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The pattern & prototype of all sin

Jan 13, 2024

In the eighth episode of Beef, in one of a series of flashbacks filling in the backstories of the two beefing protagonists (or, better, the two antagonists), we see a particularly affecting scene between Danny & his younger brother, Paul that illustrates what Thomas Merton calls “the pattern & prototype of all sin.” (Spoilers follow.)

Danny & Paul are at their parents’ motel: Danny is perhaps 20 or 21 years old & working as his parents’ handyman (contractor, he insists), while Paul, three years his junior, is preparing his college applications. Danny has deep affection for his younger brother—we’ve seen that in some of the other flashback scenes in this episode—& it’s clear he doesn’t want Paul to move away for college. Part of his reluctance may be the insecurity he feels at what seems to be his younger brother surpassing him (Danny never went to college) but, more than that, he just doesn’t want to be without his brother. Danny, suddenly & brightly, suggests that Paul live with him in Beverley Hills & commute to college. When Paul demurs, saying he’s not sure where he’ll end up, Danny keeps pushing, saying Paul could go somewhere local. “Dude, stop,” Paul answers. “I’m doing my own thing.”

Danny is stung, but reaches out to Paul once more. As Paul turns to walk away, Danny calls out, “Hey, can you get me some light bulbs from downstairs?” “You go get it.” The exasperation in Paul’s voice is clear, as is the pain on Danny’s face.

I’m reminded of an equally affecting scene in Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. Merton is thinking back on his childhood & especially his younger brother John Paul, who will die during the Second World War. Merton is playing with his friends, building little huts in the woods, & refusing to allow any younger brothers, including John Paul, to play with them. If John Paul or any other younger brother dared approach, Merton & his friends “would chase them away with stones.” Merton reflects:

Many times it was like that. & in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern & prototype of all sin: the deliberate & formal will to reject disinterested love for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely & absolutely, & will not to acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, & depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. & we refuse love, & reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation.

There are differences, of course, between Merton’s childhood & the Cho brothers—most especially the reversal of older & younger brothers—but they are fundamentally the same scene. In either case one brother rejects an offer of love from the other, because they “simply do not want it.” Paul does not see (he’s only a teenager, after all) that Danny’s efforts to keep him close by are not necessarily intended to stifle him or hold him back, even if they can have that effect. Paul does not see that Danny asking for light bulbs is not his older brother ordering him around. It’s his older brother trying to share another moment with him, before Paul goes away, perhaps for good.

It seems to me that Merton is right that these little betrayals—these little refusals to allow another person to love us—are the most ordinary & mundane ways we sin. That they are ordinary & mundane, however, does not make them any less cutting. Indeed, these little refusals of love, borne more out of exasperation than malice, can result in some of the deepest wounds. These wounds, Beef recognizes, often fester into bigger betrayals & so bigger sins. After Paul turns his back on Danny, Danny finds Paul’s college applications in the outgoing mailbox. He picks them up & tosses them in the trash. Danny’s bigger betrayal is not exactly malicious; it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to hurt Paul as much as he’s trying to keep Paul close by. But hurt Paul he does: Paul spends the next several years feeling like a fuck-up, & Danny allows Paul to believe that Paul is himself responsible for messing up his college applications. Danny’s betrayal of Paul does more than just prevent him from going to college; it affects Paul’s self-understanding, & leads to several years of self-loathing & even a kind of arrested development.

Beef is a surprisingly theological series. It has some obvious religious moments—Danny becomes involved in a church, & he & Amy have a drug-fueled theological conversation in the final episode—but the structure of the entire series is a reflection on the dynamic & expanding process by which sin overtakes our lives. That’s true of the central conflict—as Danny & Amy’s road rage affects their lives & the lives of others in ways they cannot anticipate—but also in these smaller conflicts as well.