In the most emotionally charged episode of the season, the Shen sisters steal the show with major breakthroughs that are enough to make your heart skip a beat — but for very different reasons.
After uncovering the mysterious key that was concealed in a box from Professor Chau’s office, Nicky finds herself in the kitchen of her family’s restaurant, where she is busy taste-testing Jin’s latest “fusion” dumplings, making dumplings of her own, and searching online for a reference picture of the same key. It’s a particularly big day for Jin, Mei-Li, and Althea. They have invited Dennis and his wealthy parents, Diana (Françoise Yip) and Alfred (Ronin Wong), to the restaurant for a dinner with the future in-laws. And while Mei-Li was the one who suggested the venue for this dinner, she still looks stressed out of her mind, knowing that she needs to make a dinner that surpasses the Soongs’ initial suggestion of a more chic restaurant with sustainable cuisine.
As Jin and Mei-Li grab the last of the fresh produce, Nicky and Althea have their first onscreen conversation of the day, in which they talk about the significance of the highly anticipated (and dreaded) dinner. They talk about how the dinner will likely determine Althea’s “bride price,” which is the controversial practice of a groom’s family giving money to his bride’s family. While Nicky says that the practice is akin to a “cow show” or a “livestock auction,” Althea reassures her that the event will simply be a bonding experience for the in-laws — with some pretty spectacular gifts. Then, Nicky accidentally drops a bamboo steamer, explaining that she still has pain in her right palm from the sword burn she suffered in her first confrontation with Zhilan.
As Nicky gathers the scattered contents on the ground, Althea picks up Nicky’s vibrating phone and discovers that Nicky has been doing a lot of research about the key … and Henry. “Some big-sister advice: Playing footsie over textbooks is nice and all, but this guy is eligible, totally hot, obviously into you. Why not lock it down?” Althea says after discovering that Nicky has been, ahem, stalking Henry on social media. (The sibling dynamic between Shannon Dang and Olivia Liang is definitely even stronger in this episode, and the contrast between their two one-on-one scenes in this action-packed hour showcases their understated versatility.)
As fate would have it, Nicky gets another message from Henry, who tells her to meet him at the community center’s library. Henry, who looks like he pulled an all-nighter, tells her that he found an old Chinese fairy tale called “The One True Warrior,” where a girl goes on an epic quest and finds a box — the same box that matches the marking on the key. The pair uses reverse image search to locate the puzzle box in real life, which belongs to Tom Travers, a hedge-fund manager who bought it for $1.8 million at an auction. When they discover that Travers lives alone in Napa Valley and is away on business, Henry suggests they “go on a little adventure” where they plan to sneak into the home, use the key, and look inside the box.
By the time they drive to Travers’s villa, it’s already dusk, which means it is the perfect time to put their plan into action. Using baby powder, Nicky and Henry are able to determine the numbers that Travers touched the most to enter his security code. You would think that a rich guy like this would at least have an extra alarm system, but Nicky and Henry are completely alone when they break into the house — or so they thought. When they find the box, they are stopped dead in their tracks by a man in a hood who knocks both of them down and runs away with the box. It turns out that the hooded man was hired by Zhilan, who was — once again — one step ahead of the justice-seeking duo. (We only get a few shots of Yvonne Chapman as Zhilan in this episode, but her onscreen presence is as deliciously sinister as ever.)
Henry — who, at this point, might as well be the international man of mystery — then suggests they visit his old friend Randall (Peter Dewhurst), who works out of an abandoned factory, for reasons that are not entirely clear to Nicky. The caveat is that Henry has to meet with Randall alone, so he leaves Nicky by herself in the car upon arrival. While waiting, Nicky calls Evan, who reveals that he unsealed Henry’s old criminal record. It turns out Henry was convicted for breaking and entering twice as a teenager and spent time in juvenile detention, and that information is enough for Nicky to furiously end the call. (Oof. You’re not winning any Brownie points for this one, #TeamEvan.)
Nicky gets out of the car and peeks through a back window, where she sees Henry trading another Chinese sculpture that he stole from Travers’s house for information about the box, leading her to question just how much she knows about her partner in crime (no pun intended). When Henry returns, he reveals that Randall knows Razor (Donald Sales), a compulsive gambler who stole the puzzle box to fund his addiction. With the puzzle box being picked up by a courier later that night, Nicky and Henry begin a long drive to Razor’s home in Marin County and have their first heated argument. “If you had questions about me or about my past … you could have just asked,” Henry says to end the quarrel, but it is clear that his partner’s accusations struck a nerve. (Eddie Liu is able to impressively showcase his full arsenal of acting abilities as the layers of Henry’s past are slowly peeled back, making his character somehow even more likable with every episode.)
By the time they get to Razor’s house, Nicky and Henry, who are already on edge, get escorted in by a scary armed man named Gary (Brad Kelly). Sensing her window of opportunity closing, Nicky shows off the key and offers to fight Razor again for whatever’s inside the box, knowing that he’s “a betting man.” While Razor has the upper hand at first, boasting that he knows Nicky has a weak spot, Nicky turns things around on a dime, hitting Razor in the sternum to floor him. “I don’t have a weak spot,” Nicky says matter-of-factly before giving the smug look that Liang has mastered giving at the end of her fighting sequences. Later, when she opens the box, Nicky discovers that she has found the scabbard for the sword that Zhilan stole from Pei-Ling. (Before Zhilan killed Professor Chau, he told her that her powers would be diminished if she didn’t have the scabbard and the sword.)
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, things have come to a head for Althea. As Mei-Li and Jin prepare běi jīng kǎo yā, or Peking duck, at the restaurant, Althea frets over the potentially calamitous dinner. Dennis, being the supportive fiancé that he is, insists that his parents already love her and even gives her a priceless necklace that is a family heirloom. Althea’s spirits are further lifted when she gets a call from Bridget Ross (Patricia Pemberton) — the journalist who confronted her at the party — who tells her that another woman is willing to go on the record about her former boss’s sexual abuse.
But when Alfred not so subtly brings up the idea of a prenup at the ill-fated dinner and she discovers that the other woman backed out of the exposé at the last minute, Althea begins to crack. “Am I worth more with [the heirloom] on? Is that why you gave it to me? That’s what tonight was about, right? My bridal price and, now with this prenup, my objective value. Let’s just say it out loud and put it in writing, but we won’t do it in dollars because that would be tacky. What about ducks? How many ducks am I worth? … Why am I negotiating? The object never has a say in what she’s worth,” Althea says before storming off. Thankfully, Dennis, who was just as blindsided by the unwanted prenup, sets his parents straight and goes to comfort Althea. He knows that her outburst was not really about the prenup, but he gives her the space she needs when she doesn’t want to talk about it. (This is the first time we’ve seen Tony Chung as Dennis since the pilot, but, man, he sets the bar incredibly high for everyone.)
After successfully retrieving the scabbard and leaving the box, Nicky and Henry drive back to San Francisco in the early hours of the morning and share a pivotal scene outside of Althea’s apartment. Recognizing the importance of the scabbard, which has also cured the pain in her hand, Nicky apologizes to Henry for ever doubting him and tells him to keep the protective covering safe for both of them. Before Nicky can leave, Henry blurts out some details about his past: He grew up poor, he was raised mostly by his grandmother, and he credits ancient Chinese history for helping him to discover his purpose in life. “That’s why people like Travers make me so angry … History — I mean, real history — shouldn’t be hoarded up in some fancy house somewhere … It should belong to everyone,” Henry says before Nicky pulls him in for a passionate good-night kiss. (The side lights of passing cars made it look as if sparks flew during their first kiss, and, honestly, if you’re not part of #TeamHenry right now, you’re just lying to yourself. The chemistry here is off the charts, folks.)
When Nicky sits down with Althea later that night, she clearly wants to talk about Henry, but she recognizes that her older sister is in a bit of a daze. What comes next is, without question, the most emotional scene of the season thus far. Althea tells Nicky about her own experience with sexual violence, as she was manipulated and assaulted by the same boss who is on the verge of being exposed.
“First, it was a comment on the tightness of my sweater. Then, a jab at how my chest is out of proportion with my ass. Then, I’m his favorite employee at work, and a promise of a promotion. But then I’ve overstepped in some invisible way. He freezes me out for a week, so I’m dying to get back into his good books. I accept a whiskey after-hours in his office; I don’t fight back when his hand is on my knee. So he grabs me, tells me he can’t help himself, I’m irresistible, and he …” Althea stammers, with both she and Nicky on the verge of tears. Nicky apologizes for not being there for Althea when it happened, Althea says that she just doesn’t have the courage to speak out publicly, and the sisters end up crying in each other’s arms. (This scene gave me goose bumps and makes Dang, in my opinion, one of the unexpected breakout stars of the year so far. I can’t wait to see the progression of Althea’s story line this season.)
Meanwhile, the episode ends with Zhilan opening the empty box with the key. And after realizing that she has been outsmarted, she begins to breathe with an unshakable rage. This game of cat and mouse has only just begun …
• We only got a few short moments with Ryan and his new boyfriend, Joe, in this episode, but the biggest thing that we discover is that Ryan has never been in a serious relationship before. He is, as Joe put it, “a rookie … a gaybie.” (Thankfully, Joe already knew that, so that won’t be a deal-breaker for him.)
• The normalization of Black-Asian love has also been incredibly refreshing to see, but I can’t help but wonder how the writers might approach the sensitive topics of race and sexuality if Ryan were to introduce Joe to Jin and Mei-Li.
• At the start of the episode, Nicky is trying to fold traditional Chinese dumplings, which essentially consists of laying out a round piece of thin dough, putting the delicious filling (which is usually made up of a mix of meat and vegetables) in the middle, and folding the dough over to seal the contents inside. I have done this a number of times, but I’m definitely more like Nicky in the sense that it takes me a long time to fold a dumpling if I’m out of practice. Finding the right balance between dough and filling has always been my biggest challenge, but my mother and grandmothers can do it with their eyes closed!