Land of Exploitation: HBO’s Warrior

If the Civil War and Reconstruction were the second American Revolution, wherein the country attempted to bring itself closer in line with its loft founding principles, then the Gilded Age was the American Reaction, as corrupt, racist politics reasserted itself and attempted to once more secure control for wealthy white men. While this theme is most often seen in the “Redemption” governments of ex-Confederates in the South, it was equally true in the industrializing centers of the North and West as robber barons consolidated their hold on the economy and ruthlessly exploited laborers of all colors and creeds for their own aggrandizement. Nowhere has this been shown more engagingly than in HBO’s brilliant period drama Warrrior

Set in 1870s San Francisco amid clashes over Chinese labor and immigration, Warrior follows the story of Ah Sahm, a young Chinese man who immigrates to America in search of his lost sister. At first it seems as if Ah Sahm will be just one more body to enter the grist mill of labor cartels, chewed up and spit out by the so-called Land of Opportunity, but it soon becomes apparent that he is no ordinary man–a kung fu prodigy from a young age, Ah Sahm easily takes out an entire gang of Irish thugs by himself, and so comes to the notice of one of Chinatown’s tongs (organized crime families), the Hop Wei. He soon learns that his sister, transformed from the victimized young girl he thought he was saving into a confident, ruthless crime lord, leads a rival tong. While Ah Sahm navigates this new world of racist oppression and brutal exploitation, Penny Blake, the wife of the city’s Mayor, struggles to assert herself and save her father’s business, all as labor unrest stoked by the unemployed Irish drives towards an America where Chinese are banned from immigration and all sent back to East Asia.

Coming off the second season of The Gilded Age (ironically also an HBO production), Warrior was a refreshingly gritty take on the period, and even seemed like a spiritual sequel to one of my favorite series, Hell on Wheels. Rather than a world of opulence and gentility, 1870s San Francisco is portrayed here much more realistically, as an America where corruption fills the halls of power, and any character that is not both white and wealthy must claw tooth and nail for a hint of security, whether physical or economic. Even many victories prove short-lived as white patriarchal society quickly moves to reassert itself, punishing any interlopers in its hallowed halls. By the same token, however, the racism of the city’s Irish laborers is shown as more than just a simple, mustache-twirling evil; the need to feel superior to others combined with fears of poverty make them all to easy to manipulate into hating a convenient scapegoat rather than uniting against the true culprits, the robber barons and crooked politicians that are the true architects of their plight. And while I dislike it from a storytelling perspective, the bleak, (currently) unaddressed fate of certain major characters is a reminder that for many historical actors, the struggle for greater rights was one that ended badly.

When coupled with its attention to detail–excellent material culture, linguistic distinctions that recognizes the language barriers many of these characters would have faced, and (at least to this untrained eye) outstanding fight sequences–this incorporation of the theme of the era into major pillars of the show make Warrior a must-watch for anyone interested in 19th century-America. I can only hope its premature cancellation after three seasons is somehow reversed through the magic of this era of streaming television, but if not, it still stands as one of the best period dramas I’ve watched in a long while. 

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