Beef is the story of two Asian Americans and their ensuing feud after a road rage incident. Danny Cho and Amy Lau come to loath one another as we watch them stalk, manipulate, and sabotage each other’s prospects, setting them on a path of mutually-assured destruction.
Yet Beef is more than merely two people pettily taking each other down. It’s a discussion about class and success and how people that should be united against their oppressors often redirect their anger onto easy targets just above or below them.
Everyone is miserable
As we watch Beef, the sad reality is that both of our main characters have more in common than they would like to admit. They are people alienated by the capitalist system that surrounds them, but they are so wrapped up in their own suffering they end up bringing others down with them.
For Danny, it comes in the way of poverty and societal expectations. A working-class contractor, he not only has to struggle to pay the bills but live up to the idea that he will one day provide for his parents in Korea. He is on the verge of contemplating suicide when we first meet him, one he only avoids at the last second. However, he doesn't work on his shit (insisting that “Western therapy doesn't work on Eastern minds” throughout the season) and, instead, projects his anger onto others. He, for example, escalates a minor sign of disrespect from Amy as the chance to engage in a heated road rage incident: the starting trigger for the show's eponymous beef.
For Amy, who is on the cusp of becoming a capitalist when the show begins, it's the orbit of the capitalist class's expectations that constrain her. There is a CEO character, an insufferable white woman named Jordan Forster, who often forces Amy to pervert her values and ethics to maintain a deal that will solidify Amy’s financial status. Jordan will make ridiculous demands of Amy, leading to a deeply uncomfortable series of exchanges. It’s evident from watching the show that Amy latches on to the road rage incident and later Danny himself (going as far as to extensively stalk him) because it gives her a sense of control.
These characters lack a sense of control and feel overwhelmed, and this pattern of behavior isn't sudden. They both grew up poorer and had childhoods where economic stresses were common. Amy's parents come to resent the economic burden that a kid placed on them, having loud arguments that made Amy feel thoroughly unwanted. Danny was not only routinely bullied as a kid, but one of the few flashbacks we see of their parents is them fretting about losing their motel business to a larger chain. An event we know comes to pass because, in the present, they have failed and moved back to Korea. Economic precarity was and continues to shape their psychologies, and it has led to resentment, projection, and deep depression.
Yet even the rich, “successful” characters in the show are deeply unhappy. Amy’s mother-in-law Fumi Nakai, after enjoying a lifetime of financial security, is teetering on economic ruin. Naomi, another side character, is financially healthy but does not seem to have many friends. She is not in the inner circle of Forster until the very end of the show (despite initially being married to Jordan Forster’s brother). When stressed Naomi routinely cuts out the world by zipping herself in a sleeping bag and then using a sock puppet account to anonymously harass close acquaintances.
Whether we are looking at the upper class, the working class, or the ascendant professional-managerial class, everyone in the show seems miserable. All of these characters suffer under the current system, but none of them seem to cooperate with each other, instead holding onto belief systems that prevent them from making connections and forming community.
There are many toxic mentalities that get in these characters' ways. Danny has held onto the belief that you have to both work hard to succeed (i.e. “meritocracy”) and stand by your family (i.e. “paternalism”). This has caused him to generate resentment for those that he perceives as taking shortcuts. He, for example, believes his younger brother Paul Cho's investment in crypto is gambling (which, fair enough) and doesn't like how he disrespects their cousin, so he demands access to Paul’s crypto wallet and changes his passwords. He is quite literally being paternalistic there because his hustle is not the “right” type of hustle.
Amy likewise also believes that hard work is paramount, telling Paul when he asks for money that becoming rich “takes a lot more work than good intentions” and that she has busted her ass for years. Amy monologues: “I’ve sacrificed my well-being, the wellbeing of my family. It’s not millionaire in no time.”
For her, at least initially, this trade-off is worth it. She chooses to let herself be strung along by billionaire Jordan of the Forster company because she is enamored by the possibility of becoming a wealthy capitalist. Amy becomes more and more toxic the longer she is in Jordan’s orbit and eventually gives a Ted Talk-esque monologue about how “You can have it all.”
Likewise, Danny’s brother Paul is not entering into solidarity with anyone. He invests in crypto in the hope of “getting rich quick.” Rather than engage in the meritocracy of his brother — one he believes is stupid — he has devoted himself to “hustle culture,” even though it's sort of clear that it's one he's not really welcome in. There is a very telling scene in episode five where Paul is hanging out with his fellow crypto bros, and the only white one is “pretending to be poor” for rhetorical cred, but it's clear that only Paul knows what poverty is actually like.
In a different vein entirely, both Fumi and Naomi cling not to wealth (they already have it) but to celebrity. Naomi is obsessed with being in an article listing some of the “most successful people” and is deeply resentful that this achievement is not recognized by those around her. She does whatever she can to cling to the recognition she thinks she deserves, eventually partnering Jordan Forster in a very hollow relationship.
Fumi wants to maintain her status in the art world, holding onto the legacy of her dead husband even though her finances are severely at risk. She could have at any moment sold a high-value work of art or confided in Amy about her deteriorating wealth, but instead, she pushed her daughter-in-law to pay for elaborate and unnecessary renovations: all for the prestige of how a wealthy, cultured family should look.
When we take a step back, we see a bunch of stressed, lonely people pointing the finger at everyone but the ones responsible: the capitalist system that alienates all of them from truly building solidarity.
Meritocracy. Hustle culture. Celebrity. Prestige. None of these characters are able to collaborate with each other because they are all reaching for a type of success that alienates and pits them against one another.
What all these characters lack is class consciousness or an awareness of where one's place is in the class hierarchy. Regardless of whether you are working class or middle class, if you have to use your labor in order to subsist, then you are a worker, at odds with the capitalists who own the world. It’s telling that our one billionaire character in Beef is unceremoniously killed by the door of their own panic room, a signal to the audience of who we should really be placing our ire on.
Yet all of these characters are so convinced that they will become successful that they do not do this work. It's only when Danny and Amy perceive having lost everything, are trapped in the wilderness, and are forced to talk to each other that these separations give way.
Hopefully, the viewers of Beef will not need to make such an extreme sacrifice to learn the same lesson.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.