Arts and Entertainment

To Hate Is to Be Human: Anger and Vulnerability in Beef

Director Lee Sung Jin crafts a masterful, mind-warping, and marvelously malicious feud in his new show, Beef.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a hard-working but struggling Korean immigrant, is at his breaking point. After purchasing three hibachi grills and a carbon monoxide detector for a suicide attempt but changing his mind at the last moment, Danny tries to return the equipment to the department store. When his return is rejected due to his lack of a receipt, he storms back to his aging pickup truck, then promptly proceeds to almost back into entrepreneur Amy Lau’s (Ali Wong) sleek white Mercedes-Benz. Amy, who is equally as stressed from juggling the pressures of her small business with a demanding family life, furiously honks for a good 10 seconds and flips Danny off before speeding away. This seemingly minor incident sends the two hot-headed drivers into a frenzied road rage that eventually explodes into a full-blown feud after they memorize each other’s license plates and vow to get revenge. As they continually try to one-up each other with increasingly dangerous and ridiculous sabotage, their mutual anger begins to consume every aspect of their lives.

Danny and Amy, played by the dynamic duo Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, are the stars of director Lee Sung Jin’s new dark comedic drama, Beef. Immediately after its release in early April, Beef shot to the #1 spot on Netflix, gaining widespread praise—and it’s easy to see why. The show boasts remarkable cinematography and costume design, both of which help craft the hilariously twisted world of Beef. Dramatic lighting and intimate close-ups, coupled with Danny’s very humble closet and Amy’s gleaming, sharp octagonal glasses, give Beef a subtle but effective authenticity and vulnerability. On top of that, Yeun and Wong deliver fantastic performances as the two morally gray main characters of the show.

Despite all their aggressive and illogical actions, Danny and Amy are portrayed as far more than hate-driven maniacs. Yeun and Wong imbue their characters with myriad emotional complexities, making them nuanced and achingly relatable, even in their bizarre efforts to ruin each other’s lives. They are undeniably flawed and, by all means, difficult to love. They make horrible, hurtful decisions—Danny effectively ruins his younger brother’s chance at a future by burning his college acceptance letters, and Amy cheats on her husband with Danny’s aforementioned younger brother. Yet, as the viewer comes to understand the extent of the emotional damage the protagonists have endured and the ferocity with which they care for their loved ones, it is equally difficult to hate them as it is to love them.

The incredible writing and character development in Beef are primarily what make these characters so relatable. Danny is cripplingly afraid of being alone and just wants his younger brother Paul (Young Mazino)—the only family he has in America besides his sleazy criminal cousin Isaac (David Choe)—to stay close to him. Amy yearns to be understood and is worn down by the relentless demands of everyone around her, from her sweet but extremely privileged husband, George (Joseph Lee), to the filthy rich department store CEO (Maria Bello), to whom she is trying to sell her business. Both protagonists have worked tirelessly their entire lives but are still pitifully unsatisfied with the people they have become. Through the roles of Danny and Amy, Yeun and Wong radiate raw, unfiltered humanity, making it impossible for viewers to not see a bit of their own lives in the Beef characters’ struggles.

Yeun and Wong also have a talent for keeping up with the show’s quick pacing, keeping the characters believable, even in the constant flurry of anger and emotion. As one chaotic event follows another, the pair’s sharp acting only draws viewers deeper into their crumbling world, keeping audiences on their toes rather than making them feel blindsided. The speed of the plot works perfectly to build tension; the snowballing momentum leaves no time for viewers to breathe a sigh of relief.

Beyond its heartrending characterization and thrilling plot, Beef is also a thoughtful and gripping analysis of the sinister effects of anger. Danny and Amy both refuse to let their feud go, and even as they watch their secret warfare tear their lives apart, they cannot untangle themselves because their beef is the only thing that makes them feel like they are in control. When they initially meet, they are both at the very edge of their limits, yet their rageful encounter leaves them with smiles on their faces: Danny laughs gleefully as he makes a quick getaway in his truck and Amy cracks a lopsided grin. Their feud fulfills them, leading them to lie, cheat, and scam just to get back at each other, even at the cost of endangering their families. For them, physical violence isn’t enough. With no other motivation in life, they devote themselves to destroying each other from the inside out.

By the penultimate episode, Danny and Amy have effectively flipped each other’s lives on their heads. Following a very messy situation in which Danny, Paul, and Isaac hold Amy’s daughter for ransom, the main characters’ worst nightmares finally become reality. Paul recognizes Danny’s toxicity and abandons him, while Amy’s actions result in her losing custody of her child. The only thing keeping the pair from falling apart completely is their hatred for one another; they both catch a glimpse of the other from their respective vehicles, causing Beef to come full circle as they tearfully break into a high speed car chase and careen off the edge of a cliff, crashing in a hellish blaze of glory.

As the finale episode begins, however, the pair somehow emerges from their wrecked vehicles with only scratches and bruises. Regrettably, the ending of Beef is when its intricately-threaded plotline starts to unravel. Beef tries to finally help Danny and Amy see eye-to-eye in its closing moments, but it comes across as rushed and forced. Stranded by their car crash, the two forage for food to survive the night, but accidentally get high off elderberries and pass the hours by in a delirious state, falling into deep, philosophical conversation. When the sun rises, they are suddenly the best of friends. “I see your life. You poor thing,” Danny murmurs sympathetically to Amy. After nine episodes of vicious anger, Beef’s conclusion is an abrupt close to an otherwise thoughtfully planned story, leaving viewers with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and lack of closure.

Ultimately, though, Beef does a phenomenal job tackling rage, mental health, family, and above all, the humanity inside everyone. By the end credits, the perversely humorous show invites viewers to reflect on themselves and the role that anger plays in their own lives. The show remains thought-provoking despite its hurried ending, and luckily, Lee Sung Jin has promised two more seasons of Beef. Whether he chooses to tie up the loose ends of Danny’s and Amy’s story or explore an entirely different feud with all-new characters, it is something all drama lovers should watch out for.