*This article contains spoilers for the entirely of Warrior Season 1, and Season 2, Eps. 1-9*
“Can I borrow these?” Martial arts culture has become so commonly adopted by Western society that its origins have become overshadowed by hyperbolic stereotypes. The mockery of Bruce Lee’s iconic battle cry being a prime example. Similarly, the practice of martial arts weaponry has fallen into cliché. It might be a fleeting moment, but Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji) first setting his hands on a pair of nunchaku (nunchucks, as we Americans pronounce it) is an instant I’ll never forget. It’s typically assumed that Karate – which has essentially become a blanket term in White America – comes from Japan. In fact, the form was invented by farmers on Okinawa, desperate to protect their island from a siege of invading forces. It is believed that the nunchaku was fashioned out of a kind of rice flail. A less historically mindful series would not have considered these factors – the showrunners aiming to put the weapons in between Ah Sahm’s fingers ASAP. “Warrior,” brutally dramatizing the 1877 San Francisco Riot – wherein the city’s white population attacked the Chinese populace for two days and nights on end, saves this moment, not only for maximum narrative impact, but to insure its also (at least conceptually) representationally accurate.
Ah Sahm would have no way to know what that weapon was before coming to a cultural hub like 19th Century Chinatown. Not being a historian, I’m unsure of how large an Okinawan population would have been present in San Francisco at that time, but it’s so easy to imagine a series where Ah Sahm arrives fresh off the boat, nunchucks tucked behind his back. But, good storytelling is always doing multiple things at once, and Ah Sahm’s iconic “Enter the Dragon” moment (although, his muscle shirt appearance is more reminiscent of “Way of the Dragon,” but I digress) is also the origin of a folk hero – appropriately mirroring Lee’s cult status, and providing an excellent narrative pivot, spotlighting how the protection given by criminally organized tribes (such as the Tong) was a necessary component of communities surviving and eventually thriving in a country trying to prevent whole groups from sharing equal rights.
The moment when the Hop Wei step out onto the street, and the Long Zi stand by their side, sent many chills running up my spine. All Li Yong (Joe Taslim) has to do is walk up and nod – this time, last season, he and Ah Sahm were literally in a blood-match to the death. Hong (Chen Tang) also shows off his golden timing, a perfectly pitched, awkward “Hey.” But, before the hatchet men take to defending the world they’ve built for themselves, the episode flashes back, to Jacob’s POV of the night of the Blake incident – utilizing possibly the most effective point-of-view shot I can think of in recent memory (it’s a really tricky technique to pull of well and “Warrior” nails it).
After Penny (Joanna Vanderham) comes to, his employer ignorantly insistent that they will tell the authorities exactly what happened: Jacob (Kenneth Fok) was simply defending his mistress from the rage of a drunken buffoon, so how is he to blame? Jacob tells her, quite frankly, that Chinese men are prone to hang for far less. Penny then orders him to flee the city, giving him money to board a train to San Jose. Being good-natured, Jacob visits his ill-mother before setting off, promising her he’ll return soon (*sniffles*). By the time he tries to board the train the next day, Bill’s (Kieran Bew) boys are already stationed around every corner with a WANTED poster. We see how Jacob came to hide behind that grate in the previous hour – stealing rainwater to keep himself hydrated at night – before the cops locate his hiding place and he ends up in Chao’s storeroom, where the last episode left us. While I love everything about this sequence, the episode would be even more dramatically powerful were Jacob’s relationship with his mother seeded throughout the series, and not simply included to give his tragic hanging more narrative heft.
While I understand why the writer’s felt the need to develop her arc as they did, my only real frustration with the episode comes back to a common complaint of mine: Sophie (Celine Buckens). Now that the shape of her story is more fully apparent, I do see why the writer’s paired her with Leary (Dean Jagger), but can’t help but wonder how much more viscerally upsetting the episode would have been were the season to have spent time developing Jacob, rather than her. I had my money on this conflict coming to a head due to the sisters’ relationships with Ah Sahm and Leary’s growing rivalry, but it seems to have been more a way to establish opposing sides of radical activism – I assume Sophie could start seeing the world like Penny, one day. Leary’s bigoted reaction to the situation: “I told you so!” long ago having seen the reckoning on the wall.
How Jacob comes to be lynched in public further enhances the power of the narrative. “I don’t stick my neck out for people I know. And I don’t know you.” Chao (Hoon Lee) bluntly tells the man trembling in his warehouse. But when Jacob holds up a fat stack of cash, Chao lets out the world’s biggest sigh. The character is a perfect embodiment of the kind of cutthroat businessman one often has to become to succeed in America, a “snake oil salesman” as Loy Cannon would call him. Capitalism is founded on transactions, and value is entirely dependent on the present moment, and tomorrow only comes if you survive the day. Understanding that nothing good can come of this lose-lose situation, Chao betrays Jacob to Mai Ling (Dianne Doan), who passes the info onto Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) who points Bill to the exact right coffin he’s being smuggled out of the city in. Of course, Officer Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) immediately questions how his superior knew precisely where to a find a man who seemed invisible 24 hours ago.
“Did he say he wasn’t guilty?” Mai candidly points out. “Everyone in Chinatown was going to pay for his crime.” Well, they will regardless. While two of the most seminal power holders argue about the ethics of the situation, a white mob erupts into chaos, the lynchers having used Jacob’s brutal hanging as an excuse to let out all their rage, assaulting police officers to enact a personal brand of justice when they see themselves as having been slighted. Knowing nowhere in Chinatown is safe, Chao takes Mai to Ah Toy’s (Olivia Cheng) brothel, totally clueless to her battered condition, struggling to breathe. Mai offers to help mend her wounds, while her base of operations offers them a kind of riot sanctuary, Chao and a bodyguard defending the doors.
After the year we’ve had that is 2020, the powerful prevalence of the episode will have you glued to your seat, afraid to even blink. When Lee stats attacking his own kin, Bill calls him a “self-righteous little prick.” No, Bill, he’s just a decent human being. Considering 70 million Americans just voted to re-elect the most loathsome/hated man in the world, it’s becoming more clear than ever that these stories of our not-so-distant past need to be retold. These sorts of horrific truths aren’t taught in schools. The educated masses may claim to “know” about all of these happenings, then why does it keep happening? “The world’s gone mad,” says Sophie’s innocent folly of youth. “No, this is the world.” No one may want to remember, but these reminders need to be rung.
Effectively, an all-too historically accurate West Coast “Gangs of New York,” with “The Raid,”-level fight choreography, “Enter the Dragon,” “Warrior’s” finest hour, is easily one of the best/most essential, episodes of action television ever produced. One can argue it’s close to an Asian audiences equivalent of something like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, something that HBO’s “Watchmen,” revealed remains criminally untaught in schools. I didn’t learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act until my college years, something I always viewed as a major educational oversight. It’s the kind of TV episode that brings the series complete vision into focus. Culminating, of course, with the burgeoning origin of Ah Sahm, Defender of Chinatown.
Andrew Koji’s physical performance in this episode deserves more praise than it will likely ever receive. It’s quite a challenge to mimic what made Lee’s fighting prowess and on-screen presence pop without veering into blatant parody (see: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…”) and, knowing that his personal form isn’t a perfect match with Lee’s, Koji taps into his own fearless physicality when wielding The Dragon’s trademark weapon. Whenever he strikes an iconic pose, or cheekily feints a move against an opponent, it doesn’t feel like he’s outright copying the now-mythic star, but he captures his fighting spirit perfectly, paying tribute to cultural history without pandering to the impact. It’s not an Easter Egg, it’s earned. The more enemies Ah Sahm takes out, the more eyes peer over the balcony, finding a semblance of some kind of hope in his dauntless fighting spirit. It’s one of the most cathartic moments of 2020, in any medium, a must-see hour of TV.
*NEW EPISODES OF WARRIOR AIR FRIDAYS @ 10 PM EST ON CINEMAX*