Like The Hunger Games and other dystopian life-or-death narratives before it, Netflix’s Squid Game rides on the thrilling trope that even the weakest characters should never be underestimated.
After watching all nine episodes of the Korean drama series, we still have every scene starring Oh Il-nam, aka player 001, swirling around in our heads like the confused math woman meme.
How does a character who’s outwardly so fragile and empathetic manage to break our hearts and blow our minds to the point of inexplicable rage? Well, having heaps of money and a master plan helps.
Oh Il-nam’s Game Play
When Seong Gi-hun first wakes up in his bunk bed at the training facility, one of the first details he picks up on is that every player has been assigned a number based on when they were recruited. As the last of the 456 players to sign his contract, Gi-hun is player 456. In what seems like a happy coincidence at the time, the first person Gi-hun speaks to is player 001, an elderly man named Oh Il-nam who lives with a brain tumor that seems to take a toll on his memory.
The fact that Il-nam was chosen as the first player in the game – even though he’s decades older than all of the other participants – flies under the radar at the start of the show, but it later becomes clear that he was chosen first for an important reason.
Taking pity on the older man for being at such a physical and mental disadvantage in the game, Gi-hun befriends Il-nam ahead of the first round. When it becomes clear that the games they’re participating in are potentially fatal, Il-nam is unfazed and manages to inch across the line with a smile on his face in the Red Light, Green Light game even before Gi-hun makes it across. A closer look at the crosshairs of the robot leading the game indicates that it might not have been targeting Il-nam at all, raising suspicions among viewers that his age isn’t his only suspicious trait.
After the games are temporarily canceled, Gi-hun has a surprise encounter with Il-nam at a convenience store a few blocks from his house. When Gi-hun asks Il-nam what he’s doing in the area, Il-nam explains he was visiting a friend and sits down with Gi-hun to talk over a packet of ramen noodles. The two get along, and Il-nam uses their time together to discuss his desire to reenter the games. Influenced by Il-nam’s words and his mother’s medical bills, Gi-hun also decides to return.
Oh Il-nam’s Elimination
As the games continue, Gi-hun and Il-nam form an alliance with Ali Abdul, a factory worker from Pakistan, and Gi-hun’s former classmate Cho Sang-woo. Despite his physical and mental disadvantages, Il-nam is able to breeze through the dalgona candy challenge in round two and provide a tactical plan for the rest of his team in the tug-of-war challenge, a strategy so detailed that it seems like he might have been warned about the game in advance.
While his fellow players don’t seem to pick up on his mysterious actions – and neither did we until the second watch – Il-nam gets by without much fuss. But subtle clues tell us that something isn’t as it seems about his character.
For instance, when police officer Hwang Jun-ho flips through the files in the Front Man’s storage room, a split-second scene reveals that player 001 doesn’t even have a file in the system, while all the other participants from years past are clearly marked. The Front Man also seems to have an incentive to keep Il-nam alive, given that he calls off the raid in the dorms only after Il-nam shouts to the cameras that he’s afraid, allowing dozens of other players to die.
This sympathy extends heavily to Gi-hun, who stays up at night to get to know Il-nam and even gives him his jacket after he wets himself from fear over the raid. In the fourth episode, “Gganbu,” the players team up to play a marble game of their choice. Unwilling to put themselves at a potential disadvantage, the players refuse to team up with Il-nam until Gi-hun, who now considers him a friend, agrees to be his teammate. Just as the game begins, Il-nam’s brain tumor blurs his memory, making him believe that the makeshift town the guards have led them to is actually the town he grew up in.
Though Gi-hun respects Il-nam and considers him his “gganbu,” or best friend, he realizes Il-nam is extremely lucky when it comes to marbles and makes the difficult decision to use the older man’s memory loss to his advantage. After a few more rounds of the even or odd guessing game they’re playing, Gi-hun manages to take all but one of Il-nam’s marbles.
When Il-nam gets up to wander around the room, Gi-hun panics and begs for the final marble. At this point, Il-nam reveals that he wasn’t having a memory lapse at all and knew Gi-hun was tricking him the whole time. Still, he reminds Gi-hun that they’re best friends and agrees to give him the final marble. As Gi-hun walks off toward the guards, a gunshot sounds, signaling Il-nam’s death, even though it isn’t shown on screen. For many fans, Il-nam’s death following his father-son connection with Gi-hun was one of the most heartbreaking in the series – and it would have been, if he were actually dead.
Oh Il-nam’s True Identity
In the final episode of season one, Gi-hun manages to defeat Sang-woo in a round of Squid Game. He takes home the prize money but is unable to process his grief over all he experienced in the games until he receives a card inviting him for one last meetup in a high-rise overlooking Seoul. It’s there that Gi-hun sees Il-nam, though bedridden and actually afflicted by a brain tumor, is still alive.
Confused, he listens to the older man explain himself, realizing that Il-nam was one of the VIPs the whole time and was just playing the game for the thrill of it. Moments later, Il-nam dies, leaving Gi-hun with unspoken questions.
Flashbacks show that Il-nam was actually the true mastermind behind the games and was even superior to the Front Man, aka Hwang In-ho, a former participant in the games and police officer In-ho’s brother. One translation of Il-nam – “il” meaning “sun” or “first” and nam” meaning “man” or “boy” – also identifies Il-nam as the leader of the masked men. With just minutes left in the first season, the shocking twist had our jaws on the floor.
As horrible as his character turned out to be, Il-nam did give us a good mystery to solve, and isn’t that part of the reason Squid Game had us hooked to begin with? Watch this behind-the-scenes video from the show to unveil even more of the mystery behind the camera.