I just finished binge watching the Netflix miniseries Beef, starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun as strangers whose fates become unexpectedly intertwined through a series of unpredictable twists. It was so satisfying.
I love Wong as a comedian but have never watched any of her movies until now. Wong is intense and thrilling in Beef. Her wit and humor as a comedian come through in her gritty performance as Amy Lau, a devoted mother, wife and entrepreneur. Amy is at once funny and tragic, provocative yet relatable. It’s refreshing to see this stellar cast of actors – many of them of Asian origin, directed by Korean director Lee Sung Jin – playing a wide range of believable and complex characters.
In Beef, we see Amy investing her all in various areas of her life: her marriage, her parenting, her business. Clearly she’s doing the best she can. Yet she still falls short. We continue rooting for her even when she makes poor choices, waiting for that moment when she will make a turnaround and get back on track. Except that she doesn’t. It is unbearable to watch her getting stuck in dysfunctional behavior patterns and descending into chaos.
The series starts fairly innocuously when Danny Cho, played by actor Steven Yeun, is attempting to return previously purchased goods at a store (in a later episode we learn something deeper about him from the items he’s returning). We feel his frustration and helplessness as he is slighted by a checkout clerk and ends up not returning the goods. Then a random encounter at the store’s parking lot unexpectedly turns into road rage and a car chase. Didn’t see that coming. From there, it just escalates from intensity to intensity and you begin to feel the dread and despair of an unfolding train wreck.
Beef is unafraid to explore many difficult issues including rage and revenge, sex and infidelity, trauma and suicide, stereotypes and the cultural expectations and burdens that are part of the immigrant experience and psyche.
It’s been said that one of the most valuable tools to master in life is the ability to make good decisions. In this series, there are so many points along the road where the characters, particularly Amy and Danny, could have made decisions that would have led them (and those they love) down a less precarious path. Why didn’t they?
As objective viewers, we have the advantage of seeing such possibilities for the characters. We keep going through the episodes waiting for them to seize these moments, and are heartbroken when they don’t. I think this is one of the reasons why this series is so binge worthy. It keeps us hoping that the promise of a turnaround is still within reach.
It’s hard to watch people make decisions that you know will reach a point of no return. Can’t they see the danger approaching? Can they not anticipate the consequences? Do they think luck will protect them? Or do they believe they have the skills to avert danger and avoid the worst of it?
While watching Beef, I often felt that the characters simply couldn’t help themselves because they were caught up in the heat of the moment. But even when that red hot moment passed, they were unable to salvage whatever remained and choose a different path. Their destructive impulses kept plunging them back in hot water despite their better intentions.
As the story progresses and we become more invested in Amy and Danny and their families, we start to find out about some of the inner demons that drive them – which only makes them more human and compels us to root harder for them.
A fork in the road
Every now and then, life presents you with a fork in the road, representing opportunities to explore, take risks, maybe develop a useful life skill and learn something new about yourself and the world.
Follow one fork and there may not be a way to turn back. Follow another fork and you find yourself in a place where a certain range of choices is available to you.
Pick this choice over that one and your range of choices increases. Pick another choice and your options start diminishing. Now you are limited to even fewer choices, until such a time arrives that you have no more options available to you.
All that’s left is for you to sit in a pile of ashes as everything around you burns. Such is the tragic nature of the human condition as portrayed in Beef.