Beef Recap: Eastern Minds


I Am a Cage / The Drama of Original Choice
Season 1 Episodes 7 and 8
Editor’s Rating 5 stars


I Am a Cage / The Drama of Original Choice
Season 1 Episodes 7 and 8
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

I’ve said in these recaps before that I’m a former church kid, so when episode seven, “I Am a Cage,” began with Steven Yeun’s voice singing “Amazing Grace,” I knew exactly what I was supposed to feel: that heady mix of elation and belonging, tinged with something like invincibility. Since tying up some messy problems at the end of episode six, life has been good for Amy and Danny for the last eight months — things seem fine! But if you’re like me, you begin to do the math — Beef still has four episodes left in the season — and if Amy and Danny are at their emotional and financial peaks, there’s only one narrative direction for them to go.

Let’s start with Amy. The Forster deal has closed, and she’s bought a vacation home to do exactly what she wanted to do all along, spending more time with her family. But even in her little cocoon of well-moneyed relaxation, she can’t seem to fully unwind. George appears to have no problem reclining on the deck — he was made for this kind of life. Amy can’t sit still, waking up from a nap only to see her new nanny folding clothes. She offers to help, which confuses her nanny. Amy’s class anxiety, and her constant search for something to solve, haven’t gone away just because things are looking up.

Later, she and George try to have sex. It’s a far cry from the rough, hot session with Paul. Between Amy and George, sex is rote, instructional, and ultimately a flop. George can’t keep it up and Amy can’t help but comment on his “soggy straw.” Amy asks George what’s preoccupying him, and he confesses his “emotional entanglement” with Mia. The way George talks about his affair, using Goop-sourced language and soft-boy regret, illustrates even more vividly than the earlier coitus how deeply different he and Amy are. I can’t help but think about how Amy would break the news of Paul to George if she had to. I imagine she’d be super-blunt, short, and to the point. She’d do the regret afterward, but if she had to confess, she’d blurt it out just like she told George about how sex with him is too vanilla. Another point of their further divergence: Amy doesn’t take the opportunity to level with him about her infidelities. Instead, she presents a strong, supportive front and says she’ll go to therapy to process on her own.

At therapy, Amy talks to Dr. Lin about how she’s handling the confession of George’s infidelity. She doesn’t come clean to Dr. Lin about her dalliances, nor does she use the solo therapy appointment to talk about the reality of her internal landscape. Instead, she talks about unconditional love. Amy wants to know if unconditional love is possible or if there’s something that someone can do to be pushed out of the bounds where love can reach. I’m intrigued by the phrase “unconditional love” and how it layers into Amy’s anger, depression, and anxiety. It’s not just that she needs an outlet for her rage. It’s also that she’s searching for a love so big nothing she does could dispel it. I’m not sure if that kind of love exists, but I know that George is not the wellspring of that kind of love. Amy! Don’t stifle yourself for this man’s flimsy love!!

The next day, Amy hosts a party for George to show off his new pieces. I can’t quite tell what exactly they are, but it looks like George has departed from his heinous sparkly blob vases to neutral-toned figures wrapped up in embraces? Also displayed at the party is Jordan Forster with her new wife, Naomi. I have to admire Naomi’s climbing, how she’s so keen on making herself indispensable to this white woman that she will literally marry her. Another comment is being made here about how Asian Americans can interact with whiteness, and that way is to ingratiate ourselves to the point of being absorbed. Anyway, Amy plays the role of the dutiful, supportive wife until who should show up but Zane/Danny. It turns out that George, wracked with guilt about his affair with Mia, asked Danny to lunch. While there, George made the connection that Danny and Amy are similar. Being his golden retriever turned human male self, he invited Danny to the party so he could “meet” Amy.

Amy, of course, is horrified. She thought she was rid of Danny and all the tumult he signified in her life. And at first it seems like she’ll get rid of him quickly. Danny asks her what he has to do to get to her level, a question that echoes of Paul also looking at Amy’s wealth and wondering what kind of head start he would need to be a millionaire like her. Eventually, Danny asks her if she’s happy, and Amy answers, in true Amy fashion, that everything fades. The answer disconcerts Danny, and he almost leaves without any further incident until Amy leans over to pick something up off the floor and he sees her back tattoo peeking out. He recognizes the tattoo immediately from the butt photo on Paul’s phone (the butt pic he stole to masturbate to). He calls out “Kayla,” and Amy spins around, shocked. That’s all the confirmation Danny needs. They get into another confrontation — each warning the other to stay away — before Danny drives off.

Danny, too, starts the episode on top. Specifically, he’s on top of the stage, where he has taken over from Edwin as worship team leader. I reiterate that I would like more musical performances from Yeun, please. His performance of the good-guy-rock-star-church-musician is so spot on. Not only is Danny winning at life by leading the congregation in praise, but Paul is in the audience looking relatively happy, not to mention Danny is now dating a nice Korean girl, Esther. He’s on his way to achieving the perfect life as prescribed by his internal set of rules: the ideal girl, the ideal position in society as evidenced by his place in the church, and the ideal sibling relationship.

On top of all that, he’s used Isaac’s rice-cooker money to buy the plot of land he’s been obsessing over and built his parents a truly gorgeous home. He FaceTimes them to show them all the new appliances, the rice cooker, and the wiring he did himself. They gloss over his details, harried and impatient to get off the phone. I guess you can’t get everything at once, Danny — parental approval can’t be bought. The only slight hiccup seems to be that someone is ordering expensive magazines for Danny’s parents’ new home, but that seems minor.

That’s until Danny attends George and Amy’s party and finds out that Amy is Kayla, the woman who broke Paul’s heart. Maybe he never would have done anything with this information had it not been for Paul going through their accounts when he returned home from the party. Paul notices something strange; they’re taking in much more cash than they actually earn. Of course, this cash is Isaac’s stolen rice-cooker cash, but Danny doesn’t want to tell Paul that. So instead he gaslights Paul and asks him if he is the one not telling the full truth. Danny reveals that he knows Kayla is Amy. Then he tells Paul that Amy isn’t just some random successful woman catfishing him; she’s the road-rage lady he’s been talking about. As Paul’s face falls, Danny convinces him that Amy’s only been seeing him to get back at Danny. Poor Paul — his relationship with Amy was one of the only things he had that was untouched by his brother, or so he thought. Now he’s just someone’s kid brother, to be taken advantage of and made a fool. Danny flips into magnanimity. He’ll support Paul no matter what, but Paul has to be honest with him. Paul nods, the suspicious money forgotten.

The next day, Danny picks his mother and father up at the airport and receives the ultimate gift: His parents say they’re proud of him. Paul, too, is getting his own kind of catharsis. He pulls up to the Lau residence and tells George that he “fucked his wife,” which causes George to leave the house with June in tow, dealing the ultimate blow to Amy. When the whole Cho family reunites at a restaurant, it feels like maybe they’ve exorcized all their inner demons, like perhaps they’re the real victors of this story … until they show up at Danny’s painstakingly built home and see smoke. That beautiful new house that symbolized so much hope and success? It’s on fire, burning to the ground.

One of the reasons I gave these episodes five stars is because of Lee Sung Jin’s decision to wait until episode eight, “The Drama of Original Choice,” to provide us with the flashback. It would have been relatively easy to default to the quick emotive squeeze of past instances of pain earlier in the season. This whole time we’ve been asking ourselves, Why are Amy and Danny like this? And yes, there are the compounding indignities of everyday life, the loneliness of being surrounded by people you can’t be yourself around, the racism, the sexism, the toxic positivity of it all. But beyond that, Amy and Danny have hinted at episodes in their past that haunt them, whether in passing conversations or therapy sessions. To keep us on the hook for these scenes until the season is 80 percent over is a masterclass in retaining tension and keeping our attention taut and ready.

The opening scenes get right into it, showing us a younger Amy in her 20s having anonymous sex with a stranger she met on Yahoo Chess as Barack Obama gives a speech on TV. As the sex continues, Amy looks at herself in the mirror. What she sees staring back is not her reflection, but the face of a garishly made-up witch (played by Ione Skye). Flashing back further, we see teen Amy skipping school. She pulls shoplifted clothes out of her backpack, eager to have the home to herself, until someone rattles the doorknob. It’s her father, who’s supposed to be at work. As teen Amy barely escapes being discovered, she watches her father usher a strange woman into their home — he is having an affair. But the woman, who looked normal if nondescript earlier, turns in Amy’s memory to make eye contact. Suddenly her face is transformed, yet again, into that witch’s face.

Maybe to deal with these flashbacks or address her suddenly crumbling home life, adult Amy goes back to her parents’ home. There we find the remains of a complicated, painful relationship. Amy paid her parents’ mortgage but is essentially estranged from them. She doesn’t let June see them, and they, especially her father, are unhappy. As I watched Amy slump in her chair, eating her mother’s home cooking, it felt like we saw her fully displeased for the first time. Amy is herself around her parents, but they didn’t, couldn’t, love her for who she is. While Amy helps her mother do the dishes, she confronts her, trying to tell her about her father’s affairs, but her mother stops her. She knows all of that and doesn’t need Amy to dredge it back up. The solution Amy was looking for, some release from unburdening herself of her father’s secret, is nowhere to be found.

We see another flashback, this time of Amy as a young child, overhearing her parents shouting at each other about how they didn’t want to have her. Young Amy runs back to her room and tries to block out the fight by reading a picture book: Harry Allard’s classic Miss Nelson Is Missing! As young Amy turns the pages, we come across the origin of that garish witch that haunted her in her teens and twenties. In the picture book, the character is the fearsome substitute teacher Miss Viola Swamp. But for young Amy, Viola Swamp becomes the face of someone who sees all her failures, uglinesses, and mistakes, a pitiless specter that follows her around and sees her for what a bad person she believes she is.

When George and June come home to Amy the next day, Amy has an opportunity to lie. Fumi told George that Amy’s affair with Paul was purely over the internet and nothing serious or physical. Instead, she tells George the truth. Not just about the extent of her affair with Paul, but everything. The road rage with Danny, how Danny is Zane, all the events of the last year. As George grapples with what he’s just heard, she sums it up by saying that she’s a bad person and he’s a good one. I physically said, “Oh, no, Amy,” when I heard her say this. I feel so deeply sad for her in this moment and wish that her conclusion could be one of grace, of knowing that she made some mistakes but love would still be available to her. Alas, that’s not the case with George. He has no more room left for Amy, if he ever had room for her fully in the first place. He wants a divorce.

As for Danny, we see flashbacks of him being lovingly bathed by his parents and growing into a kid who is teased on the playground. In some way, the Danny flashbacks feel more typical, like part of an Asian American narrative I’ve heard before. But I want to be clear that this typicalness in no part detracts from deepening his character. If anything, it shows us how uniform some of these experiences can be, from being bullied to finding school difficult to stepping up at an altogether too young age to help with the adult tasks of keeping a household running. I think it’s also meaningful that the kid who trips Danny also looks Asian, pointing to how those of us who are more Americanized can often take on the role of surrogate tormentor even to people who look like us and are from the same parts of the world.

Central to Danny’s flashbacks is his abiding, many-faceted adoration for his little brother, Paul. When Paul is born, Danny is no longer the lonely kid being picked on. He has a sidekick, an underling, someone to call his own. This manifests in both cute and problematic behaviors. As a child, Danny doesn’t want Paul to leave his side. As a young adult, Danny still doesn’t want Paul to go away, so he secretly throws away Paul’s college application letters. Danny is doing everything he can to the point of truncating his brother’s future options to keep them together.

Outside of flashbacks, Danny receives a call from the investigators about the house fire. It wasn’t arson, but a fire started by faulty electrical wiring. The investigator says Danny should be happy! Now the construction company is on the hook for his insurance! Except Danny built that house himself. The faulty wiring is his. When Paul walks in, it’s parallel to George talking with Amy about their marriage. Danny could come clean and tell Paul about the wiring or keep up the lie. Danny, unlike Amy, opts not to tell the truth. He tells Paul that the house burned down because of arson and that Amy did it. Paul is devastated. He blames himself, thinking if only he hadn’t told George about his affair with Amy, Amy would never have burnt down their home. Not only does Danny let Paul take that emotional burden, but he compounds his lie further, showing up to the Lau residence as Zane to plant a glove in Amy’s bathroom as proof that she burned down his parents’ home. Danny thinks George is still in the dark about his identity, but George now knows Zane to be Danny’s made-up identity. When Danny comes out of the Lau bathroom, George has called the cops and is pointing a gun at him. A struggle ensues, and George gets knocked out. Danny rushes to his truck to leave before the police, but as he pulls away, a voice chirps from the backseat, asking him where they’re going. It’s June, who remembered that “Zane” kept Skittles in his truck and climbed into Danny’s car while Danny was wrestling George. Not only has Danny assaulted George, but now he’s accidentally kidnapped Amy’s daughter.

Beef Tips

• Danny saying “western therapy doesn’t work on eastern minds” made me guffaw. I have benefited heavily from “western therapy,” but I also kinda agree with him (my only successful therapists have also been Asian). To the Asian readers out there, leave your thoughts in the comments!

• As an older sister to a beloved younger sister, I feel called out by Danny always trying to keep Paul close. When we moved to the States in 2001, my little sister was a fixed point in my universe, someone I understood as being part of my existence. I didn’t throw away her college application letters, but I do remember vividly in middle school when our paths began to diverge, how I stayed a nerd and she became a social butterfly. The healthy approach to that kind of thing would be to celebrate it and appreciate how different we are. At the time, I was an angsty 14-year-old and felt totally betrayed.

• Something that keeps coming up for me, especially with Ali Wong as Amy Lau, is how things in Beef seem to comment on jokes she’s made in her comedy specials. That anonymous sex scene with the Yahoo chess stranger made me think of the joke from Baby Cobra where she likens her body to a public park because of all the dirty men who have slept inside. At the time, I laughed, but now I want to rewatch the joke to see if I missed some abject sadness underneath.

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Beef Recap: Eastern Minds