I like attempting to see the best in polarizing characters so here I am!
Cho Sang-woo serves as somewhat of a foil for Gi-hun. When we’re introduced to Gi-hun, he comes off as a loser. Jobless, he’s giving his daughter toy guns for her birthday, beating up her step-father, and gambling his nameless, ailing mother’s money away. However, Sang-woo is presented as Gi-hun’s opposite: successful, handsome, and intelligent. He graduated from the prestigious Seoul National University and is doing very important business stuff overseas, implying he’s well off financially (and generally).
Alas! Appearances are deceiving.
My boy Gi-hun meets Sang-woo in the Squid Game risking it all for the money bank.
After Death Light, Green Light, the group understandably wants to bounce – yet Sang-woo votes to keep playing. His reasoning becomes apparent when he attempts suicide shortly after returning home; that scene helps us understand why Sang-woo behaves so ruthlessly. It was always a win or die scenario, because Sang-woo has nothing to return to should he lose. Consequently, death isn’t something Sang-woo fears, only losing and as such, he’ll do anything to win.
Yet we see shades of the man he might be, under different circumstances.
- Sang-woo is the one who mentions the 3rd clause, which is that players can vote to end the game if the majority agrees. This is despite him wanting to continue playing. 15 people didn’t return, so he inadvertently saved 15 lives.
- When he returns to the “real world”, Sang-woo wakes up next to Ali and my man is still b r o k e. Yet, he lends Ali his phone and gives him what pittance of money he possesses for the bus far. This is particularly noble in contrast to Gi-hun, who accosts Sae-byeok after she frees him. Both of them are only looking out for themselves in that moment.
- Back in the game, one could view Sang-woo taking Ali under his fold (i.e. offering to teach him about childhood games, telling him to stick with them at night) as opportunistic given Ali was strong, which it was lol. However, Gi-hun would’ve made an adept partner and didn’t have missing fingers.
- Ali gives Sang-woo his corn as thanks for the bus fare. Food = energy, energy = more likely to survive. Rationally, it made more sense to take it and be #blessed. Yet, he splits it with Ali instead.
Notably, despite being childhood bros Sang-woo never really goes out of his way to help Gi-hun and even avoids his sole opportunity to do so (honeycomb game). But I assumed Sang-woo was simply too embarrassed – Gi-hun is the only person who knows what Sang-woo should be but isn’t. The reality of what Sang-woo is (failure, crook, and fraud) is already too much for him to bear, so it makes sense to avoid the one person who reminds him he’s already failed at everything else, he’ll probably fail at this too.
Speaking of Dalgona candy, why didn’t Sang-woo tell his homie what was up?
- Sang-woo wasn’t entirely sure and didn’t want to lead his flock astray. His flashbacks are murky, his expression is hesitant, the clock’s ticking – Sang-woo could unintentionally make things worst by telling them the wrong thing. Splitting up, theoretically, does make the most sense in this scenario.
- Also they walk into a playground which was likely meant to confuse them, his sole clue is melted sugar, and he had like 5 seconds.
- Sang-woo is trash and wanted to cull the herd. Less people = more won for him.
- That said, we didn’t know each death directly correlated to more money dropping into the ball until Deok-su curb stomps egg dude.
- Sang-woo was trying to cull the herd except specifically Il-nam. Objectively, Trash Grandpa was useless. He’s got dementia, he’s 584724 years old, I wouldn’t want him on my team either.
- Sang-woo glances at Chaotic Grandpa before talking to Gi-hun. Had he told Gi-hun in that moment what the game was, Gi-hun would’ve screamed this information across the room.
- Telling Gi-hun and not Ali/Il-nam who were part of his team – how was he going to explain that to them later if they survived?
- We know Gi-hun was keeping Trash Grandpa around even to his own detriment (as we see during marbles/Tug of War). Sang-woo grew up with Gi-hun and knew him well, so ensuring Trash Grandpa died early in theory would’ve worked in Gi-hun’s (and everyone’s) favor.
Regardless of his reasoning, he does seem genuinely concerned when his pal picks the umbrella. So deep within the Mariana Trench of Sang-woo’s soul is a man who isn’t only thinking of himself but is sincere in his concern about others.
Nevertheless, Sang-woo realizes the illusion everyone can win is false and adjusts himself accordingly as the games progress. Sang-woo is the more desperate and far less optimistic even from the start. He wants to win, not just survive and consequently makes the most rational decisions throughout the game to improve his chances of success. To be fair, the first two games are precisely designed to offer hope. They present the notion anyone can win if they simply work hard and fast enough, and each player is dependent on their own performance for survival. There isn’t a need to directly, or indirectly, harm another player to win.
However, Tug Of War makes it clear, both in the halving of everyone, pitting everyone against each other, and it being a game where individual performance doesn’t matter as much as being in a strong group, the games were not designed to #bless many with the bag.
And Sang-woo wants to win, so during marbles he buddies up with the person who’s both useful and isn’t a reminder of what a failure he really is: Saint Ali.
- SN: This is where I think Sang-woo could’ve been written slightly better. Like he went from relatively decent to actively trash over the span of a single episode without a bit of hesitation, but I wanted to see him struggle more with his own decaying morality. Furthermore, Gi-hun also manipulated Il-nam while losing, yet doesn’t get nearly as much hate over it despite it arguably being worst given Trash Grandpa had dementia. In fact, the writers deliberately make Gi-hun’s scene heartwarming with Il-nam having known all along what Gi-hun was doing, talking about his past and whatnot, whereas Sang-woo’s is just cold.
Anyway, the game of marbles is a game of
thrones luck. One Saint Ali wins.
It’s easy to interpret Sang-woo’s tantrum as a fear of dying, or an attempt to garner pity. However, if we consider this moment in light of the fact he was planning to kill himself anyway (and how readily he offed himself once it was clear Gi-hun won), it seems more like a genuine reaction stemming from a fear of losing. The reality that everything up to that point was going to be rendered worthless because of mere bad luck was too much, so Sang-woo has a BSOD moment before rebooting his wits and realizing he could still win if he screws Ali over (and Ali being the SAINT he is already didn’t want to be playing against his hyung, so tricking that bonehead was easy).
It’s interesting to contrast Sang-woo to Deok-su here, who’s also losing his marbles. Deok-su, despite being active trash since his appearance, suggests playing another game – one he has an equal chance of winning or losing. Sang-woo doesn’t even bother with that – he straight up lies to ensure he gets all 20 marbles.
It’s a cold and ruthless scene in an already heart-breaking episode, but for Sang-woo this moment probably only solidified his resolve to no longer keep up appearances. While Sang-woo does show shades of being a good man, even prior to the games it’s clear he was involved in some shady dealings.
The scene also highlights how capitalism pushes people to only look out for themselves for the sake of their own survival. Sang-woo’s not really the villain here,
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk the VIPs who orchestrated these games for their amusement are the real baddies. And while all the players do willingly choose to participate, they do so out of desperation and not really knowing what they’re getting into until it’s basically too late to back out. It’s no coincidence marbles comes right after Tug of War, a game in which teamwork was tantamount to winning. But now they’re pitted against those whom they’re most likely to trust and who they’ve likely just partnered up with, forcing those like Sang-woo, who were toeing the line between looking out for himself and others, to only act selfishly.
We see this selfishness highlighted during Glass Death Hopscotch; Sang-woo just pushes Glass Guesser Dude to his death once time is almost out (the same man who basically is the reason he’s alive). Later, he kills Sae-byeok (to be fair, she was going to die and it was unlikely the PlayStations/Darth Vader were going to intervene, but it was still a scummy move).
Then, the Squid Game pits the childhood bros against each other and Sang-woo loses. Yet, Gi-hun wants to quit the game and go home with his homie.
But going home was never an option for Sang-woo. The moment what little hope he had was stripped away (the first vote to stop the game), he went charcoal briquette on himself. Sang-woo has nothing to return to (however, it’s interesting to contrast him to Ji-yeong, who also literally has nothing to return to. For Ji-yeong that lack was motivation to sacrifice herself for Sae-byeok, who had a family. For Sang-woo, that lack is motivation to do anything he can to obtain something to live for). It was always a win, or die trying situation, which is why he was willing to do whatever it took to win.
When it became clear he’d lost, he did what’s he’d always been planning to do anyway: killed himself.
Notably, Sang-woo isn’t mad, petty, cold, or vindicative but apologetic. He knows his behavior was terrible and his last wish is that Gi-hun care for his mother. This is telling too, because it goes to show it wasn’t personal. It wouldn’t have mattered who Sang-woo was up against – Ali, Gi-hun, Deok-su – it was all the same to him.
It’s easy to view Sang-woo as terrible because he is lol. But realistically most of us would be a Sang-woo if we were this desperate for money, if we aren’t already.
A single thread of hope, no matter how small, is worth trying to reach. For Sang-woo, that hope was winning the Squid Game and becoming the successful man he was meant to be. Once that thread broke though, there was nothing left for him to live for.