Thirty-two years. That’s how long it took to build the game from whatever it started as to this meticulously planned death match. From the first episode, the operation was too big to pop up overnight, with this massive underground facility on a vacant island. As Squid Game has gone on, and each round has been unique and escalated the game somehow, it’s become more apparent that it took time for the people in charge to figure out the ideal players and learn how to manipulate them. Many more than 456 people have gone through this mental and physical torture; there have been thousands.
“A Fair World” reveals this and a lot of other information that could feel like clunky exposition, but is deftly balanced with action, courtesy of Jun-ho’s investigation. The episode starts where the last left off, with Gi-hun’s team winning the tug-of-war after using Sang-woo’s trick. After returning to the dorm, the ten-person teams from tug of war stick together, for the time being, so we get more time with certain players, especially the prayer guy (244) and Sae-byeok’s new ally (240), who stays close to her throughout the episode. The confrontation in the elevator shows that player 240 isn’t afraid to step on people’s toes, as she tells the devote man he should be thanking his teammates on earth rather than a deity above. She also tries to be friends with Sae-byeok, and though she hasn’t been able to cut through Sae-byeok’s defenses, she doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
We also get a hint that Gi-hun may be becoming more strategic in the game when his warning to Deok-su not to trust his teammates sticks. It seems like he took a page out of Sae-Byeok’s playbook, since the conversation came right after her “trust no one” reminder. Of course, it is also a warning that works in Deok-su’s favor, helping him stay alive through the night. Either way, the semi-truce means no fights for the night, but we already have enough vivisections to make this episode’s quota of blood and gore.
As for bonding time, both Sang-woo and Ali and Gi-hun and the old man make strides in their friendships when they pair off for night watch. Sang-woo is his same closed-off self, but he also tells Ali just to call him hyung, or “big brother” (again, this translation is the simplified version). They also share their reasons for joining the game, both saying they “had no money,” though Ali opens up more and reveals that in addition to his wife and 1-year-old, he wants to send money back to his parents and siblings in Pakistan.
Gi-hun also shares more of his backstory with the old man during their watch. He used to work for a now-defunct car company, which laid him off right before his daughter’s due date. He hints that corruption was involved, saying that the executives “ruined the company and held us responsible,” so he and his workers went on strike, barricading themselves in the factory. There was a riot when the authorities broke the strike, and his co-worker died in front of him. This was also the event that he and his ex-wife argued over in “Hell,” and it seems to have been the start of all his troubles: the two failed businesses, the debt, the loan sharks, the divorce. The backstory is also highly relatable, referencing labor issues — Korea has a history of large-scale auto-worker strikes, some of which were violently broken up by police. Gi-hun becomes even more sympathetic, with the reveal of his past coupled with his kindness toward the old man, whose dementia is progressing rather rapidly.
While the players reveal their backstories and build relationships in this episode, we’re also getting our first real glimpse of the guards involved in the organ-harvesting scenes as they speak casually about their black-market operation for dead players’ organs. This conversation is ruthless, with the dead or dying players being treated like meat bags and referred to as “zombies.” Everything about the scheme is gross and hard to watch, but it’s part of cop Jun-ho’s investigation.
The organ harvesting is also the entire context in which we see the doctor (111), but even with very little backstory — he killed a man due to malpractice — it’s easy to understand his mental deterioration. Sure, the organ harvesters give him extra food and hints to what game is next, but he’s working on even less sleep if the surgeries go all night, plus the game is, umm, pretty stressful. The entire operation screams, “How long could they keep this up?” showing how different it is from the game. They aren’t a well-oiled machine; their most crucial member is a ticking time bomb that blows up in their face.
Jun-ho lands in the middle of this operation, posing as the diver whose uniform he took in “The Man With the Umbrella.” In the room of horror, he has to hear about all the atrocities these guards committed on the eliminated players, while wondering whether his brother was one of the corpses they cut apart or people they beat to death. The surgery also hits a chord, with the mention of a “zombie” with one kidney reminding him of the kidney his brother gave him. It’s the first deep connection we have for the two brothers, and it shakes him so much that he unleashes his anger on the guard who catches him in a lie, shooting him in the head. Once he gets into the Front Man’s apartment and the room with the game records, he gets concrete evidence that the game has spanned years and that his beloved brother had not just played but won.
While Jun-ho is searching the Front Man’s apartment, the man in charge punishes the doctor and the remaining harvester. Before killing the man, he explains that they’re dying because they broke his guiding principle for the game. “Equality,” he calls it. “Everyone is equal while they play this game. Here, the players get to play a fair game under the same conditions. Those people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we’re giving them the last chance to fight fair and win. And you broke that principle.”
On the first watch, the speech just vaguely set off my bullshit radar. Eventually, I remembered that “equality vs. equity” cartoon that explains why “equality” is such an empty concept. According to the Front Man’s thinking, the game is fair because the rounds have simple rules, and all the players get the same resources, so he can claim that everyone’s on equal footing. When the doctor receives hints and shares them with Deok-su, he gets an unfair advantage, and by picking an all-male team, the doctor and Deok-su double down on their advantages and greatly improve their chances of winning while decreasing the odds of everyone else. But Sang-woo’s claim in the previous episode that men are usually better at games is an example of the Front Man’s “fairness” fallacy — they’re the ones who choose games that favor strength. Women and elderly players are at a natural disadvantage with games like red light, green light and tug-of-war. Because not all of the players are of the same size, age, socioeconomic background, nationality (Koreans remember the games from childhood), it’s kind of dumb of him to give his little “equality” speech when the conditions and rules he sets make the game inherently unfair. The Front Man can say the players “get to play a fair game under the same conditions” and kill the cheaters because he’s the one leveling the playing field as he sees fit. Whether or not the players can keep their balance is their problem, not his.
The Next Game Will Begin Shortly
• For anyone who wants to check my math: The first Game was in 1988, the current game is in 2020.
• The casual racism/xenophobia from Mi-nyeo toward Ali is unfortunate but not totally unexpected.
• More than two mentions of the word “barricade,” and I start humming Les Miz.
• Lee Jung-jae is such an expressive facial actor. The close-up when Gi-hun realizes the other team is about to die at his hands was so good.
• When the players get the upper hand over the guards, they keep backing down once they see the face behind the mask. Like, I get that the reminder that these men are human is shocking, but it would be nice for a player to still land a blow.