Photo: The CW
In another jam-packed hour of action and adventure, the members of the Shen family are all given their own moment in the spotlight, the mysterious identity of Zhilan is unearthed by an unwitting professor turned prisoner, and the recovery of a second magical weapon kicks a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse between the show’s two nemeses into high gear.
After finding the mental clarity that had eluded her in the pilot episode, Nicky attempts to get back into the physical side of things by engaging in an early-morning training session with Henry at the Chinese Community Center. As they wait for an update on the whereabouts of Professor Chau, “the only expert on the eight weapons in the world,” Henry notes that the distracted Nicky’s moves have become restless and sloppy.
“Well, if you just learned that your shifu was killed by her own sister who’s now probably kidnapped the one person who might know where the weapons are — which means you may never find Zhilan — you’d be distracted too,” Nicky says before knocking Henry down flat on his back and flashing him a playful smile. (Touché, Nicky.)
The two share a lingering glance as Henry gets up, before they are interrupted by Evan, marking the first meeting of Nicky’s two potential love interests. To say that there’s a bit of tension between the two studs would be an understatement. While Henry offers a disarming greeting, Evan decides to go on the offensive, going out of his way to mention that Nicky and him “go way back” while shaking hands with Henry. Desperate to change the subject, Nicky tells Henry that she’ll talk to him later and leaves with Evan to hear his latest update about Zhilan.
After one of Evan’s sources caught Zhilan with Professor Chau on a surveillance tape, the Singaporean police attempt to raid a luxury hotel room that must have belonged to Zhilan, but they come away empty-handed. In reality, Zhilan, like the irresistibly beautiful villain that she is, has escaped with Professor Chau in tow. The episode cuts straight to her lavish headquarters, where she is using thinly veiled threats to get Chau, whose body is bound to a swivel chair, to reveal the location of the 双鉤 (shuāng gōu), or a pair of hook swords. She tells him that she’s been tracking his every move since he published his first book about ancient Chinese history and begins her “dainty” but “painful” torture with a simple statement. “Now, you’re gonna tell me where it is,” she says as she pulls his head back. “Shall we begin?” (Yvonne Chapman plays this role with a quiet fervor that makes you wonder if you are more terrified or besotted with the show’s biggest villain.)
The rest of the episode alternates between Zhilan’s unhinged taunts of Chau and Nicky’s quest to find Zhilan and to help a sick and underpaid factory worker, with a few subtle nods to the unknown lives that Nicky’s family has been living since she ran away to China. In an early kitchen scene at her family’s restaurant, Nicky struggles to reconnect with her brother Ryan, who used to be her closest confidant, and her mother refuses to let her help with a catering event because of a little accident that happened years ago. “Patience, Nicky. It takes time. You have to earn forgiveness,” Pei-Ling tells her in an unassuming manner, which is one of the strengths that Vanessa Kai brings to this role.
After Ryan declines to go out for lunch, insisting that he is too busy with patients at the community center’s clinic, Nicky meets a patient named Faye (Doralynn Mui), who tells her that Ryan has gone above and beyond to treat people in their community. Faye, an underpaid and overworked factory worker at the streetwear brand King Kwong, also tells Nicky that she has been trying to collect signatures to start a union because she is only paid a minimum wage and does not have paid sick leave. For a show that is attempting to highlight underrepresented communities outside just Chinatown, it is hardly surprising that the writers have chosen to tackle unionization so early on, but they manage to do it in a very natural and empowering way.
After meeting Faye, Nicky heads to the University of California, Berkeley, to meet with Henry, who has scheduled a meeting with Chau’s teaching assistant. Henry not-so-subtly asks Nicky about Evan while waiting for the TA, saying that he only wanted to know because he liked Evan’s suit. From the first episode, Olivia Liang and Eddie Liu have leaned into their off-screen friendship to create an undeniable on-screen chemistry, using a combination of stolen glances and playful smiles between lines of dialogue to make it very hard to root against #TeamHenry right now. (Your move, #TeamEvan.)
But when the TA is a no-show due to a last-minute faculty meeting, the two partners in crime decide to take matters into their own hands, with a little help from Henry’s YouTube-acquired lock-picking skills. They manage to break into Chau’s temporary office, where Nicky discovers a drawer with a false bottom. She finds an old puzzle box that has a crane on the bottom, just like the one on Zhilan’s necklace. While walking back to the community center’s library, where they planned to inspect the box before returning it, Nicky sees Faye being wheeled out of the center on a stretcher after fainting again at work.
After deciding that she wants to help save Faye’s job, Nicky goes searching for Ryan, who had left work for the day, and finds him at a popular bar, where she inadvertently interrupts his date with a striking activist named Joe (Bradley Gibson). (Oops.) Nicky is visibly surprised to see Ryan being so openly affectionate with another man, but she tries to listen when Joe tells her about Eddie Kwong (Curtis Lum) — the freeloading owner of King Kwong — and a party that he will be holding later that night at a showroom next to the factory. Before she can even walk out of the bar, Nicky calls Althea and asks her to take her as a plus-one to the big party.
At the VIP party, Nicky meets Eddie, the well-intentioned but ill-informed young man who eventually pawns her off to his COO, Brett Slakter, whom he calls “Brometheus.” (Yikes.) When Nicky brings up Faye, Brett assures her that he’s been a huge ally and that he’s been helping to fast-track the unionization process. Nicky is initially satisfied with that answer, but she soon receives a call from Ryan, who cut his date short to help her. He tells her that hospital tests found high levels of a man-made chemical in Faye’s blood, which prompts her to do a little investigatory work on her own at the adjacent factory. Nicky snoops around the factory’s main working floor and finds Faye’s duffel bag, which she recognized from their first meeting, in the trash and all of Faye’s hard-earned paperwork in a bin marked “To Be Shredded.”
When Nicky is caught by Brett in a storage room, she confronts him about trying to poison Faye, since her results were consistent with direct ingestion of the harmful chemical. But before Nicky can threaten Brett, he locks her in the room, orders a hit man to “clean up” the situation, and returns to the party. With no signal on her phone, Nicky tries to punch a hole big enough for her to reach through and unlock the door, which prompts her to think back to the time Pei-Ling taught her to break stone blocks in half. “Stop thinking about breaking the stone. Stop thinking about results. All your life, you’ve been trained in obtaining results and goals,” her shifu told her. “Impatience is desire for the future. Impatience is fear of the present. Let go of desire. Let go of fear. Be in the present; be in the now. Go slow.”
In the end, Nicky is able to punch through the door and sneaks out of the room. When she comes face-to-face with the hit man, she flawlessly disarms and knocks him out, ties him up, and steals his phone to mess with an exasperated Brett. She sneaks back into the party and lures Brett into a full-blown confession over the phone, where he admits to poisoning Faye and taking advantage of Eddie, which she records and plays on the main stage for everyone to hear. We’ve only seen it in three episodes so far, but there is a unique satisfaction in seeing Liang improve her final staredown week after week, after her character outsmarts yet another morally corrupt man.
While Nicky is busy saving the union of King Kwong, her sister, her parents, and her archnemesis are busy navigating trials and tribulations of their own. Shortly before Nicky began to investigate the King Kwong headquarters, she was abandoned at the party by Althea, who saw the woman who had been calling her nonstop. When she tries to flee the party, Althea is cornered by the same woman, most likely a journalist, who tells her that her story is important to tell. It seems that Althea’s past is not haunted by an unwanted ex but rather by a former boss who made unwelcome advances to her and a number of other women. In her first really emotional scene of the series, Shannon Dang shows that she can handle the dramatic moments as well as the comedic ones, telling the unidentified woman, “For the last time, leave me alone.”
Back at the family restaurant, the Shen parents have a squabble over a 22-year-old fridge nicknamed Jerry that could point to bigger issues in their marriage. With Mei-Li unwilling to part ways with the broken fridge, the couple is forced to stretch their fragile finances to get it fixed, despite Althea and Dennis’s offer to buy them a new one. This leads to the most emotional scene of the hour, where Tzi Ma and Kheng Hua Tan put on an absolute acting master class. “Nicky tries to reach out to you. You swat her away! Our daughter, she tries to fix things and you refuse,” Jin says. “And this old machine breaks and you spare no effort, no expense, to repair it. Our family’s hurting … I love you. But sometimes … I just don’t understand you.”
Finally, in Singapore, Zhilan’s attempts to turn the screws (both literally and figuratively) on Chau are successful, but in the process, we discover more about her enigmatic identity from the professor. Her pendant represents one of the eight guardian families, her full name is Zhang Zhilan, and her father was murdered when she was just a child. While she is initially thrown off by the professor’s knowledge, she regroups and coerces him into telling her the location of the shuang gou before poisoning him to death with a cup of coffee. (We later see a shot of Zhilan hanging up the hook swords after her skilled team raided a palace in Dubai.)
Back in San Francisco, Nicky reconnects with Henry in the community center’s library after saving Faye and helping out at her family’s restaurant. Henry tells her that they have found the “turducken of puzzles,” as he managed to solve the large puzzle, only to be met with a smaller one. Nicky, recognizing the pattern from when Pei-Ling showed her the sword at the monastery, manages to use the same combination to unlock the box, revealing a mysterious key.
• The morning after exposing Brett, Nicky has a really nice heart-to-heart with Ryan where he calls him a hero, offers to take over the catering event so that he can go on another date with Joe, and gifts him a pair of complementary (but very expensive) sneakers from King Kwong. (Jon Prasida plays Ryan with a naturally endearing charisma, but given that he loves sneakers in real life, I think his reactions were even more genuine in this scene.)
• Althea reveals to the woman at the party that she hasn’t told anyone about her experiences with her old boss — not even her own family. Judging by the way that Althea cried herself to sleep after that conversation, I have a feeling that she will reach her breaking point and end up confiding in Nicky before anyone else …
• At the end of the episode, Evan calls in a favor and asks his friend to look into Henry, believing that he is leading Nicky down a dangerous path. What skeletons does Henry have hidden in his closet?