Beef feels like you’re preparing to hit a punching bag. It riles up your adrenaline and uses up your emotional battery, but once you’ve made that final swing, there’s a catharsis. Maybe even a sense of peace.
That’s where Danny Cho and Amy Lau, played fantastically by Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, ultimately arrive at the end of the season. After a bad episode of road rage left them hell-bent on ruining each other’s lives for months, the finale finds them at their lowest points, and also their most vulnerable. It’s only then, stuck in the wilderness with no service or escape, that they’re able to finally have a real conversation, and each start to see the other person for who he or she is. When they manage to limp their way back to civilization, they’re intercepted by Amy’s estranged husband, who shoots Danny on the spot, unaware that Amy has now bonded with her former rival.
The episode, and series, concludes with Amy sitting at Danny’s bedside at the hospital as he lies there unconscious. She doesn’t know if he’ll survive, and her face is awash with concern. Just a few days ago she wanted to destroy this man and here she is now, feeling an inexplicable closeness to him. So close, in fact, that she crawls into his bed and cuddles by his side. That tender yet ambiguous moment was actually Wong’s idea. (She and Yeun are both executive producers too.)
“I think even in the early pitch stages, because we created a 45-minute presentation that was the overview of the whole season, we were looking for an ending that felt like it had some closure of these two people that briefly got to touch something true in one another, but almost too late,” Lee Sung Jin, the creator of Beef, tells ELLE.com. “And I wasn’t really sure what that would look like, but we were on a Zoom—Steven, Ali, myself, and Ravi Nandan and Alli Reich from A24. And Ali [Wong] actually pitched crawling into the hospital bed…so all credit to her.”
Given its abstract nature, Lee knows viewers will have various reads on that scene, but he aimed to evoke a feeling of familiarity and home. That mirrors how Amy and Danny must feel about each other by now after bonding in the wilderness—there’s comfort where contempt used to be. She crawls into his bed like a child finding her parents in the middle of the night after a bad dream.
“I leave it open to interpretation how people want to view that moment, but I just knew I wanted to create a mood, and that mood was something that felt very nostalgic and familiar and like home in a lot of ways,” Lee adds, and points out the music choice.
“And I think the Smashing Pumpkins ‘Mayonnaise’ song helps a lot. I’ve been wanting to use that for quite some time. It was in the outline, and I’m so glad we actually got it. I think all those things combined really created this feeling that I was chasing and what that feeling means, I think, is open to each viewer. I’m really curious what people are going to think by that final moment.”
The interpretations vary even more when you consider the slight movement Danny makes (he’s alive!) before the screen cuts to black. As Amy lies beside him, he starts to close one arm around her, as if to return an embrace, but before he can touch her, the credits roll.
“That was always written into the script,” explains Lee, who also directed the finale. “I just wanted that little extra something that makes you wonder what’s going to happen next, or what does this mean for Danny? What does it mean for Danny and Amy that he’s moving? I knew that just rhythmically, almost as a song, I knew that there needed to be just something that gets cut off right before credits.” The closer was “fun to write and then fun to see it executed,” he adds.
Though Beef is far more nuanced than a simple enemies-to-lovers story, it’s possible some viewers could see these gestures as the blossoming of a romance. “Yeah, I knew that some would for sure,” Lee admits. “I think any time two people have that deep of a connection, it’s easy to extrapolate that. But I honestly don’t know. I’m very curious what would happen to Danny and Amy once they leave that room. I have my own feelings on the romantic side of their relationship, but I certainly welcome all interpretations.”
Amy and Danny never would’ve gotten to this place if they didn’t spend all that time in the wilderness together, even if by accident. After the pressure-cooker episode 9—Danny holds Amy’s daughter hostage, Amy has Danny’s cousin stage an armed robbery at her rich boss’ house, and the whole night ends in a fatal shootout with police—Amy and Danny, still at each other’s throats, end up driving each other off a cliff in the California desert. They’re stranded without service, human contact, or a means to get back to society; they only have each other. It’s here that the judgements they projected on each other start to melt. What starts as begrudgingly carrying or feeding the other to survive turns into high thoughts from poison berries (“What were we before monkeys?”), to the deepest conversations they’ve ever had in their lives (“I’ve never talked to anybody like this before.”). At one point, their voices and memories start to blend, as if they’re seeing themselves in each other.
“I did want these two characters in the finale to be completely unattached. To see what happens once every single aspect of their life has been stripped away from them. And so the only place to really do that is out in the middle of nowhere, and there is…almost like a vision quest or a ‘psychedelic trip in Joshua Tree’ sort of feeling to being out in the middle of nowhere. That was fun.”
The series actually hints at that in the episode titles, which are all based on quotes. The one for episode 9, “The Great Fabricator,” is actually aabout “how attachments are the greatest fabricator and the only way to reach the truth is by ridding yourself of the illusion that’s created by attachments,” Lee paraphrases. So the next logical step was removing them.
Adding another layer to their already complex dynamic is Danny and Amy’s depression. They visibly struggle with their mental health throughout the series.
He attempted suicide the day they got in a road rage incident and later tries to find solace in church. She feels unfulfilled by her family and work, saying she feels “empty but solid” inside, or like the ground is “up here,” pointing to her chest. But they both deny that they need help. Danny insists that “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds.” During couple’s therapy with her husband, Amy sarcastically shares how growing up with her immigrant parents taught her to repress all her feelings.
When it came to portraying mental health in Beef, Lee “just wanted to explore it as truthfully as I could as I’ve experienced it,” he says.
“That speech that Amy gives to George in episode 3 during the intimacy exercise, that was almost verbatim me breaking down in front of the writer’s room because we were talking about the feeling and I was reflecting on my goddaughter Lily, who was four at the time, and she’s the best, and she does not have this feeling. She is a pure, joyful little kid. And it really made me quite sad thinking at the possibility that she might acquire this feeling someday. And in talking about that, I just started breaking down and the best way I could describe it was that it feels like the ground, but up here, by your chest.”
Beef also acknowledges how economic status plays into it, with Danny asking Amy how “get to where you are,” in terms of wealth. Maybe if he was rich, successful, and married like her, he would feel secure. But she has bad news: “Nothing lasts, everything fades. We’re just a snake eating its own tail.”
“That’s just born out of trying to accurately reflect my own life,” Lee explains. “I’ve been very, very poor in the past, an unemployed writer in New York, and this feeling was there. And even as I speak to you now with a show coming out on Netflix, the feeling is similarly, almost maybe heightened, it’s still there. And yeah, it’s something that never, at least for some people, goes away. So a lot of this stuff [I] was just trying to mine from my own life.”
Beef is refreshing in many ways, from its explorations on wealth, anger, and revenge, to its surreal visual elements, to its downright riveting performances. (Ali Wong and Steven Yeun’s Emmys campaigns start now!) But also, as you’ve probably noticed, it features an almost entirely Asian cast. The premise—two strangers caught in a road rage-induced vengeance spiral—didn’t have to revolve around Asian characters, but it does. They’re flawed, awful people, but also relatable and real. In a time when Asian representation in Hollywood is growing but still minimal, one might feel pressure, or a responsibility, to portray Asian characters in a certain way; but Lee did not.
“I didn’t really think about it too much, to be honest,” he says. “I think for myself as a writer and definitely in our writer’s room, we’re very heavily focused on the character first. And not to say that that’s the only way. There are certainly shows that have a more top-down approach of being like, ‘I want a social commentary on this thing, or I want to tackle this issue,’ which is great. Other shows do that very well.”
“I think for us, we’re almost the inverse where it’s all about Danny and Amy and Paul and George, like who are these people really, and just losing yourself in their worlds and being like, well, would Danny have grown up in the Korean church? I think so. So then let’s explore that. And then who would Amy marry if she’s trying to check all the boxes? Oh, well I know some people in the Japanese high art world and let’s explore that. So I think it really is more [about] falling in love with these characters and filling out their world and then naturally, organically, some identity stuff is going to of course bubble up, being who they are. But I think our room really preferred that sort of ground-up versus top-down approach in terms of those issues.”
His focus on the characters is what makes Beef sizzle (pun intended). We’re stuck with these two leads on their paths to destroying each other, and themselves, for an entire season. It’s as if we, like Amy, are crawling into bed with them and all their baggage, seeing them as clearly as the pores on their faces. Lee originally pitched Beef as an anthology, so if the show continues, it will likely be without Danny and Amy, but that depends on what the powers that be decide.
“If given the opportunity, of course, I’d love to explore them further,” he says. “Because Danny and Amy, I love those characters.”
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.
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