I can best describe the emotional impact of “Gganbu,” the sixth episode of Squid Game, by sharing an early-morning exchange I had at the dog park a few weeks ago. A small group of us were talking about the series, and someone overheard and asked what episode we were talking about.
“Episode 6,” I said.
“Which one is that?” she asked.
“The marble one,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said. And then her soul left her body. Her dog stopped barking and lay down at her feet as her spirit rose past the trees and into the sky. Only a husk remained on this Earth, and her empty shell cast its eyes to the ground as she repeated the word again, like an echo of what was once alive. “Oh.”
I could relate. Before I watched Squid Game myself, I was part of a conversation about which of my friends would survive the series in real life. I was late to the series, but I thought the conversation tracked with familiar debates: Who would survive The Walking Dead, A Quiet Place, Bird Box, or any other show or movie with more people who died than survived? Basically, who was strong, smart, or clever enough to survive the winter—or at least strong, smart, or clever enough to outlast their peers? So I was honored when my name came up and it gave them pause.
“I don’t know, man,” my friend said. “Jordan is … pragmatic. He might make it out alive.”
I felt great hearing it, at the time. I am pragmatic. I would survive the winter. Not to get emotional, but I was honored. It was validating to be seen by others the way I see myself: a survivor.
And then I watched Squid Game.
In the last Humans Being, I asked readers to email me their thoughts on whether they could survive the games. My inbox was flooded with replies, but I was waiting for one particular kind: Some psychopath who would explain to me why they would win. It was inevitable—Humans Being is published on the internet, after all—so I kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting. One week later, though, it was still 100 percent responders who actually watched Squid Game and said that they wouldn’t last long, let alone survive. Which makes sense, because my readers are smart and empathetic people (you should join them by subscribing to the best newsletter you’ll ever find). I, on the other hand, found out that my friends think I’m a monster. I mean, they didn’t say I would win, but they didn’t exactly count me out, either.
But that self-reflection is my favorite part of engaging with a story. When a story is good enough, there comes a moment when you implicitly see yourself. And when a story is at its best, you’re forced to pay attention to the mirror it holds. That can feel rare when most broader stories often include circumstances that would rule us out of their central conflict. Take Squid Game itself, for example: Few of us would find ourselves there to begin with if we were given the same choices that its characters had.
But there’s one episode that comes at a perfect time in the series, after you’ve accepted its premise enough that it fades into the background. It’s “Gganbu,” and it distills the discomfort I felt in my friends’ suggestion that I could survive. And I think it’s the best episode of TV this year.
If you don’t think Squid Game is for you—particularly because of its violence—you should still watch “Gganbu.” The episode can function as a standalone if you have only basic knowledge of the series’ premise, and it’s significantly less violent than “Red Light, Green Light,” the episode that probably led you to stop watching in the first place.
The episode’s game is sinister in its simplicity: The characters are playing marbles, but they can do almost whatever they want to win. They can make up their own rules. They can lie, cheat, or otherwise manipulate their opponent. They can be honest, if they want, and leave their survival to chance. Anything goes, except violence. And for that hour, the circumstances of the plot are stripped away, and the only things that exist are the characters and their choices.
Or you and your choices. The beauty of “Gganbu” is that it’s easy to slip into its characters as the episode asks you how much you would weigh survival against being a good person. And if you’re honest with yourself, you might not like your own answer.
(For those who haven’t watched Squid Game yet, this is where I tell you to finish this paragraph and then skip the next two for more non-spoiler-y info like this week’s giveaway, a link to the happiest picture you’ll see all week, and my final nudge for nonsubscribers to go ahead and subscribe. Just look for the next triple asterisk closer to the bottom.)
If I didn’t like what my friends saw in me, I definitely didn’t like what I saw in myself when watching “Gganbu.” Not many of us would be the most endearing characters. Few of us would be Ji-Yeong, who made an honest calculation of her life’s promise compared with Sae-byeok’s, and chose Sae-byeok. Many of us would be Deok-su, hoping to change the rules in the middle of the game. Most of us would be Gi-hun, willing to lie if we had the chance. We would justify what needed to be justified: that our odds were infinitesimally greater than someone else’s, or that our life had more promise, or that we simply mattered more.
Gi-hun had to face who he was. Il-nam showed it to him, Gi-hun had to live with what he saw, and then we had to live with that, too. The only person we wouldn’t be is Ali, which is my main criticism of the episode. Ali was so naive that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to see themselves in him.
“Gganbu” is no doubt depressing, but worth watching despite the discomfort; it matters especially because of the discomfort. Many of us were taught to value the merits of a bold person getting ahead in life, but you might reexamine what “getting ahead” can cost when the result is simplified to life and death.
If you’re interested in watching that single episode, I hope you do. And if you plan to get into more South Korean dramas, as I have, here’s a great list of options to help you choose, along with an explanation of the difference between captions and subtitles when it comes to translations. As they say, the next game will begin shortly.
Thank you to the thousands of people who subscribe to this newsletter, and an extra thank you to those who shared Humans Being with a friend or dropped me an email with their thoughts. So far I’ve responded to every single one, including a delightful reader named Rose, who insisted that I’m busy and should stop wasting my time by replying, but you won’t win this battle, Rose; I’ll keep replying because I want to be your friend and you can’t stop me. But my favorite email this week came from a “Retired White Jewish gastroenterologist” named David who simply wrote: “I’m not black and I know nothing about the squid game. Where do I start?” That’s the kind of intrepid spirit that can solve one of those problems, so I told him where to start watching Squid Game, and he did.
For everyone who’s stuck around this long, this week’s giveaway is something to offset the sadness of “Gganbu”: The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. If you’re interested, send me a short email saying whether you’ve ever spent a Thanksgiving alone before, and I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. If you want an idea of your odds, last week’s winner of Black Nerd Problems: Essays was Priyam, who emailed me about two or three minutes after the publish time. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun. And if you’re reading Humans Being for the first time: I hope you’ll stick around—this only takes a second, so it’s a low-effort task with a high reward. Like these pictures: Here’s me, as what I can promise is the happiest person you’ll see all week. More on that later.
Until then, 67 days until Saga returns. I wasn’t joking about the countdown.