Steven Yeun and Ali Wong in 'Beef.'

Beef Captures Our Toxic Tendency To Confuse Love With Sacrifice

Danny and Amy both long for a love that’s unconditional, but don't actually know what that looks like.

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The range of sounds I made as I watched Beef, the new black comedy on Netflix, has become my husband’s latest impression of me: gasps, screams, and laughs somewhere between a donkey bray and a goose honk. I stand by every utterance. At turns tragic, hilarious, and completely unhinged, the series covers a lot of emotional ground in its 10-episode run, and so much of it has to do with the subject of caregiving. Part loving portrait, part cautionary tale, Beef is a unique look at the limits of love as self-sacrifice.

Warning: spoilers for Beef ahead.

There’s a lot about the series I am in no position to speak on: the cultural specificity of the two main characters — Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and Amy Lau (Ali Wong) — whose identities as first generation, elder children of Asian immigrants pervades their actions and motivations in ways both subtle and overt. There is no separating that influence from this story.

While their ethnicities (Korean and Chinese-Vietnamese respectively), are in some ways immaterial to the plot, they are essential to the characters, and the style and sensibility of the show. And yet the deeper questions raised about expressing love through a sense of duty are hauntingly universal. How do love and duty and caregiving overlap, and how do they get muddled?

Steven Yuen as Danny Cho.ANDREW COOPER/NETFLIX

Danny is an ambitious but often hapless handyman (“contractor,” he corrects a customer with a frustrated smile in the first episode). He lives hand-to-mouth in what used to be his parents’ motel, which they were forced to sell and move back to Korea. In their absence, Danny is the de-facto parental figure to his younger brother, Paul. Amy, meanwhile, lives in a newly renovated dream home in Calabasas (erstwhile hometown of the Kardashians) and is on the verge of a multi-million dollar deal that will allow her to retire early.

In good storytelling, every character should have clearly laid out “I want” and for this pair, those “I wants” are straightforward: Danny wants to make enough money to build a house for his parents so they can come back from Korea. Amy longs to close her deal, years in the making, to spend all day, every day with her young daughter Junie. That’s the last aspect of these two that can be described as “straightforward.”

They long for love that’s unconditional, but the tragedy is that they are only able to conceive of giving love through the condition of sacrifice.

It is obvious that these two have more in common than not, despite their socioeconomic differences. (By the end, one character has literally become the other, which sounds heavy-handed but it works.) Both grapple under the weight of depression while vehemently denying they’re depressed. Both suppress unresolved childhood trauma. But most notably, both define themselves through what they can do, materially, for their families, and are motivated to provide for husbands, parents, in-laws, children, and siblings with whom they struggle to connect.

Their feud (beef, if you will) is based on almost nothing — they almost got into a minor fender bender in a parking lot. But almost nothing in the right hands can be emotionally useful. In one another, they find an outlet for the depression, rage, and stress they hide from the rest of the world in order to keep up appearances. Though their hatred of one another is barely disguised self-loathing, it is, sadly, the one space where they are doing something for themselves. The only actions they take that aren’t about giving up themselves for other people.


Both Amy and Danny are acutely aware, and resentful, of how hard they work to provide for their families; it is their all-consuming, genuinely loving, but toxic drive. They long for love that’s unconditional, but the tragedy is that they are only able to conceive of giving love through the condition of sacrifice. For their part, their families know but don’t necessarily appreciate the depths of that sacrifice for a variety of reasons. Danny and Paul’s relationship is codependent — Danny needs Paul to need him, which leaves the younger man smothered, stagnated, and resentful.

Amy’s husband, the well-meaning but clueless George, was raised wealthy, which makes it easy for him to live by the mantra that money isn’t everything (“Ever notice it’s only the people who have money who think it’s not important?” Amy counters.) while heedlessly making poor financial decisions that will inevitably fall on Amy.

Ultimately, no one gets the love they truly want or need, and Amy and Danny give so much of themselves that there’s barely a self left. “We’re just a snake eating its own tail,” Amy aptly muses in the final episode.

Until the end, both dismiss obvious intergenerational trauma as being at the root of their problem. When a therapist asks Amy if her parents’ love ever felt conditional, she replies, as if by rote, “I know my parents loved me. They showed me that through sacrifice.” (“What a ridiculous question and also how dare you,” says Wong’s expression in the scene, which just moments before had been childlike and vulnerable.) Even if Danny were to have access to mental healthcare, it seems he wouldn’t deign to see a therapist. “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds,” he pontificates more than once.

Amy and Danny see a light at the end of the tunnel.ANDREW COOPER/NETFLIX

Amy and Danny’s version of caregiving, while familiar to them, and deeply ingrained, is not just toxic to those who love them, but poisonous to their own sense of self. But neither of them — as individuals or caregivers — is irredeemable. Their desire to love and be loved is powerful and pure. If they’re snakes eating their own tails, it’s only because they don’t realize it’s possible to eat anything else. But it is, and they can. They just need to unclench their jaw and let go. These are not people destined to f-ck everything up (Danny’s perception of himself) or terrible people who need to hide their true selves (Amy’s perception of herself). They have fallen into a trap many caregivers do: believing that love requires subsuming one’s true self in order to be strong enough, or good enough, or “right.”

By the series finale, their lives have crashed down around them, and whether the families they’ve sacrificed everything for will ever be whole again remains unspoken and unseen. But in the show’s finale moment, the two — who have always been stand-ins for the other — huddle close and embrace. It’s a lesson learned late, but maybe not too late.

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