What Should Christians Take Away from the ‘Squid Game’ Ending?
Squid Game, the South Korean survival drama series currently taking the world by storm, ends with the winner, Seong Gi-Hun, slipping into a depression and suddenly pulling out after he finally defeats the game creator. He gets a (cool?) haircut, and suddenly decides to (maybe?) enter the next Squid Game and stop it. But to understand the ending, we need to understand everything that led up to it.Which takes me to the Hunger Games.
“So is it basically the Hunger Games?” is the question everyone loves to ask about Squid Game. And the answer sets you up for what the whole show means.
So is Squid Game basically the Hunger Games? Heck no. Squid Game is highly original, and at least ten times more intelligent and interesting than the Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games series is what art aficionados like to call “high concept.” In other words, it’s a simple story with a simple premise and a simple execution.
It’s a simple story, because you can guess every plot twist. Trust me. I did. It’s also a simple premise: What if a totalitarian state forced society's most downtrodden members to fight to the death for the entertainment of the elite? This leads to a simple execution: players fight to the death, a few token characters sacrifice themselves, a love triangle is added, then the same plot is repeated in two successive novels… and cha-ching!
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t Squid Game ask the exact same question? Well, sure, but that’s the tip of its hyper-violent iceberg. Beneath the surface is a sustained critique of human nature and the broken systems that we naively believe will make the world “fair” or “equitable,” but that fail in the end.
The thinking person will find much to ponder in this postmodern coup de grâce. It deconstructs reality to show that secularism, like all of the players, is sinking beneath the terrible debts it racked up running the world without any moral capital. Squid Game is a knife-wielding loan shark, making secularism pay in blood what it can’t pay in cash.
So let’s explore Squid Game’s takedown of reality. This is my official spoiler alert. Go forth at your own risk.
The series skillfully tackles:
- The pathologies of capitalism.
Halfway through the show, we discover Kang Sae-byeok is a North Korean defector. Her mother, father, and younger brother all paid a steep cost to escape communism. Her father died on the journey. Her mother was sent back. Only she and her little brother escaped to South Korea.
But for what?
Her brother lands in a state-run children’s home. She joins a crime ring and becomes a pickpocket just to make ends meet. To help her mother escape a second time, she takes out loans with unpayable interest. And it doesn’t even work. For all these reasons and more, she ends up choosing to play a life-or-death game, overseen by a dictator and his enforcers, whose constant surveillance, threats, food rations, and behavior control make North Korea look humane.
Welcome to the capitalist paradise of South Korea. She escapes totalitarianism, only to find herself in a worse place. And, of course, she is not alone.
Every player is saddled with debt, showing that there are winners and losers in capitalism. The mythology of capitalism says that the market picks winners and losers based on their merits, or at least based on their economic utility. Accordingly, those who win can feel tremendous pride, but those who lose face a stark, soul-breaking reality: I am a loser. Squid Game begs us to ask whether the terms of the game are honest, and whether its conclusions are sincere.
It highlights this by showing how those who lose often find themselves magnetized to risky behaviors in an effort to win or anesthetize their pain. Gambling. Crime. Cons. Drugs. Alcohol.
But capitalism does not merely prey upon the poor. It also makes the wealthy sick, though in a different way.
The entire game exists because one wealthy man got bored of making money! The VIPs are billionaires who bet on players like horses. All of them seem mentally ill and morally defaced. They laugh at the violence. Demand sex. Eat and drink without ceasing. And dress like gold-studded animals.
They’ve all bought into the megalomaniacal lie that wealth makes you superior to others. Superior morally, mentally, physically, and more besides.
These are the dual pathologies of capitalism. But don’t think that Squid Game lets state-run systems, like socialism, off the hook.
- The evil of state-run systems.
In the world of Squid Game, there are soldiers who wear masks that hide their identity. They function as the strong arm of The Frontman and The Host. They’re always armed and constantly killing players. But this is a false image of power. Soldiers are actually as powerless as players. They only speak when spoken to. The Frontman calls them disposable. In other words, from the perspective of those in charge, the soldiers are no different than the players.
They call both players and soldiers by numbers, not names. They use cameras to surveil both groups' actions. They demand that both groups follow draconian rules and social arrangements without question.
Thus, the entire game is analogous to authoritarian, state-run systems, where individual identity is lost to collective identity, individual life is disposed of for collective interests, and individual liberty is subsumed by the collective will.
The state enforces its interests by surveillance, threats, fear, and force. They promise “equality” and “equity,” but in the end, a few people always end up a bit more equal than others. The few who sit atop the social pyramid look down at the masses and congratulate themselves for running such an efficient, predictable system.
- The mirage of meritocracy.
The Frontman says that "the most important element of this place" is that "everyone is equal in these games. Players compete in a fair game under the same conditions. These people suffered from inequality and discrimination out in the world, and we offer them one last chance to fight on equal footing and win."
In other words, Squid Game is a pure meritocracy, where all people start equally and compete equally. Their success is purely based on their own performance.
And yet, it’s not.
The winner of Squid Game wins in spite of himself. Seong Gi-Hun’s personal merits get him nowhere. He is not smart. He is not decisive. He is not a leader. He is not charming. He is not physically strong. He is not strategic.
But he is the constant beneficiary of luck, and the sacrifice of others:
- During “red light, green light,” a friend coaxes Seong into running after he’s given up. A stranger rescues him from tripping into death.
- During tug-of-war, the strategies of other players rescue Seong from certain death.
- During the marble game, Seong’s opponent sacrifices himself in his place.
- During the glass bridge game, Seong is indecisive and almost goes first, which would have been sure death. By pure luck, he trades spots and ends up last.
Compare Seong to the three most intelligent players: a doctor, an investor, and a math teacher. They all have excellent strategies. They all die. Or compare Seong to the strongest characters: a thug and a day laborer. They all dominate. They all die.
In the real world, merit doesn’t always win. Luck matters tremendously. The sacrifice of others matters more. Meritocracy is a mirage that allows us to think the world is fair. It is not.
- The emptiness of religiosity.
In the fictional world of Squid Game, God’s name is present but his reality is not. When Seong first meets a representative of the game, he mistakes him for a street evangelist. Seong angrily explains that he wants nothing to do with Jesus. A different player shares how her father, who was a pastor, physically and sexually abused her. She murdered him. Yet another player is constantly praying. When he’s not praying, he’s verbally abusing or murdering other players.
In these stories, religion is not the opiate of these masses, soothing their pain. Religion is an absurd, useless fairy world that cripples innate morality.
- The shallowness of educational elitism.
The game winner is a simple man. This is perfectly captured by the photo the game proprietors take, and continue to use throughout the game. He gives a toothy, almost foolish-looking smile. In one poignant scene, he admits that he knows he is a simpleton.
Seong’s foil is his childhood friend turned investment banker, Cho Sang-woo. His photo is serious. He is sophisticated. Highly intelligent. And, most importantly, he has an elite education. His intelligence takes him to the last round.
But the cost is tremendous. No scene illustrates this more clearly than when Cho finds himself in a life-and-death marble game with Ali, the game’s dullest but most noble-hearted character.
Before that game, Cho repeatedly tells Ali not to treat him with special honor or call him sir. Which makes us wonder whether he’s not actually an elitist. Maybe he sees himself as equal with others? But the façade crashes down when Ali beats Cho in marbles, and Cho proceeds to trick Ali into losing. The trick preys on Ali’s kind nature, and the trick works. Ali dies. Cho lives.
Juxtapose this with Seong’s simplicity. His simplicity is not stupidity. His simplicity is moral. He is not self-interested, so he takes an old man as a partner in a game. He puts others first. He does not abandon his friends. And at the very end, rather than kill Cho and take home all the prize money, Seong tries to end the game and save Cho’s life.
- The bankruptcy of democracy and consent as an ethical system.
Modern Americans have an anemic understanding of right and wrong. We seem to think that anything is okay as long as:
- First, someone gives their consent. As long as you don’t hurt someone else without their consent, it doesn’t matter what you do. Yes, maybe doing drugs or having lots of sexual partners or changing your gender isn’t the best thing, but as long as you’re a consenting adult, that’s your choice.
- Second, the group agrees that the activity is not immoral. In some ways, might makes right. So if most people agree that legalizing prostitution is a good thing, then it is. You get the idea.
Squid Game takes this anemic ethical system to its logical conclusion. All of the players must give their personal consent to play. In fact, most who survive the first round give their consent twice. To end the game, it requires a group-wide agreement.
Again and again, the players are reminded that what is happening is moral, because they agreed, and because the group can say otherwise. But of course, there is nothing moral about putting hundreds of people into a life-and-death contest for a big pot of money. It doesn’t matter whether they agree or vote on it. Unfortunately, most people have such weak ethical muscles that they can’t quite explain why.
At the end of it all, Squid Game deconstructs everything. It sees through capitalism, democracy, meritocracy, communism, elitism, and religion. So what are we left with? Nothing but impotent anger at the end of it all. And this takes us to Squid Game’s ending. Seong doesn’t actually defeat the game’s creator. He is totally powerless.
The actor who played Seong said he personally picked the haircut and hair color. To him, it represented Seong’s anger. And he’s right. Seong is angry, but what can he really do? Perhaps season two holds the answers, but for now, we’re left clueless.
Here’s the point: it’s not hard to see through everything. All human plans, systems, and interventions come with unintended consequences. They never work out. Apart from God, everything is meaningless. Apart from God, all we have is anger. We’re just pissed. Pissed at a world that’s undelivered on every promise. Pissed at a world that forces us into a game we didn’t choose, and in which most people just lose and die.
At the end, Seong finds purpose in his anger. Perhaps he will stop the game in season two. But anger is an emotion that burns hot and fast. You can’t build a life or a world on anger. Which is too bad, because our world is angrier than it’s ever been before.
And maybe that’s why Squid Game resonates so deeply across cultures. We are all angry at the empty promises. We all know we’re made for more than this. But no one knows what that “this” is.
Actually, we do. Because we don’t live in the fictional world of Squid Game, where God is absent. He is here. He is real. And his promises do not fail. The story of Jesus comes with the promise that God will make things right in the end, and if you don’t believe in his reality, your heart longs for it. Every other hunger we have can be satisfied. Is our hunger for a world made right not the same?
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Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter