Analysis: Squid Game’s Sang-woo Did Nothing Wrong

Just kidding.

*Spoilers*

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?

  1. 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.
  2. Sang-woo is trash and wanted to cull the herd. Less people = more won for him.
    1. That said, we didn’t know each death directly correlated to more money dropping into the ball until Deok-su curb stomps egg dude.
  3. 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.

Rating the Squid Game (Characters)

*Spoilers ahoy*

Imagine waking up at 6:00 am, excited to embark on a lengthy hike up a mountain. It’s drizzling outside and at a spicy, 88 degrees Fahrenheit, the sparse sprinkling will keep you cool on your trek. You get in the car and drive towards the trailhead, checking the forecast at a stop light – there’s a chance of thunder later, but eh you’re already on the way.

Four miles into the hike, the light rain turns torrential. You realize (woefully) that you’re going to be uncomfortably soaked. But there’s only two miles until the top. Onward! It’s starts thundering and anxiety creeps over you but look! A sign signaling there’s a mere 0.5 miles left. So you push yourself, reaching the mountain’s peak only to find the fog is so thick it entirely obscures the view.

Did you have fun?

Yeah, sure. You enjoy nature in general, good views or not.

However, you can’t help but feel – as you make the long journey down the mountain cold, dripping wet, and sore – that maybe you’d have been better off staying home today.

That’s what watching Squid Game felt like.

Squid Game is about humans playing children’s games, except losing is death; winning means billions of won. It’s no surprise the show resonated with people around the world, given it’s themes and characters are relatable to everyone alive on planet Earth because most of us are broke and would also die for money.

Anyway, all opinions are mine and they are trash. My criteria for a good character is basically:

  1. Their removal would affect the plot
  2. They undergo some change/character development, good or bad
  3. We see different sides of their personality/can understand their motivations/background 
  4. If female, they cannot have a plot that revolves solely around a male character, or they must be really well-developed within the confines of the role they are written to play (love interest, etc.)

Darth Vader Front Man/In-ho

  • overlooked a lot of obvious things like the PlayStation Symbols messing with cameras, selling organs, etc.
  • actually a previous winner of the Squid Game
  • E-Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y!
  • took an arrow in the knee bullet in the shoulder for his bro

Front Man being hot cop’s brother was obvious as there were no other unknown, significant characters he could be.

Post-winning, Front Man embraced the ideology of Jeff Bezos the VIPs. Yet he wasn’t totally lost as he attempted to get his brother to join him so together they could rule the galaxy . It’s also possible he shot hot cop in the shoulder and not the chest/head, because frankly hot cop’s chances of survival by falling off a cliff into the ocean were far higher than his chances anywhere else.

Front Man/In-ho Rating: 7.5/10

Sang-woo

  • literally how did he survive without his glasses
  • graduated from SNU, in case you had no idea based on how many times it’s mentioned by multiple characters
  • Gi-hun’s childhood buddy
  • gave Saint Ali likely what little money he possessed for bus fare
  • manipulated Saint Ali into giving up his marbles. Tellingly, he didn’t even suggest another game like even dumpster Deok-su did
  • killed Sae-byeok

It’s easy to villainize Sang-woo because he’s trash. But Sang-woo wisely realized they weren’t all going to leave and chose violence life.

Sang-woo had the dignity to not accept Gi-hun’s dumb proposal to end the game and killed himself instead. Still, I wanted to see him struggle more with his own decaying morality. We see shades of this internal battle when he nearly tells Gi-hun about the dalgona candy, but then he just doesn’t? At that point, no one knew death directly correlated to more money, so are we to just assume he was a sociopath from the beginning? IMO, he could’ve used a bit more character development.

Nevertheless, he looks great in a suit.

Sang-woo rating: 8/10

(Dumpster) Deok-su

  • every story needs an additional villain to make everything worst for everyone involved
  • cool tattoos
  • i legit believe this man is a gangster in real life
  • thug before joining the games, coward after joining them
  • recognized he couldn’t trust the mfs with him and didn’t start another brawl at night, thus prolonging probably one person’s life for another day

After promising to stay with Min-yeo forever and then abandoning her before Tug o’ War, during Death-Hopscotch Min-yeo traps Deok-su in a bear hug and tosses them both into the glass riddled abyss below.

Deok-su Rating: 6.9/10

Tiger Mask

Incredibly within a group of men who travelled across the globe to watch in real time people die in horrible, violent ways while sitting on human furniture and making bets on who would win one stood out as being exceptionally repulsive: Tiger Mask.

Tiger Mask grew bored of watching people die from his human footstool, so he threatens a waiter (secretly hot cop Jun-ho) with death so he can sexually assault him instead.

I loved the imagery of Jun-ho taking off the tiger mask, a symbol of power, to reveal a wimpy, old coward.

Tiger Mask Rating: Jun-ho On A Cliff With One Bullet/10

Min-yeo

  • smartly aligned herself with those most likely to win (throwing dumpster Deok-su the lighter)
  • after not being picked for marbles, she slept while everyone else killed their bffs
  • fabulous hair
  • smuggled in cigarettes/a lighter via her vagina
  • had a child she never named

Min-yeo was brilliantly annoying but also yes, queen throw that mf off that bridge!!!!!!

Little is known about her back-story, but the amount of chaotic energy she brought overall was amazing, like putting on a show in the bathroom to cover for Sae-byeok. She literally went out with a bang, taking Deok-su and one of the glass panels down with her.

Min-Yeo Rating: 7.2/10

(Saint) Ali

  • pure as they come
  • strong, but smart. Sang-woo teams up with him for this reason
  • “stole” the money from his trash boss who was swindling him
    • Boss’ hand got crushed and Ali took off with the cash, giving it to his woman so she could fly home
  • a bilingual king
  • overly trusting. Sang-woo showed his true colors and Ali should’ve said, “you lost hyung, annyeong”.

Not only did my man grab Gi-hun with one hand and keep him from falling during Sniper Light, Green Light – Ali did it while keeping his own balance and perfect, unmoving posture. My man was ROBBED.

Ali exemplifies the “ideal immigrant”. He’s hard-working, kind, a family man, and even learned Korean. Yet that didn’t guarantee financial security, nor prevent him from being ROBBED. First by his Boss, second by Sang-woo. Of all the characters, his was the cleanest critique of capitalism, because Ali did everything right by capitalist standards and still ended up destitute enough to join the Squid Game.

Saint Ali deserved to win.

Ali Rating: 10/10

69 & 70

Husband and wife team. Have to play against each other in the marble game. Husband wins. Wife dies. Husband hangs himself.

69 & 70 Rating: Pigtailed Doll Saying 무궁화 꽃 이 피었 습니다/10

(Princess) Ji-yeong

  • fabulous hair
  • kinda upbeat, all things considered – more than once, she mentions wanting to hang out with Sae-byeok when they leave, only to remember that one of them isn’t leaving
  • understandably not a fan of religion given her trash pastor dad beat her mom and abused her
  • was in jail – like what a gangster

Ji-yeong’s 18 seconds of screen time showed that, contrary to what Trash Grandpa believed, there will always be good people in the world. Refusing to play the game of thrones marbles for her own gain was perhaps the greatest stick it to the VIPs.

Ji-yeong’s demise, while expected, was heartbreaking because we saw the best of humanity in her (brief) interactions with Sae-byeok. Her criminal past would paint her negatively in society, though ironically she was one of the few characters with heart. Despite being unreligious, she exemplifies the verse, “[g]reater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Ji-yeong Rating: 10/10

Oh Il-nam

  • actually the HBIC of VIPs having helped designed the games
  • literally chaotic evil – he made the games for LOLz, then joined because watching people die wasn’t fun enough given he was close to death himself
  • very pessimistic – Il-nam didn’t believe anyone would help the drunkard. While someone did (spoiler: not Gi-hun), he didn’t live to see it

The most shocking twist in the show was how evil Trash Grandpa was after seeming like a sweet, old guy with dementia (I was always mad suspicious though because really this old dude won a game of ddakji? Against Gong Yoo??). Trash Grandpa shows his true colors right before death though, in calling the drunken dude garbage.

Oh Ilnam Rating: 9/10

Gi-hun/Sang-woo’s mother:

  • never given names
  • one dies off-screen
  • one is given a child

Gi-hun/Sang-woo’s Mother Rating: -0.7/10

(Hot Cop) Jun-Ho

  • genuinely a good cop investigating his brother’s disappearance
  • wisely took receipts, then immediately sent those receipts as soon as he had service
  • plot armor prevented him from not getting caught for a very long time despite multiple individuals noticing how sus he was
  • nice eyes
  • nice face
  • nice hair
  • nice

Jun-ho’s entire existence was anxiety inducing. From sneaking around and posing as various PlayStation buttons, to catching the eye of Tiger Mask, to running around that island with poor cell service, I was stressed.

The most unbelievable part of Squid Game was his iPhone lasting that long, like at least be realistic and make it an Android. Anyway, Jun-ho was shot by his brother (Front Man) (in the shoulder, not the head/chest/anywhere else that would instantly kill him). Consequently, he fell off a cliff and is “dead”.

Jun-ho rating: 8.5/10

Doctor

He was losing sleep by helping the PlayStation Controllers frisk corpses for body parts and after he was done they were like, “yeah bro, we’ll tell you the next game tomorrow morning maybe idk if we can find out tho” like BYE. I would’ve stabbed them in the eyeballs with my fingernail.

Because of Doctor, Jun-ho learns about the escape route/diving gear and also Front Man was able to give his equality speech.

Doctor Rating: 5.5/10

(Queen) Sae-byeok

  • threw hot coffee in the face of that dude and threatened him with a knife
  • tragic backstory – dad is dead, she’s a defector from North Korea, she’s broke (like everyone else)
  • master pick pocket
  • snuck into a vent and spied on the sugar stirring PlayStation masks
  • pulled a chunk of glass out her body and still managed to live for a while longer
  • like one of 2.5 characters in the game for a noble reason – to bring her mother into South Korea and provide a better life for her brother
    • she made Gi-hun promise to take care of Cheol, and likely would’ve done the same for his mother.

Sae-byeok initially comes off as cold, being a pick-pocket, threatening/fighting Deok-su, generally being stand-off-ish, etc. but ultimately turns out to be one of few who keeps her humanity. Until the moment she was ROBBED of her life, she was thinking of others (Cheol/her mother), which is a testament to her warm heart. Her story is incredibly sad though as it shows how via no fault of one’s own (such as merely being born in the wrong country), one can end up fighting a losing battle just to live a normal life. And in a capitalist society, there are few (if any) resources for those who are just born unlucky.

My queen deserved to get her mojito on Jeju Island with the ghost of Ji-yeong!!

Sae-byeok Rating: 10/10

Gi-hun

  • gambled his ailing, nameless mom’s money away instead of buying his daughter a gift/meal
  • missed the birth of his daughter
  • divorced
  • can’t support his ill (unnamed) mother, who was working to support him
  • sighs approximately 43275382 times

Gi-hun was almost delusional in his optimism, but that’s a testament to his good character. Initially, he’s not really set up as sympathetic. But eventually we see his true nature has been slowly whittled away by life’s woes (death of a homie, work strike, losing his job, divorce, gambling addiction, series of bad financial choices). At his core, Gi-Hun is good. He isn’t willing to hurt others for gain, making him the perfect foil to Sang-woo. We see this goodness clearly when he picks Chaotic Grandpa for the marble game, despite knowing he’d be all but useless in anything requiring strength.

It was foreshadowing Gi-hun seemed to be the only person smiling during his picture – a reflection of an optimistic spirit that was crushed and replaced with anger (red hair) and a desire for vengeance.

Anyway, he did not deserve to win and he should’ve helped the drunkard himself after flipping off Il-nam.

Kudos to him for not slitting Sang-woo’s throat though as it couldn’t be me.

Gi-hun’s Rating: 10/10

Squid Game alludes to the pitfalls of capitalism: the idea that with enough hard work and dedication, anyone can rise to the top, (or win the game). However, when we metaphorically look at how each death drops $$$ in the golden pig, we see capitalism only works at the expense of someone else. This is literal in the sense that the more players who die during the game, the more money someone else gets.

Capitalism too thrives on the idea that everyone has an equal chance at success. But despite Front Man’s equality spiel, the games are not equal and are deliberately manipulated to make things worst/remove any advantage the players might have (such as the dude able to differentiate between the types of glass, or choosing games women would have a harder time winning due to physical differences). From the limiting of food to creating circumstances to induce a night brawl (and thus an environment no one could sleep well), Squid Game critiques how in real life individuals are pitted against one another in a capitalist society as they compete for resources. Resources that are in abundance because ya know, the VIPs could just give people that money but I digress. The games bring out the worst of humanity for the enjoyment of Elon Musk the VIPs (who while wearing animal masks call the participants animals lol). VIPs who are ironically bored and unhappy because they have too much money and thus seek fulfilment in watching others suffer for their own amusement.

Anyway, while I enjoyed this despite it’s plot holes, it should’ve ended with Gi-hun mournfully looking at the snow and reminding himself people are still good as the drunkard gets helped. The ending with Gi-hun on a quest for vengeance was a little too cliché.

Squid Game Rating: 8.7/10