*This article contains spoilers for the entirely of Warrior Season 1, and Season 2, Eps. 1 & 2*
Like HBO’s landmark series “Deadwood,” “Warrior,” is a Western story more interested in social politics than shootouts. While the Jonathan Tropper helmed program is most definitely a Cinemax show, often valuing bone crunching stunt-choreography over narrative nuance, it deftly manages to balance the pulpy traits of its imported wuxia influence on American film history, with mindful parallels to growing administrative corruption in uncertain times of radical change leading up to an election day. If the first two episodes of the new (and possibly final) season are any indication, “Warrior” has a lot more to say on such paramount subjects.
Based on a concept developed by Bruce Lee before his tragic death, Cinemax’s martial arts action/historic drama hybrid is slated to be the WB-owned network’s final original content outing. With the ‘Streaming Wars’ officially underway, and more battle lines being drawn in the sand, day by day – more theaters closing and threatening the future of the entertainment industry – the company is going all in on its HBO Max branding, with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh recently suggesting that a new chapter of “The Knick” – originally broadcast on Cinemax – is in development from Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” fame (hopefully, he gets to direct that pilot before “The Lion King” sequel). Were the show to be produced, it would presumably end up on the new Max platform. While no plans to continue “Warrior” after its sophomore season have been announced, its not uncommon for well-regarded shows with a passionate community of fans to end up finding renewal through a different distributor (like “Cobra Kai,” for example). So, it is possible this isn’t the end of the road for the show.
Inching closer to the passing of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act – signed and enacted by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882 – the premiere hour of “Warrior’s” second batch of episodes (entitled, “Learn to Endure, or Hire a Bodyguard”) begins with heavy breathing sounds, our protagonist Ah Sahm (an outstanding Andrew Koji) in the middle of another bare-knuckle bout. After taking out the much larger fighter, the crowd erupts into a sea of boos. It seems Ah Sahm’s value as a prizefighter is directly proportional to the hate he inspires, one that has earned him a nickname: “The Itchy Onion.”
“What’s a Chinatown hatchet man doing in a Barbary Coast fighting ring?” Madam Vega (Maria Elena Laas) the owner of the establishment asks the Hop Wei. “Looking for weakness,” is the bloodied immigrant’s response, referring to his own physical skillset, not those he’s pitted against. Something seems off about Ah Sahm since his fight to the death with Li Yong (Joe Taslim, “The Raid”) was cut short by Chinatown’s new cop squad, and his internal struggles over the bones of the rocky connection he still shares with his sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doann), rival boss of the Long Zii clan, only seem to be deepening. Meanwhile, Mai Ling finds herself dealing with a new conflict from the rival Fung Hai gang, their leader Zing (Dustin Nguyen) playfully prodding at their previous allyship.
Zing continues to tighten his hold over Sergeant “Big Bill” O’Hara (Kieran Bew), who was tasked with heading the newly formed Chinatown force, but spends most of his off hours busting the legs of Fung Hai contributor’s who haven’t paid their dues for the month. His partner, Officer Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones, probably the closest thing the show has to a moral center) has developed an intense opioid addiction that results in an amnesia-induced evening, but makes a breakthrough on the mysterious Chinese Sword Killer case when a slew of corpses makes him abundantly aware that they aren’t simply looking for one perpetrator anymore. Ah Sahm has started to aid Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) in her headless (and handless) brand of racial justice, but the killings are only fueling the prejudice of White union laborers like Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger), allowing pencil pushers such as Deputy Mayor Walter Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) to use these simmering tensions as preparation to enact damaging legislation.
Speaking of Leary, the season takes a strange turn with the hot-headed figure, who almost acts as a stand-in for enraged right-wing antagonism. In an odd attempt to better him, the show introduces an empathetic love interest in the form of Sophie Mercer (Céline Buckens), Penelope’s (a.k.a. Penny’s) young sister. Approaching the Irish mob leader as he mourns over his dead wife and child at their gravestone, she seems to develop an instant affection for the man. The attempt to humanize a figure who essentially acted as the first season’s main beacon of hatred makes sense on paper for the storytelling threads, but feel forcefully unearned in actual practice. The two characters are inevitably thrown together, having immediate sexual tension. In the three substantial scenes Sophie has in first two hours, all she does is bat her eyes and flirt with a guy we’ve been conditioned not to like. Part of me thinks it’s possible she’s being set up as a more psychotic character who will only inspire more anger from him, an air of entitled snark about her presence that evokes the modern increase in popularity of the term: “Karen.” Time will tell…
In many ways, adding a few too many new plotlines seems to be the season’s biggest crutch so far, but there are far worse problems for a narrative to have. I haven’t even touched upon the cuckish relationship between Sophie’s sister Penny (Joanna Vanderham) and her meek mayor of a husband, Samuel Blake (Christian McKay) or his complex alliance with Buckley – who has his own side-dealings going on with Mai Ling. I haven’t mentioned the show’s most charming and charismatic figure, the mysterious Chao, played with code-switching glee by the incredible Hoon Lee (a theme, in which I intend to touch on more in future recaps, “Warrior” continuing to play with language in fascinating ways). Chao gets an extra dimension this season, as we learn in the second hour, “The Chinese Connection” (a clever homage to the mistitled Western release of one of Lee’s flicks), when audiences meet his mixed race daughter, and there is also the character of Ms. Davenport (Miranda Raison), an activist who’s disapproving of Chao’s ethnic profiteering. There’s even word on the street of a new outfit called the “Teddy Boys,” the rumors say one must offer up a Chinese scalp in order to be initiated.
Much like the new season of “Fargo,” the first two hours of “Warrior’s” next installment are very much about establishing the increasingly requisite relationship between capitalism and the formation of crime families at the turn of the 20th century. The show explores this angle in a number of different ways, but perhaps the most emotionally resonant one is through the romance between Ah Sahm and Penny. At the end of the last season, Penny broke off their affair upon realizing that her lover worked for one of the Chinatown gangs. Now, to maintain safety for her laborers, she must turn to the Hop Wei for protection again Leary’s Irish lynch mob, blowing up a factory at the end of the first hour in an effort to stop workers from being brought in from across the salt. But, if 2020 has taught us nothing else, when living in times of precarious change, the most fearful and entitled of citizens can feel like they must destroy the livelihood of others in order to be heard, in order to survive. But at what cost to the rest of the country?
*NEW EPISODES OF WARRIOR AIR FRIDAYS @ 10 PM EST ON CINEMAX*