The Bear, FX’s restaurant business dramedy, follows James Beard-winning phenom chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and his efforts to turn his family's Italian beef restaurant, The Beef of Chicagoland, into a functioning business (in the first season) and then a fine-dining establishment called The Bear (in the second). The show is known for its depiction of workplace and family tension—many episodes are at least 95 percent screaming. But something else also animates it: a critique of the kind of success defined only by prowess and external validation. This might be unexpected, because these markers of success are what many, including those in the restaurant industry, crave: recognition, awards, elite status, money. Instead, the show patiently argues for a different vision of success, one founded on hospitality and acceptance of the other.
Midway through the second season, with the clock ticking on the transformation of The Beef of Chicagoland into The Bear, Richie Jerimovich, a family friend of the Berzattos, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach at his hangdog best, has been sent by Carmy to “stage”—essentially, to intern—at a fictional Chicago restaurant modeled after real three-Michelin-starred Alinea. At first, Richie sees this thankless job—at which he polishes thousands of forks a day—as punishment for clashing with Carmy. In one scene, we see a surly Richie wiping an endless stream of forks, stuck in drudgery while the rest of the restaurant is humming with activity.
Just because he must polish forks, however, doesn’t mean he does it well.
“Do you think this is below you?” his supervisor Garrett asks. When Richie asks why Garrett cares so much, he replies, “It’s because of how stoked they are to see us and how stoked we have to be to serve them.”
Richie had never thought of his work as a service before. Suddenly, each perfect fork seems less like drudgery and more like a gift, one tiny piece of an immaculate experience. And performing a service can be healing—Garrett is a recovering alcoholic who found purpose in acts of service. After his experience staging, Richie is a changed man, and he shows up to work at The Bear rejuvenated and clad in a suit. “I wear suits now,” he responds to his bewildered colleagues who wonder what happened to the lost, purposeless Richie they knew. His newfound self-respect emerged from losing himself to the reality of the other. He also realizes that Carmy was not punishing him, but trying to help attune him to this fact.
But Carmy, the main character of the show, fails to learn that same lesson. His understanding of excellence centers around himself. When his sous chef Sydney (played alternately understated, ambitious, and anxious by a sparkling Ayo Edebri) asks Carmy what he did when the restaurant he managed in the past earned three Michelin stars, he smiles and says, “The first ten seconds felt like a sort of panic ‘cause I knew I just had to keep ‘em. And your brain does a weird thing where it bypasses any sort of joy. It just attaches itself to dread.” The theme of Carmy’s career, he reveals to Sydney, is that his version of success and failure revolves around what he and his prodigious talents can achieve or not achieve. No one else is in the picture.
One of the show’s recurring shots is of Carmy staring, dissociated, as his stovetop erupts into flames. It’s as if all of his past stresses, failures, and trauma are combusting, blackening the pots in front of him and threatening the safety of his restaurant. The viewer wants to scream at him—Do something!—but it’s clear that he can’t. It isn’t until a coworker jumps in with a fire extinguisher that Carmy’s trance is broken. As the image of the stove on fire recurs throughout the show, one wishes that Carmy’s suffering could jar him into some sort of solidarity with the people around him, but instead he burrows deeper down into the fantasy of isolated self-reliance. Carmy’s version of success is standing amid the flames, “bypass[ing] any sort of joy” on his way to dread.