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The Bear

The Bear (2022)

Christopher Storer (Creator)
Published by FX Productions in 2022

The Hulu series The Bear won six Emmys in January, including the award for Outstanding Comedy Series. This gritty, humorous, searing TV series centers on Carmen Berzatto, a chef who grew up in a highly dysfunctional Italian family in Chicago and runs a restaurant specializing in sliced roast beef sandwiches, “The Original Beef of Chicagoland.” Fleeing a psychologically unhinged mother who inflicts her fragile, victimized, narcissistic self on her family and an older brother whose rejection wounds him to the core, Carmen goes to Copenhagen and becomes a chef at Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants.

Mickey, his older brother, commits suicide and unexpectedly leaves the fledgling, nearly failing Chicago restaurant to Carmen, whose nickname is “Bear.” Returning home to an acrimonious, distrustful staff and a family he had wanted to freeze out, Carmen tries to save the restaurant from its precarious state. He’s all in and into nothing else. A family Christmas dinner descends into anarchy, and his mother smashes her car into the dining room. Carmen keeps retreating into his protective obsession with salvaging the restaurant, closing off access to his personal, inner wounded life.

Finally, Carmen determines to close the beef sandwich shop and rebuild it as an elite Chicago restaurant, to be named “The Bear.” This wholly consumes Carmen’s practical, emotional, and psychological life.  But he runs into Claire, an old friend from high school who still has a crush on him. Plans are racing, often off track, toward The Bear’s opening night, but Claire and Carmen find some fragile space, trying to connect.  

The premier night arrives, and The Bear is filled with friends, family, supporters, and connoisseurs. Carmen, rushing to hold it all together, darts into the cooler, and the massive door slams shut. The front handle had broken, and Carmen had never made the call to get it fixed. He was locked in.  But he can’t chill out.  Yelling orders and angst through the thick door, he finally dissolves. The crew careens on, putting out the Michelin-like meals, while Carmen shivers in frosty self-pity.

Then Claire arrives, discovers Carmen is imprisoned and wants to communicate.  But before Carmen knows she is there, he launches into a soliloquy, which Claire hears:

“I failed you guys…Maybe I’m just not built for this.”

“I wasn’t here. What the (expletive) was I thinking that I was going to be in a relationship? I’m a (expletive) psycho. That’s why I’m good at what I do. That’s how I operate. I am the best because I didn’t have any of the other (expletives), right? I feel I could focus; I could concentrate…I don’t need to provide any amusement or enjoyment. I don’t need to receive any amusement or enjoyment. I’m completely fine with that.”

Claire’s head is against the cooler door, listening. A tear forms and flows down her cheek. “I’m really sorry you feel that way, Carm.” And she leaves, brokenhearted.

Carmen is shocked and distraught, plaintively yelling for her. He pulls the phone out of his chef’s coat and exhales breath that forms a cold cloud; he finds a voicemail that Claire had left for him earlier that day but which he hadn’t taken a moment to listen to.

“You’re so special, wonderful. I’m just so excited and thrilled for you. I know it can be hard to, like, find a second to feel good about what you’re doing right in the middle of doing it…I’m just so proud of you, Bear… and, um, I just, I really love you…”

Carmen throws his phone down in chilling despair.

That image of Carmen locked in the cooler, victimized by his own frantic inattentiveness, walled off from emotional connection to others, frozen away from experiencing the joy of his obsessive effort, and blaming himself for his tentative vulnerability stayed with me. I saw it as a metaphor for so much that I’ve seen in others and in myself.

My thoughts turned to some new church start pastors who give their all, jeopardize closest relationships, and eventually burn themselves out—maybe launching a church that survives or not. I thought of friends working in politics who spend 60 to 70 hours a week absorbed in campaigns or policy battles every waking hour but whose reactivity and inner emotional vacuum leads to costly errors. My memory turned to founders and leaders I’ve known over the years, whose creative gifts form new, enterprising organizations but whose intense drive for achievement freezes out nurturing relationships and leaves them isolated. And I reflected on my life, often molded by a cool self-sufficiency that kept doors locked.

A few weeks after my wife Kaarin and I finished watching The Bear, I went to Chicago to participate in a movement gathering, the Emergency Summit on Gaza.  The room at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH was filled with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular activists as well as politicians, including some members of Congress. All the focus was on galvanizing energy and action for promoting a cease-fire, pushing for a political solution to the raging Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cornell West, one of the speakers, at one point said, “You have to be there, grounded, morally and spiritually, before you engage politically, or else you will be used.”

Then another TV series on Hulu came to mind: The Secrets of Hillsong.  It centers on the true story of Carl Lentz, the charismatic pastor who founded Hillsong NYC.  It exploded into a megachurch phenomenon, attracting thousands into its high-octane, hipster worship with a celebrity culture wooing many real celebrities. Lentz’s growing fame almost began to eclipse the stardom of Hillsong’s Australia-based founder, Brian Houston. But deep, unattended wounds in Lentz’s inner psychological life erupted in this religiously enflamed pressure cooker, wreaking havoc in headline-grabbing sexual affairs, imploding Lentz’s life and ministry.

Lentz’s tragic story, like Carmen’s chilly imprisonment, reminds us of this truth: only the pain we name is available for transformation. And the pain we don’t name, we transmit.

Those words and dramas resonate, reminding me of the wisdom and practices I’ve turned to over decades, endeavoring to recover an inner spiritual grounding to my active outward work. My aim was to control obsessive drives toward achievement that would keep me locked in and frozen out. Now, that has become the hope I share for all the pastors, leaders, and activists, like those I was with in Chicago and so many more whose work is indispensable but whose inner journeys need to be awakened, valued, and nurtured. That’s because their witness and action must be endowed with spiritual resiliency so it can be sustained in the long run.

We are now entering one of the most decisive political years in American history when the character of our nation is being put up for a vote.  Growing religious tribes are clinging to protective, exclusive idolatries.  Activism by defenders of democracy and proponents of prophetic, biblical faith will abound.  Those voices are declaring the moral imperatives of our time. But I pray they will be rooted in the lifelong task of weaving together the inward and outward journeys of faith and action. We can’t end up like Carmen in The Bear. The world and God need each of our voices as part of a community that creates transforming work and initiatives that share the feast of life in abundance and dignity for all.

A new season of The Bear debuts in June on Hulu

Wes Granberg-Michaelson

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is an author and former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. One of the many reasons he loves retirement is the freedom to actually say what he thinks. More information can be found here. 


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    But, surrounding Carmine, his dysfunctional staff show measures of redemption and transformation —- his cousin Ritchie in particular. I’m hoping this upcoming season currently filming in Chicago will show the same for Carmine.
    I give the series “three forks”—especially for their role in the Christmas dinner (!)

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you.
    This goes for parenting too. I’m depleted, but at least I didn’t put myself in the ice box.
    Again, thank you

  • Alicia says:

    The Bear was both agonizing and glorious to experience! Thank you for the review and challenge!