Did the right person win Squid Game? (Spoiler warning!) The show’s crowd-pleasing ending is actually pretty far-fetched. The truth is, Gi-hun doesn’t play Squid Game very well, and only makes it through thanks to a lot of dumb luck and plot armor. Looking at the evidence, it’s really Gi-hun’s childhood friend Sang-woo, the manipulative, ferociously intelligent financial criminal, who possessed the skills, savvy and killer instinct needed to win Squid Game (and capitalism at large, which is what this is all one big metaphor for.)
Sang-woo: “If you can’t keep going, then why are you alive right now? You should’ve been the one who died in there instead.”
Did the right person win Squid Game? Spoilers coming up here:
Squid Game wraps up with its hero, kind-hearted Gi-hun, winning the game and vowing to take down this whole cruel system. But this crowd-pleasing ending is actually pretty far-fetched. The truth is Gi-hun doesn’t play Squid Game very well, and only makes it through thanks to a lot of dumb luck and plot armor. Looking at the evidence, it’s really Gi-hun’s childhood friend Sang-woo, the manipulative, ferociously intelligent financial criminal, who possessed the skills, savvy and killer instinct needed to win Squid Game (and capitalism at large, which is what this is all one big metaphor for).
Here’s why Sang-woo should have won the Squid Game, and why that ending would have followed through on what the show was trying to say.
Why Sang-woo Is Objectively The Best Player
First and foremost, Sang-woo embodies the power of cool-headed, wily intelligence in the Squid Game and our capitalist society.
From the very first challenge of Red Light Green Light, while everyone (including Gi-hun) is freaking out, Sang-woo quickly develops a strategy.
Sang-woo: “I think that doll senses when you move around. You won’t get caught if you’re behind somebody else.”
Many of the players take time off between games to mentally escape, but Sang-woo’s mind is always “in the game” and actively working to get ahead. Already in the second game, Sang-woo starts doing something that’s crucial in both Squid Game and our society: jockeying for advantages outside of the actual game time.
Just as he gets that the game’s outcome can be decided outside of the literal game, one of Sang-woo’s most effective tactics is manipulating the other players. Often, that means making compelling arguments that helping him is in their interest.
Sang-woo: “You’re a defector, right? All the games they made us play in here are games I have known since I was a young boy.”
After Sae-byeok gives him a hint about the second game, and he’s able to guess what they’re going to play, Sang-woo makes the significant choice not to share what he knows with his supposed “team.”
And while the narrative positions this as a cold moment of Gi-hun’s friend betraying him, Sang-woo is aware that he’ll have to eliminate Gi-hun sooner or later in order to win, so logically, he shouldn’t give up any tactical advantage, however small.
Crucially, Sang-woo is one of only a few players who seems to clearly understand that everyone will die except one. His ability to look directly at the truth lets his mind function at full capacity even under the kind of life-and-death pressure that makes others’ minds panic and shut down—like when he leverages his cunning to help his team defeat a stronger one in Tug of War.
Willingness to confront reality is a form of strength, so it makes sense that it’s something he shares with the gangster Deok-Su, who represents the value of raw strength in the game. Arguably the biggest reason why the hardened Deok-Su makes it as far as he does is due to this same understanding of how ruthless one needs to be. Still, Deok-Su is not smart enough (his failure to understand how Mi-nyeo will react to his public betrayal of her leads to his death). Sang-woo is mentally agile, weaponizing his insights into others’ psychology against them—including their denial about the fact that winning means killing their friends. In the marble game, he tricks Ali (the player who represents the values of kindness and trust) with the lie that they could win together.
Sang-woo: “You and I can play as a team just like we planned from the start. You and I will get out of here.”
There’s an uncomfortable parallel between Sang-woo’s marble-game tactics and the real-life winners in capitalism: in most cases, these kinds of high-minded promises about win-wins thanks to a beautiful vision are empty. The Social Network tracks how the rise of Facebook was characterized by multiple betrayals of original players.
Eduardo: “It’s gonna be like I’m not a part of Facebook.”
Sean: “It won’t be like you’re not a part of Facebook. You’re not a part of Facebook.”
Ultimately, what makes Sang-woo the ultimate player of both Squid Game and capitalism is that he has killer instinct (something which other stories about high-stakes finance like Succession also suggest is all-important to getting obscenely wealthy).
After Sang-woo pushes one of the players during the Glass Stepping Stone Game, Gi-hun protests that they owed this player something for helping them get across,
Gi-hun: “The only reason you and I even made it is ‘cause he could tell the tiles apart.”
which recalls the logic that Ali fell for in the marbles game.
Sang-woo: “You only got this far ‘cause I was there.”
But for Sang-woo the bottom line of every man for himself must trump the temptation to let rhetoric about the “nice” thing to do weaken your resolve.
Why Gi-hun Doesn’t Have What It Takes (To His Credit)
Killer instinct is exactly the thing lacking in the eventual winner Gi-hun, who (to his credit) is actually not that good at playing the Squid Game.
Yes, he does have moments of impressive resourcefulness and he’s a natural at cultivating relationships, which can be a very important means of excelling in our society. But the biggest reason Gi-hun succeeds is that he’s lucky. And while it’s true that luck and randomness do play a huge role in capitalist success, in reality people get lucky very rarely, and aren’t rescued many times in a row like Gi-hun. When selecting his position for the Glass Stones Stepping Game, we hear inside his mess of a thought process,
Gi-hun: “Number 1? That means I’ll be starting the game off. Then should I go last? No, that seems wrong too”
before he’s randomly saved. Meanwhile, Sang-woo masterfully makes the perfect pick, placing himself near but not quite at the end.
Gi-hun is especially lucky in who he happens to befriend—the only other person who doesn’t have to die (Il-nam, the secret mastermind behind the games) as well as the best player, his childhood friend Sang-woo. Sang-woo and Il-nam deliver pretty much all of Gi-hun’s wins besides the honeycomb game: it’s Sang-woo’s advice that rouses Gi-hun from choking in the Red Light Green Light, Sang-woo’s and Il-nam’s strategies that get his team through Tug of War; Il-nam’s letting him win that allows him to survive Marbles, and as much as Gi-hun detests it, Sang-woo’s pushing the guy on the Glass Stepping Stone Game that saves him (because even with this, Gi-hun, the last player, only just makes it across in time). Gi-hun’s been able to avoid the hardest choices thanks to being allied with Sang-woo—who views Gi-hun’s sentimental, unrealistic naiveté as weakness.
Sang-woo: “You should be happy that there’s someone who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.”
Unlike Gi-hun, Sang-woo is not lucky. And when you’re not miraculously blessed, getting rich often entails some uglier actions. Like most actual winners of capitalism, Sang-woo is driven and motivated; he votes to stay, understands what he signed up for, and knows he wants this. Gi-hun initially votes to leave, in a “hero’s journey” moment of “refusing the call” and then tries to leave the Squid Game two more times (an instinct that, the story implies, makes him a more worthy human). But it’s unlikely that someone ends up uber-successful when they (like Gi-hun) repeatedly act against their own interest, lose their nerve or quit instead of following through.
Sang-woo: “You’re the reason that I had to kill her. I knew you two would stop all this, so she didn’t die in there.”
Even in the final “Squid Game” challenge, Gi-hun doesn’t want to kill for the win. So, faced with Gi-hun’s fundamental decency (or, failure to make tough calls, depending on how you look at it), Sang-woo once again does the dirty job for him. Even his final self-elimination is a tactical choice to the end—he knows he can use Gi-hun’s morality to achieve his main aim of getting money to his mother.
At the same time, in the final challenge when Gi-hun turns away after injuring but not killing his opponent, he’s functionally trusting in Sang-woo just like Ali did in the marbles game. It’s easy to imagine a version of the ending where Gi-hun is literally stabbed in the back by a still-breathing Sang-woo. And that ending would actually have made more sense in terms of the story’s messages about the Squid Game slash capitalism. It’s an amoral system that rewards underhanded, unemotional strategy. It’s a game that brings out the worst and—far from rewarding being a “selfless good guy”—punishes what’s human in us. (Even if the show didn’t want to go this dark in its ending, arguably Sae-Byok would have still made more sense than Gi-hun. This player who represents resilience—having escaped North Korea and endured a level of suffering that most couldn’t fathom—has a balance of Sang-woo’s realism and Gi-hun’s human values.)
Most of us watching might like to think that we would be as noble and selfless as Gi-hun, but as Squid Game notes repeatedly, we all need to survive—and that selfish survival instinct runs strongest in Sang-woo.
Sang-woo, the Modern “Capitalist Hero”
Ultimately, Sang-woo’s clear-eyed, cynical approach to the game mirrors the often zero-sum nature of our economy. And this cold-blooded, whatever-it-takes strategist is a more accurate reflection of what the masters of the Squid Game and winners of capitalism in our world are really like.
The things that the story suggests make Sang-woo undeserving of winning—taking advantage of someone who’s trusting and less cunning, and “eliminating” a potential competitor who threatens to harm his market—are extremely common in capitalism writ large. Real-life VIPS are fabulously wealthy not just due to their innovations but at least as much due to being notoriously ruthless.
The Front Man—a previous winner of the game—is also merciless, even willing to kill his own brother. And Sang-woo is similar (and a more appropriate heir) to the games’ creator Il-nam in a lot of ways.
Il-nam became wealthy through financial practices that Gi-hun sees as predatory,
Il-nam: “I earn… a living, lending out money.”
just as Sang-woo treated the financial system as a way to enrich oneself without regard for ethics.
Police officer: “He’s charged with forgery, embezzlement, crimes that are all… some form of financial fraud.”
Sang-woo’s self-centered motivations of evading jail and giving money to his mom also echo the common American capitalist ethos of providing for one’s family, but not necessarily caring about the well-being of many others you’re not close to.
Perhaps most tellingly, Sang-woo is a natural fit for the isolation and self-mythologizing of the rich. Both Il-nam and Sang-woo are disconnected from people, desensitized, and keep escalating, looking for bigger and bigger thrills.
Sang-woo: “It wasn’t just stocks now. There was futures too.”
Sang-woo is ultimately presented as a cautionary tale about the dangers of a realist approach to capitalism. He’s also an illustration of the sunk cost fallacy, through his belief that more suffering and death are needed to make the deaths of the 454 other players “worth it.”
Sang-woo: “That’s the price of being in here. And your wife and the others paid it with their lives. And you wanna go and leave?”
But in the end, Sang-woo realizes his central goal of ensuring that his mother will be rich. And in that respect, Sang-woo teaches us yet another lesson of capitalism: even when they lose, the cruelest people in the economy still find a way to get what they want.
Sang-woo: “It’s our lives we’re betting on right now. And we gotta win.”
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