The Squid Game premiere ended while we were still recovering from the shock of having witnessed hundreds of bodies left for dead in the aftermath of Red Light, Green Light. Its second episode, “Hell,” begins with a subtler surprise. As the guards wheel life-size, gift-wrapped boxes into an incinerator room, a hand and a groan escapes from one of the boxes. A guard calmly shoves the hand back in, nails the casket shut, and pushes the contestant into the incinerator to be burned alive. One horrible revelation after another makes it abundantly clear that this game will not let up on us.
But surprisingly, that’s what this episode of Squid Game does. After the players learn the real nature of the games, several of them begin begging the guards to spare their lives, led by a woman, player 212, who admits she has a daughter back home that she hasn’t even named yet. According to the game’s rules, if a majority of players agree to stop the game, then they all can leave, free and clear. The guards set up a vote, but not before revealing how much money is up for grabs: each fallen player is worth 100 million won ($84,000) and, if there is only one player left, the pot can go up to 45.6 billion ($38 million).
With this vote, the 201 players are left to decide whether to stick with the known hell of financial ruin or the unknown hell that awaits in the next round. After 200 players cast their votes, there is a tie with one vote left — player 001, the elderly man. Surprisingly, considering his grin throughout the first round, 001 votes against continuing, and with that, the game ends, though it can restart if most of the players agree to return. We know that all our main characters will return (there are seven episodes left, after all), so this pause functions as an opportunity for some character building to show why they’d rather face death over debt-ridden poverty. This will also be the last pacing lag of the season, so if there is an optimal time to go to bed before you end up binging until 5 a.m., it’s after Sae-byeok leaves Gi-hun tied up in the road.
It turns out that Sang-woo is in even more trouble than previously stated, with the police blowing up his phone and offering him the chance to surrender himself. And the trouble doesn’t stop with him; he’s mortgaged his mother’s home and her market stall on a failed bet, which is for 6 billion won ($5 million). He may be the neighborhood’s pride, the valedictorian who got into Seoul National University (think Korea’s Harvard), but his intellect can’t get him out of this mess.
As for Sae-byeok, she’s a North Korean defector who made it to Seoul with her little brother. She has to leave him in a children’s home, and a broker has stolen the money she raised to bring her mother. She’s also a badass who will throw coffee in a man’s face and take a knife to his throat while robbing him.
Ali came to South Korea from Pakistan to make money, bringing along his wife and baby, but his boss at the small factory he’s employed refuses to pay him. After he crushes his boss’s hand in a fight, he runs off with the money and buys his wife and child flights back home. Everything about Ali’s story is heartbreaking, but he keeps up his friendship with Sang-woo, so at least he’ll have a good ally back in the game. We also learn that other gangsters are hunting Deok-su, so he goes back. It’s a dramatic scene, lots of stabbing.
Gi-hun still has the lowest stakes of all the characters, and he’s the first player who voted against continuing the game. However, his conviction wavers when his mother refuses to stay in the hospital and get surgery to treat her diabetes because of the enormous costs. He then runs into player 001, who reveals over soju and ramyeon that he’s going back into the game rather than wait to die in real life. The final nail for Gi-hun comes when he ends up punching out his wife’s new husband in front of Ga-yeong, reminding him that she’ll soon be whisked to the U.S., possibly forever. With all that weighing on him, he decides to return to the game.
We also get the beginning of the show’s detective-drama subplot. Though the police officers don’t believe Gi-hun’s story of the deadly kids’ games and tens of billions of won, the story sticks in young detective Hwang Jun-ho’s head when he finds one of the game’s business cards in his missing brother’s room. Jun-ho tracks down Gi-hun, but Gi-hun says he’s not in the position to help anyone. That doesn’t stop the detective, who tails the shuttle van taking players back to the game. And with that, the episode leads us back to the game. Buckle your seatbelts; the ride will continue.
The Next Game Will Begin Shortly
• That haunting score is courtesy of Parasite composer Jung Jae-il. It could be The White Lotus theme’s demented cousin.
• For more on SNU and the competitive admissions rate, see the excellent K-drama Sky Castle.
• We learn a bit more of Gi-hun’s backstory: He missed his daughter’s birth because a co-worker collapsed and died that day.
• Sang-woo’s mother may be No. 1 on my actually deserves–45.6 billion-won list.
• One of the books on Jun-ho’s brother’s desk is by Jacques Lacan, the late controversial French psychoanalyst.
• Would you survive this game? I’m soft as hell, but if a loan shark were coming for a kidney and an eye, I’d probably go back to the game.