Squid Game’s Most Heartbreaking Hour is Also Its Best

Squid Game is consistently great across its nine episodes, but one hour stands above the rest.

The competitors in Squid Game enter the arena to play Round 4
Photo: Netflix

This Squid Game article includes MAJOR spoilers for all nine episodes of the series, including Episode 6.

“Gganbu” isn’t the Squid Game episode with the highest kill count. It’s not the episode when we finally discover the man behind the deadly competition, or its ultimate winner. It is not the most fast-paced or action-driven of the Netflix series’ nine installments, nor is it the bloodiest. Instead, it is a relatively quiet hour that divides its characters into teams of two, with each pair acting as their own mini-social experiment. If the “deadly competition” trope is designed to reflect on the inherent goodness or not of humanity, then Squid Game‘s most articulate answer to the question of what humans will or will not do to survive comes in “Gganbu,” and it is as nuanced as it is heartrending.

What Happens in “Gganbu”?

“Gganbu” concerns itself with the events of Round 4. Before the next, mysterious competition begins, the remaining players are asked to pair up, unaware of how the structure might come into play. Once they have chosen partners, they enter a massive room designed to look like a traditional Korean village. Each player is given a bag with 10 marbles, and instructed to play a game of their choosing with their partner. After 30 minutes, whoever has won the game, and all of their partner’s marbles, will pass the round and survive. The loser will be “eliminated.” This is the round when characters we have come to care about start dying…

This is also the episode that gives the most time to a round of a competition. Episode 7, “VIPs,” comes close with its depiction of Round Five’s bridge of glass, but the narrative focus is split between the competitors and the disgustingly rich men who have come to watch. In “Gganbu,” there is no such split focus. The players begin choosing their characters around the four-minute mark, and they enter the playing arena at around the 13-minute mark. This is where they will stay until the end of the episode, which means the viewer experiences Round 4 in what is, more or less, real time. “Gganbu” makes use of every bit of it.

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Can any of these players hold on to any scrap of their humanity when they have been manipulated into Squid Game? This is the question the “deadly competition” trope seeks to explore and, sometimes, answer. Squid Game doesn’t opt for one definitive answer, but rather a more complicated and nuanced one. It does this by giving us four clear, varied scenarios to see this theme played out.

Deok-su vs. Ja-hyoung

First, we have our duo with the least surprising thematic outcome: gangster Deok-su and henchman Ja-hyoung. Unlike Sang-woo, these two have rarely pretended to prioritize anything over their own survival and accumulation of power. When Deok-su betrays Mi-nyeo, leaving her to her presumed death again and again rather than risking his own survival by teaming up with her, it’s expected. Past that, there is little artifice to Deok-su’s games with Ja-hyoung. Ja-hyoung has dropped the act that he will obey Deok-su’s orders without question, but not even Deok-su is surprised by that. After all, he lives his life without the comfort of human connection, solely trusting in violence and money as security—why should he expect anything else from his social circle? What’s most interesting here is the game stipulation that says Deok-su cannot use violence to win the marbles. This puts Deok-su at a disadvantage because violence has always been how he exerts power. While Deok-su ultimately wins, this is the most unsettled we’ve seen him up to this point, and a reminder that even violence has its limits when it comes to ensuring survival.

Sang-woo vs. Ali

Lying can be a form of subtle violence, and it’s one that Sang-woo has demonstrated himself very capable of since the beginning of Squid Game, most notably when he chose to knowingly send his “teammates,” including childhood friend Gi-hun, to the harder dalgona challenges in Round 2. If you’ve been paying attention to Sang-woo, then his betrayal of Ali isn’t particularly surprising, but it cuts much deeper. That is because, while the viewer may not be shocked that Sang-woo would trick Ali to his death to save himself, Ali is. While this characterization didn’t always work for me—I think Ali would be more discerning as a 33-year-old immigrant who has been screwed over before—it works on an emotional and thematic level. Ali is depicted as the most innocent character within the game; he is almost child-like in his portrayal. To see Sang-woo take advantage of that innocence is upsetting. It may be tempting to see Ali as a passive player in this game, but that’s not how I view him. To me, believing in the goodness of others, and taking a chance on the relationships you have built is not only an active decision, but one of the bravest ones—an action that Deok-su and Sang-woo are much too cowardly to ever take themselves.

Gi-hun vs. Il-nam

While Gi-hun may struggle to play “fair” against Il-nam when his own survival is at stake, it’s all in the context of Gi-hun’s first major decision in this episode: to take Il-nam as his teammate. When the partner requirement is announced, Gi-hun initially goes to seek a more able-bodied contestant—and he has some good options. However, when someone points out that there is an uneven number of people and makes the assumption that the odd man out will be killed, Gi-hun sacrifices the edge a more physically able teammate might give him in order to make sure Il-nam doesn’t die. In this episode, Gi-hun hits peak aspirational relatability. He is the kind of player, the kind of human, we would like to believe ourselves to be. He’s relatable in that, when Il-nam’s apparent dementia gives him the chance to avoid losing, he takes it; he wants to survive. He’s aspirational in that, when faced with entering Round 4 in the first place, he chose friendship and compassion over the presumed competitive edge. It’s not the first time we’ve seen him make that decision, and it won’t be the last.

Ultimately, the outcome of “Gganbu”‘s contest between Gi-hun and Il-nam hits different once you’ve seen the ending of the season, and the Oh Il-nam twist. Il-nam doesn’t die here. In many ways, Il-nam’s arc in this episode foreshadows that reveal. For most of the episode, we and Gi-hun are led to believe that Il-nam doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. Then, with only minutes left in the round, Il-nam reveals to Gi-hun that he knows Gi-hun has been tricking him, using his apparent memory problems against him to ensure he isn’t taken out of the game. It’s a manipulation not unlike the larger manipulations of the game in the sense that Il-nam has so much more power than Gi-hun, and is using that power to play with him and see what he will do. It’s cruel because it is dishonest. Watching this the first time, Il-nam’s decision to let Gi-hun win is a powerful one, and it disappoints that the Il-nam plot twist retroactively undercuts that narrative choice. That being said, the playing out of this dynamic—both a first and second time—helps to give us a complex, nuanced view of humanity.

Sae-byeok vs. Ji-yeong

While most of the players spend their half hour playing marbles to the death, Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong choose to “enjoy” what will be the final 30 minutes of one of their lives. This decision alone is a thematically impactful one: it treats life as precious. By using that 30 minutes to share their secrets with one another, they are choosing humanity’s capacity for togetherness and connection over humanity’s capacity for violence and desperation. They tell stories about the pain they have endured, and trade dreams about a future only one of them (and then neither of them) will have. While some, especially during an initial watch, may think the “Gganbu” of the title refers to the friendship between Gi-hun and Il-nam, I think it refers to the connection between Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong. If a gganbu is, as Il-nam describes it: “a good friend, one you trust a lot [and] you share things with,” then Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong become gganbu over the course of this hour of television.

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In the end, Ji-yeong decides to let her gganbu, Sae-byeok, win. If Deok-su and Sang-woo represent the worst of humanity’s capacity for selfishness, then Sae-byeok and especially Ji-yeong represent humanity’s capacity for hope. And, unlike so many stories in this subgenre, Squid Game treats Ji-yeong’s act of desperate hope as just as likely as Deok-su or Sang-woo’s desperate acts of self-interest.

Humanity is not a monolith. Some of us make selfish decisions and some of us make selfless ones. Usually, it’s a combination of both. Squid Game neither wholly condemns humanity, nor wholly celebrates it; instead, it goes for something in-between, with an eye towards hope. While other episodes in Squid Game‘s first season concern themselves with a criticism of how society allows the ultra-powerful few to make decisions about the value of human life, “Gganbu”‘s ambitions are simultaneously simpler and much more ambitious: It chooses to depict the most powerful and affecting act not as a show of violence, but rather as a quiet gift of friendship and the sharing of one’s own name. As a result, “Gganbu” is Squid Game at its absolute best.

What is your favorite episode of Squid Game? Let us know in the comments below.


5 out of 5