Dustin Nguyen is an Asian-American icon going back to his days starring in 21 Jump Street. What many don’t know is that Nguyen is also an accomplished director. After joining Cinemax’s Warrior half way through last season, Nguyen was given the opportunity to apply his directing skills to season 2’s “stand alone” episode, “To a Man with a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail.” Last season’s stand alone episode, “The Blood and the Sh*t,” was my favorite episode of that season, so I was highly anticipating this season’s version. Incredibly, it didn’t disappoint, as Nguyen directed a masterpiece, with fantastic performances by Andrew Koji and Maria Elena Lass. Spoilers below!
This episode was a “stand alone” in the sense that a handful of our main cast leaves Chinatown on somewhat of a side mission. Like last season’s “The Blood and the Sh*t”, the episode expands the Warrior world and gives the creative team a chance to tell a story that’s unique from the rest of the series. This episode featured only Ah Sahm, Young Jun, Hong and Vega.
As we saw last episode, Young Jun and Ah Sahm are in a bad place after their new stash of opium was destroyed by Leary and his henchmen. To recoup the money, Ah Sahm agreed to enter the high stakes fight tournament that his new ally Vega (played exquisitely by Maria Elena Lass) had been pushing him to consider. Vega takes Ah Sahm, Young Jun and Hong down to the Mexico border where a wealthy American named Elijah Rooker regularly hosts an Enter the Dragon/Bloodsport style tournament to crown the best fighter in the country.
The group enters Rooker’s compound, which has strict rules that all entrants must give up their weapons. At first Young Jun is incredulous and plans to sneak his precious blades in…until he sees someone get shot in the back in cold blood for refusing to give up his weapons. It was so great to see more of the always fantastic Jason Tobin this episode.
Once inside, our heroes are shown to their rooms and Vega leaves them to handle some business. Ah Sahm decides to wander the streets and explore. There was definitely a Star Wars: A New Hope cantina vibe as Ah Sahm takes in all the people around him who look very different from what he’s used to. Of course, he ends up at a bar, where Ah Sahm runs into
Ponda Baba Dolph, played by former UFC champion “The Count” Michael Bisping. Bisping plays a great bully, and while Dolph doesn’t quite lose his arm, Ah Sahm does give him an arm twist to remember before Vega steps in. The two are clearly headed to a climactic fight inside the tournament…right?
The next day, the tournament starts with a meal and a speech by the host, Rooker, who waxes poetic about how he conquered the land they’re all on right now and proudly brandishes his Mexican wife and custom six shooter. The tournament kicks off with Dolph beating a much larger fighter to a pulp and snapping his neck. He stares at Ah Sahm hungrily as Ah Sahm raises his glass in mocking respect.
Later that evening, Vega and Ah Sahm take a walk to take in the beauty of the landscape and Vega explains that the whole area around them used to be Mexico until the Americans took it over. The two share family stories of pain, get close and have a moment…until Vega says they aren’t. The pair have such fantastic chemistry. I cheered for them from the first episode, and this scene was really beautiful.
Back at the tournament, Dolph is still pounding down all comers. Vega tells Ah Sahm that he’s facing Dolph next. Young Jun gives him the worst hype speech in fight history, finishing with “Whatever you do, don’t lose.” What follows is a stunning reversal of expectations, as Dolph declares, “I’m gonna enjoy this” and charges Ah Sahm, only to be met with one round-house kick that knocks him out cold. What seemed to be the climactic fight of the whole episode turns out to be one and done. This scene was really a joy and I have a lot of respect for Bisping, a genuinely accomplished fighter, for being willing to take the dive like that for the sake of story.
Ah Sahm’s fights continue and he scores win after win. Eventually, Rooker’s head guard invites Vega and Ah Sahm to Rooker’s place for a special honored breakfast. They accept. Meanwhile, some of the crowd members aren’t so impressed with Ah Sahm and seem to be up to something. Later, as Ah Sahm and Vega are walking back to Vega’s room, three thugs are trailing them. Fortunately, the ever lovable Hong had noticed and intercepts. Hong dispatches all three easily with the one weapon Rooker’s guards couldn’t have noticed, his chain. Hong’s sacrifice allows Vega and Ah Sahm to revisit that moment they almost had. Everyone needs a friend like Hong.
At Rooker’s breakfast the next morning, Rooker tries to hire Ah Sahm to stay and teach his men how to fight, but Ah Sahm respectfully declines. Vega acts strangely the whole breakfast until she asks to see Rooker’s special pistol. While holding it, Vega tells the story of how her family was murdered in cold blood by a white man who came and stole her family’s property. Suprise! Rooker was that man, and Vega is wearing one of the bullets specially made for Rooker’s gun around her neck. Before anyone can act, she loads it and shoots Rooker in the head. Ah Sahm has no choice but to fight off Rooker’s head of security, and the two run out, grab Young Jun and Hong, and make a run for it.
There’s an epic fight scene where the quartet take on everyone in the compound, but eventually they face a line of shot guns and have to yield. Rooker’s wife is in control now and she demands that they turn the four over to the authorities, who arrive and cart them off in chains.
Things seem real bad until the cart stops in the middle of the desert. “Mrs. Rooker” appears suddenly and is revealed to be Vega’s sister, Marisol. The two had conspired to execute this plan all along and the “authorities” are fake. The sisters have their revenge, Ah Sahm has the tournament prize money and everyone can go happily.
Vega asks Ah Sahm to consider staying with her, but before Ah Sahm can answer, Rooker’s guard shows up and shoots Vega in the chest. Young Jun acts quickly, throwing one of his daggers right into the guard’s head, but it’s too late for Vega. Damn you Warrior writers!
After burying Vega, the Hop Wei trio swagger back to Chinatown…where Father Jun and a group from China are waiting for them. “You have some serious f*cking explaining to do,” Father Jun says as the episode ends.
Maria Elena Lass as Vega – What a huge loss for the show. In many ways, Vega’s death is the way this beautiful episode had to end. And if “To a Man with a Hammer, Everything is a Nail” was a feature film, I would simply stand up and applaud the pitch perfect ending. But this is a series, and Vega was such a great addition to the story and the cast this season. I’m sad to lose her. Vega has been great in every scene she’s been in all season, but this episode elevated her character and gave Lass so much great material to work with. In this episode, Vega showed that was smart, strong, charming and vulnerable. Fantastic performance by Lass and I look forward to seeing her in future projects.
Director Dustin Nguyen – This episode had a feature film feel to it from beginning to end. Gorgeous, wide angle landscape shots, dynamic action sequences, and iconic scenes that stay with you. The story was beautifully told, perfectly balancing the romance and emotion between Ah Sahm and Vega, and the intense fighting of a brutal tournament. Nguyen seems to be quite the gifted director and I hope he gets a chance to helm some feature films in the U.S. very soon.
Vega’s Death – Why did they have to do that to us!? So sad.
Warrior is obviously a story based on the Chinese immigrant experience. So while it is a universal immigrant story, we don’t get to see many different perspectives on the show very often. This episode gave us a unique and very welcome experience of traveling outside of Chinatown and seeing some of what Mexicans might have been going through during this time. Vega’s story is the center of the plot and she provided a fresh perspective that expanded the Warrior world. When Vega and Ah Sahm were having a moment of vulnerability, she explained the shared experience that South Americans and Asians face in the United States, both then and now. “You and me, we’re both strangers in this land,” Vega said to Ah Sahm. “They say we’re welcome, but by that they mean we’re tolerated, and just barely. They take away our rights, our land, our money. Whatever we have leftover they can take that away tomorrow too….”
RATING – 5/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.