Squid Game isn’t that bleak – in fact, it’s surprisingly optimistic
The hit South Korean Netflix drama has been hailed as a dark, nihilistic masterpiece – but that’s only half the story (contains spoilers).
New Netflix hit Squid Game is a nihilistic masterpiece – a depressing, dark look at humanity’s baser impulses and a story that rewards the most naked self-interest at all times, morality be damned.
Or so you might think based on most of the reaction to the South Korean series, which sees hundreds of down-on-their-luck contestants dragged to a mysterious island to compete in classic children’s games, at risk of death to themselves but with the tantalising price of 45.6 billion Won (around £28 million, conversion fans) if they can make it to the end.
It’s a bloody, dark and emotional series that raises questions about the capitalist system, class, race and personal morality – but I’m not sure if the message is quite as bleak as many have assumed. Yes, it’s a series about people killing each other for money while bizarre VIPs watch from above. But look closer, and there’s a more optimistic, kinder view of the world hidden within.
**Warning: this article contains spoilers from the Squid Game finale throughout**
Its source? Seong Gi-Hun (Lee Jung-jae) aka Player 456, our lead character and gateway into this world, originally presented to us as the biggest loser on the planet. A feckless, lazy gambler who steals from his ill mother, blows money on horses instead of his daughter and mooches around whining all the time, he’s not the most likeable hero during the first episode.
But there's a clue as to his true nature amidst these low moments. When on the run from loan sharks, Gi-Hun accidentally knocks over what he takes for a young man, spilling his drink – and he stops to apologise, help the victim to their feet and try and fix their drink before continuing his escape.
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As it turns out, this wasn’t the best move – the young man was actually pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeo), who stole his winnings and plunged him further into financial turmoil – but it was a revealing moment for Gi-Hun, who revealed a core kindness in a moment of high stress.
When he enters the Squid Game, this could and should be used as a weakness against him. But oddly, despite the parameters of the game encouraging ruthlessness, all of Gi-Hun’s kinder moments are rewarded. Befriending older player Oh Il-nam (O Yeong-su) despite his apparent uselessness brings valuable expertise to the tug-of-war game, and picking him for the marbles team-up against other obvious choices secures him the win (and a less morally problematic victory, as explained below).
Similarly, helping Sae-byeok despite her stealing from him leads to her saving him later in the games, reminding him which glass panel to land on during the bridge game and offering him moral support in the games’ final moments.
And in that same bridge game, his choice to allow another player the chance to pick the number one vest – despite wanting it himself – after hearing their heartfelt plea ended up saving Gi-Hun's life, with the order of competition proving lethal to all but the final three contestants in the game.
(It’s also worth noting that the kindness of others – including Anupam Tripathi's Ali in the very first game – keeps him alive, though some of that stems from his own kindness to them in the first place).
If Gi-Hun had been more ruthless, more self-centred, less kind then he would have died much earlier in the games. He’s implicitly rewarded for his positive behaviour over and over again, even as the rules of the games suggest the opposite is true. Arguably, his luck in avoiding the murky moral choices Sang-Woo (Park Hae-soo) has to face is remarkable.
In fact, the series almost bends over backwards to give Gi-Hun a moral path through the series. Not only does he avoid sabotaging his fellow contestants like Sang-Woo in the earlier games or in the late-night riot, but when he is offered a more adversarial contest he still manages to dodge (metaphorically) pulling the trigger. In the game of marbles, despite initially moving into an unethical space by manipulating Oh Il-nam, he’s later given a free pass by the older man, who hands over his last marble and sees his teammate off with a smile. Later, (huge spoiler alert) it’s revealed that Oh Il-nam didn’t die at all, and was instead the secretive creator of the games, leaving even less blood on Gi-Hun’s hands.
In the final clash – the Squid Game of the title – it seems that Gi-Hun has to take that final step to win, or even just survive. To take home the money, or even avoid his own death, he has to kill his old friend Sang-Woo – an act that the audience might even forgive him for, given that Sang-Woo has brutally betrayed more than one fellow player during the games.
But instead, he opts not to play, and begs Sang-Woo to agree to exit the game with him so they could both walk away. Sang-Woo refuses, instead choosing to end his life (an act foreshadowed earlier in the series) in shame and (apparently) hoping that Gi-Hun can take care of his mother with the prize money. In a series that’s been described as a depiction of raw, animal greed, it’s remarkable that Gi-Hun is willing to give it all up – and even when he does win, he still refuses to use the money.
And that refusal leads us on to one of the most important scenes of the series, when this kindness-vs-self-interest conflict stops being subtext and becomes text. Summoned by a card from his “gganbu,” Gi-Hun realises that his older friend Il-nam is not only alive, but was never a true player at all – rather, he was the creator and overlord of the Squid Game.
In an offer to reveal his backstory and motives, Il-nam asks Gi-Hun to play one final game with him – a simple wager based on an unconscious, half-frozen homeless man lying on the street below. Il-nam has been watching him all day without helping, and makes a bet with Gi-Hun that no-one else will come to his aid before the clock strikes midnight.
This is Il-nam’s worldview, and the worldview of the Squid Game contest he devised – that humanity’s self-interest and ruthlessness always wins out, and that true kindness is a fairytale. And in this late scene, the show rejects that worldview utterly.
You see, while Il-nam dies before he can be proven wrong, someone does come to help the homeless man. The final message of Squid Game is that goodness and kindness can play out, and that we’re not all in it alone. No matter how the game was designed to divide and regress its players, in the end it was the selfless actions of both Gi-Hun and his teammates that propelled him to victory.
And in the very last scene, Gi-Hun’s last decision – to head back into battle with the mysterious Frontman and the VIPs so no-one else would have to go through what he did – proves that he was always more than the player or “horse” they could bet on, and that he cares about honour and justice more than his own safety and comfort. It’s quite a journey from the man who stole from his old mother to blow money on the horses.
Of course, it’s not true to say that nice people finish first in Squid Game. Ali is a beautiful, trusting soul cruelly betrayed by Sang-Woo, while Sae-byeok (who had a similar “get out of marbles free” card thanks to the sacrifice of her partner) ends up being murdered in a moment of weakness.
But it’s also made clear how ruthless, self-centred choices take a toll on the aggressors too. Sang-Woo degenerates over the course of the games as he makes more and more unethical choices, and Sae-byeok gently stops Gi-Hun from crossing a similar line when there’s a chance to murder their mutual rival.
In a show like Game of Thrones, honour and soft-heartedness are explicitly shown as folly, leading to the deaths of major characters by their more practical foes. In certain episodes of Black Mirror, the bleak hopelessness and cruelty of humanity is in full force, and any hope is regularly stomped on and extinguished.
Those shows can be bleak. Squid Game is something else.
Ultimately, Squid Game is a show about cruelty. But for me, it’s also a show about hope, what we owe to each other in a just society, and the word I’ve massively overused in this piece already – kindness. Personally, I found something uplifting in the idea that helping others, even at your own expense, can be rewarded in turn, even if it’s not always easy.
Move over Ted Lasso – there’s a new feel-good streaming series full of tracksuit-wearing heroes in town. Just with, you know, more death, singing dolls and honeycomb umbrellas.
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Squid Game is available to stream on Netflix. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.