The Hero’s Journey of Squid Game


I have read a handful of comments online vaguely complaining that the ending of Squid Game. The ones that have gone into more detail complain about the last scene in which Seung Gi-Hun decides not to board a plane to visit his daughter in America, instead deciding to go back and confront the system which upholds the Game.

At first, I had just taken these objections to the ending as a bit of a parasocial reaction to the events of the series. They’ve come to like Gi-Hun, thinking of him like a friend; they want what’s best for him. After all the suffering he’s undergone, it’s hard to disagree. He’s a nice guy who has gone through a lot of trauma, and he deserves a happy ending in which he can be reunited with his daughter. But at that point in the series, I think him deciding to confront the system which ruined his life is the most fitting conclusion to this story. He has changed on a fundamental level.

There are a lot of elements in the Hero’s Journey story structure, but the one that always interests me is the way that a Hero returns at the end of their journey, finding himself changed to the point where they cannot comfortably exist in their old lives. The best example of this particular trope would have to be the end of Return of the King. Thinking about Squid Game and how going into the Game changes the protagonists, Gi-Hun in particular, really contextualizes the decisions they make.

After the first game, the majority of players vote to end the game. They’re horrified by the carnage they’ve seen, and decide that no quantity of money is worth taking part in it. But, once they’re returned to the world outside, they find their problems are still there. Sang-woo finds a warrant for his arrest, Ali is in trouble with his boss, Deok-su finds other members of his gang are still actively pursuing him. But Gi-hun’s return is distressing. His daughter is being taken away from him and his mother is dying. His first return to the outside world makes him want to reenter the Game because his need for money has become even more dire.

Here, he decides to risk his life and possibly do something terrible for the benefit of his daughter and his mother. If all 207 surviving players made the decision not to partake in the Game, society is less violent and better off. By partaking in the Game, Gi-hun and the other returning players make a decision that is bad for the broader world, but potentially good for them and their family.

On the other hand, after Gi-hun wins, and returns to the outside world, he’s changed. It’s the final step in all of the best Hero’s Journey stories; his journey has changed him so dramatically that he can’t truly go back to the way things were. Now obviously, that’s true because his mom died and his daughter has been taken to the US, but also he’s changed in a more profound way.

So, when Gi-hun makes the decision not to go to his daughter and instead dismantle the Game, we see the inverse of the earlier decision he and the other players made in returning to the Game. Now, he sacrifices something personally good for him, and instead chooses to do something good for society as a whole.

The other objection to Gi-Hun getting off the plane is that it feels like too much of a cliffhanger. As though it says “to be continued” in such a way that cheats the story. As though this is just them having Gi-Hun making a decision that is supposedly out of character just to start off a second season without actually ending the story. But I would argue that not only is this decision in line with the arc that Gi-Hun has had up to this point, and that him making the decision is a monumental act for Gi-Hun, and the perfect point to conclude the first season.

I think that even if the conversation between Gi-hun and Oh Il-nam might have been a bit long-winded and boring for some, (personally, I liked it) I felt as if this episode made for a fitting conclusion to the first season and was exciting enough on its own. I’m not exactly sure where a second season would go from here. A few years back, I wrote a post about how Westworld’s first season finale was also simultaneously the perfect cliffhanger and conclusion, and ultimately the second season had difficulty living up to the first. But for now, all we can do is wait for Squid Game to come back.

In the meantime, if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here reading poorly-conceived clickbait about how Squid Game is a critique of communism, not capitalism.

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