*This article contains spoilers for Warrior Seasons 1-2*
One of the most satisfying staples of Bruce Lee movies: the moment he takes out a huge, hulking white dude (usually without a shirt on). For cultural enthusiast’s less familiar with the history of Hong Kong’s genre handover – the import and uptick of wuxia (martial arts) films to the West, further popularized later by figures such as Yuen Woo-ping, being propped up by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino – a character akin to Bob Wall’s brute O’Hara, or Peter Archer’s “What’s your style?” bully, Parsons, from “Enter the Dragon” likely spring to mind (Sergeant Big Bill’s surname serving as an homage to the former). “First of Fury” – released in American under the name “The Chinese Connection,” due to a hilariously round-about story – ends with Lee’s character taking on a Russian gang leader called Petrov (Robert Baker), and, famously refereed by a straggly alley cat, “The Way of The Dragon” (“Return of the Dragon” in the West) culminates with a coliseum showdown where the master of Jeet Kune Do takes on Chuck Norris’ chest hair.
Befitting of Bruce Lee’s genre narratives, “Warrior” Season 2’s finale (sadly, quite possibly the capper for the series as well) comes to a head when a Chinese man (Ah Sahm) walks into an Irish bar. He seats himself at a table, staring down the owner – a man who has tried to kill him for daring to make a life in this country. “Anybody ever tell you, you have a problem with over-confidence,” Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger) jabs. “It’s come up,” the Hop Wei lieutenant downs a whisky shot. The pair settle their differences in the ring, rain dripping onto battle scars. “You gonna dance, or you gonna fight?” Leary taunts, after Ah Sahm shows off some hook kicks. From personal experience, I can attest that this is a common insecure reaction to an Asian person publicly displaying martial arts talent. The bloody-knuckle fight is an epically staged showdown for the show to go out on, hard-hitting through more than just the big knockout punches.
But what leads the sometimes seemingly careless Tong to walk into the Irishman’s establishment? The understanding that he’s become so much more than just another hatchet man after last night – the image of Ah Sahm defending his kin from racial violence having been erected as a massive mural on a back alley brick wall. He’s become a hero to his people, like Lee one day would. Of course, if you ask Ah Sahm, he’s nobody’s hero. “Maybe it’s time you were that guy on the wall,” Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) tells him, having stepped out into the sunlight despite her disheveled state. Truth of the matter is, Ah Sahm has quietly been that guy for a long time already, he’s just wary of what might happen were he to come off the leash, being the stubborn brooder that he is. When his sister Mai Ling (Olivia Cheng) sees the street art towering over Chinatown however, her reaction is more than one of mild annoyance, ready to stop playing fair with her sibling.
Ah Toy doesn’t really have anything else to do to wrap up her season’s story, we just get one final exchange/embrace between her and Nelly Davenport (Miranda Raison), who introduces herself to Ah Sahm. Back at the precinct, Officer Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) leaves his badge and gun on Big Bill’s (Kieran Bew) desk. The older officer attempts to dissuade the demoralized goody two shoes, excusing their corrupt nature and violent behavior as business as usual; but Lee isn’t having any of that, trying to convince his friend to see the line(s) he’s crossed – to be the better man he believes Bill capable of being, but maybe Lee is just the better between them, Bill cedes.
With few places left to turn, after arranging a meeting between the Long Zi and Hop Wei, Mai Ling reveals Ah Sahm’s true identity to Young Jun (Jason Tobin), still so wet behind the ears from his newfound status, as well as being shaken up by the riots, that he does not take the news well, understandably seeing it as a brotherly betrayal. After stirring the pot, the Long Zi are escorted out, Hong trying to calm the boss down. The character’s trademark humor is well placed in patches, but a tad tonally invasive others during this hour – the visual gag of him gorging on dumplings far more successful than his suggestion that they hash out their issues over dim sum.
Young Jun really isn’t ready to be boss yet, struggling to wrestle with the knowledge that his decision making now impacts entire communities, but, after fearlessly holding off the hordes of street rioters, Father Jun (Perry Yung) yields to his son that his time is done, imparting the advice that it’s impossible for one man to fight an entire city alone, let alone the rest of a prejudiced country. He knows that his next of kin does not feel ready, but, in time, he will learn to control such feelings. A later scene sees a farewell exchange between the former Hop Wei elder and everyone’s best friend, Mr. Chao (Hoon Lee), mutual respect dangling in the air between them.
While Chinatown resituates itself after the prolonged manhunt which devolved into chaos, (now-Regular) Mayor Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) asserts his position among constituents, insisting that immigrant labor does not belong, offering under-the-table financial incentives – intended to mitigate the increased costs of employing non-Chinese workers – when certain business owners proclaim this stance will lose him friends in high places. Penny Blake then barges in on the suits’ cigar den, confronting the Mayor about the horrific hanging of her valet, Jacob (Kenneth Fok), shouting for all to hear that no lawful arrests were made. Buckley stresses that she ought to keep her voice down, lest she be seen as mourning the man who murdered her (abusive) husband.
In turn, Penny cries wolf to the papers in order to unveil the truth. But the news editor is already in Buckley’s pocket, immediately running to the Mayor’s office, spouting the story the his predecessor’s widow is spinning. Buckley buries her accusations and she later bursts into his office chambers. After striking the disabled veteran in a fit of rage, Buckley draws a dagger-like letter opener on her. Penny is shocked when the Mayor stabs himself in the arm as opposed to lunging. “She’s gone mad!” he screams. Penny frantically attempts to insist her innocence, but who are the white elites in power going to believe; a traumatized widow known for her Chinese sympathies, or the newly elected symbol for the people. We get our answer after Buckley pays Sophie (Celine Buckens) a visit. “Where is she?” Penny’s sister asks. The episode then cuts to the former Mrs. Blake, waking to find herself confined to a mental ward, leaving the sisters’ storyline off on a major cliffhanger. While the conceit for the plotline is relevant and neatly ties in with the series’ themes of capitalist oppression, I sincerely pray we never see white savior Sophie.
Part of the reason for Buckley’s extreme actions – apart from the fact that the anger within him has been festering ever since losing his leg – is the newly inherited power already slipping out of is hands. We finally see the photograph Mai Ling has been keeping to herself: a photo of Buckley among a Confederate regimen. If it ever got out that he fought for former slave-owners – the losing side, as the country put it then – his political career would find itself getting “cancelled.” Planning to use Buckley to wage her war against the Hop Wei, the Mayor begins exploiting out of date city ordinances, ones that aren’t currently being enforced, coming down hard on back door brothels and laundry businesses, aiming to squeeze the economic breath out of Chinatown. Another man walks in. “Empty promises,” says Dylan Leary striding up to the glad handers, no worse for wear. He pulls up a chair, seated there “on behalf of the Workman’s Party of California.”
It turns out that Leary has deftly been stealth-modeled after a historic figure this entire time, Denis Kearney, a nativist Irish immigrant who mobilized anti-Chinese unions with the yellow peril slogan: “Chinamen Must Go.” Obviously the show dramatizes the radical activist, turning him into a tough as nails bareknuckle boxer that no Irish drunkard wants to fuck with. From the little research I’ve done, that seems to be a far cry from the real Kearney, but paralleling the rise of such a politically skewed figure leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act is beyond socially apt.
Finally, in a post-credits sting, we see Zing (Dustin Nguyen) attempting to pry his rickety prison cell bars off – I had honestly almost forgotten all about him – priming the baddie’s return for a later season that may never come. Though I tend to be hopelessly optimistic when it comes to feeling confident in the narrative quality of a series’ ability to transcend ratings, the fact that “Warrior” left a few of its major storylines hanging – when I feel like the crew had to know that their number was just about up – and, considering the current climate of “prestige” driven content and how desperate they are for subscribers, a show “based on the writings of Bruce Lee” is exactly what a streaming platform like HBO Max needs. With our country divided as it is, the themes of the series are more material than ever, as is Hollywood’s penchant for revisionist takes on old tropes now seen as problematic through the monolithic gaze of the straight white male.
Frankly, I truly think the series would only increase its ratings and improve upon its craft qualities were it to move over to HBO Max. Drop the Cinemax branding and more people will be curious to tune in than ever before – doing so means less gratuitous sex (the show’s biggest hindrance) and toning down the violence to a style that’s just as full of pulpy fury, but feels more accessibly polished. Market the show as “Deadwood” about Asian American prejudice, hire Asian American writer’s with a passion for martial arts history and stress the Bruce Lee connection, and I’m sure HBO would have a hit on their hands; however, to play negative Nancy, the amazing Hoon Lee has already signed on to HBO’s DMZ adaptation (a project that I’m shocked hasn’t seen a whole sea of controversy, but that’s another story). Regardless of whether “Man On The Wall” ends up being the series final hour or not, with the exception of some decisions made around the season’s mid-pivot (and Sophie), the last 3 hours of “Warrior” Season 2 were simply incredible television. Andrew Koji is already a star if you ask me, and I’ll forever be thankful for Ah Sahm.