It never ceases to amaze me, how some series get all the hype yet fail to deliver on it while others languish without any hype at all. The Cinemax/HBOmax series, Warrior*, (based on the writings of Bruce Lee) was a stunning surprise. It is—dare I say it?—excellent.
During the Tong Wars in the late 1800s, Ah Sahm, a martial arts prodigy from China, immigrates to San Francisco and becomes a hatchet man for the most powerful tong in Chinatown.–IMDB
There are two seasons available through various outlets (streaming) and according to parade.com it has been renewed for a third season.
While it has plenty of action (including the Hulk!Smash! variety) it also has wonderful characters and a great plot that stands on its own. The fight sequences are fantastic (as you’d expect from something like this) but what really impressed me was that when showing women fighting, we (sometimes) got some real-world physics and consequences. They were not afraid to show us what actually happens to a woman’s body when she goes up against opponents who are bigger and stronger.
Rather than focus on the events/plot, I will focus on the characters and their relationships. I am, after all, a writer who values those things in both what she produces and what she consumes. Rest assured, if you are an action junkie, you’ll like this show. So if all you watch for is Hulk!Smash!, I don’t think you’ll be wasting your time with it at all.
Let me preface my comments with the fact that I have no idea how historically accurate any of this is. Nor do I care. Be warned that there is plenty of gore and violence as well as nudity and on-screen rape (more on that later).
Ah Sahm, the series protagonist (played by Andrew Koji) arrives in San Francisco, looking for his sister. He ends up in the Hop Wei tong and while he does find her pretty quickly, beware the plot twist. She is the mistress/concubine of the rival tong, the Long Zii. This immediately sets up a lot of plot and character complexity as these two siblings have to walk a very fine line. It doesn’t help that she turns out to be a real bitch either, all for good reason, making the storyline richer for it.
Ah Toy (played by Olivia Cheng) is not your typical madam/hooker with a heart of gold. While I’m a little fuzzy on how she (and other women in her sphere) ended up sold into prostitution given their ability to wield a blade, her storyline turned out to be one of the more interesting ones. Actually, it turned out to be my favorite one, for two reasons.
First, we are shown that women are not the physical equals of men, not even when well-trained. In other words, the writers didn’t break their world in order to make women win. Because of that, their victories actually mean something. Their agency means something. It was not handed to them because it was in the script. In other words, it’s not agency if it’s given to you.
Second, the story takes on the issue of rape, sexual assault, and human trafficking in a way that those things aren’t in the story just to score cheap emotional, political, or social points.
Part of Ah Toy’s storyline has to do with freeing women who’ve been forced into prostitution, who’ve been raped and abused. Not just freeing them (which could still result in them being exploited by others) but in providing them with a place to work and live that was actually safe. And I have to admit, that at first, I was concerned that Ah Toy and Nellie Davenport (a wealthy widow played by Miranda Raison) had a dark side to them that just hadn’t been revealed.
In line with the grittiness of the show, the rating is TV-MA. If you don’t want to see rape and torture, then this is probably not the show for you.
Which brings me to an aside about how rape and sexual assault are treated in fiction.
Stop using rape as a gratuitous plot point.
If you're going to use rape or sexual assault as a plot device you must do more than fade to black. I am sick and tired of writers using such a traumatic experience as their kick-the-dog (to show us who the bad guy is) or a pet-the-dog (to show us who the good guy is) and marginalizing it by doing nothing more with it. If you're going to victimize a character for emotional points you need to do more than have her go, "My hero, you saved me." If you don't have the courage to deal with it story-wise at a deeper level (whether or not it's on the page) then make up some other kick/pet-the-dog moment. Do your damned job and stop using rape as a gratuitous plot point.
To paraphrase Chesterton: Stories don't tell us that monsters exist. We already know they exist. Stories tell us that monsters can be killed.
Do more than tell though. Show us. There is a rule of thumb in fiction that if something is important it deserves word-count. If you're going to use rape as something other than a cheap, gratuitous story-telling device, you need to devote some word-count to it. That doesn't necessarily mean have it on the page, but it does mean dealing with it on some deeper level. If you're not prepared to do that, don't use it. Your Gary-Stu and his side kick Joe Ego can stop a purse-snatcher as well as a rape. Have him do that instead if your treatment begins and ends with is "My hero, you saved me."
Richard Henry Lee
Richard Henry Lee (played by Tom Weston-Jones) turned out to be one of the more interesting characters. He is an intriguing character because he turns out to be far more racially tolerant than his counterparts. Given his background (he is from the post-Civil War South) this was an interesting twist. He gives us one of the more unique viewpoints on the immigration- and racial-prejudice that is woven into the story’s background. While there are plenty of morally gray characters in this, this one definitely stands out.
Played by actor Hoon Lee, Wang Chao is a blackmarket salesman with a sophisticated veneer. While he doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as some of the others and his character is a morally gray one, the storyline with his daughter is heart wrenching. I have a soft spot for men who do right by their little girls.
The series overall
It’s really easy for a series to rely solely on the monster-of-the-week or the crime-of-the-week or the conflict-of-the-week to carry it through several seasons. One can hardly blame them–static characters that don’t change can carry fifteen seasons of repetitive programming and everyone cashes in while squeezing blood out of that particular turnip. While a winning formula, it does tend to leave one feeling rather hollow. With only two seasons under its belt, Warrior has not been around long enough to know if it’s going to fall into that same-old-same-old trap. There was enough character progression in the first two seasons to satisfy me. And some of it just outright surprised me. Well done, folks. Keep it up.
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