, dreams, and families is irrelevant.
Who is the Frontman?
The Frontman is the black-hooded and metallic masked man who acts as the game warden. His job is to maintain the day-to-day activities of the game facility and devise the games that the contestants must play. He is not the man in charge. Rather he is like Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games. In episode seven, the men who enjoy the Squid Games appear for the fast few games, and they all mention there is one other person at the top of the pyramid. We don’t know until the end of Squid Games who that is, though. In-ho is the Frontman’s name, and he is the brother of the policeman who went there to find him. In-ho shoots him after revealing his face to his brother. We do not know how he became the Frontman or why but likely this would be a focus of Squid Game Season 2.
Who are the VIPS?
Squid Games is more than just a survival of the fittest exploitive game; it is a sharply pointed commentary on greed, unchecked Capitalism, and humanity. Things are unfair. The games are rigged for maximum carnage, and it is even more disgusting when the VIPS arrive. Our group’s only chance is by working together, but the system is designed to reward death and punish community building.
The Eyes Wild shut freaks who revel in all the carnage of the games are bored, rich men who view the contestants as nothing other than playthings. They dehumanize them and place wagers on who will survive each level. Additionally, they also encourage the Frontman to change the game at will to make things more “exciting” for them. They all appear to be entitled, wealthy, and for the most part, white Westerners. This is by design.
It is no mystery why the VIPS or Very Important Persons are all rich white Westerners. There is a very pointed message here about greed and access. In much the same way that Hostel allowed healthy people to buy the lives of others, Squid Games does the same thing. Some might argue it is a metaphor for life itself. Every choice you make has consequences, even when those choices are unfairly pushed upon you.
What happens at the end of Squid Games?
Gi-hun is the last man standing, having fought to the death with Sang-woo. Gi-hun wins but refuses to kill Sang-woo. He instead asks that the game be stopped by a majority vote to spare his friend’s life. Sang-woo slits his own throat though effectively ending the game. It is a final act of redemption for both men. Everyone has a history that enters this place. Weirdly, they all find redemption or at least resolution in the games. Some were abused, others saw shocking violence, but they were all willing to die to escape. Sang-woo thought he was capable of anything to protect his secret, but in the final moments, he redeemed himself.
Gi-hun is sent home with a massive bank account. He finds his mother is dead and his daughter is in America. Haunted by his losses and what he had to do, he retreats into a world of isolation until he gets a coded message from the old man he played the games with that he thought was dead. Oh Il-nam survived because he was extracted from the game. He was the inventor of the game and asked to play because he realized he was dying. The tumor in his head and his name were real, but just about everything else was false.
Oh Il-nam was a wealthy man who invented the game to satisfy some sick urge for high-stakes betting. Near the end of his life, when he realized that wasn’t enough, he asked to play the games to be “alive” one last time. He explains that the very rich and the very poor have one thing in common. They are both miserable. As obnoxious as this statement is, there is some scientific proof that this is accurate. A study published in 2011 found there was a threshold for happiness. Once the threshold of money is breached, life happiness and appreciation decrease. In other words, more money, more problems.
This is why he helped Gi-hun in so many of the games. He enjoyed playing with him. It’s one final indignity that he never understands even in that decision. He was cruel. Oh Il-nam then asks Gi-hun to play one last game with him. If someone tries to help the homeless man outside Oh Il-nam’s hospital bed, Gi-hun gets answers and gest to kill Oh Il-nam. As they sit watching, Oh Il-nam asks if Gi-hun “still trusts people”. He has become so jaded; he is curious if the experience broke Gi-hun or if it is possible for anyone to have a shred of hope for humanity still.
In the final moments before midnight, police finally come to help the homeless man. A woman had stopped earlier, and it looked like she moved on, but she actually had gone for help. Oh Il-nam died after admitting everything to Gi-hun. With Gi-hun’s faith in humanity restored, he took some of the money and tracked down Sae-byeok’s brother and took him to Sang-woo’s mother along with a case of money. He cleaned himself up and bought a plane ticket to America to be with his daughter.
Before he could leave, though, he sees the slick man giving out invitations to the game. He tries to chase him down but loses him in the subway. Before he gets on the plane, a man calls him and asks if he wants to play the game. He tells the person on the other end of the call he is a person, not an animal. The man tells him to get on the plane. Instead, Gi-hun turns around, indicating he will be tracking down the game runners and stopping it for good.
In a world that values money over life, it is a slippery slope to humans as currency. There is already a strong organ market where desperate people willingly give up their organs and possibly their lives for money to feed a starving family or a chance for a better life. When you have such disparity between the haves and the have nots, this is an inevitable conclusion. When you throw in overindulged sociopaths, Squid Games is an obvious outcome. Money can’t buy you love, and it apparently can’t buy happiness either. Watching Gi-hun track down and stop the Frontman and his group of rich tools would make me happy, though. Squid Game Season 1 is streaming on Netflix right now, and hopefully, word on Season 2 will be short coming.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.