Anger is the cornerstone of Beef, a tense, thrilling, ten-episode series on Netflix, at least at first. It’s in a clenched fist, in a prolonged sigh, in a frustrated middle-finger gesture that descends into an all-out war. It fuels and corrodes its characters in equal measure. The first episode, with its slow zoom-ins precipitating an explosion, is a masterful study of thwarted rage and how cathartic it can be to finally erupt. Beef captures life as one big anxiety spiral, a never-ending carousel of problems designed to tick you off.
Any number of films and TV shows pivot on an anger towards the system, but the show stands out for how it marinates in the daily irritants — a forgotten receipt, a passive-aggressive in-law. By the time Danny (Steven Yeun) and Amy (Ali Wong) find themselves in a knock-down-drag-out road-rage incident, it’s just another outcome of all the anger they’ve been unable to process so far, all the stressors for which they haven’t found a release valve. Neither of them can be the bigger person, having been made to feel so small and ineffectual already in the face of life’s many nagging worries, its mundane everyday stresses. The show takes anger, an emotion as old as time, and roots it even more urgently in the current moment — an era that sells us on the ease of being able to have anything we want, only countered by our frustration at being unable to.
It's also a vicious cycle. Anger in Beef is also generational. One immigrant finds himself shouldering the weight of his parents’ ambitions alongside his own, another worries about passing down her trauma to her young daughter, who’s already started to show signs of anxiety. They’re both frustrated by the reality of their lives, they're both stuck maintaining the illusion of them. It's not lost on viewers that both their jobs — he's a contractor, she owns a plant business — involve fixing and nurturing. Even so, their brief interaction seeps into their soul like a rot, poisoning everything else they touch.
Despite the obvious class differences between the wealthy Amy and the down-on-his-luck Danny, the show doesn’t slot into the trendy eat-the-rich genre. Both characters are haunted by the idea that no amount of scrimping and saving will make them truly happy. Beef sees life as a state of permanent dissatisfaction in which — as both characters say at various points of time — there's always something, something preventing you from relaxing, from letting your guard down, from taking a breath. Danny finally builds his parents the house he’s planned to for years, only for his faulty wiring to burn it to the ground. Amy finally closes the deal that will enable her to sell her business and spend more time at home, only to discover a clause that mandates she stay on at work.
Both characters push as hard as they can, only to be met with relationships and careers that don’t give an inch. Amy’s husband responds with banal platitudes, while Danny’s slacker brother doesn’t consider that his laidback lifestyle comes at the expense of a struggling sibling. Both characters can only plaster on a smile and get on with it, while inwardly seething at the unfairness of it all.
Maybe that’s why the cat-and-mouse game they begin engaging in holds such appeal for them; they're so tired of putting on a front that bringing other people to their lowest is the only time they're free to display themselves at theirs. Each of them feels boxed in by their lives and their choices, and so coming up with ways to debase the other is the only time they can truly feel free. Their game of one-upmanship can come across as petty — he pees all over her hardwood floor, she leaves fake one-star reviews on his Yelp page — but the show locates how the urge to see someone at their lowest is inextricably tied to the need to feel superior, if only because of how worthless the rest of their life seems.
The show’s zooming out of the central conflict to depict the characters’ lives is what renders every small victory fleeting, every ounce of joy hollow. Beef is culturally specific but also universal in its themes of feeling trapped. Is there anything to alleviate us from our misery but the misery we create for others? What does it mean for someone to form real human connection when burning bridges has long been their only source of warmth?
It’s gradually that the show tips over into an examination of sadness and existential ennui. Even as the escalating stakes prolong Beef and run the risk of making it seem repetitive, it underscores the idea of two people caught in a trap of their own making, two snakes eating their own tails. As much as these two characters are hellbent on minimising, ignoring and questioning each others’ humanity for the most part, they're forced to reckon with theirs in ways they find they're ill-equipped to. And for all their putdowns of each other, their insistence that they could not be more dissimilar, they're more alike than they think. For all the ways they try to sabotage each other, they’re their own worst enemy. And for two people who spend so much time trying to get under each other's skin, all they want, like anyone does, is for someone to see the world through their eyes, to let them know they're not alone.