The Meaning of Sang-woo and Ali's Friendship

Since its release in September, Squid Game has become one of the most discussed TV shows of 2021, earning a #1 spot on Netflix in the USA for weeks following its premiere. The show incorporates many engaging aspects, from social commentary on classism and poverty to issues of morality and survival. Of the many battle royale stories in recent memory, Squid Game is certainly among the most popular, and for good reasons: One of which can be found in Episode 6, “Ggang-bu”. The marble game that pits partners against each other is an especially sadistic round of games; splitting into teams is a process during which the contestants pair off with the person they consider their greatest ally. This setup ensures that each pairing will illustrate parallels between its teammates. And there is no pairing more interesting in its juxtaposition of character than that of Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo) and Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi).

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Though it doesn’t seem like they have much in common, the parallels between Sang-woo and Ali have been present since the very beginning. They both save Gi-hun’s (Lee Jung-Jae) life in Red Light, Green Light—Sang-woo by giving advice and pointers when he didn’t have to, and Ali by catching his fellow player when he was about to fall. Sang-woo is introduced to the games by utilizing his intelligence and remembrance of children’s games. He also quickly identifies a loophole in the Squid Game contract, showing that he pays attention to details, and offers the other players an opportunity to get out.

Sang-woo’s kindness is apparent when he lets Ali use his phone and gives him money for the bus. Unprompted, he extends generosity that overwhelms Ali to the point of earning a friend for life. However, Sang-woo is still facing crippling debt, and he figures that the only way out now is to take his own life. It’s only the second game invitation that gets him back on his feet in one last desperate attempt to escape his grim reality. During Red Light, Green Light, Ali takes a huge risk to save a complete stranger. This decision, made in the spur of the moment, shows that it is in Ali’s nature to be kind and helpful, even when it puts him in danger. It also shows that this behavior is instinctual.

In the outside world, Ali has gone six months without receiving payment from his boss, despite being a model employee. As an immigrant in a foreign country and trusting to boot, he falls prey to people taking advantage of him. Because Ali is an honest worker and a loyal friend, he expects those around him to be the same. He also attaches a great amount of respect to Sang-woo. In many scenes involving Gi-hun’s bragging on Sang-woo’s behalf, the so-called successful businessman is annoyed and embarrassed by the attention. But in the presence of Ali, whose admiration is not won by Sang-woo’s falsified success but rather by real-time acts of generosity, no matter the motivation behind them, Sang-woo begins to lower his guard.

When he and Ali are paired together to keep watch at night, they discuss their pasts over their shared leftover dinner. Until this moment, Ali has been referring to Sang-woo with the honorific “sajangnim,” a highly respectful way to refer to an older acquaintance. Upon being called “sajangnim,” Sang-woo distances himself from Ali by annoyedly insisting he drop the honorific. During their late-night conversation, however, Sang-woo’s distancing tactic backfires; as Ali’s friendliness wears him down, he suggests that instead of “sajangnim”, Ali refers to him as “hyung,” which roughly translates to “older brother.” Though Sang-woo has been playing selfishly—even going so far as not to warn his teammates about the Dalgona game—he begins to open up to Ali in a way that he hasn’t to anyone else. What’s more, he is the one who initiates this closer friendship. However, like many aspects of Squid Game, there are far more layers at work here than what’s apparent on the surface.

Though both display kindness, the reasoning behind why they act this way differs. Ali behaves kindly as a blue-collar worker who values honesty and respect. Sang-woo behaves with generosity, but this kindness is the direct result of one of Squid Game’s greatest deceptions. It’s not that Sang-woo suddenly turns evil when he betrays Ali. His betrayal is the culmination of a spiraling character arc. The root of Sang-woo’s kindness is the belief that he is above others. It’s a lie that he has to face every time Gi-hun brags that Sang-woo went to SNU. Even during Sang-woo’s attempted suicide, he first dons his jacket, as he wants to leave this world looking successful.

In an interview with Netflix Korea, the creator of the series, Dong-hyuk Hwang, says that Sang-woo has internalized his own superiority. Hwang says, speaking as Sang-woo: “I still have to be morally right because I’m superior to them.” In terms of the games, Sang-woo thinks along the lines of earning victory through his own hard work, while the outcome of the games has a lot more to do with luck and the sacrifices of others than he would care to admit. Sang-woo traps himself in this lie because if he didn’t, he would have to face the fact that in the game, all the players are equal. In contrast to Sang-woo’s self-deception, Ali interacts honestly with the world and relies heavily on the kindness of others. He trusts his teammates to explain the rules of each children’s game to him because, having grown up in Pakistan, he isn’t familiar with South Korean games. His naivety is his downfall, just as Sang-woo’s downfall is his self-deception.

Through his friendship with Sang-woo, Ali learns how to approach problems with a level head and logical attitude that would prevent others from taking advantage of him. Though Sang-woo’s strategies can be cold and ruthless, his conclusions are often correct (see the Tug-of-War game in Episode 4). He operates in a morally grey area, but his advice does tend to be helpful. In exchange, Ali’s influence on Sang-woo encourages him to trust and to give others credit where it’s due. Sang-woo could have learned to act kindly out of a place of respect and a spirit of paying it forward rather than as a ruse to reassure himself of his own station, or to cash in a favor later. The ability to trust is an important one, and so is the ability to take a step back and consider a situation logically. Sadly, neither Sang-woo nor Ali learn from their past mistakes.

Though Sang-woo is gracious enough to explain the rules of marbles to Ali, the disbelief on his face as Ali’s beginner’s luck pulls through says it all: Sang-woo never expected to lose. Despite forming a bond with Ali and feeling enough respect for his friend to ask for a team-up that would boost their survival chances, Sang-woo backtracks. When faced with the reality that he and Ali play on the same level, Sang-woo can’t cope and decides to keep feeding himself the same old lies. As soon as it looks like Sang-woo is beginning to lose, Ali asks one of the guards if he can play with someone else. This request is not only denied but it also feels like condescension to Sang-woo. As Ali keeps winning, he gets quieter until, as Sang-woo is begging for his life, he finally breaks down in tears and denies the request.

At this moment, Ali is standing up for himself and refusing to relinquish his win despite feeling empathy for his friend. As much as Ali wants Sang-woo to survive, as much as he feels like he owes him, Ali logically chooses the sure path to survival. A bus fare is hardly worth a human life. But when Sang-woo purposefully outlines an overly confusing plan to trick him, Ali relies too much on trust again. In his final moments, the expression on his face reveals his understanding of that fatal mistake. In moderation, being self-confident and being trusting are admirable qualities. However, having too much of one without the other is a dangerous imbalance. Despite Sang-woo and Ali’s brotherly friendship, their mistakes lead to their downfall.

With both similarities to and differences from each other, they are characters who don’t feel like stand-ins for a commentary on classism, but rather as actual people dealing with relatable issues. Despite the nonexistence of the Squid Games in real life (that we know of), viewers can walk away from the show having learned from the mistakes of its characters and how things could have turned out differently for them if only they had learned from the past.

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Rachel Sandell (4 Articles Published)

Rachel Sandell is a contributor for Collider and a freelance writer and editor. She has worked with The Daily Fandom as a managing editor and is the poetry archivist for Fireweed magazine. She's also written three published short stories.

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