By Rahul Desai
A broke contractor, Danny (Steven Yeun), is at the end of his tether. He looks miserable. You can tell that life has been unkind to him. “There’s always something,” Danny mumbles. On the day Danny is planning to end it all in his Los Angeles motel room, he nearly hits another car in a parking lot. The car honks violently, and a finger is flipped at him. Suddenly, this random road-rage incident gives him a sense of purpose. It spirals into a furious chase across the suburbs, with the fancy white Mercedes SUV getting the better of Danny’s beat-up truck.
Unbeknownst to him, this SUV is driven by not a man but a businesswoman named Amy (Ali Wong). But she looks miserable. You can tell that life has been unkind to her. “There’s always something,” Amy mumbles. On the day Amy is planning to sell her designer-plant company and focus on her family, she nearly hits another car in a parking lot. She flips his finger at him. Suddenly, this random road-rage incident gives her a sense of purpose. She gets the better of the pick-up truck and screeches away in style.
When Danny tracks Amy down, the fire of revenge slowly morphs into the sparks of chemistry. The pettiness turns into passion. The two simmer in a summer of romance and chance meetings. She leaves her partner for him; he takes her on the most creative and heartfelt dates. They realize how similar they are to one another, despite their murderous ‘meat’-cute. They recognize their shared beef of living: He wants financial stability, she longs for emotional stability. She understands his agony of being a toxic older brother and failed son; he fathoms her pain of being an unfeeling mother and resentful wife. In other words, imagine La La Land – a musical triggered by a road-rage incident on a Los Angeles flyover – recalibrated to the Asian-American immigrant experience. (Some might even call that Everything Everywhere All At Once). Just as Sebastian and Mia are united by their struggle to dream, Danny and Amy are united by their struggle to be seen. The man of Korean descent and the woman of Chinese-Vietnamese heritage are bound by belonging and generational trauma, but also by a brokenness that affords them the space to be selfish. It’s a love story that looks like a love story, one where misfits find each other through the violent quirks of fate and lose each other through the tender quirks of faith. Their feelings are shaped by an ability to accept – and therefore rescue – the other at their lowest points.
But that isn’t how Beef plays out. The above paragraph is the what-if montage. The ten-episode Netflix series created by Lee Sung Jin is, if anything, a dark dramedy that keeps teasing our reading of romantic comedies. It’s a human story that keeps mining our perception of love stories. For instance, the first episode has Danny posing as a handyman, infiltrating Amy’s house and urinating all over her restroom floor. The next has Amy bad-reviewing Danny out of his online business and catfishing his brother. And so on. They’ve been unkind to life, not vice versa. There is a spiritual bond between the two that’s fuelled by distance and preserved by spite.
Danny and Amy’s escalating beef with each other becomes a narrative placeholder for their raw beef with themselves. Their union is inevitable – we know it’ll happen – but the tension of escaping themselves overrides the escapism of neat empathy. Every time we expect them to call a truce or do something nice, they get worse, as if driven by an urge to break the world that has broken them. It’s like watching two depressed strangers trying to exhaust their cruelty on each other in the hope that kindness lies beyond. Except, the kindness never comes. And the hope, like all else, fades.
Most fictional couples who meet in unusual circumstances tend to discover and feed off each other. They spur one another on to greater heights, whether professionally or personally, until the conflict of feeling too much (sometimes) tears them apart. That’s how the stories go. But the anti-couple of Beef, Danny and Amy, are defined by the perverse gratification of punching each other to achieve success – and ‘improve’ – at all costs. Amy’s arrival makes Danny stronger and meaner. He becomes more aware of his own flaws and more manipulative in his pursuit of the American Dream; she gives him not just a villain but also, oddly, an idol to simultaneously look up and down to. He becomes more proactive in his relationship with his brother, more desperate in his promise to bring his parents back from South Korea, more ruthless in his dealings with shady cousin Isaac. He notices that someone not unlike him – Amy – has made it to the next tax bracket, and gets empowered by his association(s) with her. At some level, Danny is addicted to the ghost of his feud with Amy because it infuses in him the courage to get that no-holds-barred jumpstart – one which bypasses all the half-baked decency and morality that has perhaps weighed him down over the years.
Similarly, Danny’s arrival burns into Amy the authenticity to break and break free. She confronts her meandering marriage, acts on her illicit desires, drops the mask of altruism, and secures a business deal that might fix her future. In short, she stops drifting and starts being. The two spur each other on to great heights disguised as deranged depths; they force each other to come to terms with the worst versions of themselves, thereby reclaiming the nakedness of opening up to a stranger without actually doing so. (The finale brings it all together with shapeless fury, but the 9-episode build-up unfurls like an affair that subverts the very concept of companionship). This mutual awakening comes at the price of wounding everyone close to them, which in turn leaves Danny and Amy with nobody but each other. And with the discomfiting truth that they ripped through the social fabric of civilization to reach one another. Their obsession to win is essentially a brutal language of flirting, of preparing each other for the inevitability of emerging as soulmates. Even when they achieve some kind of peace in their adopted lives, it’s short-lived, almost as if the two can’t resist the allure of torrid togetherness. When the cycle temporarily stops, one tries to frame the other for their own mistake, unwittingly charting a collision course for the two comets to become one. They’re meant to be – the way two haunted superheroes or supervillains are – because nobody else can survive them.
You see it in the way Danny and Amy keep losing – and finding – themselves in their attempts to con each other. They start off like people who’ve watched too many flimsy revenge comedies, being duplicitous without knowing how to follow through on it. But these little scams almost never go in the direction the viewer – or the characters themselves – expect them to. They get too ‘involved’. More often than not, the allegedly naive people they set out to fool end up disarming the two with their own vulnerabilities and fullness. Amy catfishes Paul, Danny’s slacker brother, with the intent to spy on Danny. But Amy gets caught up in her own whirlwind romance with Paul, a chocolate boy who shows glimpses of the man trapped within him. The writing reminds us that even the collateral damage – the characters usually employed for comedic relief and cultural cliches – is a body capable of bleeding. Her affection for Paul is genuine; he offers her the sex and attraction that her marriage has long lacked, and she soon forgets about the scheme she began with. Danny, on his part, gets attached to the church he had planned to swindle; he also calls off a dramatic heist at Amy’s home once he realizes that her husband, George, is a sincere guy.
The recurring motif of Danny and Amy getting sidetracked by their own humanity – and getting consumed by the detours – speaks to the role of “hate” in modern society. It’s not so much an emotion anymore as it is an act of exorcism. We’ve perhaps reached a point in time where love cannot exist without the capacity to hate. The show’s triumph lies in its unyielding ability to make us yearn for a tangible respect and intimacy between the two vicious protagonists; it’s emotional foreplay on a scale so loaded that the explosion is anything but messy. The trigger could just as well have been a trivial Twitter spat, one that allows two egg-display-picture handles to spew anonymous venom at each other until it shape-shifts into a series of nasty but weirdly intimate sexts. Danny and Amy are so suffocated by their real-world duties of giving that the prospect of taking – mercilessly and callously – becomes cathartic and liberating.
The common ground they tread on as complete strangers – strangers who can say, do, think and feel anything in each other’s shadow – frees them from the transactional nature of fondness. Most couples love their way into a state of muted loneliness and loathing, but Danny and Amy loathe their way into a state of loud loneliness and love. They chose each other that morning in the parking lot – it’s just that their la la land needed to be cultivated with foul-smelling manure. As a result, the doomed version of who they are doubles up as the dreamy vision of who they could have been; there is no difference between their what-if montage and what-the-hell parting shot. Beef is rare and bloody in that sense. After all, it reveals the verse-jumping hate that precedes the laundry-and-taxes love.