Laura: Now that Squid Game has been out on Netflix for more than two weeks, I think we can talk openly about the ending without getting yelled at? Anyway, just in case—spoilers!
Kevin: You have all been warned and I don’t want any angry tweets.
Laura: I was re-reading your piece about the show and how much it disturbed you, and one idea that jumped out was that some of us watch shows like this intensely while others watch with a certain degree of remove. I mentioned this during our meeting this week, but I made the questionable choice to watch the full series in one day and cried multiple times per episode!
Kevin: Laura! I’m not sure a human being is equipped to handle the trauma of Squid Game in one day.
Laura: It’s called hubris, my friend—and a desperate need to know how it ended right then and there! The ending, however, was one of the few aspects of the show that left me really cold.
Kevin: Oh wow! I wasn’t expecting that from our team’s Chief Squid Game obsessive.
Laura: Gi-hun returning home to find out that his mother died in the days he’d gone missing to win all six games and become a billionaire was so utterly devastating. The moment I realized what was happening, I remember thinking, “They should end it here but they won’t.” And indeed, we just have to flash forward to a year later, when Gi-hun discovers that the old competitor he’d come to care about so deeply, and who he’d thought died during the games, had actually been running the whole thing. I… really hated that twist! What are your thoughts?
Kevin: I was disappointed that, for a series in which the twists were the big reason why everyone was screaming, YOU NEED TO WATCH, that final twist with the “Old Man” was so cheap.
Laura: I was a little bit torn on whether I felt like it was cheap or just kind of a cop-out. On the one hand the twist subverts the admittedly tired trope of the helpless old man—which I totally fell for!—but it also distances us from the emotion of Gi-hun’s loss. It just felt like the show shied away from ending on sheer devastation—but that’s the appropriate ending for the show we’ve watched until that point!
Kevin: Worse than a cop-out, it was a cliché to me. I was affected so deeply by this show because everything that happened, as extreme and violent as it was, seemed rooted in a reality I could understand. It elevated the show from Hunger Games/The Most Dangerous Game rip-off to something that was a haunting mirror to how we all live today. But that took it back to pulp silliness for me, and I was really let down by it. Because it was so smart until then.
Laura: Totally agree. I lied, actually, about crying at every episode; the first downpour came a couple episodes in, with the first nighttime murder spree.
Kevin: And as a self-care precaution, we will not discuss the marbles episode.
Laura: When “Old Man,” AKA Oh Il-nam, started screaming about how scared he was, I burst into tears. He reminded me so much of some of the elderly people in my life, and how shocked and scared—and disgusted—they are by the world they see around them. I dunno. I just kind of wish they’d left that story alone. More importantly, though: Thoughts on Gi-hun’s new hair?
Kevin: Obviously the red hair was hideous, but I was enticed by the potential storyline there. After the everything of it all—you know, surviving a blood-sport game in which 455 people died for the entertainment of bored, wealthy gamblers—he seemed like he was making a gesture toward progress.
Laura: Remember, Kevin, it was technically 454—because the old man didn’t die!
Kevin: What would that progress mean? Acceptance? Denial? Retribution? All of that was fascinating to me. How would a person who willingly participated in what he went through process that? The lameness of the “Old Man” twist aside, it felt so meh about the fact that he ended up just being a pawn in a season two cliffhanger, a twist possibly as cynical as the games themselves.
Laura: Should I be embarrassed that it truly did not even occur to me that there would be a second season? This feels, to borrow the word you used earlier, cheap in the same way that, say, The Handmaid’s Tale did when it got renewed. I worry I’m being unfair but when shows about dark, trauma-based material extend past what feels like their natural endpoint it just starts to feel like they prize longevity over meaning—which, in a project like this, seems kind of hypocritical?
Kevin: I feel like the only reason he didn’t get on the plane was to set up season two. Sure, some people might excuse it as him feeling so passionate about not subjecting anyone else to the trauma he witnessed that he had to go back, but I actually don’t buy it. Am I crazy?
Laura: I mean. You wouldn’t catch me going back there! I realize the police were not that useful to Gi-hun in the beginning, but like… one has to imagine there’s a better way. Is that what we think he’s doing, though—going back to infiltrate or otherwise sabotage or close down the game once and for all? I wasn’t sure if it was that or a feeling of paranoia that “they” were watching him board the plane and might crash it. I was a bit overwhelmed by the end of my marathon!
Kevin: I will say that we are conditioned to expect happy endings. As morbid as it is, for something like this that means, first of all, he survives and “wins.” Which he did. And it was smart to not end the series there, to reveal that “winning” made him miserable, even with all that money. That subverted what we expect from a narrative like this.
Laura: Totally! I just wish they’d left it at him realizing his mom died while he was competing, which I think signals that the life he’d thought he could build after the game will never come together.
Kevin: With all that said, there is still something to that happy-ending expectation. Especially after the haircut and his seeming boost of confidence, you want to see him board the plane and see his daughter.
Laura: His daughter who is so unbearably cute!
Kevin: You want there to be a reason this was all worth it. When you’re rooting for him in all those violent games, what you’re actually rooting for is him finding a way to be a good father to his daughter again.
Laura: It’s interesting to think of “rooting for” someone in this series, which so relentlessly revolves around the idea that doing so is futile. None of these people stand a chance inside or outside the games, which also indict the system that created them.
Kevin: I know what you’re saying, and that is absolutely the textual reading of why this show works and is so smart. But we’re still popcorn-movie viewers, and this show is written with a glance of that in mind. It knew that we would be rooting for Gi-hun. It gave him the main storyline, and knew that we would be invested.
Laura: With or without money, I think Gi-hun now knows that when you’re wading through a pool this toxic and corrupt, there’s no real “winning.” Even the VIPs are so miserable and bored that they’ve been reduced to… this.
Kevin: I’m not rejecting the nihilism of this show, one in which the winner of those games would be incapable of putting into motion a happier life. But the “Old Man” twist, like I said, felt so cheap to me that I don’t think there was enough motivation for him to not get on the plane and go back. So I felt robbed of my happy ending, which, again, is fair, but also robbed of a character arc that, until then, had been so carefully drawn.
Laura: That’s a very fair frustration—one that I definitely agree with. The bet between the two men about whether or not anyone would help the drunk man freezing to death on the sidewalk outside also felt cliché and lacked the nuance that I so liked about the show’s metaphors as a whole. I know we’ve been chatting for a minute, but since we’re discussing the ending I do feel compelled to ask, what did you think of Cho Sang-woo, who seems to have become the show’s most divisive character? How did you feel about his death and the way it happened?
Kevin: It’s one of those things where, if you asked me early on in the series how this show would end, I could have predicted it would be a showdown between him and Gi-hun.
Laura: Totally. Squid Game really showed its hand too early by making his sabotage so clear to us in the first game; by the time they actually duke it out, it’s a little anticlimactic.
Kevin: I think the intelligence of this series is that you could understand every decision Sang-woo made, even the ones that we would, in our vocabulary learned from decades of heroes vs. villains in this genre, rule “evil.” But because it was so predictable that a final showdown would be between these two old friends, I weirdly felt a lack of tension while watching the Squid Game—even though the stakes were so high. Am I a monster for feeling so meh about that scene?
Laura: I agree that the smart thing about his character is how we’re led to understand his choices, even if we understand them to be deplorable. Still, I wish the show had dug just a little deeper into Gi-hun and Sang-woo’s dynamic. I feel like the point we’re meant to take away is, as you said, that this game corrupts everyone—but Sang-woo taking his own life and allowing Gi-hun to win without actively killing someone deflates it a bit for me.
Kevin: It leaves on the table what I think is the most lingering question for Gi-hun, and for all of us as viewers trying to imagine ourselves in that place: How far would he have gone to survive, to “win?”
Laura: To win this game one must, in effect, arrive at the same emotional place Sang-woo has occupied from the beginning. Gi-hun plays the game from an emotional place, but the show never fully connects the dots as to how his sense of righteousness is, in itself, a delusion that allows him to absolve himself of guilt in a similar way to the man who wouldn’t stop praying. (Ugh that guy!) I guess I just wish the show had been a little less eager to reveal Sang-woo’s pure gameplay approach so early because I think it obscured what we’re meant to take away about him.
Kevin: I think the series was overwhelmingly smart, but I hated the end so much. There was so much that didn’t live up its potential. And a major part of that was making us, as viewers, “dislike” Sang-woo. Or think he’s bad—or maybe at the very least, less morally “good” than Gi-hun. The nuance and the practicality of those earlier episodes were what made it so disturbing, and so good. But the last hour pandered to cliches and predictability. The appeal early on was that you couldn’t watch this from a place of remove—it was so real—but then it finished while leaning on the tropes that encourage a remove from viewers.
Laura: With all that said, and in the interest of keeping this post from hitting 2,000 words, I’ll ask you one final question: Is it just me, or is Sang-woo ridiculously dreamy despite, you know, everything else about him?
Kevin: All I know is that I am waiting for my king to slap me.