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There's Nothing Else on TV Quite Like Cinemax's Action Drama Warrior

The series mixes martial arts with a narrative that underscores systemic racism to create a compelling and timely drama

Kaitlin Thomas

Cinemax is on its last legs in terms of original content after corporate restructuring and a strong focus on HBO Max pushed the pay cable network out of the scripted TV game. This is a shame for a plethora of reasons, but especially because Warrior, whose exciting second season debuts Friday on Cinemax, is unlike anything else on TV.

Based on the writings of Bruce Lee, the martial arts series is a premier destination for exciting action, but it is also one of the few shows featuring Asian actors, or actors of Asian descent, front and center in a TV landscape still desperately in need of better representation. The series, which is executive-produced by Justin Lin and Shannon Lee, Bruce's daughter, and run by Banshee co-creator Jonathan Tropper, explores the Tong Wars of San Francisco and the anti-Chinese racism prevalent in America during the 19th century that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

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It follows martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who arrives in the U.S. in the 1800s with the intention of finding his sister (Dianne Doan) and bringing her home to China. Instead, he ends up working as a hatchet man for one of the city's tongs and discovers his sister, whom he hasn't seen in years, is secretly pulling the strings of another. As Ah Sahm's loyalty to the tong is tested and he's pulled in multiple directions, the series makes great use of martial arts, which it manages to fit into every episode, all the while exploring the racism of the era through the city's scheming politicians, the white police in charge of policing Chinatown, and the Irish laborers who think the Chinese are taking their jobs. 

In telling this story, Warrior purposefully highlights the systemic racism that built the U.S. and still persists today in every one of its institutions, but it does so in a way that doesn't make it feel like a lecture. It also elevates the Asian voices at the center of its narrative at a time when many in this country (and around the world) seek to propel anti-Asian sentiments and propaganda because of the coronavirus pandemic that began in China at the end of 2019. So while the show was always going to be relevant, it's even more so now.

Miranda Raison, Hoon Lee, and Olivia Cheng, Warrior

Miranda Raison, Hoon Lee, and Olivia Cheng, Warrior

David Bloomer/Cinemax

However, it's not just the timeliness of its narrative that makes Warrior worth watching. The show's greatest strength is its deliberate placement of women in positions of power, from Mai Ling (Doan) and Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng), a cunning madam masquerading as a violent vigilante, to Season 2 newcomer Rosalita Vega (Maria Elena Laas), who runs a fighting pit, and even the wealthy and white Penny Blake (Joanna Vanderham), who has taken over her father's steel business in the second season after being used and manipulated by the men around her during the show's first season.

In fact, many characters in Season 2 are finally finding their voices after being kicked around or forced to operate in the shadows. Ah Sahm is once again working for the Hop Wei even though the head of the tong, Father Jun (Perry Yung), left him for dead following his defeat at the hands of Li Yong (Joe Taslim) near the end of Season 1. This puts him in direct opposition with Mai Ling, who is now outwardly leading a rival tong, the Long Zii. But the devastating knowledge that his sister was willing to let him die to secure her bid for power creates a new dynamic between the siblings, and while Ah Sahm plots his revenge, Mai Ling begins to wonder if she previously underestimated her brother and what he was capable of.

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But it's not just Mai Ling who should be looking over their shoulder in the new season; Ah Sahm, who is getting stronger and staying sharp by regularly visiting Vega's fighting pit, also has his sights set on taking down Father Jun, and he's using Young Jun's (Jason Tobin) long-standing daddy issues to undermine the tong leader. This all leads to plenty of exciting but violent action sequences involving the martial arts, which are obviously heavily choreographed but rarely feel so. 

Andrew Koji, Warrior

Andrew Koji, Warrior

David Bloomer/Cinemax

It's truly unfortunate Cinemax has been pushed out of the original programming game, because there are very few networks willing to go all in on action serials like this one despite the fact there is an audience hungry for them. But obviously the biggest thing we lose by losing Warrior to this embarrassing corporate mess, are the voices of those who are already marginalized in American media. Representation for minorities, both in front of the camera and behind it, remains critically low, and even if some progress has been made in the streaming and cable arenas, Asian/Pacific Americans are still vastly underrepresented on television overall.

The one concession we get is that Warrior will soon be added to HBO, and thus HBO Max, after the second season concludes later this year. So far, it's the only Cinemax show that we know will be made available on the streaming service, but hopefully by being available on HBO Max more people will find their way to Warrior. Because between the excellent fight choreography and a compelling and relevant narrative that digs into politics and systemic racism, no other show is doing quite what Warrior is doing.

Warrior Season 2 debuts Friday, Oct. 2 at 10/9c on Cinemax.