"u mad bro?": on jealousy and “Beef”
Ironically, maybe, I’ve never felt a more potent grade of jealousy than the strain that’s been flooding my system over the past few months. It’s as if milestones provoke some kind of immune response with their completion, like a fever your body conjures to smoke out previously undetected pathogens, or underlying veins of desire that you didn’t know existed all this time, too. I feel shocked by the number of other lives I want so urgently, all the ones that I (now have hours to) luxuriantly, obsessively window-shop from the Instagram conveyor belt. The work colleague eternally posting from a red carpet somewhere, the friend with the luminous baby bump, the indefatigably social ex, the younger writer friend—so much younger, fuck!—penning cool-headed prose on subjects I just started understanding, also honestly, like, pretty much everybody who’s already on a real vacation.
What often helps is having just the right masochistic, un-cool urge to confront many of these characters living large in my mental dramaturgy under the guise of “getting lunch” or “catching up” (and sometimes “journalism”) to suss out, like some small-town true crime detective, whether things actually are what they appear to be. Sometimes, this closing of a self-created distance does soothe the feral animal inside, at least until a new subject of fixation materializes on the pedestal.
Unlike envy, which is the thing that makes you feel a little bad when you see a beautiful house, or a group of lustrous ponytails speed by on a convertible, jealousy is the deeper conviction that actually, that should be yours. That you deserve that way more. I’ve been thinking about how closely jealousy is tied to one’s worldview in terms of however you’ve personally worked out the rationale for the way the universe apportions good consequences over bad; when someone’s relationship to what they have, compared to the terms of your own deal, runs counter to this internal religion-logic of rewards, mind = lost.
I started watching Beef, the new top Netflix show, last week with zero context aside from an Asianly duty To Support. Its contributions to the visibility project include star turns from Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, plus many delightful insider-y archetypes from The Community, like the worship band leader, the gamer himbo, that specific kind of Asian girlboss who bleaches her hair as an public press release for entering her villain era (not that I would know much about this). The immigrant household is still a focal point in the story, as are two second-generation strivers, but what makes Beef interesting is its clear disillusionment with work and aspiration—i.e., the tentpoles of Asian-American lore, if not the entire American experience.
Beef is a show about consequence and reward (heavy spoilers ahead, of course): what begins as a huffy parking lot exchange spirals into a year-long obsession that ruins everyone’s lives. I like to think Asian-Americans have a particular relationship with the nature of consequences thanks to the sum total baggage of that eternal “outsider” status, a generally pro-meritocracy belief system, and the “model minority” myth that frames success as a matter of finessing clear, existing rules correctly. You see these beliefs embodied by the characters of Amy and Danny, who #riseandgrind from opposite ends of the class spectrum: Danny, the contractor, hustles endlessly (and not always ethically) in order to buy a patch of land to build a house for his parents, who, in an off-screen realization of an immigrant’s worst-case consequence, had lost their business and move back to Korea.
Meanwhile, Amy spends half the season preoccupied with kowtowing to a billionaire Walton family-esque white woman who’s supposed to buy out her millennial-core houseplant business. It’s interesting to me how many scenes we get of Danny at work, hauling supplies around or literally falling out of trees, while we see very little of Amy “working” in a traditional sense; we never even see when the deal gets officially finalized. I like this choice because it emphasizes how much of an enigma that level of success is: what does it really take to build and sell a $10 million business and sell it to, basically, Wal-Mart? At least from what we can see, it doesn’t look that hard.
That’s the impression Danny and his younger brother, Paul, get from observing Amy’s rich bitch life. Danny thus finds retributive glee in literally pissing on/plotting to steal her stuff, whereas Paul, at first, is happy to be the recipient of her generosity so long as he gets to cavort around with Amy in that Las Vegas penthouse suite and her brutalist Calabasan home. The second Paul asks Amy for money (almost immediately post-coitus!) and gets refused, he immediately flips into resentment; why shouldn’t some of that be his? Never mind that Amy tells him soberly, with far more remorse than her onstage TED Talk humblebrag, how much sacrifice and work it took to get it in the first place. That Amy’s striving has always made her miserable makes the Cho brothers’ jealousy all the more futile. If only they knew.
If Beef’s goal was to simply point out that, yes, everything fades, even the success you so covet, then we’d have a solidly watchable show tailored for the usual millennial adultification wobblies. But I know I’m going to be thinking about the back half of Beef for a long time, which turns a show about the chaos of consequence and the various responses of jealousy and rage felt in response to its apportionment into an existential inquiry of each of our own personal negotiation with the universe. When we’re introduced to Amy’s preoccupation with unconditional love, we learn that the central question that she has apparently asked herself since childhood drills right down to the molten shadow core of the striver’s belief system: Will I be loved and accepted if I do bad things? Will I still be safe if I mess up? That is, can I mess up? From an early age, Amy has known the answer. The show’s titular feud, then, is her hero’s journey into realizing her worst fears: she finally fucks up, in the most dramatic terms possible, over and over, and so she loses almost everything and nearly ends up dead in the desert.
I love that Beef takes it so far that, for a while, I was convinced the show was simply going to end with Amy and Danny dying out in the middle of nowhere, condemned together in a very Old Testament style. Death, at least, would be an end of consequence, as Amy notes when they’re hobbling out of the brush together, bloody and caked in mud and wondering what it is, exactly, they’re trying to hurry back to.
But something has changed. The fury that once dictated the thrust of their lives dissipated without anything left to hover over and protect; there is now the knowledge that nothing is fair at all except for maybe the fact that at least once they got to have this glorious hallucinogenic conversation where they lay crumbling next to each other, whispering their strangest and darkest confessions. “I see your life—” one of them had told the other. “—you poor thing.” Grace, at last, is like insurance you didn’t pay for is like a being held in a hospital bed is like a kid giggling in your backseat is like the startling pink of a sunrise is like a familiar voice ringing out across the desert brush is like the unconditional love you think must exist somewhere is like the long-awaited embrace you think you deserve but also greater than that, even.