In ‘Warrior’ Season 2, the Action Gets More Spectacular and the Themes More Relevant
Cinemax’s “Warrior” may just be the most welcomingly subversive piece of popcorn entertainment on TV right now. With flashy style it delivers plenty of martial arts sequences full of blood and fury, crunching bones and savage vendettas. But it’s never mindless. The adrenaline kick is more of a bonus for a storyline that has real ideas about the immigrant experience, assimilation, nationalism and the kind of American history you never heard growing up. Season 2 is even more about social conflict in addition to its suspenseful intrigues. Showrunner Jonathan Tropper continues to build from a treatment devised nearly 50 years ago by the legendary Bruce Lee, and as a result honors the kind of Asian representation Lee pioneered.
Now fully entrenched in the world of 1800s San Francisco Chinatown is our hero, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji). If in the first season Sahm was an outsider learning the ropes, our first glimpse of him this season is him in the middle of a rowdy crowd, fist-fighting in a pit match. Ah Sahm continues to navigate the tong gangster underworld of Chinatown, now maintaining a tense, almost distant relationship with sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) , who has risen as a gangland leader of the Long Zi tong, while also commanding respect among the Fung Hai and Hop Wei. The Hop Wei remain mainly under the central control of Father Jun (Perry Yung). It is in this group that Ah Sahm has found his footing, becoming friends with Jun’s son, Young Jun (Jason Tobin). But Ah Sahm is also being pulled between two commitments. As he and Young Jun deal with the underworld arrangements of Chinatown, Ah Sahm is also helping brothel madam Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) wage war against the anti-immigrant, racist thugs who attack local Chinese workers.
Once again “Warrior” is a fantastic production based on quality alone. It never has the rushed, half-finished feel of other CGI-heavy, period action shows (“Spartacus” comes to mind). Its cinematography has both elegance and grittiness, looking more like a feature film as opposed to a weekly series. Fans who drink in its physical exuberance will get multiple treats this season, such as Ah Sahm getting into “Bloodsport” mode by participating in underground pit fights organized by Rosalita Vega (Maria-Elena Laas), an enigmatic character that helps diversify the melting pot San Francisco scene of the late 19th century. It’s also a convenient way to combine broken noses with eventual showdowns with the show’s racist figures. The greatest set piece this season comes in its midway point, when Ah Sahm partakes in a massive brawl involving an entire Mexican town and dozens of fighters. It is the season’s greatest homage to the kind of action cinema personified by the image of Bruce Lee, fittingly choreographed by the great Brett Chan. Side by side with the more grandiose moments “Warrior” also features violence that carries a potent social angle. When he isn’t pit fighting, Ah Sahm deals with racists prowling San Francisco docks and other areas where Chinese immigrants come to work. It is in these sections where the show in particular shows off its sudden relevancy as white workers blame the Chinese for lack of opportunities, using immigration as an excuse for their own poverty and rage at inequality. Sound familiar?
The action in “Warrior” should be mentioned first to then discuss its characters. It is quite a feat how Jonathan Tropper and his team manage to balance all the action spectacle with a gallery of storylines involving multiple lives. Some are harder to follow than others, but every personality feels well fleshed out. Ah Sahm and Young Jun don’t just fight, this season they also begin to see how they can run their own contraband operation in Chinatown under the nose of Father Jun. But as always, such arrangements bring developments that endanger the friendship. Ah Toy faces a moral dilemma when she makes friends with Nellie Davenport (Miranda Raison), a wealthy widow who is essentially this show’s version of a “woke” character. She tries to show Ah Toy that there are other, more peaceful ways to fight racism than employing urban warfare, she’s also not very approving of Toy’s brothel business. Diversity in the storytelling is further expanded with Sophie Mercer (Celine Buckens), the younger sister of Penelope Blake (Joanna Vanderham), estranged wife of the city’s pompously corrupt Mayor Samuel Blake (Christian McKay). Sophie reminds us that while the Chinese were fighting racism, other groups also battled discrimination and were tragically pitted against fellow immigrants. She’s involved with Dylan Leary ( Dean Jagger), the Irish radical who leads the local union. Leary feels the pressure of cheap Chinese labor taking away work from his fellow, white/Irish proletarians. This leads him to take violent measures against both the Chinese and local masters of industry, using terrorism to intimidate both. Yet the writing never makes him one dimensional. Leary represents the working class pitted against the others in their same bracket because of capitalism’s interests.
Other returning characters include hot-headed cop Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) and Civil War veteran Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones), who has never approved of O’Hara’s heavy-handed tactics (another relevant angle to the show). There are other subplots involving emerging crime figures, like Zing (Dustin Nguyen), who hates the fact that a woman like Mai Ling can pull rank on him. It’s a whole maze of a show, but because it hurtles along with feverish energy the rhythm takes the viewer away.
But above all, “Warrior” proves there is growing room for slick entertainment that reminds us about the history we seldom consider. It is quite an experience to watch this show and realize some of its buzzwords concerning American identity and migration resound just as strongly today. The rhetoric used by its racists is eerily recognizable in the evening news, and when Leary’s comrades surround a cart carrying Chinese workers, you can’t help but wonder how much of the spirit of those attitudes now manifests itself in our political debates. “Warrior” is getting better, but also more important.
“Warrior” season two premieres Oct. 2 and airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.