The Bear and A Better Way Forward

We all have a bear den at the back of our thoughts. It’s where our animal urges slumber, waking to ask us questions of self-destruction or urging us to fight when we’re in pain. These impulses stalk the chefs of FX on Hulu’s summer breakout hit, The Bear, which follows wonder chef Carmen (Jeremy Allen White), Carmy to most, and his return to Chicago from the heights of the New York food scene. He’s inherited the family restaurant, The Beef, left to him by his deceased brother, Michael (Jon Bernthal, crushing it as always, even in limited flashbacks). Carmy’s personal bear is a loud one, wounded by his brother’s suicide and time spent in the world of restaurant elitism. Now he’s in charge of a mom-and-pop sandwich shop staffed by a cast of eccentric characters and his bear is fully awake.

It’s a delicate balancing act to do this kind of humanist storytelling without overly sugar coating or burning the dish till it’s too dark to have any real flavor but The Bear nails it. The show is consistently engaging and even funny, from exhausted chefs ranting about brunch to a kid’s birthday party gone wrong. At only eight half-hour episodes, each one feels like a perfectly swung meat hammer. The Bear wrestles with fighting tooth and nail to make it through the first two years of COVID, when no one knew what the hell was going to happen, only to be greeted by recession storm clouds on the other side. It also ponders the cost of survival, of not only that historical experience but also making it through the machinery of the food industry. Is the right way to teach cooking really to place success on an unobtainable pedestal and have it guarded by chefs without empathy for their fellow workers? At some point, someone became fine with such a system and then another and another until it became the norm. It’s been clear for a while that this is not working. It wasn’t working in New York for Carmy and it’s not working in Chicago as he tries to implement what he’s learned at The Beef. Early on in the season, after the restaurant gets hit with a C rating from a food and health inspector despite Carmy’s best efforts, new hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) asks the important question: does it have to be this way?

The show gives a definitive answer to that question. Perfectionism is not worth its human toll and the only way out of this is by remembering the importance of others. Carmy realizes this, even early on as he encourages his staff to call each other “Chef” as a sign of respect and to thank one another. At its core, The Bear is about the long slow push to become a better human. This is represented by The Beef’s evolution throughout the season. In the beginning, it’s a disaster. The cook staff doesn’t clean up after themselves, all the knives are dull, and the walls are falling out. As the season progresses, the staff gets better about these things, infected by Carmy’s passion for cooking and professionalism. It’s also shown through the relationships between the staff, such as Sydney’s relationship with Tina (scene stealer Liza Colón-Zayas). Tina has been the sole woman at The Beef for a long time, having to harden herself in order to survive in a male-dominated workspace. With Sydney’s arrival, there’s an unspoken fear that Tina is going to be replaced. At first, Tina is hostile towards the new chef, hiding Sydney’s prepped onions and turning up the heat on her pots when Sydney has her back turned. Eventually there is begrudging respect and mutual admiration. By the season’s end, The Beef has become to Tina a place that’s more than just familiar coworkers and a paycheck. It’s a place where she can feel good about her work. It feels great watching people grow and thrive but the show understands that people are not always at their best, that our center will not always hold. 

Contrary to some preemptive hot takes before the show started, The Bear is not about how one artistically gifted white man saves the day. Instead it’s about people collectively failing forward. Carmy is a ticking time bomb of nervous energy and prone to boiling over into panic attacks. He’s not the only one standing on the edge. His brother’s best friend, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), is just as hurt from the loss of Michael and dealing with his own set of anger issues. Sydney is struggling to live with the dead weight of her own failed dreams. All of their issues would be a lot to deal with but the pressure cooker environment of working at The Beef intensifies them all to the nth degree. The Bear has pulled back the curtain for probably quite a few viewers regarding what it’s like to work in a restaurant. It’s exhausting and often disgusting work to cook all day for a steady stream of customers, regardless of the restaurant’s number of Michelin Stars. The realities that The Bear touch upon hit so close to home for those already in the food industry that many professional chefs have a hard time making it through the season. Being a professional chef means drinking from plastic containers rather than taking the time to get an actual cup and often not having the energy to cook a real meal after an all-day shift. A chef’s life is far from non-stop food porn and accolades.

Cooking is an art. That’s a non-argument. To do it well means time, money, effort, and especially a love of the craft. As with all genres of art, there are those who believe that in order to become great, you must transcend your humanity. Shrug off the needs of others and yourself and chase perfectionism. The Bear wrestles with this mindset and how it has infected both halves of a larger argument. The Beef is located within an older part of Chicago, one that is rapidly changing. All the familiar landmarks are either closing or being rebranded for gentrification. “It’s a delicate fucking ecosystem!” Richie shouts, gesturing out the front window in frustration. He’s also talking about what’s going on inside the restaurant. Carmy and Sydney are new school, with their knowledge of Noma-inspired techniques and what a restaurant with a Danish-design even means. Everyone else like Richie and Tina are The Beef’s tradition. They had an operating system in place for years. Messy and unrefined as it was, it worked well enough to keep the lights on while under Michael’s management. Both styles come with the baggage of microaggressions and ritualistic hazing or worse, screaming matches and even fist fights. Neither the old or new ways are providing the solutions that they think they are. The food industry, like any artistic or economic field, has long been fraught by rules, unspoken or aloud, that are designed to instill the mindset that other humans are competition and it takes a lot of work to unlearn this. 

Just when things start to seem stable at The Beef, it runs full force into the worst day yet under Carmy’s management. I promise, you are not prepared for Episode 7 and its weaponized use of a single take. It’s an experience that feels akin to watching a series of dams breaking one after another right in front of you. In its wake, Carmy feels like he’s fallen below square one, having lashed out at the people around him in frustration. Thankfully The Bear doesn’t wallow in despair, nor does it provide easy answers as after all, people are made up of many, often contradictory, things. But it does let its characters move forward as Carmy works to mend his relationships. The series ends on a group dinner for the staff of The Beef and their families, just after Carmy has announced a rebranding of the restaurant that will blend tradition and progress. Set to maybe the most cathartic use of Radiohead ever, the gathering is a reinforcement of the show’s humanist center. That caring for others and accepting care in return can be a lifesaving act but in order to do so, we need to learn to live with our own bears.

An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here

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