Like a spark in a bone-dry meadow, a road rage incident in a parking lot sets the lives of two people fully ablaze in Netflix’s hit show Beef. As the flames spread into the lives of their families and co-workers, it becomes abundantly clear that their problems started well before they first exchanged heated words and middle fingers. In the end, however, grace makes a surprise guest appearance and resolves the conflict in ways that nothing else could.
~ Spoilers to follow ~
When a near fender-bender in a parking lot results in excessively-honked horns and a faceless middle finger, Danny Cho (played by Steven Yeun) channels The Dude of The Big Lebowski: “This aggression will not stand, man.” Danny was primed for an outburst as he’d just endured a jaw-tightening episode of trying to return merchandise and being denied. It’s the latest in a long string of indignities he’s faced, as we’ll come to learn. Soon he’s speeding after the offending SUV and its aggressive pilot, screaming through neighborhoods and taking out gardens while people gawk. Unable to look his enemy in the eye before they get away, he takes down the plate number and retreats, still fuming and not letting this go.
We are then introduced to the other driver, Amy Lau (played by Ali Wong). She’s an upper-class business owner who has slaved away at growing her houseplant company until an elite millionaire retail mogul finally shows interest in acquiring it. On this particular day, she’s also set up for a fit of rage as the pressures of career and family threaten to crush her once and for all.
What follows for these two characters is a series of escalating interactions as they angrily orbit each other, each trying to bring the other down for the crime of road rage.
It becomes clear through all of this that both of them have been killing themselves for years in a desperate search for validation, stability, and love and neither has found it. As we come to know more about their lives, we find past sins and mistakes contributing to their pattern of behavior today as the problems just keep getting worse the harder they try to atone for themselves. It’s a deeply human quandary that so many of us find ourselves stuck in as we ask, “Will anything actually make me happy?”
As he reckons with his failures, Danny finds himself back at the Korean-American church of his youth. In a moment of raw emotion, he weeps during a worship song, and a stranger gives him a hug with no questions asked. It’s a glimmer of love and it moves him deeply, nudging him back into that community a bit. He meets his ex-girlfriend’s husband Edwin who is a mini-celebrity in the small church and relishes this status with a devilish smile. One of my favorite moments in the show is during a church league basketball game when Edwin’s pride is being brought low by Danny’s superior skills. He steps back and launches a 3-pointer, yelling “For the Lord!”, only to brick the shot and ultimately lose the game. He’s devastated, sensing his self-worth slip away as his role is usurped by Danny. A work of pride masquerading as Christian devotion is foolishness for Edwin while Danny’s pride has almost no mask at all as he uses the church as a fence for illegal dealings on behalf of his criminal cousin while also leading the worship band himself. It’s all so twisted.
Amy, on the other hand, is devoted not to a church community but to the hustle of her work and the “spiritual leaders” of that realm take her in and preach the gospel of fortune and excess. In her quest to grab hold of her dream of windfall profit and freedom from the millstone of expectations, she aligns herself with an even richer business owner and guru. She compromises and sacrifices her family to further her attempts at a deal, which only makes her burden heavier and her mental health worse. At one point, she’s pulled on stage for a panel discussion on entrepreneurship where she smiles and says “I’ve learned you can actually have it all” even as her life is spiraling further and further out of control.
Soon Amy begins flashing back to her younger years when she imagined being visited by a folklore demon who silently takes note of all her sins. Terrified of the demon tattling on her for eating candy when she’s not supposed to, young Amy asked the monster “Are you going to tell anyone?” The demon answers “No”. Amy asks why and the demon calmly replies, “Because then no one would love you.” Amy’s secret pain and the burden of sin that she carries becomes more and more crippling in her life because she believes Satan’s lie that there is no forgiveness and love on the other side of confession.
In the final episodes, Danny and Amy become more and more fixated on the other as the avatar of all that has gone wrong in their lives. If they could just exact righteous punishment on their rival then all would finally be right in their own life! When everything comes to a violent, chaotic climax of gunfire and gruesome death, Danny and Amy somehow manage to flee from the wreckage and find themselves alone together in a desert, injured and poisoned by the wild fruit they thought would keep them alive. They spew hatred at each other as they spew bile to the ground and begin to realize they may be dying together.
Here is where undiluted grace finally breaks through as it so often does — in the lowest moments. Danny and Amy, in their hallucinatory states, begin to see each other for the first time. In fact, their addled brains entangle their identities until they hear their own words come from the other person’s lips. They are seen by the other and they are the same. They are broken people without hope who have spent their entire lives kicking against the goads (as Paul calls it in Acts 26). For the first time in their lives, they are not hiding. They are exposed but the other isn’t attacking or recoiling. At the end of their own rope, they have been transported to the Garden of Eden. Two human beings, truly naked and unashamed. Fully known and fully loved.
Danny and Amy came together as bitter enemies over brake lights and horns. On that day, they were faceless personifications of the seemingly unjust fact that their blood, sweat, and tears have amounted to unfulfilled lives. But lying on the ground in a California desert, they finally understand each other and themselves. As they “die” together and awake the next morning free from the effects of the poisonous berries, they are somehow no longer enemies. They are not lovers, but more like spiritual siblings who fought tooth and nail but were ultimately restored. Like Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33, meeting later in life after so much anger and betrayal and somehow finding healing and restoration, almost to their own surprise. The show ends with a quiet picture of inexplicable love and care.
Grace turns enemies into friends, and bitter rivals into brothers and sisters. Grace cools hot tempers and invites broken people to dine together at the table set by Jesus himself, leveling the ground so we can see our brokenness and need. His own body and blood were broken and shed so that angry, undeserving people could be saved from the poison of their own toil and comparisons and be made whole. Beef screams “It’s not about you” in a voice choked with pain, but it’s a song we all must hear to be saved. And then, like The Dude, grace abides.