Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of Squid Game.
For news on Season 2, click here.
There’s a lot happening during the ending of Netflix’s battle royale thriller Squid Game, something of a cross between Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite—with its body horror trojan horsing a more complex message about class conflict, stratification, and predation—and Saw.
The series follows several “players” recruited into a multi-day survival game. The players are renditioned to an island and forced (?) to compete in playground games, with the winners advancing to the next game and the losers being shot, stabbed, plummeted, or killed in some other creative and gruesome fashion.
After six games, the winner is awarded the monetary amount assigned to everyone who has been killed—the final prize being some ₩ 45 billion.
At the end of the series, we learn several things about the game. We learn the game has been going on for decades and has featured thousands of participants. We learn one of those participants (and winner) is the Front Man, brother of detective Hwang Jun-ho—who he shoots and who falls off a cliff (fate unknown). We learn that the organizer of the games is in fact Oh Il-nam (No. 0001), the old man. He founded the games with several wealthy friends after the group had become bored with their fortunes and wanted to have “fun.”
We also learn that despite Oh’s death and the photos Hwang attempted to send to his Seoul police partners, the next year’s games are in full swing. The series ends with Seong Gi-hun (No. 0456) determinedly leaving the airport to stop the organization’s next game.
Here’s what it all could mean.
Who won Squid Game?
While the nature of the tournament allowed for multiple winners (the final game, squid game, is possible to play in teams) only Seong managed to survive all six games. He left the games as the winner.
How much is 45.6 billion won?
Seong takes home—by means of a gold debut card shoved into his mouth—approximately $39 million, which he promptly puts into a bank account and never touches until over a year after the games. He then uses some of the money to repay Cho Sang-woo’s (No. 0218) debt as well as take Kang Sae-byeok’s (No. 0067) brother out of his orphanage, connecting him with Cho’s mother as a foster parent.
Aside from these acts, Seong still has a considerable amount of earnings for whatever he has planned to take down the organization.
What does the ending mean?
In one of the final scenes, Seong reunites with Oh and learns the old man’s role behind the games. During the meeting, while Oh lies minutes away from death, the two play one final game, betting on the fate of a homeless man, himself minutes from death, below on the street.
Oh’s wager: Before midnight no one will stop to help the man. He is proven wrong. A person, who stopped beside the man earlier, returns with police a minute before midnight. Oh dies shortly after, prompting Seong to ask if he saw—if he saw that he had been wrong.
As low stakes as this final game appears, it may be one of the most important of the series.
Their wager is one of moral belief. Oh had first asked Seong if he still retained hope in others after witnessing the manipulation, betrayal, and selfishness demonstrated throughout the games. Seong doesn’t answer, though throughout the games he had tried to never kill another player. (He even choses Oh during one of the last games in an act not dissimilar to the person on the street bending to help the dying homeless man.) The irony is that the only player Seong choses to betray is Oh—the only player for whom betrayal doesn’t matter; he is outside the game. (And, obviously, a further irony is that before entering the game, Seong is shown to be one of the more selfish characters—stealing money from his mother, failing his daughter, etc. By the end, even under extreme duress, he emerges as the most selfless.)
This battle between egoism (where self-interest dictates moral decision making) and some form of collaboration/altruism represents the crux not only of the games themselves—where one must first decide if the game is competitive or cooperative—but also the inner conflict for each player.
It is also, one might assume, a decision at the root of the show’s portrayed income inequality. (It’s telling that Oh and his rich friends, bored with their fortunes, never think to actually spend their money altruistically.)
The moral beliefs of the extremely wealthy, Squid Game leads us to believe, are essentially egoistic. They also believe that everyone shares this ethic, making it acceptable to prey on others. Oh’s final game with Seong is significant because it shows that this assumption isn’t necessarily true. Other people do not always act out of self-interest. According to Seong, they also deserve the same treatment in return—even if they agree to the violent games.
Before Oh dies, we learn that the “VIPs” gambled on the fate of players. During the final scene, Seong tells the organization that people are not horses; they cannot be treated as such. (We first meet Seong in the beginning of the series gambling on horse races; by the end, he has become the horse.)
While he struggled with this egoism vs altruism dilemma throughout the series, Seong is now certain: the organization's treatment of others is wrong, and the organization must be destroyed.
What does the Squid Game creator have to say?
On the series in general, creator and director Hwang Dong-hyuk conceded that his own view on human relations tends to be more cynical; however, he shares the ultimate conclusion of his protagonist, who he says he modeled slightly on himself:
"I believe that we cannot go on living without trust in other people — unless you choose to do wrong things and go down a dark path. This is very well depicted in the lines of Gi-hun. Right before the nighttime battle when he is approaching Sae-byeok [...] to come join his team. Sae-byeok says, “I don’t trust people.” But to that, Gi-hun says, “You don’t trust people because you can; you trust people because you have to” — meaning, we don’t have anything else to depend on. Those lines from Gi-hun are, in fact, exactly in line with my feelings."
Hwang believes that despite the world being “quite grim,” a world in which it seems impossible to trust others, one has to trust anyway. One has to believe that trust is possible, that it is worth it.
When Gi-hun turns back from his plane in the final scene, he is taking a stand against the forces of cynicism, the system that grinds you down and forces you to treat others as objects.
Hwang explained the turn:
"That was, in fact, my way of communicating the message that you should not be dragged along by the competitive flow of society, but that you should start thinking about who has created the whole system — and whether there is some potential for you to turn back and face it."
That turn was as much Hwang’s as Gi-hun’s. In fact, though the series is science-fiction, the working-class hardships depicted were somewhat auto-fictive. (Hwang even named some characters after people in his own life.)
Hwang went on to discuss his headspace during his initial writing of the script—10 years before the series would be made. “I initially thought of this piece at a time when I was really struggling — I would say it was the lowest point in my life,” Huang said. “All of Squid Game was written back then.”
The director explained that “a lot of hard memories” made their way into the writing. That proximity to Hwang’s own life has made the success of the show somewhat conflicting for him.
He explained how he reacted to the show's growing popularity:
"I’m dumbfounded that this could actually happen to a director like me. But then I am also reminded of the people that I was not able to pay attention to, or spend time with as much as I wanted to in the past. I had a girlfriend back then who I was not able to do very good things for, and we broke up right after I finished the original Squid Game script. So yeah, it’s been a really complex experience that I’ve had — emotionally and memory-wise — after the success of Squid Game."
The Squid Game ending might be read as much as an escape from egoism and cynicism by its writer and director as it is a triumphant call to action for its primary character.
What does the ending mean for Season 2?
While a Squid Game season 2 hasn’t yet been officially announced, the numbers are in—and they are staggering. Squid Game is on track to be the most viewed non-English language television series ever for Netflix. And that’s significant considering Netflix’s other international smash hits, including Lupin and Money Heist. Squid Game will likely become one of Netflix’s most successful series of all time, period, and that sort of viewership means lots of won and USD. And lots of won and USD means lots of reasons to extend the show’s shelf life.
How does the ending of Squid Game set up future seasons? It practically sets up an entire franchise.
We still know little about the organization, the history of the games, the guards, the train station recruiter, the organ operations, the VIPs, and the guy now in charge, the Front Man, the brother to detective Hwang Jun-ho—whose fate is also unclear.
In an interview with The Times, Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk elaborated on this last point, saying that “one [idea for season 2] would be the story of the Front Man.”
The Front Man remains one of the most mysterious characters of the series. Though we learn his identity, we don’t know his history: why he participated in a previous game (what debt he owed), how he came to take control of operations, and what might have led him to shoot his own brother.
In another interview, Wi Ha-joon, who plays that brother, Detective Hwang, said he’d like to see more of the brothers in future seasons. “My hope is that season two comes out, Jun Ho returns alive, and the story with Jun Ho’s brother is resolved well,” Wi explained.
Director Hwang seems to agree that both the Front Man and police storylines should become more central. He went on to explain why the Seoul police angle, in particular, warranted more screen time. “I think the issue with police officers is not just an issue in Korea. I see it on the global news. This was an issue that I wanted to raise. Maybe in season two I can talk about this more.”
Perhaps the police know about—and somehow profit off—the games. It would explain how an operation like this could have been hidden for so long, given the number of abductions and missing persons.
Of course, season 2 would also continue with Seong, as he seeks to take down the games (and perhaps also police corruption).
Even before Seong seeks retaliation, we could also see a prequel season showing the creation of the game, the first competition, and the recruitment of the guards. We could learn more about the old man, the Front Man, and the VIPs.
The Squid Game universe expands backward and forward in time and, if Netflix and the Squid Game writers are on board, could turn into a long-running series.
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