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Squid Game: The Challenge Winner Was Right to Be Ruthless

In a game that came down to chance a little too often, the winning player kept looking for an advantage.
  • Sam Wells, Mai Whelan, Phill Cain in Squid Game: The Challenge (Photo: Netflix)
    Sam Wells, Mai Whelan, Phill Cain in Squid Game: The Challenge (Photo: Netflix)

    As a reality spectacle, Squid Game: The Challenge was a marvel: recreating the ominous dystopian warehouse and candy-colored stairwells, bringing back the giant Red Light, Green Light robot, the low-key hilarity of the squibs exploding whenever a contestant was eliminated and watching them collapse to the ground. As a feat of reality TV storytelling, Squid Game: The Challenge was equally impressive — story editors singled out impactful, suspenseful micro-stories among a cast of hundreds while building up a handful of longer storylines, any of which could come to a heart-stopping end at any time. No one was safe.

    Where the show has left us wanting on occasion, especially in its final few stages, has been the competitions themselves, which have leaned a bit too heavily on games of chance, robbing the players of the opportunity to take more of an active hand in their fate. The series’s saving grace turned out to be its inaugural winner: Mai Whelan. Of the three players in the final episode, Mai was the one who tried hardest to control her own game, even when the rest of the players unfairly characterized her as selfish and untrustworthy.

    Mai first came to the forefront in the marble challenge in Episode 6 ("Goodbye"), when she eliminated fan-favorite Jada. The show then shared her backstory as a child refugee from Vietnam who now works as an immigration adjudicator. Meanwhile, we began to hear from the other players who looked up to the older Mai as a wise and loyal ally. But she was always playing a strategic game. While self-appointed "leader" TJ gave interviews about how he sees a lot of himself in Mai, and vice versa, Mai was telling her closest ally Chad that she didn't trust TJ, who had too many other allies who weren't her.

    The inflection point for Mai's game came in the Dice Roll challenge, where she defied the group's rather kumbaya plan to each roll the dice for themselves (where a six would mean their elimination) rather than target other players. Mai instead targeted Ashley (unsuccessfully), drawing Ashley's ire and a frustrating number of chiding reactions from the other players for making a "selfish" strategic move. What made these reactions particularly maddening was that Mai was completely in the right. It was Ashley who had played selfishly in the Glass Bridge game, refusing to step ahead of Trey — despite it being no strategic advantage to do so — and leading to his elimination. Mai saw that kind of disloyalty as a threat and made a move to eliminate Ashley.

    Somehow, Ashley's blatant selfishness in Glass Bridge didn't draw criticism from anyone other than Mai (and presumably Trey). But all sorts of players took a moment to cluck condescendingly about Mai playing for herself and not the group. This was expected coming from a player like the long-haired Hawaii surfer boy Phill, whose sweet, easygoing nature was never going to be confrontational. It was more disappointing coming from Sam, whose game had previously appeared to be at least a little savvy.

    When the finale came down to Phill, Sam, and Mai, Mai's active strategic game made her stand out. At the final dinner, with the top three tasked with three buttons to push and deciding which order they would push them in, Sam and Phill hung back, not wanting to risk pressing the red button and get eliminated. Mai, knowing that she was at a strategic disadvantage (if either Sam or Phill pressed the green button, they'd choose each other to go to the finals), stepped up and pressed her button first. She chose the gray button, meaning her fate was still left up to chance, but in doing so she also increased the likelihood that the player who pressed the next button would press red. Sam did exactly that, and Mai moved on to the finals against Phill.

    The finals were a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, a game that's mostly about guessing what shape your opponent will play. But while Phill admitted he was just throwing shapes at random, Mai said she was keeping track of Phill's throws and devising her own strategy accordingly. Mai ended up winning way more faceoffs than Phill, thus earning more keys to try and unlock the vault. Eventually, she picked the winning key, earning $4.56 million dollars, delivered in the form of a hilariously gauche debit card.

    For as much fun as Squid Game: The Challenge was, its endgame could have used some work. Three of the final four challenges were games of chance, leaving the players with few ways to advance their own game. Crucially, Mai was the player who took the most opportunities to work even a modicum of strategy into the margins. She took a shot at Ashley in the dice game. She made the decision to press the button first. She outfoxed Phill in Rock, Paper, Scissors. Whether or not the other players appreciated her strategy, it was the winning one.

    When Richard Hatch won the first season of Survivor, it was a victory for an outright villain, who was far more dastardly than even Mai's most vocal detractors (ahem, Ashley) would say she was. But by winning, Hatch set the terms for how Survivor castaways would play in every season going forward. Mai Whelan had a strong core of fairness and loyalty, but she played Squid Game hard, and whenever the opportunity arose to increase her odds of winning, she took it. May future players follow her lead.

    Squid Game: The Challenge is streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Squid Game: The Challenge, Netflix, Squid Game, Mai Whelan, Phill Cain, Sam Wells