Squid Game: The Challenge Recap: Collective Organizing and Its Discontents

Squid Game: The Challenge

Episodes 6-8
Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

Squid Game: The Challenge

Episodes 6-8
Season 1 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

This recap covers episodes six, seven, and eight, “Goodbye,” “Friend and Foe,” and “One Step Closer.”

Back when Squid Game came out, it was the marble game that people tended to bring up when talking about the show at the time. (That happens in episode six, “Gganbu,” in case you’re wondering.) This made sense to me. The sequence is textbook K-drama stuff, with the show using the scenario to twist the dramatic knife and extract a particular feeling of tragi-melancholy the genre specializes in. The pain is the pleasure and perhaps the point: When the surviving characters emerge from the artificial village, they do so having been directly responsible for the death of another person. That pushes them to fully buy into their endgames if they weren’t already bought in.

Something similar happens in “Goodbye.” Once again, nobody dies in this reality show, obviously, but the players find themselves in a situation where they are directly responsible for ending someone else’s chance at life-changing money. Often, it’s a person with whom they possess a genuinely strong relationship, having been tricked into pairing up for the picnic. And so when they come out the other side, they carry something resembling survivor’s guilt. This has downstream effects. Perhaps they are now likely to be more vicious toward people not deemed “on their side.” Perhaps they are less likely to see other players as full people.

Much like the preamble to the Dalgona challenge, the pairs are left to devise their own game using marbles to decide who makes it through. Because the time limit is fairly long, this also turns out to be a moment where some pairs communicate their personal stakes to each other. This, too, is something of an adaptational thread: In Squid Game, one character decides to sacrifice herself after determining the other person has more to live for.

For the most part, this is where Squid Game: The Challenge cashes in on many of the characters and relationships it’s been developing. Mother-son duo Trey (301) and LeAnn (302) get emotionally squared away before facing off. She tells him that she’s rediscovered a huge part of herself through the experience. “I just want to be the best at something,” he says, which we learn from a later confessional is rooted in hailing from a family of apparently hypercompetitive, stone-cold killers, which his mother embodies. LeAnn loses to Trey, and he moves to the next stage. Phalisia (229) and Ashley (278), who have developed a very tight bond in the game, grapple with the cruelty of being forced to compete with each other. Both are intimately aware of what the other stands to gain. Phalisia loses; “I wasn’t supposed to win,” says Ashley. Mai (287) and Jada (97, i.e., the phone-test Hamburgler) swap their own respective stakes before squaring off; Mai wins and tells her younger partner not to give up in life. Fellow members of the Corner, Mikie (254) and Kyle (87), decide to wait until the very last moments before playing their game. It’s sweet seeing two dudes squeezing out as much time as they can to be around each other. Mikie wins and progresses. Two remnants of the Gganbu gang, Dan (204) and Player 209, face off by tossing marbles into a bucket, and Dan prevails. Brad (337), who had successfully led his Warship team over Bryton’s (432), loses to Phill (451). Bee (18), Coach TJ (182), and Chad (286) are among the others who also make it through.

Not all pairs walk in bonded with each other, though, which is how we have a situation where Player 382, Tim, ends up accusing Jackie (393) of weaponizing her hearing loss to extract sympathy from him in a competitive setting. (A bizarre accusation, rendered even weirder by his choice to publicly make it on international streaming television.) He loses, karmically. Elsewhere, Player 65 refuses to compromise with Player 399 on a game he deems sufficiently equitable; both are ultimately eliminated.

Back in the dorm, the mood is grim, save for a sheepish Jordan (222), a.k.a. Young Hulk Hogan, who skipped the Marbles sequence due to being left alone for the picnic. Sometimes it pays to be left high and dry! Everyone’s depleted when it’s time for the tally: Thirty-one players remain since 32 were eliminated. The pot is now $4.25 million.

Downtime is usually where the show tries to slot in fresh confessionals to develop characters, and this instance proves no different. This is how we learn about Mai’s background as a Vietnam War refugee, which she recounts through a particularly chilling childhood anecdote. This is also how we are introduced to Hallie (355), whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, and Sam (16), who’s hard not to notice in the background due to his impressive beard and cool, calm eyes.

It isn’t long before the grim-cheery announcer cuts in to set up the next test, for which they are prompted to choose a captain. True to his character, Coach TJ volunteers himself. The guy has cultivated quite a bit of social capital in the dorm, and many players get behind him … but not all. Chad isn’t too pleased when he learns about this development when he rouses from his nap. His displeasure is shared by his buddy Mai, who perceives Coach TJ as an entertainer and, therefore, someone who can’t inherently be trusted. (Honestly, understandable.) Gganbu Gang Dan overhears this fomenting dissent and tries to inch in with Chad. A few others are annoyed as well, a sense that’s only accentuated when Coach TJ convenes a prayer circle at the center of the room. I don’t know. If I were TJ, I would’ve opted for a more secular method to decompress. A yoga circle maybe?

In the ranks of the annoyed are Bee and Amanda, who bristle at the maleness of Coach TJ’s demeanor as a leader. This precipitates the emergence of a feminist movement within the dormitory. Assessing the mismatch in numbers — just 9 women remain, against 22 men — along with the ways the men take up space, naturally align with each other, and ambiently discount the women, a handful of the women work to get the coalition going. Will the solidarity hold?

Time for the test. The premise is a daisy chain designed to test remaining friendships: Coach TJ, who was elected captain, must now select another player to save, who in turn will pick another player to save. Only 20 can move to the next portion of the game, meaning 11 will be eliminated.

Coach TJ chooses Mai, whom he had previously expressed enduring trust both to her and us in the audience. Mai feels bad about this, of course, having harbored deep skepticism of the guy — the “entertainer” — the whole time. Cutting against the plans of the emerging women’s coalition, she saves her buddy Chad, opting for a personal relationship over a political one. The coalition remains dormant when Chad saves Mikie, having been moved by the Irishman’s life story, but it sparks to life when Mikie saves Marina (77), a fellow member of the Corner. Marina is one of the more vocal advocates of the women’s coalition, and she seizes the opportunity to get the ball rolling. She saves Bee, who saves Amanda, who saves Jackie. Starting to see what’s going on, the men start sweating. But Jackie, who previously expressed generalized distrust of everybody except for Phill, breaks the coalition’s momentum and saves him instead — but not without asking him to resume the chain of women.

“Friend and Foe” picks up with Phill complying as he saves Ashley. (Amanda remains displeased.) But Ashley doesn’t play ball with the women’s coalition either, echoing Mai in prioritizing a personal relationship. She selects tall, cool, calm Sam, with whom she has a bond. Sam, though, picks Player 23, resuming the chain, who in turn saves Player 51. However, instead of going with the last woman standing, Hallie, she saves Charles (221). But Charles knows what’s up. “Representation matters,” he says. “And so I will continue to respect what’s been going on here today.” Hallie’s through.

This leaves five slots. The remaining men, including Trey and Gganbu Gang Dan, are fully sweating it out. Hallie saves Elliot (429), who in turn saves Roland (418), an extremely chill dude with pigtails who ends up being Trey’s savior. Trey goes for James (269), last seen as the emotive guy who was audibly shocked when Phalisia offed Physician Rick — “Rick, we love you!” — who spends the last available slot on Purna (31), one of the quieter members of the Gganbu Gang who honestly seems like the least stressed-out person in the dorm. And that’s it. Gganbu Gang Dan is out, along with the rest of the unnamed men.

With only 20 players proceeding to the next round, the pot is now a whopping $4.36 million. Listen: I would quite literally puke if I came close to that much money.

More downtime, which means more character development. Mai has a heart-to-heart with Coach TJ, to whom she pledges loyalty … though perhaps not completely sincerely. “He is my supporter,” she says in the confessional. “I just have to put it in my memory bank and use it to see if it’s helpful in the next game.” I mean, yes, sure, that’s the right strategic read, but boy, does it feel so cynically utilitarian. We see Chad bond with Mikie, whose stakes we learn through his own confessional: a full-time caretaker with a special-needs kid for whom the prize would solve quite a lot of things. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of Squid Game: The Challenge turning the knife ever so slightly.

Charles is leading the dorm in a frankly hilarious cheer — “SQUID. GAME. LET’S GET THIS CASH” — when the red tracksuits arrive to whisk them off to the next challenge: the Glass Tiles. I laughed out loud at chill Roland’s droll delivery of his subpar joke: “I hope Game 5 is an eating contest, Trey. Hur, hur, hur, hur.” Love that guy.

So, yeah, the Glass Tile challenge: Players are confronted with a long, suspended bridge containing 17 rows with 2 tiles each. One is a trap door; the other is solid. In the show, people fall through the fake tile and splatter to their deaths. In the reality show, they presumably fall down into a net or some sort of safety infrastructure (or swap in a stunt performer, as it turns out), but as is customary of The Challenge’s bracing nature, we don’t see what happens to the eliminated players. We just see them plunge into the abyss.

The question of what order players will attend to the challenge is solved by a spooky claw machine with a bunch of luminescent blue teddy bears. There is, of course, a cruel twist. Players pluck bears not for their own number in the order but for one they’ll have to give to someone else. As you can easily game out in your head, the last three people in the order are automatically safe. The first … say, eight people are practically on a death march. Everyone in between has a theoretical fighting chance.

Once again, the twist mechanic offers an interesting opportunity to see some decision-making frameworks in action. Mai gives the fourth slot to Marina, explaining that she didn’t think Marina made any effort to get to know her. (This mirrors Jesse’s moral rationale behind his first elimination target in the jack-in-the-box challenge.) Ashley gives the sixth slot to Purna because she “just met the man the other day, that’s it.” When Purna pulls the fifth slot, he responds to her in kind. Jackie gives the first slot, an automatic death sentence, to Coach TJ, providing a superficially positive explanation that, in context, carries a serrated edge of passive aggression. “There has been a leader here in every way possible,” she says. “I don’t feel like anyone else is more capable than this person to lead us.” In a particularly cruel turn of events, Coach TJ gets the last slot to hand out, and he gifts it to Mai, who’s probably getting eaten up inside for her skepticism and utilitarianism about the guy. Charles gives the third slot, also a death sentence, to Trey, working off a random choice. But Charles gets the second slot from Amanda, suggesting that karma continues to pulse in strange but strong ways in this game.

Reader, I’ll be real with you. The Glass Tile challenge is a bravura sequence. In the days since I’ve seen the screeners for this batch of episodes, I have not been able to stop thinking about what happened. It haunts me. I dreamed about it on Thanksgiving Eve.

Let’s start with the fact that extremely chill Roland — a saint among men, a labor icon — suggests an alternative framework to play the game in a way that distributes the risk as equally as possible. That is, for the first 17 players to leapfrog each other such that each player only gets to be exposed to a single 50-50 choice instead of condemning the front end to certain failure. If we think about the reality show through the lens of the original Squid Game’s central metaphor that bakes capitalism into a series of perverse children’s games, here we have Roland basically advocating a form of collective organizing. Yes, there can only be one winner in this system. Yes, the system incentivizes people to turn on each other, see the worst in others, and be aggressively tribal while fearing group coordination. But Roland’s plan offers a means to transcend those cruel incentive structures. It’s an opportunity for greater humanity within an inhumane game.

This makes Ashley’s decision to not play ball and condemn Trey to certain failure — while antagonizing Roland, who continued arguing for fairness — and then play ball only when Roland’s plan directly benefits her so utterly appalling. And it doesn’t even make sense! She would’ve been on a death march either way without the new framework. Sure, Coach TJ getting offed on the first jump set an ominous tone for everyone, but the math is the math. With Ashley, Squid Game: The Challenge’s capacity to toggle characters between protagonist and heel comes into full view. But Trey was also a little too hotheaded in the situation, opting to heroically charge ahead multiple times when he could’ve seen if Purna, sitting just behind Ashley, would be down to leapfrog instead of her. You’d have to readjust the math, but you’d stand a chance of reviving Roland’s plan.

I got a headache watching this sequence the first time through. Coach TJ’s elimination was especially brutal, given the unbridled sincerity of his arc, and we see Marina fall as well, which presumably solidified Ashley’s refusal to leapfrog Trey in the moment. “One Step Closer” picks up with a Trey confessional that sounds like a self-eulogy, one that’s eventually confirmed when everyone watches, helplessly, as Trey’s luck runs out and he falls through the floor.

Ashley makes her 50-50 jump and flips her demeanor like a light switch as she encourages Purna to leapfrog her, which he does with characteristic mirth. Roland’s plan clicks into place. But the losses are still shocking and painful to watch. In a karmic turn, Jackie’s lands on the wrong side of the 50-50. Player 23 fails as well, as does Mikie. The last elimination is sweet, emotive James, who screams “No!” on the way down. Mai feels guilty about James, as he seemed to follow her guidance on the tile choice. It’s a bittersweet moment for the remaining players, who celebrate their survival. In a confessional, Mai expresses frustration with Ashley’s conduct — and, frankly, it comes as a surprise that she seems to be the only one who’s carrying it with her. We’re down to 12 players. The pot is now $4.44 million.

Two quick asides here. First, Chad making Mai choose his tile kinda feels like a horrible thing to do to your buddy? Second, and this is just me pondering: What would happen if the players just stood their ground and the clock ran out? Hmm.

Back in the dorm, Elliot makes a little speech about how the high survival rate is attributable to everybody deciding to work together. The camera lingers on Ashley, who seems annoyed by all this talk of solidarity and collective organizing, before we cut to a confessional where she provides a bit of backstory presumably meant to help inform why she did what she did, but it doesn’t really help much at all. How does she feel about her actions in the Glass Tile challenge? What is the story that she tells herself about herself beyond that moment? Alas, we get none of that.

Downtime, which means more backstories. We get to learn a bit more about tall, cool, calm Sam, an artist whose shirt during the confessional sports a fun little cat illustration. He speaks slowly, deliberately, as he talks about how his background as a closeted queer man in a religious community contributes to the cautious nature of his game. It’s hard not to root for him, but between the brutal eliminations and the heel turns, it’s hard to root for him as well.

The remaining players take stock of their situation, with many expressing a disbelief at how far they’ve made it. I’ve always wondered how players of reality game shows such as these feel at this stage of the experience. Would I be feral and maniacal? Energized and radicalized? A husk of my former self? All of the above? For the most part, everyone looks tired as hell, which sounds about right. Some start to strategize and note remaining alliances, which also sounds about right.

The next morning, we finally get some background on relaxed, happy Purna. When the camera cuts away from the guy crushing a moonwalk to his confessional, we see him wearing a chic robin’s-egg blue suit as he tells us about his upbringing in Nepal, no stranger to bleak conditions. Is this the start of a winner’s edit or another self-eulogy?

Perhaps there’s no such thing as a winner’s edit on this show. The next test is a dice game where (a) players either nominate themselves or another person for elimination, and (b) a rolled six follows through on that elimination. The game will continue to rotate until three players are out.

Elliot proposes a system of self-nomination, effectively turning the test into a fairer, no-ill-will bout of Russian roulette. This, too, is an opportunity for a more humane game. But Mai breaks from the plan to target Ashley, who she remains frustrated with over her conduct in the Glass Tile challenge. Frankly, it’s not the smartest move. For one thing, it draws Ashley’s attention to Mai’s previously hidden beef with her, and for another, rolling a six is hard to do intentionally or unintentionally. Perhaps she was gambling to unlock a broader frustration with Ashley from the room, such that everyone would pile on her until she’s out. But the gamble fails because the rest of the room feels content with the self-nomination strategy. Mai’s thirst for … justice? fairness? … outweighs strategy in this instance, and as she fails to roll the six, what may very well be the seeds of her destruction are sowed.

Personally, I hate the outcome of this test, as it eliminates Bee, who I’ve found the most interesting player in this game (and how can you be “good” at rolling sixes?!); sweet, wonderful Purna, who deserves so much better; and Chad, who brought good vibes for the most part. Mai is devastated by Chad’s elimination, and as she dramatically breaks down at his departure, the episode closes with Ashley taking a verbal victory lap in the confessional. Her integration into the full villain edit is complete.

Squid Game: The Challenge Recap