Here’s everything we know about what exactly that red hair means.
If you’ve been on the Internet within the last month, you’ve certainly seen the chatter surrounding the new hit Netflix show Squid Game. The dystopian Korean series created by Hwang Dong Hyuk is on track to become the most popular Netflix release of all time and is currently the number one show in 90 countries. That kind of success is unprecedented for a foreign language production on Netflix, and it raises hopes that US audiences can look forward to even more diverse programming in the future.
Squid Game is certainly not for the faint of heart. Equal parts devastating and unsettling, it's a show that you’ll be left thinking about for weeks after the final episode. While viewers seem to agree that Squid Game is as gripping as it is disturbing, few seem to be able to reach a consensus on the significance of one character’s decision to dye his hair bright red.
[Editor's note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Squid Game, "One Lucky Day."]
The plot of Squid Game centers around a mysterious “game” meant to offer people who are drowning in debt a way out. Hundreds of debt-ridden people sign up to complete a series of common childhood games in order to earn a cash reward, but they soon find out that the consequence for losing any of these games is certain death.
The show follows a contestant named Seong Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae, a habitual gambler who needs to pay his debts in order to keep his daughter in his life. As the games unfold, things become bleaker and bleaker for Gi-hun and the players he’s allied himself with. Eventually, after a series of horrors he barely manages to survive, Gi-hun is the last man standing and is sent back into the world with an enormous fortune and a heavy conscience. But Gi-hun can’t leave behind the horrors of the game, and chooses to live for a year in destitution despite his wealth. That is until he receives a shocking invitation and learns the truth about the game.
Shortly after, we see Gi-hun enter a hair salon, presumably to fix his unkempt appearance. But to the surprise of many viewers, he leaves the salon with bright red hair, a choice that is never addressed throughout the rest of the season. Perplexed viewers can’t seem to get the mystery off their minds, and it's become a hot topic of discussion on Twitter and Reddit.
So why does Gi-hun dye his hair red? Is it just a new look? Does it mean something specific to him that’s going to be revealed in the coming seasons? (While Season 2 hasn’t been officially announced, it feels unlikely that there won’t be a follow-up to the smash hit.)
It’s easy to speculate that it was simply a defiant choice on Gi-hun’s part, an attempt to declare his individuality. In Episode 9, when Gi-hun is speaking with the Frontman before he’s dropped back into his old life, the Frontman compares the game to Gi-hun’s gambling, saying, “You bet on horses. It’s the same here but…we bet on humans. You’re our horses.”
Later on in the episode, when Gi-hun is confronting the old man for the final time, he says, “Listen carefully. I’m not a horse. I’m a person.” It’s shortly after this scene that Gi-hun dyes his hair, possibly seeking to set himself apart from animals (like horses) who can’t express themselves in the same way, and ultimately declare his individual humanity.
Similarly, an online fan theory posits that the man who finally helped the freezing homeless man in the final episode had distinctly bright yellow hair, which, along with his unusual compassion, set him apart from the crowd. So, perhaps Gi-hun chose to dye his hair to emulate this man’s compassion and declare that there are individuals in the world who really do care about others.
While these theories seem possible, it doesn't answer the question: Why red? Surely any bold color could have made the same statement. But perhaps the answer lies in the significance of the color red in Korean culture.
According to the National Folk Museum of Korea, “For a long time, the color red has been believed to have shamanistic power for warding off evil spirits or bad luck. People have protected themselves against bad energy by using red in writing amulets, dying their fingernails with garden balsam, or eating red-bean potage (Patjuk).”
So, perhaps Gi-hun wasn’t only seeking to declare his humanity with an unusual hair choice, but also to ward off further evil, including the spirit of the old man who betrayed him and the spirits of all the other dead game contestants.
The National Folk Museum of Korea goes on to include that red “has become a symbol of passion and the color that promotes social cohesion.” This, too, seems to suggest that Gi-hun chose red as a symbol of both his individuality, his shared humanity with other people, and his passionate anger towards the game makers.
Other Reddit users speculated that perhaps the red hair represented Gi-hun trying to reclaim his power from the game makers specifically. Reddit user cutemermaidaqua said, “I think that it [the red hair] represented power cause the red thingy they threw vs the blue one would always win and the staff had red suits.” This seems to be a common theme among fan theories, that the red paper the recruiter uses in the game of Ddakji at the beginning of the season is somehow significant to Gi-hun’s choice of red hair.
While fans will surely continue to speculate about the layered meanings of the red hair, Hwang Dong Hyuk recently gave a vague explanation, as translated by the site Zapzee.
“I thought about this intuitively,” the director said, “thinking about how Gi-hun should change his hair in a hair salon. I imagined being him and thought to myself, ‘what is the color that you would never choose to dye your hair?’ Then I came to the conclusion that Gi-hun would never dye his hair red. It would be the craziest thing for him to do. So I chose the color and I thought it really showed his inner anger.”
While this simple answer certainly leaves plenty of room for other theories to be true as well, it also reveals a lot about the director’s plan for Gi-hun’s character in coming seasons. It’s clear that Hwang Dong Hyuk’s main intention in giving Gi-hun red hair was to signal to audiences that he is deeply changed from who he was at the beginning of the season, meaning that audiences shouldn’t expect the same goofy, wishy-washy, reckless character they came to know and love.
Wherever Hwang Dong Hyuk chooses to take the character of Gi-hun in coming seasons, all we can know for sure is that it's going to be somewhere as unexpected as that bright red hair.
Squid Game is streaming now on Netflix.
KEEP READING: 'Squid Game': Let's Talk About That Evil Episode 4 Cliffhanger
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Brooke Johnson is a Brooklyn based playwright and journalist who covers a wide variety of entertainment related topics.
Here’s everything we know about what exactly that red hair means.