One Lucky Day: Squid Game episode 9.

“When we were kids, we would play just like this, and our moms would call us in for dinner. But no one calls us anymore.”

If I’m being honest, there’s a lot about the season finale of Squid Game that’s below the show’s average. I didn’t much care for the final showdown in the rain, an action-movie cliché right down to the overhead shot of the survivor cradling his dead friend in his arms while screaming in grief. And I could do without the “We have to go back”-style return to the scene of the crime promised by the final shot, of Gi-hun walking away from the plane he was about to board to visit his daughter in favor of trying to take the game masters down. Even the revelation of the game’s creator felt a little easy, the manner of his death at just the right moment too forced.

But the quote above, the last words spoken by Gi-hun’s friend turned enemy turned friend Sang-woo before his suicide, is repeating itself in my mind, and I think it’s worth unpacking why.

Before we do so, a quick recap. The final game Gi-hun and Sang-woo play is, of course, the titular Squid Game. (The American VIPs, much like the American audience, require an explanation of the rules before the game begins.) After a lot of back and forth in which both men are wounded, Gi-hun refuses to deliver the killing blow, asking Sang-woo to join him in quitting, which would force the game masters to let them both go free—broke, up to their eyeballs in debt, but free. Instead, Sang-woo utters the quote above and stabs himself in the neck. 

That leaves a devastated Gi-hun the sole survivor and winner. He’s carted off blindfolded in a limousine by the Front Man, who calls him and his fellow players “horses at a racetrack.” He’s dumped out on the street with a debit card wedged in his mouth, a card worth roughly $39 million in U.S. dollars. He staggers home, first accidentally encountering Sang-woo’s mother, then discovering his own mother dead on the floor of their apartment. 

One year later, a haggard-looking Gi-hun has a meeting with a banker who tries to persuade him to invest his money rather than leave it all lying in a savings account. All Gi-hun does is ask to borrow a few bucks for a drink, which he has alone on the beach. He’s then approached by an old woman selling roses, and the flower he buys comes with a familiar-looking invitation attached, inviting him to see his “gganbu.”

That word—which we learned in the devastating Episode 6 means a best friend with whom you share everything—tips us off as to the identity of the game’s true master. It’s the old man, Il-nam, who, though deathly ill, is nevertheless alive. (Note that we never saw him receive the fatal gunshot after the marble game, only heard it.)

To hear Il-nam tell it, being incredibly rich, as he himself is, is much the same as being incredibly poor, insofar as life is no fun anymore. The game was his and his friends’ attempt to liven things up a bit for themselves. Same with him joining the game as a player rather than a spectator; it made him feel like a kid again. (Hence, it’s safe to assume, the childlike nature of the games and the artificial environments in which they take place.)

Il-nam and Gi-hun make a wager: If anyone helps a homeless man they can see on the snowy street below Il-nam’s high-rise hideout by the stroke of midnight, Gi-hun wins, and will kill Il-nam himself. If he loses, Il-nam can have anything from Gi-hun he wants. Gi-hun wins, as it turns out—a passerby who stopped briefly to examine the man returns with a cop. (Whether the police, as a rule, help or hurt the unhoused is a topic for another time.) But Il-nam dies before he can see Gi-hun claim victory.

At any rate, the meeting seems to shake something loose in Gi-hun. On a whim, he has his hair cut and dyed fire-engine red. He takes his slain friend Sae-byeok’s little brother out of the children’s home where he’d been staying and gives him to the care of Sang-woo’s mother, along with a fortune in cash. Then, well-dressed and well-coiffed, he heads to the airport, planning to take a flight to the United States to visit his daughter, who’s moved there with her mom.

But then he sees the man who recruited him for the game, recruiting some other poor soul. He tries to catch up, but the recruiter escapes. He steals the business card from the would-be player and calls the number. “Don’t get any absurd ideas,” says the voice on the phone when he calls and reveals his identity.

“I can’t forgive you,” Gi-hun says. And rather than board the plane, he turns around and walks away, towards the inevitable second season.

But out of all of that, the thing that sticks with me the most are Sang-woo’s last words. (Well, that, and Gi-hun’s cherry-colored dye job.) What does he mean, reminiscing about getting called in by his mother, saying no one does this for them anymore? After all, as far as he knows, both of their mothers are still alive and well at this point, and both still lead lives that more or less revolve around their sons—Gi-hun’s out of pity, Sang-woo’s out of pride. 

Yet neither woman can actually do anything to protect their sons from themselves. I mean, obviously, otherwise neither of them would have wound up in so much debt that playing the Hunger Games would seem like a preferable alternative to the lives they were already leading. It’s that safety, I think, for which Sang-woo was yearning—the idea that someone, somewhere, could protect them from their own worst instincts, and keep wolves like Il-nam and his sociopathic rich friends at bay.

And I get it. You know? I get it. To become an adult under capitalism, as you and I have done, as Sang-woo and Gi-hun have done, is to learn just how alone you are, how powerless against the mighty forces that move the world, forces that would strip you and yours for parts at the slightest opportunity if there were any money in it for anyone. Play whatever game you want in an attempt to outfox the game masters—hell, maybe you’ll get lucky and win, as Gi-hun does—but the bottom line is that no one calls you anymore. No one calls you home, where you’re safe, where you’re loved. No one can call off the game you’ve been forced to play. No one at all.

Questions, Queries and Theories

Cat on email

Hey Jack and Colin! It’s your obnoxious Korean fan here again. I was curious about the whole police gun thing in the Front Man episode as well, so I asked my mom. She didn’t know, but my stepdad did!

So first, gun laws in Korea are strict as hell. Despite every man over 30 knowing how to use a gun because of their mandatory military service, pretty much no one owns one. If you want one for hunting or target practice, you have to register AND STORE the gun at your local police station (also, civilians can only own shotguns or long guns for hunting). Gun permits have to be renewed often and consist of thorough background checks, along with physical and psychiatric assessments.

Since most criminals in Korea aren’t gonna have a gun, the police don’t really need to bust them out very often. According to my stepdad, they usually use a taser and most cops don’t even carry a gun. The reason for the empty chamber is because of an accident once a long time ago where an officer dropped their loaded gun and it fired. The blank is, like you said, a warning shot. Then you have live rounds, which I assume aren’t discharged very often.

Also, at least in Seoul (not sure about the rest of the country), military is EVERYWHERE. It’s only like 17 minutes by fighter jet from Seoul to North Korea (this is what my dad told me, he was US Army in Korea in the late 70s), so there are plenty of armed people around if shit ever goes down.

I won’t apologize for being verbose this time, but I WILL apologize for being an insufferable know-it-all. Love the show, and I will be very sad when it has to end.