“Gganbu” is a heartbreaking gut-punch of an episode. The reveal that the two-person marble teams will compete against each other is pure devastation represented on the faces of Gi-hun, Ali, and husband and wife, who must now compete against one another. These kinds of huge, story-altering moments are usually dropped toward the end of an episode or movie after years of buildup (think the Red Wedding or Thanos’s snap). But Squid Game reveals its brutal twist a quarter of the way into the episode and makes us sit and watch these matchups in close to real time. When you know what the end has in store, the lead-up hurts just as much as the gunshot.
But before all that, on the way to the next game, the players are shocked by the doctor and the organ-harvesting guards strung up in the neon-stair room and the revelation that cheating was taking place. Not that they’re given enough time to process this information because it’s game time. The instructions are to form teams of two in ten minutes. Despite having no clue what the next game is, the selection process immediately turns ice-cold, with the women and older players ignored as partners in favor of the stronger and (seemingly) smarter male players. Mi-nyeo tries to seduce and threaten herself into a team but ends up the odd man out, and the guards drag her away. Sang-woo quickly forms a team with Ali as the strongest and most intelligent players, respectively. Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong pair together, mainly to avoid groveling to the older male players. And even though another younger, stronger player woos him, Gi-hun sticks with the old man.
Squid Game walks a fine line regarding the players’ motivation, whether they’re playing to win the money or get out alive. For me, this is the episode in which the prize money fades away as the players unknowingly place their lives in the hands of the ones they’ve come to trust most. Interestingly, the marbles game is the most undefined round of the game thus far. The rules are menacingly simple: win all ten of your partner’s marbles without violence. Players negotiate which games they play, throwing skill or strength out the window and replacing them with nasty displays of manipulation, peer pressure, and straight-up gaslighting. This is a mental battle of self-preservation that brings out the best (Ji-yeong) or the worst (Sang-woo) versions of themselves.
The match between Sang-woo and Ali is the most obvious example of the coldness the twist is meant to elicit. Sang-woo is calculated and wants to jump straight into the game. The kindhearted Ali doesn’t want to hurt his hyung and begs the guards to give him another player. But when it looks like Ali will win, Sang-woo goes into survival mode, while Ali begins to cry over Sang-woo’s impending death. Sang-woo manipulates Ali into unknowingly hanging over his marbles, which, while within the rules of the game, fully propels Sang-woo into the role of cunning villain.
Meanwhile, Sae-byeok, who has been single-minded and strategic so far, ultimately slows down. Neither she nor Ji-yeong wants to play, and they decide they would rather go all-in on a fifty-fifty-chance game at the end of the countdown rather than spend their last 30 minutes lying and manipulating each other. They accept their fate with quiet dignity rather than become the worst version of themselves. Instead, they use their time to talk and get to know each other, making for the calmest moments of the game. Sae-byeok opens up about her father’s death and her mother’s capture after their family fled North Korea. She wants to use the prize money to buy a house for her brother, bring her mother to Seoul, and maybe visit Jeju Island.
Ji-yeong’s backstory is one of the most efficient character-building reveals I’ve ever seen. She murdered her father, a pastor, for killing her mother and abusing her as a child (which explains the scene with Player 244 in episode five). She then spent most of her life in jail and was recruited to the game as soon as she was released. While both have lived difficult lives, Ji-yeong believes that with no family, she has “nowhere else to go” and is at peace with letting Sae-byeok win and continue playing.
But the game between Gi-hun and the old man is the most complicated. Before, Gi-hun took care of the man, sparing him from embarrassment among the guards and players as his dementia progressed. Now, Gi-hun uses the man’s declining mental health against him and feels guilty while doing it. This hurts all the more due to Gi-hun and the old man declaring themselves gganbu, described as friends in the neighborhood whom you share everything with, before the round begins. In the end, the old man gives his gganbu his last marble and his name: Oh Il-nam.
Previously, Detective Jun-ho found a list of years’ worth of game-winners — one winner per year. That reveal, along with the marble round, confirms there is no chance of sharing the pot. Every remaining player has killed their closest ally: Sang-woo by shutting off all emotion, Sae-byeok after genuinely connecting with Ji-yeong, Gi-hun after his most intimate friend forgave his betrayal. In the most brutal round yet, everyone has come out scared, guilty, and alone. From now on, it’s every player for themselves.
The Next Game Will Begin Shortly
• We see the only Jun-ho moment: when he tries to use the Front Man’s phone, but it doesn’t dial out. There isn’t any switching back and forth between story lines; the show makes us sit in the players’ discomfort.
• It’s nice to see a bully get frustrated in the face of his own methods. But we still need an antagonist, so Deok-su wins.
• “I never bothered to study, but I’m unbelievably smart” is the best descriptor for Mi-nyeo. Annoying as hell, but great character.
• Would you survive this game? No, I’d be too busy crying.