In his 1956 treatise The Art of Loving, psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm outlines the essential human condition as a transcended creature exiled from a paradisaic nature: “once thrown out of paradise — a state of original oneness with nature — cherubim with flaming swords block his way, if he should try to return. Man can only go forward by developing his reason, by finding a new harmony, a human one, instead of the prehuman harmony which is irretrievably lost.” And his answer to this state of alienation is, resolutely, love.
“The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love — is the source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety."
To Fromm, love is the key to another paradise, a connectedness where selfish egos dissolve in place of a newfound solidarity and unison.
Flanked with paintings by the ingenious artist David Choe and quotes from such figures as Sylvia Plath, Werner Herzog and Carl Jung, the Netflix series Beef
gives, to my surprise, an alternative answer to Fromm’s eternal question of human separation. Created by Korean director Lee Sung Jin and starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong as two strangers whose road rage incident soon spirals into a harrowing search for truth, honesty and meaning down a tunnel of darkness, trauma and violence, the series was an instant hit, reaching No. 1 on Netflix’s Top 10 list for TV shows in the U.S., No. 3 on Netflix’s Top 10 list for English TV shows, and has been viewed for over 34 million hours according to NBC News
. A story about anger, racial politics and how “western therapy doesn't work on Eastern minds,” the show, nonetheless, has its moments of tenderness. Although centering around Asian American characters, Beef penetrates the veneer of racial justice and points to a tragic philosophical core: that loneliness and isolation are a shared human experience, and that only by confronting our darkness — and with that comes self-acceptance — can we truly find our human paradise, within and without.
Standing on polar opposites of the socioeconomic spectrum, Wong’s Amy Lau and Yeun’s Danny Cho are unexpectedly similar to each other. The former, frustrated by her hectic career and a growing sense of isolation from her young daughter Junie and house husband George, seeks to project her bitterness onto a slight inconvenience that leads to the road rage. The latter, an unsuccessful contractor with an overly critical family relying on him, similarly takes out his irritation on Amy. As the story goes on, the small wound opened up by the incident, a middle finger out of the window of Amy’s immaculate white SUV, a seemingly symbolic take on her intensely troubled inner life boiling under her perfect facet of European wooden floors, aesthetically pleasing marriage and a zen lifestyle she could sell, bleeds and rots, as both continue to pick at new scabs the moment they form, as if they want to see just how far they could go, just how much damage they could do to both themselves and each other before they exhaust their energy in defeat. It is a competition to peel themselves open like an onion, in a desperate attempt to understand the source of their pain, but nobody can know whether at the end there is a prize or nothing at all. Fortunately, as we reach the series finale, an arson, a divorce and numerous deaths later, we see self-forgiveness and tenderness growing slowly — but steadfastly — between the two characters. As Amy lies on Danny’s hospital bed and he raises an arm to hold her, both shattered and barely alive, the light alternates outside as if they are on a moving train hurtling towards an unknown but hopeful future. They are freed after reclaiming their ugly parts, tucked away all this time for the sake of decency.
When George tries to pacify Amy, he says that “anger is a transitory state of consciousness.” Even if that statement is only to calm Amy down, dismissively, at that, it nonetheless makes the audience question: is it really? Does that mean the anger we hold so close to us does not matter, that we are expected to be calm, to pacify, to think for others’ comfort rather than our own? Is anger an illegitimate emotion, as bad as inflammables on a plane? Amy’s tranquility is for marketing, for the billionaire matron Jordana Forster to see so that she would buy her business. Danny’s smiles are to attract and maintain customers, too, or to deceive the elders at his church to loan money that he could steal to buy his parents’ dreamland. Both characters pretend to be nice, as if niceness is a merchandise, as if thry themselves are merchandise. They hide their true, imperfect selves away because they are never allowed to be who they are, so they pretend to smile in broad daylight and let their true selves out once in a while in the shade.
It is precisely the hiding that lets the open wounds fester; the young Amy learns to vent her frustrations at her demanding parents with shoplifting and casual sex, while Danny, bullied in school, develops a morbid obsession to keep his younger brother Paul by his side, to the point of discarding Paul’s college applications so that he stays with him. Evil breeds more evil to the point that they can’t tell whether they are the victim or the perpetrator anymore, and when they meet each other, perfect targets with whom their true selves can show with seemingly no consequence, they lash out in rage and then, later, in recognition.
“I hate pretending that I don’t hate things,” says Amy in Episode 3, “I Am Inhabited by a Cry.” Hiding depressive symptoms and failing to get proper support from their family and friends, both Amy and Danny almost lose the ability to confront themselves and their pains. Instead, they shroud themselves in lies about positivity, seemingly accepting the simple band aids of meditations and gratitude journals while secretly spilling out their rage onto each other, desperately holding onto this quick but harmful fix of their problems, addictively, just because there might be a spot of light at the end of the dark tunnel.
“Western therapy doesn't work on Eastern minds,” Danny says to George. True, how can providers of generic therapy and social-media-friendly mental health tips ever understand the Asian Patient, whose deep traumas caused by rigid family expectations, casual racism and lack of communication need a renunciation of the entire system, a revolution against the cultural status quo? The underestimation of the problem is yet another indication of how far we are from truly effective intervention, and how inhumane we are by standing at a safe distance, as if mental illness is infectious, as if we are afraid that others’ pains will remind us of our own, and their confrontations a jarring exposure of our own dishonesty.
“Can’t have form without space. Can’t experience light without dark.”
It is only after they realize they are lost in the middle of nowhere in the last episode that Amy and Danny understand themselves and each other and reach a moment of peace. Peeling off layers and layers of misunderstandings, childhood traumas, racism, sexism and class hatred, what remains are two spirits, naked and vulnerable, but breathing far freer than ever. This is why I hesitate to discuss the show as a mere portrayal — and in that, a certain justification — of Asian anger. It is absolutely crucial, for the cause of racial justice in this age of prolific anti-Asian hate crimes, to show angry, uncontainable Asians on screen, and Beef has outdone itself in this regard — needless to cite Danny Choe’s brilliant portrayal of Korean gangster Isaac, for instance, besides the main characters — but it would be a grave mistake to assume that this dark comedy gold is only an anti-racist token.
Staring into the same bagel-shaped void of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Beef is, however, as original as it gets — whereas its precursor finds resolution in forgiveness and human connection, Beef’s “empty but solid” nihilism is soothed by an honest, despite red-hot angry, venture into one’s own dark realms. Just like its characters, the show is uncontainable and undefinable, reaching far out and beyond the racial scope to land on a universal theme of alienation and the possibility of an ultimate reconciliation.
Zhiyu Lindy Luo is Senior News Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.