*This article contains spoilers for the entirely of Warrior Season 1, and Season 2, Eps. 1-6*
The first season of “Warrior’s” fifth episode, entitled “The Blood and the Sh*t,” was a welcome bottle-episode interlude, consciously structured and styled much like Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” But, more so than all the squibs and blood splatter, its transposing of genre onto Chinese immigrants characters – how it wrapped Ah Sahm and Young Jun’s specific cultural experience, rolling across the dry hills via stagecoach and the racial assumptions that followed them from town to tavern – characters typically not afforded the spotlight in such tales, was the primary reason for its success. The framework was nothing new, the ethnicity of the players was.
“Warrior” Season 2’s sixth hour, “To A Man With A Hammer, Everything Looks Like A Nail” (great title) combines an “Enter the Dragon,”-esque martial arts tournament with an unashamed “Django Unchained” climax. It pains me to say, yet the further along the (fairly short) episode viewers trek, the more telegraphed the pay-off becomes. Part of the issue is the creative team seems to have forgotten that “Enter the Dragon” itself – famously advertised as “The first martial arts film produced by a major Hollywood studio” – is already a balancing act of two genres: wuxia flicks and the spy movie. Bruce Lee essentially plays 007 under the guise of a tournament fighter, he just so happens to also be one of the world’s greatest martial artists. Yet, “Warrior’s” covert elements mirror the second half of “Django Unchained,” and it can’t sustain the tension in the same way QT’s two-part film can (this critic argues he put his “Intermission” in the wrong Western) because audiences haven’t been following the undercover narrative, instead its played as a twist that’s all too apparent. The dinner table sequence in ‘Django,’ that labels its titular figure as the “Black Hercules,” is seething with under the table suspense, whereas this week’s episode plays its hand way too quickly, accidentally giving the whole game away during the “You have our gratitude!” welcoming ceremony, in which we meet the episodes antagonist, Elijah Rooker (Conor Mullen) – a man who “gets off on watching men beat each other to death.” He’s meant to be a Calvin Candie but he comes off more like Don Johnson’s Colonel Sanders-esque plantation owner, crossed with a George Hearst type from “Deadwood,” dismissively nicknaming Ah Sahm, “Sam.”
The narrative set-up is simple. Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) must make up the dough he lost Young Jun (Jason Tobin) by winning the prize money. The attached at-the-hip allies and their new favorite onion, Hong (Chen Tang) arrive in Mexican border town, Rooker’s Mill, an area which Rosalita Vega (Maria Elena Laas) seems very knowledgeable of. The reasons are not difficult to discern.
After an amusing security checkpoint bit where Young Jun won’t give up his knives, in true Tarantino style, a man is immediately killed, shot straight between the eyes. Ah Sahm soon catches the attention of a fighter named Dolph Jagger (Mike Bisbing), a cocky buffoon clearly meant to homage Peter Archer’s “What’s your style?” bully, from “Enter the Dragon.” When the tournament starts, Jagger appears to be quite a force, that is… until Ah Sahm takes him out with a single roundhouse. Like Lee’s only American film, there is only some semblance of structure to the bouts, and the tournament montage itself is very muddy when it comes to conveying how the fighters are progressing, but watching Ah Sahm kick butt is always worth tuning in for.
Still, the “frontier justice” approach to the back half of the proceedings ends up overshadowing all its “Enter the Dragon” flavor. With the exception of some scratch marks on his chest and one epic Bruce Lee rage-face, the hour feels way too indebted to Western artists like Tarantino as opposed to Eastern ones such as King Hu or Chang Cheh, which is a real shame (I wonder if the writers are aware of what yanggang even is). That said, it’s becoming noticeably concerning how few Asian/Asian American creatives are in the series’ writers room. Between the “frontier justice” reference, plus the last names of its two principle characters: the Vega sisters – an obvious callback to QT’s own Victor and Vincent Vega (Michael Madsen and John Travolta), which is, itself, a reference to Zorro: double-V equals the secret mark of Don Diego de la Vega – (Double V-Vega was also the rumored working title of the QT’s film that never came to frutition) most all of the episode reads like a wink at fans of the American auteur who’s fond of cut and pasting select aspects of Bruce Lee’s films all across his filmography. Frankly, just watch more Asian cinema.
The other component dragging the hour down is Rosalita Vega’s rushed romance with Ah Sahm. The episode does a pretty poor job of characterizing her, defining her basely on ethnicity, yet, just about the most ethnically specific thing she does is teach Hong how to dip tortilla chips. If you’re reading this recap, I assume you’ve watched the episode, so I’m not going to outline the various end plot twists and reveals, but most all of it wears blunt foreshadowing on its sleeve, before the sister characters proceed to explain their backstory in the closing minutes. Cue tragedy striking. When Ah Sahm and Co. return to San Francisco, Father Jun (Perry Yung) is not happy to see them.
“We all pay for love, one way or another,” is one line of the episode that’s loaded with meaning. The sentiment might be valid, but the emotional weight of the hour itself, especially considering all the storytelling kernels its script mines from, makes for about as stirring a climax as a theatrical monologue built on platitudes. It sports a few good martial arts matches and zingy one-liners, but then weighs itself down with slow-motion sex scenes and a numbingly standard guitar score. The end of “To A Man With A Hammer, Everything Looks Like A Nail,” plays like a lazily underwritten “Red Dead Redemption,” side mission, which, to play devil’s advocate, is very on brand for Cinemax; it’d just be nice if a vengeful story of b-movie empowerment actually played to the strengths of its characters, as opposed to over-extending the revenge motif through Tarantino-lite worship. All the Mexico stuff plays awkwardly and tacked on, despite its thematic/ cultural relevance, and its quite deflating. There’s barely any Spanish in the episode, and possibly even less Chinese. What happened to how the show was playing with language? What happened to all the code-switching? Perhaps, if the writing of the series better tapped into all that narrative potential, its dramatic heft and aims at authentic human connection would read less empty.
*NEW EPISODES OF WARRIOR AIR FRIDAYS @ 10 PM EST ON CINEMAX*