Mind in the Media is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television.
Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first season of the series “Beef,” now streaming on Netflix.
In “Beef,” a brief episode of road rage escalates into something bigger and badder. Danny (Steven Yeun) is pulling out of a spot at Forsters in his red pick-up truck when he’s honked at by Amy (Ali Wong) in her white Mercedes SUV. At first, he can’t believe it happened. Then she doubles down and throws out the finger. It’s on. Danny chases her, and she throws garbage at him. In the end, they both get each other’s license plates.
Things escalate from there. As a contractor, Danny pretends to be interested in repairs for her house so he can gain entrance and pee on her pristine floor. Amy scrawls painful graffiti that reads, ‘I am poor’ and ‘I can’t drive’ all over his truck. She gets close to his brother, Paul (Young Mazino), unbeknownst to him, and he gets close to her husband, George (Joseph Lee), unbeknownst to her. By the time we reach the show’s heartbreaking ending, these two have hated each other to the point of no return and then experienced last-minute breakthroughs while stranded alone together.
That is the tragedy of “Beef,” a show that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. But why can’t Danny and Amy connect? And how do they help each other heal in the end? Let’s explore.
Why Danny and Amy Can’t Seem to Connect
Danny and Amy meet in challenging circumstances. Normally when someone honks at someone else in a parking lot, it doesn’t spiral into a months-long feud. But Amy and Danny’s initial interaction is primed for this. “Anything in the human experience where we feel like we’re the only ones going through it, it just tends to compound feelings of shame…, of loneliness and isolation…,” observes Annia Raja, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in California specializing in burnout and anxiety, “[Danny and Amy are] emotionally and psychologically primed for, ‘No one else gets it, I’m alone, and I’m going to make other people get it.’”
Danny is an unsuccessful contractor, but despite the fact that jobs are few and far between, he still supports his brother and is trying to build his parents a house. Amy is extremely successful as the proprietor of Koyo Haus, but she’s worked far too hard for far too long. It’s taken her away from her husband and daughter, June (Remy Holt). Now she’s attempting to sell the business, and that’s stressful too. While they don’t appear to have much in common, the fact is that both Danny and Amy have depression and are using anger as a defense mechanism.
“Their depression doesn’t necessarily look like depression in the stereotypical way we think about what depression looks like,” says Kat Chan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles specializing in childhood trauma, anxiety, and highly sensitive people. “They’re not necessarily stuck in bed… [or] crying all the time… Their depression looks more like this persistent anger and emptiness inside.”
That’s even as some positive things happen to them too. Their depression isn’t linear; it has its ups and downs. But when it comes to one another, they both have one perspective: they hate each other, but that’s only so they can cope with their feelings of sadness.
Their depression doesn’t necessarily look like depression in the stereotypical way we think about what depression looks like.
KAT CHAN, LMFT
“Danny, his emptiness he’s trying to fill with some sense of external purpose or accomplishment,” claims Raja. For him, “his predominant theme is ‘I don’t want to feel alone.’” But his parents lack emotional attunement to him, and as Raja says, Danny experiences emotional neglect because, although his parents managed to feed and clothe him, his emotional needs weren’t met. Now, “he’s looking for ways to feel connected [with his parents],” explains Raja, “but he doesn’t have language around it.” He thinks if he manages to build a house for his parents, he’ll feel connected to them, but when the house burns down, his parents don’t act surprised or hurt. They just aren’t on the same page.
“On Amy’s part, you just see that theme of shame,” Raja observes. Shame, which is personal versus guilt which is behavioral, is an isolating emotion, and people who experience it often can’t see anyone else’s perspective. This is true of Amy. Her experiences from an early age have told her that she’s bad, says Raja, and in the present day, shame prevents her from taking responsibility.
They could internalize their behavior and take it out on themselves, but they externalize their behavior and take it out on each other. “The boxes that they unintentionally created for themselves that they now feel trapped in and all the expectations that they have and the burdens that they carry, the way they cope with that is by directing that anger outwardly [toward each other],” observes Chan.
“Sometimes it is easier to shift the focus outward and to find blame outside of yourself…. It’s less painful to direct all of that outside yourself.” In other words, as Raja claims, their anger ends up becoming a mask for their depression.
Why Danny and Amy Finally Do Connect
Danny and Amy take their hatred to the point of no return. They’ve been in a firefight and practically died, and then, on their way home, while arguing, their cars slide down into a canyon. It looks like they may never be seen again, but as Raja points out, that doesn’t matter. “They were so vested in their positionality and the stake that they had put in the ground for themselves that they were willing to take it to death… That’s how far they were willing to go,” says Raja.
When they’re traipsing through a no man’s land on the verge of death, they eat what they think are elderberries, get extremely sick, and begin to hallucinate. It’s only after this that their walls come down, and they finally connect over their emptiness and their loneliness. They even come to the conclusion that they “should have done this more often.” They really connect, thanks to the poisonous plants they eat, that they manage to reach this point.
This is the breakthrough they both needed to really understand themselves and each other. So is Danny right that “Western therapy doesn’t work on Eastern minds?” Is talking to each other the only way they could have made this breakthrough while a therapist would have been a waste of time? According to Chan, “There is absolutely a grain of truth in what he’s saying…. [but] the extremeness of the statement that it doesn’t work on Eastern minds… show he’s not open to [therapy].”
In other words, while there are absolute barriers to therapy for Asian Americans, such as stigma, intergenerational trauma, and cultural barriers, finding the right therapist can be transformational. But Chan believes work with a therapist can’t be done in isolation. “[Work with a therapist] is so valuable and it [can] help you gain awareness as to why you’re acting in self-destructive ways or lashing out at other people,” notes Chan, “but I don’t think it necessarily replaces connection. I think they go hand in hand.”
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