There is nothing subtle about Warrior. Throats get ripped out of necks with smiles and the sex is savage and devoid of romance. The characters spit racial slurs with a banal viciousness that only reminds you of those times you heard the same words and phrases and did nothing or politely slinked away to another distraction. The show isn’t subtle because the times have required it and we can’t afford to slip back into easy comforts and a false sense that everything is going to be okay.
The last handful of years have generated a lot of art that feels like a reaction to the times. Thoughtful thrillers like Get Out and the infectious and provocative music of Run the Jewels, and even Hamilton, and others, all felt like counter-programming to a fear-based agenda that thought little of justice, fairness, or the immigrants that have come here because they believe in a dream that once was and can be again. Many of them were developed in years prior but they all came out at the right time and tapped into a feeling in the air that couldn’t help but be inhaled and exhaled like a carcinogenic cultural cigarette.
Warrior, created by Jonathan Tropper and joined by Justin Lin and Shannon Lee as executive producers, takes place in 1870’s San Francisco but don’t think you’re going to fall into a fun martial arts show with roots in the writings of Bruce Lee without some punishment. No, Warrior reminds you that injustice exists because we have tolerated it and, while you tend to your shame, the show lifts you back up with a heavy dose of cathartic ass-kicking. Warrior is as much a reaction to the times as any other but it might be the angriest and I loved it for it.
The show seduces you with the story of a Kung Fu prodigy, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who crosses the ocean to bring back his sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), who had fled to America to escape an abusive warlord and save her brother’s life in the process. He is sold into a powerful Chinese Tong (one of several criminal organizations in Chinatown that offer services and protection to members in addition to their illicit activities) upon arrival due to his fighting prowess, though he soon discovers that his sister has no intention of ever leaving.
Ah Sahm roams a San Francisco that is wrought with racial and economic tension. The Irish immigrant population is boiling with grievance as they see Chinese immigrants soak up all of the jobs for less pay; an ineffectual mayor wrestles with an anti-Chinese immigrant political movement and the pragmatic–but no less racist–industrial interests who love the cheap labor; and a Chinatown populated by rival Tongs all trying to survive in the middle of a city that hates them while exploiting them.
Some of my favorite characters on the show, though, are the ones that don’t have a direct stake in the drama. These outwardly neutral but morally centered players are often my favorites in any series but Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), the sword-wielding vigilante Chinatown Madam, and Chao (Hoon Lee), the unaffiliated honest broker and dealer between the Tongs with secrets of his own, all represent the aspirations to transcend the violence and protect their community. They both take an interest in Ah Sahm but he is not ready to accept the call and be the man they think he can become.
The San Francisco cops also play a major role in the series, primarily characterized by the beaten down Sgt. “Big” Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and the idealistic transplanted Southerner, Officer Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones). The Western setting also plays a role as two of my favorite episodes in the series, “The Blood and the Sh*t” and “To a Man With a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail,” all reset familiar American Western tropes with our Asian heroes at the center, disemboweling the white washed Western mythology perpetuated through the decades with swift strokes of Chinese steel.
I can go on about all of the characters (Young Jun! Hong!) and episodes that illustrate the socio-economic ills, irony, and the consequences of unprincipled pragmatism but let’s talk about the real thumping pulse of the show for a second: the theme song by Reza Safinia and H. Scott Salinas.
I swear I’m going to blast it in my car just to psych myself up for a Target run.
How we interpret art always depends on the baggage we bring with us. We’d like to believe that there are objective qualities from which we can make judgements but the reality is it’s all about how art makes us feel. The best art always has something to say that connects with us in unique ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as having the same sensibilities for what makes a fun story, and other works give us something deeper.
I am the child of immigrants. The rhetoric of the last several years has not been lost on me. While South Florida feels like a protective bubble for latino communities, I’ve never felt like they weren’t talking about me whenever I heard the most vile of anti-immigrant speeches or policies.
I’ve had family and friends who haven’t been seated at restaurants while traveling outside of South Florida, and those that have been subjected to racial slurs. I’ve seen people clutch their purses or cover their wallets when black friends enter elevators. I’ve had an individual or two through the years express surprise at my lack of an accent as if it should matter whether I had one or not. I fear for my Jewish friends with every anti-semitic attack in the world and the regular appearance of headlines informing of the latest act of racism or bigotry only make me angry.
My baggage is not your baggage but art aspires to engender empathy. So if you’re lured in by the promise of a Bruce Lee-inspired martial arts epic, as I was, and come away with some challenging future conversations with friends or family about their experiences or your own, then Warrior transcended its premise for you too.
I recognize that my own sense of being under assault are nothing compared to what those who are in far more dire circumstances must’ve felt. Even the state my Asian friends are in, who have had to go out into the world under a constant cloud of fear over the last year or more, far exceeds my own anxiety.
Stories about a hero who rises to defend his people in the face of injustice and racism always have a good chance of connecting no matter your background. It’s comforting to see someone who fights for us, for once, when you otherwise feel nothing but a barrage of attacks and judgmental glares. This is what Warrior ultimately delivers with the fury of calloused fists that have been cocked and waiting to connect with fragile jaws.
Ah Sahm spends much of the first two seasons unsure about fighting for more than the selfish rivalry with his sister or the petty conflicts among the Tongs. This is the way these stories go even in real life. It’s always easier to look inward and pretend all of these terrible things will be sorted out by someone else as we distract ourselves numb.
But, like Ah Sahm eventually realizes, waiting for someone else to sort out the suffering only brings about more suffering.
Warrior tells us that we all need to have an inner Ah Sahm. We can all pick out the bully and punch them in the chest so hard their heart skips beats; only we punch with votes, we kick by engaging the lied to and showing them who we really are, we defend our friends in the face of ignorance and intolerance, and we scrap by making our voice heard when others think they can bully us into silence. When we walk away with our principles for justice, acceptance, and a more peaceful world intact and ready for the inevitable next challenger, we say:
“Stay out of Chinatown, or I’ll be back with a fucking army.”
Defend your Chinatown. Watch Warrior.
You can stream Warrior on HBO Max.