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In Beef, Therapy Isn’t the Answer

The female and the male are unwell. Photo: Netflix

Spoilers ahead for the entirety of Beef, including finale “Figures of Light.

In Beef, the crows are always watching. Often a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it presence onscreen, the black birds make several appearances throughout the season, and various characters tell detailed stories about them on more than one occasion. The show impresses upon the viewer that crows are savvy, remember kindnesses and threats alike, and have a robust communication network. They survive and thrive because they call upon their peers often and without hesitation.

It’s fitting, then, that finale “Figures of Light” opens with a surreal, subtitled moment featuring two crows. As the birds look down on Amy (Ali Wong) and Danny (Steven Yeun), they can tell that the two humans are struggling: “The female and the male are unwell,” one crow notes. The title of the episode is a reference to the work of Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychoanalysis, whose most famous theory touts the concept of a collective unconscious, or the idea that shared experiences connect humans throughout time and space. Paired with that title, the crows become a symbolic manifestation of how shared experience is advantageous, and how open connection is often the key to gaining meaningful insight.

Throughout Beef, Danny and Amy clash because they are so similar, but they both harbor a secret, aching desire to belong to something larger than themselves. As a therapist with extensive experience running group sessions with mandated clients, I recognize these maladaptive patterns; Amy and Danny are the type of people who sit in the chair closest to the door and, as soon as another group member says something that hits a nerve, they lash out.

Beef slyly plays with the idea that Amy and Danny might not be the ideal candidates for therapeutic intervention: Various characters invoke therapy-adjacent concepts like massage, meditation, and gratitude journals as quick-fix solutions to complex problems, but Danny and Amy aren’t interested in engaging with anything that might remind them of their damage. So instead of looking inward, they look outward, seeking scapegoats onto which they can project all of their problems.

As the series progresses, Amy and Danny’s continued engagement with their ongoing beef is treated as an addiction. At first, the two only need a small hit of hatred or revenge to distract from their own discomfort, but soon they find that they need increased levels of engagement to achieve the same effect. Amy starts by writing scathing Yelp reviews for Danny’s construction company, but ends up catfishing his younger brother, Paul (Young Mazino). Danny fires an early shot by peeing on Amy’s European oak flooring, but eventually attempts to frame her for arson. Beef is excellent at illustrating why these two are compelled to lash out, time and time again, even when it’s causing problems in their personal and professional lives: because it feels good in the moment.

People generally think of addiction as primarily substance-related, but it can be conceptualized as anything that an individual keeps doing despite negative consequences. Amy and Danny’s initial flush of excitement at the conclusion of the first episode indicates that they’ve found something that alleviates their stress and distress. It’s not a sustainable situation, but neither one of them wants to admit that. So they keep mainlining their rage, trailing a wake of destruction.

The irony is that Amy and Danny are attempting to self-medicate the same issues. Even though the two might be worlds apart in terms of social status and income level, we see that they’ve both been struggling to silently manage depressive symptoms since before they can remember. They often present as caustic and unlikable because they don’t like themselves very much. They’re both children of first-generation immigrants — Amy was born to a Vietnamese mother and a Chinese father, and Danny’s parents are from Korea — and neither family is depicted as keen on talking about feelings. For a host of reasons, Asian American individuals don’t often seek therapy, and for both Amy and Danny, cultural barriers are part of what prevent them from seeking outside help. Instead, they keep everything bottled up inside. Both Amy and Danny have internalized the maxim that hard work and continued sacrifice are what make them worthy of love, so they pour their energy into making their respective businesses successful instead of taking the time to confront the emptiness within.

While Amy and Danny experience similar physical and emotional symptoms, ticking off many boxes on official criteria for depressive disorder, the people closest to them can’t seem to understand. Paul often tries to avoid his brother because he can’t stand to be around Danny’s perpetual cloud of sadness. Amy and her husband, George (Joseph Lee), try to dig a bit deeper, engaging in an intimacy exercise meant to help them focus in the present moment and just be with one another in a shared space. But when Amy tries to get candid with George about how she truly feels, George gets hand-wavy, explaining that he “gets down” too. This only serves to sever the connection between them, because Amy knows that he is not experiencing the same thing.

When Amy and George first attend therapy together, we can tell that Dr. Lin (Kayla Blake) just isn’t buying Amy’s agreeable façade. Amy tries to say all the right things, including some finger-pointing at her parents for raising her to repress her feelings, but her aggressive cheerfulness gives her away. Later, in the wake of George’s reveal about his emotional affair with Mia (Mia Serafino), Amy attends a one-on-one session with Dr. Lin during which she struggles to share what she’s experiencing in even the broadest of terms. As Amy voices her fears about someday being “outside the scope of love,” Dr. Lin sees that Amy is grappling with something deeper, but since Amy isn’t being fully honest, no insight or healing can occur.

Alternatively, Danny doesn’t have the time or the funds to seek out a therapist. He also doesn’t have the desire. By the way he and his brother Paul speak about therapy, it’s clear that the idea of seeking help was derided in their household. When Paul tells Danny he needs therapy, it’s not a loving suggestion — it’s an insult. And later, when Danny and Amy wander through the wilderness, Danny levels criticism at Amy, saying, “You’re proof that Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds.”

So Amy and Danny seek relief from their inner turmoil in other people. Amy occasionally finds solace in her relationships with George and her daughter Junie (Remy Holt), and also uses her growing bond with Paul as an outlet for her frustration. Danny begins attending the Living Glory church, weeping uncontrollably with the realization that divine love and acceptance might be within his reach. The sense of community makes him feel whole — that is, when he’s not scamming the elders out of construction fees. It’s frustrating to watch Amy and Danny create opportunities for salvation within a framework of self-sabotage, but it’s also fascinating to watch them both subconsciously reach for the same coping mechanisms. Steeped in shame and self-doubt, Amy and Danny mistakenly think they’re the only people engaging in these types of behaviors, but when they finally realize that their individual experience is part of something more universal, there’s an instant, palpable relief.

Neither Amy nor Danny can bring themselves to confront the darkness within, until they do so together after running each other off the road and getting stranded in a remote location. At one point in the finale, Amy makes Danny seek out sustenance, gesturing to the underside of a boulder and declaring that “juicy shit thrives in the shade.” Indeed, it does. The entirety of the Jung quote that the episode takes its title from reads, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” So it’s no coincidence that the poisonous berries scavenged from the darkness become the catalyst for Amy and Danny’s enlightenment.

Throughout the season, several characters mention that Amy and Danny would benefit from talking to each other, and yet they always chafe against the idea. In the finale, the shadow berries work their magic, and the two enemies get the opportunity to squash their beef and truly connect. What unfolds is akin to a group-therapy session in which two individuals begin to relate on a deeper level. Once they realize that they’re not alone in their feelings, they experience waves of relief.

Oddly enough, guided psychedelic group therapy is slowly becoming a popular modality for mental-health treatment, but Beef knows that Danny and Amy wouldn’t have agreed to engage in any sort of structured format. Their breakthrough had to be organic in order to take hold. Their spontaneous moment in the woods gives them the space and grace they need to unearth their long-buried feelings. They survive until morning, and begin to walk through a tunnel into the light. Unfortunately, George, always depicted as levelheaded and cool, has entered a state of hypervigilance, the gun he wields emblematic of the ripple effect unresolved mental-health issues can have on an entire community. In a blind panic, he shoots Danny.

The final, silent scene in which Amy visits Danny’s hospital bedside is striking. Bereft to potentially be losing the only person who’s ever truly seen her, Amy thinks back to the single, impulsive choice she made that led to this moment. She laments the fact that she wasn’t able to see a kindred spirit in Danny and, instead, chose to engage in emotional warfare. The diminutive Amy curls her body around Danny’s unconscious form, their two bodies creating a single entity. As Danny ever so slightly moves an arm to cradle Amy’s back, lights cascade through the window, bathing the once-enemies in a much-needed baptism of collective understanding.

While therapy can certainly be a useful tool on the road to healing, a willingness to delve into contradictions of the self and forge meaningful alliances with others are the keys to lasting recovery. True healing involves a deep reckoning with past, present, and future. Out of all the therapy-speak in Beef, perhaps it’s Amy’s eccentric mother-in-law Fumi (Patti Yasutake) who has the best handle on the situation when she says, “You create the truth you want to inhabit.” Striving for mental wellness involves engaging in ongoing and often painful work, constantly challenging old ways of thinking and adopting more adaptive behaviors. The conclusion of Beef indicates that both Amy and Danny are still due for a deep reckoning with their knotty inner lives, but they’ve taken the first step by finally broaching the darkness.

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In Beef, Therapy Isn’t the Answer