‘Beef’ Review: Why is it So Hard for Us to be Happy?

Show poster for Beef. Steven Yeun and Ali Wong are the main characters. They are angrily standing face to face with one another. Steven  Yeun is in a denim jacket. Ali Wong is in a white cut out dress.
Netflix’s Beef featuring Steven Yeun as Danny Cho and Ali Wong as Amy Lau Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Beef follows two strangers Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong) who get into a road rage incident. Throughout the show, they continue to throw their anger about their dispositions in life at each other. The show is a brilliant dark comedy exploring the feelings of rage, apathy, and depression through the comedic but increasingly concerning feud between Danny and Amy. There’s so much to talk about in this show: the artwork, the comedic elements, the attention to detail, and the list goes on. It’s seriously phenomenal. Everyone involved should be incredibly proud of their hard work.

This is a photo from the show Beef. It is a white van and someone is sticking their hand out of the driver side window. They are flipping their middle finger off to the camera, likely to the person in the car behind them.
Beef: Ali Wong as Amy in episode 101 of Beef. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

I’d like to start off by saying that Beef is the show to beat this year. Beef is an effortlessly brilliant reaction to the state of the world during a pandemic. While this show is not about the pandemic, while watching Danny and Amy slowly become more impatient and apathetic, I can’t help but think about it. The pandemic made many people snap in the same way the road rage incident made Danny and Amy snap. After being in a pandemic for the past few years, I, too, feel crazy just like Danny and Amy. They are portrayed as crazy while everyone around them is able to be, or pretend to be, “normal.”

Beef gives us a glimpse into the lives of two Asian Americans trying to make their way in America. They are at a disadvantage due to their race, class, immigration status, and gender. Beef highlights many of the unique Asian American experiences we haven’t seen on television before which was creator and showrunner Li Sung Jin’s goal. However, the show is most definitely relatable to anyone suffering under capitalism. Amy and Danny are both forced into lives they do not want in order to survive just like the rest of us. The pressures of hustle culture are explored through Danny while the trap of being a “woman who has it all” is explored through Amy.

Beef perfectly shows us how trying to survive capitalism reduces us to roles that serve a function. These roles rob us of connecting with those around us and lead us to resent and use others instead, which is what Danny and Amy do. This makes our relationships transactional and keeps our lives empty no matter how high up the ladder we climb. By embodying the roles given to us by capitalism, we all trapdoor into an apathetic purgatory-like depression.

Beef perfectly explores that depression in Amy and Danny. Like us, Amy and Danny both don fake personas for the majority of the show. Amy as a calm, cool, and collected girl boss. Danny as a Christian, hard-working son, and put together first born brother. When, in fact, the only real thing in either of their lives is the beef between them.

The only time Amy and Danny start to drop those personas fully is in the last two episodes, “The Great Fabricator” and “Figures of Light” when they’ve lost everything and everyone. The last two episodes perfectly wrap up the show and are worth making it to the end of the story. These episodes show us that it is only when we have been outside of the confines of capitalism for long enough that we are able to stop beefing and realize how deeply we mirror one another.

Maria Bello as the character Jordan is sitting across from Ali Wong as the protagonist Amy. They're sitting on brown sofas in a beige colored room. The two look to be having a serious conversation over some paperwork that Amy is holding.
Beef. (L to R) Maria Bello as Jordan, and Ali Wong as Amy in episode 103 of Beef. Cr. Andrew Cooper/Netflix © 2023

To me the vibe of the show changes in the seventh episode, “I Am a Cage”. Amy and Danny confront one another, and for the first time, instead of it being about their feud, Danny wants to talk. They have a conversation about whether or not Amy feels happy and fulfilled due to her hard work. Danny, like us, wonders if climbing up the ladder of capitalism will eventually lead to happiness. Amy tells Danny “everything fades”.

What Amy says does not hit the viewer fully until episode 9 when Jordan (Maria Bello) says the same thing to Amy. Up until this point, Jordan’s character have been a joke of sorts. She’s obnoxiously white and by far the most privileged character we see in the show. Everyone in the show from Danny to Amy is working to get where she is, to have the access and freedom they believe she has. Like them, we believe we can’t get to where Jordan is because of race, class, gender, etc. We tell ourselves Jordan is one of the lucky ones and we’ll never get where she is. Except we are where she is because she’s also unhappy. Because even for Jordan, everything fades.

This lesson in fading continues in the final episode “Figures of Light” when Danny and Amy admit that every relationship and accomplishment was something they thought would make them happy. Truth is: they have never been happy because they built those relationships and made those accomplishments for the wrong reasons. They both show us “the answer” is not capital, family, romance, nor is it a dream job. We expect these things to make our lives complete, but often we end up empty anyway. Even those of us who pretend to be happy like George (Joseph Lee), Paul (Young Mazino), or Naomi (Ashley Park) are often also unhappy and empty.

Amy and Danny in the middle of their road rage incident. Their cars are close together. Both are angrily leaning out of their driver's side windows and facing the camera. Their teeth are bared in anger and frustration.
Beef (L to R) Amy portrayed by Ali Wong Danny and portrayed by Steven Yeun Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

So then what Beef shows us is that capitalism is bad right? Not Exactly.

Capitalism is bad, yes. Everyone from those hustling to pay rent to those who hoard billions of dollars they do not need are unhappy under capitalism. But capitalism is merely a machine fuelled by an already existing unhappiness. And because unhappiness fuels capitalism, we as a society have become a snake eating its own tail.

We are killing ourselves thinking it will bring us satisfaction and wondering why we aren’t happy no matter what we acquire. Beef asks us why it is so hard for us to be happy, no matter how hard we try. Maybe it’s just my depression, but I am unsure if Beef gives us an answer to its question. The answer might lie in living authentically and making real connections where you are truly seen. This is hard to do when the majority of us are playing roles given to us by capitalism. That might be the answer. But I do not think Beef is trying to give us an answer.

I think Beef is merely doing what Danny and Aly did to one another. Beef is forcing us to confront our feelings, drop the bullshit, and admit we are unhappy. As Carl Jung once said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” The title of the last episode, “Figures of Light,” is inspired by this quote. We will not find the answer to unhappiness without admitting that we are unhappy in the first place.

We are three years into a pandemic, marginalized people’s rights are being threatened all over the world, and a new recession that somehow tops the last one is happening every other day. Of course we are unhappy! But Beef sees us as Danny and Amy eventually see each other, we are not crazy. Maybe we do not have an answer right now as to how to be happy, but I think Beef is telling us that by seeing each other and being honest we can create one together.

Want to read more from Sydney? Check out this interview Chatting with ‘The Owl House’s Very Own Zeno Robinson!

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