Netflix’s Squid Game has taken the world by storm becoming the most viewed series on the streaming platform ever. According to The Guardian 142 million households have watched it so far, with the company adding a staggering 8.5 million new subscribers for the quarter. While there have been many explanations as to the show’s popularity—violent voyeurism, poverty porn and existential angst during a global pandemic—most are overlooking one of the show’s most intriguing fan theories: fatherlessness.
Spoiler Alert: the series brilliantly foreshadows the deaths of nearly all of the major characters during episode 2. For example, Song-woo deceptively takes Ali’s marbles just as Ali had taken from his boss. The gangster Deok-su jumps from a bridge to escape from other criminals whom he is indebted too and is subsequently thrown from a bridge by a woman he has betrayed. Sae-byeok earlier threatens people with a knife to the throat and later has her own throat slit. Sang-woo contemplates suicide in a bathtub only to later take his own life in the rain. And finally, Gi-hun swears on his mother’s life, only to find after the game that she has died.
But with regard to the father-son theory, the evidence is as follows:
- Gi-hun (player 456) says that he couldn’t digest ordinary milk and the Old Man (player 001) says that he was just like his son.
- Both characters say that the alley way reminded them of their childhood. Indeed, the house where the Old Man is ‘executed’ would have been their family home.
- Gi-hun’s birthday is 0426, which, according to the international form of dating, would make his birthday the 26th of April. But then during the marble game, in which the Old Man pretends to have dementia, he asks Gi-hun what day it is because if it’s the 24th then it’s his son’s birthday soon.
- When Gi-hun first meets the Old Man, he recognises that he is the last contestant chosen (player 456) whereas the Old Man is the first (play 001). Significantly, the Old Man says that he knew that already. When Gi-hun rebukes the Old Man that he should be home having his daughter-in-law cook for him, the Old Man immediately responds with the probing question of whether both of Gi-hun’s parents get their food cooked for them by their daughter-in-law? The viewer knows that this doesn’t happen as Gi-hun has been divorced…
- After the first game, “Red Light, Green Light”, the contestants vote to stop the game. With the voting tied, the final decision comes down to the Old Man. While it seems that he personally wants to keep playing, he decides not too out of support for what Gi-hun clearly wishes.
- The Old Man just “happens” to run into Gi-hun outside of the game. This seems to be more than a chance encounter though as Gi-hun is genuinely surprised to see him in his district (we later learn that the Old Man lives in a much wealthier suburb). They share a meal and drink together during which the Old Man convinces Gi-hun to re-enter the game.
- Gi-hun and the Old Man are given a very simple type of lunch and they both remember having them before with great fondness. Gi-hun in particular comments on how his mother made this exact type of meal.
- When it came time to reveal their real names to one another in the game—after one especially violent night of mayhem—the Old Man seems to suddenly suffer from memory loss, thus concealing his real identity from Gi-hun.
- As Gi-hun stays awake one night on watch, he has flash backs of a violent workers strike he was a part of. Significantly, the Old Man says that he had heard about it, and then immediately starts to suffer from the effects of his brain tumour. Later that night the Old Man wet himself and Gi-hun covers him with his own jacket to hide his embarrassment. In return, the Old Man gives Gi-hun his own jacket.
- In the episode Ghangbu (Korean, “Good Friend”) the Old Man and Gi-hun are paired with each other. There has been quite a bit of regarding the term Ghangbu, since the subtitle translates the dialogue as saying, “We share everything”, but as Youngmi Mayer has explained, it should more accurately be translated as, “There is no ownership between you and me”. If the Old Man and Gi-hun truly are father and son then this statement would take on a whole new level of significance.
- The Old Man subsequently beats Gi-hun in the game of marbles, which means that Gi-hun should have been executed. But the Old Man threw his son a life-line by pretending to have memory loss so that they could keep on playing the game. Ultimately, this will result in the Old Man giving up his life for his estranged son.
- Finally, it’s at this point that the Old Man reveals that his real name is, Oh Il-nam, which can be translated as “First Man”. He also tells Gi-hun how much he enjoyed watching his own son play in the past and the good times they had…which is why he insists that the end of the game takes place in a replica of the family home.
On a practical level, the whole reason for this could not just be so that the Old Man could reminisce on the good times he had as a family man before the lure of wealth led him away, that as he says on his death bed, he could have some ‘fun’. But the Squid Game was also a way that the Old Man could give Gi-hun his inheritance. A way of even earning the money which he had amassed, but never shared with his wife and son who were forced to live in poverty. This might seem sadistic and cruel, but Gi-hun had mistreated his own mother in a similar way by gambling away her hard-earned finances.
On something of a side-note, the theory is further strengthened when one observes that Gi-hun’s number in the game is 456. The prize money he wins at the horse races is $4, 560,000 won. But at the end of the game, Gi-hun wins $45.6 billion won. This is all the more significant when you observe that the life of each player was worth $100 million won. But when all the players return to the game the prize money remains unchanged.
Ultimately, Squid Game addresses the existential question of identity, and especially that of the negative impact which fatherlessness has. Gi-hun and his mother are trapped in hopeless poverty. What’s more, the viewer is never told what happened to Gi-hun’s father. Did he die, or simply leave? Gi-hun’s marriage has tragically ended in divorce just like his parent’s. The same cycle of abuse just keeps on repeating.
All of which is to say, Squid Game speaks to one of the deepest of personal tragedies, and that is the negative effect of not knowing one’s biological father. In his book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Ignatius Press, 1999), Paul C. Vitz argues that it is the absence of fathers which drives the psychological compulsion behind atheism. This could be because the father has died, or was abusive or weak. But Vitz makes a compelling case by compiling an historical survey of major, minor and contemporary atheists, none of whom had a strong and healthy relationship with their fathers.
While a fictional story, Squid Game highlights the same scenario. Not just for the lead character of Gi-hun, but for the majority of minor characters as well. Without question, the most harrowing example is that of named Ji-yeong. This gentle, young woman has lost all purpose and hope after killing her abusive father who also happened to be a pastor. This caused Ji-yeong to lose faith in God, and she openly mocks another player who prays during the contest.
But Ji-yeong’s situation is really a microcosm of everyone else’s, especially that of Gi-hun. Significantly, the Bible exhorts fathers in particular to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord and not to embitter them. Mothers obviously have a massive role to play as well. But it’s fathers who must take the ultimate responsibility.
If you can look beyond the violence and gore—which is more cartoonish than real—Squid Game is a morality tale. Or maybe that should be, an immorality tale. As David Robertson writes:
“Squid Game is a morality tale but one that offers no answers. And it is an accurate, if exaggerated picture of our world where Covid, climate change and the culture wars are now increasing the gap between rich and poor. The irony is that while it makes the corporate capitalist big bosses the villains of the piece, Netflix itself is one of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. The show laments using the death of the poor for entertainment of the rich, yet that is precisely what this show itself does. Squid Game cost $30 million to make and is now estimated to be worth $1.3 billion. There is money in poverty porn and violence.”
Ultimately though, Squid Game illustrates the disastrous impact than an absent or abusive father will have on an individual’s well-being. Yes, there are multiple problems in the world: rising house-hold debt as well as an ever-increasing disparity between rich and poor. But what Squid Game ultimately shows is that no amount of money can compensate for a loving and engaged father.
– Mark Powell
The Minister at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Hobart