Mai Whelan became the first-ever winner of Squid Game: The Challenge on Wednesday, beating out two other finalists. She’ll go home with $4.56 million US, the biggest cash prize in reality TV history. Whelan, from Virginia, wore No. 287.
The Netflix reality show is based on the streaming giant’s extremely popular and extremely bloody critique of capitalism from South Korea, Squid Game.
What started out as 456 players competing for a large sum of money — in the case of The Challenge, a cool $4.56 million US — was narrowed down to three competitors before the finale.
Thankfully, players in the real-life version aren’t shot dead upon elimination like they were in Squid Game.
The last three remaining competitors were Whelan, player 287, a 55-year-old immigration adjudicator. Born in Vietnam, she came to the United States as a refugee and now lives in Virginia. Sam Lantz, player 016, is a 37-year-old artist from Florida, and Phill Cain, player 451, is a 27-year-old scuba instructor. Born in Brazil, Cain eventually relocated to Hawaii.
Just because the players left with their lives doesn’t mean they weren’t put through the ringer, both physically and mentally, during filming at London’s Wharf Studios. And while The Challenge was full of contests — like Red Light, Green Light — that were already familiar to fans of Squid Game, we also witnessed some new games, like a life-size game of Battleship, throughout the reality show’s first season.
A behind-the-scenes look
Darylle Johnson, a board game designer from Surrey B.C., was contestant 273 on the show. She said her background in games was part of her strategic approach to the show.
“I love strategy, like escape rooms and, like, just figuring out puzzles and things. And so that attracted me to this show in particular.”
But a lot of it was less about strategy and more based on “luck,” Johnson said. One thing that she said stood out was the day-to-day stress of the show.
“It was really chaotic…. I mean, I’ve always looked at reality shows and kind of judged people a little bit for crying on TV or being overly dramatic or, you know, building these really strong friendships in, like, four days or six days,” she said.
“And I completely get it now because you’re immersed in this environment where you’ve got no phones, no TV, no nothing. All you have is each other.”
One competition in particular was much more difficult than viewers may realize, Johnson said.
“The show itself made Red Light, Green Light seem like it was five minutes long. It was nine-and-a-half hours … in below-freezing weather, just in this little tracksuit,” she said. “It’s hard to really explain what that was like. Just to hold a position for 20 or 30 minutes in the freezing cold and then sprint. Like, it was very hard to not give up.”
Johnson said she was able to successfully get through the game with just seconds to spare. Unfortunately, she was eliminated as a lieutenant going down with her warship(s) in the third episode.
She said despite her elimination, the Battleship competition was one of her most memorable experiences.
“I used to be a very shy person. So this moment was the OK, I’m just gonna be brave, speak up and, like, put myself out there. And I was, like, ‘Hey guys, I’m a strategist. I make games. They say there’s going to be twists and turns in this show. So what if there are twists and turns in this game? Let’s put me up there to be able to navigate.'”
Along with the games, Johnson said living in the dorms was a “surreal experience.”
“It was just one big room with 200-something bunks and these bright lights that were just constantly on. And no music, no other sounds. It’s just the voices of each other.”
And that one rumour, circulating online, is certainly true. “I think by Day 3, everybody’s lips were just ridiculously chapped,” she said.
Johnson said contestants began using such things as hair conditioner and lubricant to prevent chapped lips, and when the staff found out what was going on, they provided people with containers of Chapstick.
She called it one of many funny experiences she encountered and said she has “no regrets” about going on the show.
“I’m so glad I did it, because it was genuinely the most fun experience I’ve ever had in my life, even as, like, difficult and challenging as a lot of it was,” she said. “I would definitely say that it’s changed my life.”