Ninety-three percent. That’s the percentage of players who returned to the game. Despite the financial and personal struggles of the main characters that we saw in “Hell,” the fact that many people returned and embraced the chance that they may die is notable. Now that everyone’s back in the facility for good, the exposition has melted away, and the games are the focus. However, I feel like the players still make their “voluntary decision” to play with not enough information. Despite all the horror of the first round, this game can get much, much worse.
The episode starts where the last left off: Detective Jun-ho sneaks into the car carrier ship and incapacitates a guard with a circle symbol on his mask, steals his uniform, plants his own police ID on him, and dumps his body into the sea. Before entering the game, Jun-ho texts his chief a super casual note, like he’s just calling out rather than infiltrating a colossal operation where he could probably use some backup. Despite several close calls, Jun-ho manages not to get caught, and figures out the hierarchy of the guards: Circle guards are the lowest ranking, followed by triangles, and square guards are the highest. He even grabs a square guard mask, so hopefully, he’ll be able to move more freely.
Outside of interacting with the players, the guards’ existence has a very high-tech prison feel, with scanned masks, no-nonsense gray walls, and solitary cells. They’re so highly regimented. And there’s the authoritarian mandate to stay anonymous, sealed with a bullet to the head, as is the case of the square-masked guard when his face is revealed. Finding out that there are humans behind the guards’ masks opens up a whole new field of questions about how the game is run. Are the guards prisoners themselves? Are they getting paid? Were they recruited similarly to the game? It’s fascinating stuff to theorize about, but also a lot of lore to fit into nine episodes.
As for the players, Sae-byeok is the episode’s MVP. Between the Terminator-esque ability to stay awake through reintroduction to stash away a knife and her air vent recon, Sae-byeok gets a clue for what the next round has in store. Since she’s from North Korea, she doesn’t recognize the game, but when Sang-woo identifies it must be dalgona (honeycomb cookie) based on the melted sugar, she follows him to the easiest honeycomb. (Is triangle the easiest, or is the circle? I vote triangle). She really is the most effective player this round, besides the doctor (111) who gets an elicit hint.
We also get to spend some time with Han Mi-nyeo (212), the woman who claimed she had a child waiting to be named but also voted to continue the game after finding out how much money was up for grabs. She’s loud, abrasive, shameless, and curses a lot, so Sae-byeok and Deok-su write her off as an ally. But she’s also smart. She knows that she should get the strongest player (Deok-su) to protect her. She figures out the guards’ hierarchy and demands to speak to a square-masked guard about bathroom privileges. After she’s promised intel, she covers for Sae-byeok in the air vents. The lighter she smuggles initially plays for a quick gag but ends up helping her crush the honeycomb challenge and earn a spot on Deok-su’s team. Even if she’s the comic relief, she’s good enough at strategy to stick around for a while.
Hear me out: I see Sae-byeok and Mi-nyeo as two sides of the same coin. They both don’t give a crap about anyone’s opinions and are good game strategists. Mi-nyeo tries to win people over through over-familiarization (calling players “unnie” and “oppa”) and tries to use her allies to get what she wants. Sae-byeok plans to go at it alone, since her whole thing is that she only trusts herself. Mi-nyeo is the type to scream and shout until she gets what she wants, while Sae-byeok will sit back and sneak in after Mi-nyeo at the last minute (of course, they would find each other annoying).
But the most complicated relationship is between the two players who knew each other before the game: Gi-hun and Sang-woo. From the moment they reunite in the facility, they band together and bring Ali (199) and the old man (001) into the group. However, they spend the downtime before the next game very differently. Gi-hun bonds with the old man, grows nostalgic over the ephemera of childhood, and praises Sang-woo as the town prodigy. But Sang-woo refuses to look back and instead focuses his energy on the game. He manages to get Sae-byeok to spill her intel and guesses what the game is right before it starts. However, he does not tell Gi-hun or the rest of his team and lets them go in blind. He starts to warn Gi-hun when he picks the most complicated shape but stays silent.
Sang-woo’s omission makes sense game-wise; ally or not, more players eliminated means more money for the victors. But he can’t look Gi-hun in the eye during the small betrayal and looks away in shame. It’s unlike the look of disdain he has while Gi-hun is wasting time reminiscing about their elementary school days. Sang-woo’s sense of superiority over Gi-hun becomes more evident in this episode. There’s the moment when Gi-hun gives team metaphorical roles based on military ranks — Ali as the new private, Sang-woo as the competent corporal, Gi-hun as the sergeant soon to go home, and the old man as the great sergeant — Sang-woo’s frown during the speech says, Why are we doing this, and why do you think you rank higher than me?
Korean society is in large part hierarchical, with rank or status determined by age or seniority among peers. Gi-hun is Sang-woo’s hyung (older brother) because of age, since he’s a year older, but Sang-woo looks down on him for his impulsivity and dumb life decisions (which, fair). While his relationship with his childhood friend is strained, Sang-woo seems more comfortable with Ali, where he takes the big brother role and offers help. He even corrects Ali when he calls him seonsaengnim (선생님), where the suffix -nim is a term used to higher rank than the speaker, like an expert in a certain field (a rudimentary translation of a loaded Korean social term). While Netflix translates Sang-woo’s rebuttal to “I’m not your sir,” a more accurate translation would have been, “I’m not your superior.” (There’s a whole discussion happening on Twitter and Tik Tok about the accuracy of the English subtitles, if you want to check it out).
While Sang-woo is bonding more with Ali, Gi-hun is getting close to the old man. They share childhood memories, and Gi-hun makes sure he is involved in group discussions. While Gi-hun has been portrayed as a pathetic character thus far, his kindness now shines through with his treatment of player 001. This episode shows the compassionate side of Gi-hun that’s been hinted at earlier with the tip he gave the cashier and the dinner he shared with a stray cat. So when he becomes the titular “Man with the Umbrella,” holding the most complicated honeycomb pattern, we also feel his panic, and we feel his joy when he makes it through. It goes beyond him being the main character; we may start rooting for him.
The Next Game Will Begin Shortly
• The shot of the blood trailing down the slide after the first eliminated player is executed — so horrible and so good.
• Gi-hun tells the old man, “I got to leave thanks to you, then I came back thanks to you. You can’t die first,” which feels like some kind of foreshadowing.
• I was pretty sure that Mi-nyeo was lying about the child she didn’t get a chance to name, but with her “I’d rather birth a baby” comment in the stall, the story may be legit.
• The classical music played within the facility follows a pattern: The wake-up fanfare is Haydn’s “Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major,” and then Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” waltz plays when it’s time for a new round of the game.
• My mom calls Gi-hun “Mr. Ding Dong,” and I want to steal it, but for continuity I’ll stick with Gi-hun.
• The kids’ games Gi-hun lists off: ddjaki, abanggu, hopscotch, biseokchigi, tag, don katsu, freeze tag, gonggi, elastics, Cat’s cradle. Currently brainstorming how they can make hopscotch deadly.
• At some point, the players were implanted with chips for high-tech counting purposes. It also may help with surveillance, but that tech isn’t used when they’re actually in the facility, making me think that the whole leave-and-come-back routine has been used in the game before. Also, the Front Man ordering to keep an eye on the players who didn’t come back; they may be on the roster for another game.
• Would you survive this game? I’ve seen the honeycomb game before on an episode of Run BTS, so I’d know to lick it. Also I’d pick the star, because I’m me. This is the only round where I’m confident.