Caution: This article contains major spoilers for the entirety of Squid Game!
After being released on September 17th, 2021, Netflix’s Squid Game quickly exploded in popularity, reaching massive acclaim worldwide. It is not hard to see why. The show offers a stark criticism of capitalism bundled up in the story of a killing game where 456 players must compete in children’s games to survive. Of course, its success has brought about many discussions from its watchers. A particular point of contention is that of Cho Sang Woo, the secondary male lead of the show.
Through his actions in the show, Sang Woo has quickly become a polarizing figure, one people either love or hate. Yet contrary to common belief, Sang Woo does not start out ‘evil’. Episode 1 Sang Woo would not do the things that Episode 9 Sang Woo does. His character is a result of a slow moral decay spurred on by the events of the Squid Game. Episode by episode, this editorial analyzes his character arc, showcasing how and why Sang Woo ended up the way he did.
Desensitization and Dehumanization in Squid Game
Before going into Sang Woo’s character, it is important to understand how the Squid Game and its trial structure is built purposefully to desensitize the contestants to death and killing.
Pre-Game: This begins from the moment the contestants are brought in and assigned numbers. From then, although the players may refer to each other by name (a rare occurrence), the game will always use their number. In doing so, the Squid Game is removing a key trait that makes humans human and reduces them to just another number. It creates an emotional distance between the players, a first major step in acclimatizing them to senseless violence.
Games One and Two: The first two games continue this, wherein it becomes clear that if a player reacts to those dying around them, they are more likely to die. In ‘Red Light, Green Light’, those who react in horror or go to check on the dead are shot for moving themselves. Players must deliberately avoid and ignore the corpses around them if they wish to survive. By the ‘Dalgona’ game in Episode 3, it can be seen that players are already reacting to death far less. When player 369 is the first to break his honeycomb and subsequently killed, people pause momentarily but then go back to their own candy – a stark divergence from the screaming and terror of ‘Red Light, Green Light.’ Likewise, some of those who did react, such as by flinching, or looking up from their dalgona, immediately break their shape resulting in their own deaths. As such, the first two games build a very explicit message: those who react to deaths will be punished for it.
Night-Fight: In Episode 4, the guards explain that food is being rationed to purposefully create tension between the players. In the immediate aftermath, Jang Deok Soo (Number 101) kills another contestant. This is the first moment that shows players that violence amongst themselves is permissible, leading to the bloodbath at night. Those who do not participate must still protect themselves, reiterating the point that self-safety comes before all else in the game.
Game Three: While some players snap and kill others here, the large majority do not continue to be subject to desensitization. ‘Tug of War’ in Episode 4 and 5 is the first game that pits players against one another. In order to survive, the other team must die, and although the players are not wielding the weapons themselves, their actions will lead to others’ deaths. They are forced indirectly to kill to live, a step up from being taught to ignore the deaths of those around them.
Game Four: The Episode 6 ‘Marble Game’ heightens this even more by pitting the contests against those they had formed teams and bonds with. While ‘Tug of War’ was teams fighting against all but strangers, the ‘Marble Game’ exploits relationships that had been formed. Contestants must not only indirectly kill; they must indirectly kill those they know. It is another escalation from the Squid Game.
Game Five: Thus, by the time the Episode 7 game rolls around, players have been taught that others must die for their survival. Not only that, they have been encouraged to kill and have already faced a game where they have to sacrifice their friends to survive. This all comes to a head in the ‘Glass’ game, which for the first time, sees players directly killing others for survival in one of the games. The game implements pressure through a time limit, further increasing tension and lowering inhibitions against violence.
Game Six: This slow escalation of violence culminates in the desensitization of death for the ‘Squid Game’, a game that is held last because of how brutal it can be. The choice of games and their order is not random; it is a deliberate choice of the ‘Squid Game’ organizers to make contestants numb to death. It slowly breaks down their mental and moral barriers to a point where almost all players are willing to perpetuate harm themselves.
The Moral Corruption of Sang Woo
Sang Woo is particularly susceptible to this, and his moral decay throughout the games is a direct result of this structuring.
Pre-Game: This is because Sang Woo – contrary to Ali, for example – already starts from the point of self-preservation and grey morality. In Episode 2, it is shown that Sang Woo is in debt because he embezzled money (amongst other financial crimes), even using his mother’s shop for collateral. He is – by all means – not a good person. However, he is not one who would kill others for money.
Episodes 1 and 2: These glimpses of kindness in Sang Woo can be seen in two major instances in Episodes 1 and 2. In Episode 1, he shares his strategy in defeating ‘Red Light, Green Light’ with Gi Hun, thus helping Gi Hun survive. Interestingly enough, this strategy of hiding behind someone to avoid the motion sensors also further perpetuates his willingness to sacrifice others for himself. The second instance is in Episode 2, where Sang Woo lends Ali money for the bus home when he himself is in mountains of debt.
Episode 2 also offers the audience insight into the driving force behind Sang Woo (and most contestants). He is the first one who brings up voting so the contestants can live but switches his mind when he sees the cash prize. Money is more important to him than his life, as is shown by his intentions to kill himself once they were released from the ‘Squid Game’. Sang Woo is desperate, and he will do whatever it takes to not go back to that life when given a second chance.
Episode 3: From here, his remaining morality begins to get corrupted, losing out in favor of his drive to win and his self-preservation. This is seen immediately in his actions of the first game versus the second. In Episode 3, upon realizing what the second game most likely is, Sang Woo keeps this information to himself. He even withholds it from Gi Hun, someone he has known since childhood. Yet this is not Sang Woo trying to direct Gi Hun towards his death. Sang Woo has a hunch of what the game is; he is not 100% sure, which is why he is still relieved when he opens his dalgona case and sees that he is correct. Sharing his information certainly would have helped, but he is not yet thinking of actively letting others die, he is only thinking of himself.
Episodes 4 and 5: This is why, when given the chance in Episode 4 during the night fight, Sang Woo does not kill anyone. In fact, he saves Gi Hun from an attack by another player. If Sang Woo was truly selfish at this point, he would not have done such a thing. Sang Woo is more concerned with protecting himself alongside the other members of his group than harming other players. It is a defensive action, not an offensive one. Compared to the mindset of Number 101, who directly states that he is killing others to “make it easier”, this shows that Sang Woo is not yet thinking of such a thing.
Sang Woo’s self-preservation continues to be evident when players must form teams of 10 for tug of war. He is willing to decline people who ask to join if he thinks they will not help. Sang Woo is only looking for players to join that increase his chance of survival; he does not care about what will happen to those he rejects.
Episode 6: A large turning point in Sang Woo’s character comes in Episode 6 with the ‘Marble Game’. Sang Woo must play against Ali, and although Ali takes all of Sang Woo’s marbles, Sang Woo manipulates Ali, letting him die. This is such a pivotal moment for both Sang Woo and audiences because of two main reasons. 1) Sang Woo and Ali have been built up to have a fairly strong bond. Sang Woo helped Ali when they were outside the game, while Ali kept watching with him and even offered him food within the Squid Game. 2) There is a large juxtaposition between Ali and Sang Woo’s characters.
Compared to Sang Woo, who is one of the characters who largely thinks about himself, Ali is one of the most selfless characters. He is in debt not because of his own actions but those of people around him. Likewise, he only wants money to help his family, and he often helps other players. This makes Sang Woo’s betrayal all the more impactful. It is a moment where Sang Woo knows Ali will be easy to manipulate because of his kind character and quickly exploits it.
This is also in direct contrast to the actions of Ji Yeong (No. 240) with Kang Sae Byeok. Ji Yeong realizes that Sae Byeok has more to live for than her and sacrifices her life so that Sae Byeok can move on. Sang Woo is someone who has far less to live for than Ali (Sang Woo was planning on killing himself upon release, Ali has a family waiting for him), yet he is not willing to sacrifice himself. It shows the audience that there are still people in the game who do think of others and that Sang Woo is not one of these people. He has a strong want to live (or rather to win), and he is prepared to sacrifice Ali to do so. He still shows remorse for this moment, in being unable to face Ali while he dies, but his reaction is far muted for someone who just lost a friend.
Episode 7: It shows just how corrupted Sang Woo has become from the first game, which from this moment continues to decay at a rapid rate. Episode 7 offers a moment where Sang Woo tries to justify his actions when No. 69 yells at everyone following the marble game. He asks how they can still call themselves human after killing the one they were closest to, to which Sang Woo replies very harshly. He states that those who die will not come back to life, that they will not be forgiven for their actions, but it is better to keep competing for money than to go back empty-handed with nothing but guilt. As such, Sang Woo admits to feeling guilt at Ali’s death, but it is outweighed by his want for the money, which promises a better life.
Episode 7 also marks the moment Sang Woo directly kills another player, when he pushes player number 17 through the glass upon realizing that there is hardly any time left. While he may justify this by saying there was no time left – which is correct as Gi Hun barely reached the end – the truth is that he has murdered a man. Unlike with Ali, he does not show remorse, even stating at the beginning of Episode 8 that he is alive because he has tried hard to do so. When confronted by Gi Hun with the fact that he did indeed just kill someone, Sang Woo responds that it does not matter because they have to kill everyone to win anyways. It is a pivotal moment where Sang Woo’s morality has all but disappeared.
Episodes 8 and 9: This persists further in Episode 8 when Sang Woo kills Sae Byeok. Although partially prompted to do so, having been given a knife by the guards, it was a completely unnecessary act. As it happened outside of the games, there is no justification for this moment. Sang Woo did not have to kill Sae Byeok to survive; he only did so to increase his chances of going into the final game. Yet, at this point, his self-preservation, desensitization, and loss of morality are so strong that he does not see what he did wrong. In fact, he says that he had to do it so Gi Hun would not vote to stop the game.
His need to win and his want for money has corrupted him beyond repair. So much so that even when given a chance to live while on his deathbed, he would rather die than do so. Sang Woo has a moment of clarity of just how far he has fallen, apologizing for his actions before fittingly giving himself a fatal wound. In his last breaths, he asks for his mom to be looked after, a glimpse into the person he used to be.
Sang Woo’s actions on their own are enough to set him up as one of the most hated characters on the show. Yet his decay in morality driven by a need for money and selfishness is particularly stark in contrast to Gi Hun’s character arc. From the start, the two have always been set up to be compared, what with Gi Hun living in the shadow of his supposedly far more successful childhood friend. They begin at similar points of morality, too, having both chosen money over their loved ones. However, Gi Hun maintains this kinder set of morals throughout the games. He constantly helps others, only harming when absolutely necessary, and is unable to kill. It makes Sang Woo’s descent into immorality all the more obvious.
In the end, Sang Woo was the perfect product of a game designed to break down one’s humanity. Spurred on by his want for a better, debt-free life, Sang Woo slowly lost any inhibitions he had when first entering the Squid Game. His selfishness, combined with his situation, quickly led him down a terrible path, resulting in a complete moral decay of his character. One that – when compared to other characters on the show – is so heavy it has led to Sang Woo becoming perhaps the most polarizing character in Squid Game.
*image credits for the article thumbnail belong to its original owner Slate Magazine, sourced from Google