‘Squid Game’: Did Foreign Viewers Misinterpret Cho Sang-woo’s Bathtub Scene?

Global fans will agree Netflix’s Squid Game is a dark and disturbing portrayal of what people are willing to do for greed and a cash prize. The Korean drama tells a much darker story of what it means to hit rock bottom and to have no other way out. A certain bathtub scene in episode 2 of Squid Game speaks volumes about Cho Sang-woo’s (Park Hae-soo) spiral into despair.

Squid Game is a Korean drama and uses many cultural aspects and childhood games familiar to Korean audiences. Foreign viewers might have misinterpreted Sang-woo’s intentions and a particular element of his bathtub scene. The scene has much more morbid intentions and speaks of an issue prevalent in the country.

[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers about Squid Game.]

Park Hae-soo as Cho Sang-woo in 'Squid Game' episode 2 wearing grey suit and glasses
Park Hae-soo as Cho Sang-woo in ‘Squid Game’ episode 2 | via IMDb

Cho Sang-woo’s bathtub scene in episode 2 of ‘Squid Game’

The storyline of Squid Game takes an interesting turn in episode 2. Sang-woo knows of a loophole to the Games contract. The players can vote to end the Game, and if a majority votes “yes,” they get to go home. After the remaining players vote, the majority wins to exit the Game. Sang-woo is one of the many who vote to stay.

The scene shifts to show the main character left in remote areas of the city to return home. For Sang-woo, the Games gave him an opportunity to rectify his wrongs. The following day, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) learns Sang-woo’s debt is much worse than expected. Everything Sang-woo’s mother owns is collateral. Later, Sang-Woo pretends to call his mother from America and lies that he is doing well.

Audiences can see Sang-woo’s agony in his eyes lying to his mother, who thinks highly of him. Sang-woo’s story hits a low point. Dressed in his suit, he sits in the motel bathtub while smoking and drinking soju (Korean alcohol). The scene cuts to show a brick of some kind burning on a portable stove. But Sang-woo is soon interrupted by the doorbell.

Cho Sang-Woo was burning coal in an attempted suicide

Cho Sang-woo in bathtub scene 'Squid Game' episode 2 wearing grey suit
Cho Sang-woo in bathtub scene ‘Squid Game’ episode 2 | via IMDb

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Foreign viewers might not have understood the significance of Sang-Woo’s scene in the bathroom. For Sang-woo, his life is in shambles beyond repair. Gi-Hun and his mother boast of his success and getting into one of Korea’s top universities and landing a successful job for it all to be a lie. K-drama fans and Korean audiences would have recognized Sang Woo’s attempted suicide by the burning coal briquette in the room.

For non-Koreans or new K-drama viewers, the briquette would not have made much sense. In a Reddit thread, a fan explained the significance of the everyday item. “Briquettes are a sign of poverty as back in the day, Koreans didn’t have electricity. They’re basically compressed coal that’s used as fuel. It’s also commonly used for Koreans to commit suicide as being in a space with the fumes causes death,” explained the Redditor.

In the scene, Sang-woo sits in the tub intoxicated on soju as he waits for the toxic fumes from the burning coal to take effect. The coal briquette creates fumes similar to carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is proven fatal when breathed in for long periods of time.

Other significant South Korean cultural aspects in ‘Squid Game’

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While Squid Game takes over the globe as the most successful original K-drama in Netflix’s history, there are some cultural aspects used in the drama that can be fleshed out for foreign viewers. Fans may wonder why it was so significant for Ali Adbul (Anupam Tripathi) to call Sang-woo “hyung,” meaning “older brother.” In Korean culture, it is customary and polite to speak to an older person or someone who you do not know in formal speech.

Ali constantly using appropriate formal endings, calling Sang-woo “sir” and his deep bows are also polite markers. The word “hyung” is often reserved for very close friends or family members. For Ali, calling Sang-woo “hyung” is a form of acceptance as comrades. For Koreans or K-drama fans, seeing loan sharks threaten Gi-hun was not much of a surprise. According to NextShark, loan sharks are prevalent in Korean society. Besides the use of Korean childhood games, director Hwang Dong-hyuk used many cultural and social examples to get his “underdog” story across to audiences.

How to get help: In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text HOME to 741-741 to speak with a trained crisis counselor at the free Crisis Text Line.