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FX’s “The Bear”: Anatomy of a Tortured Artist




As much as I enjoy food, I’m not much of a cook. People know this about me. In fact, it’s an image that I’ve carefully crafted throughout the years (even though I’m strangely good at cake baking). Regardless, I’ve done such a good job cultivating my “not a cook” persona that those around me have zero expectations that I will contribute to a meal. I’m not asked to help with Thanksgiving prep (though I often bake the pies and do the dishes). When my friend comes over to my place for our annual fish fry, she often brings her own ingredients—INCLUDING salt and pepper (and, one year, her husband’s deodorant, but I’m going to classify that as a “them” problem).


And yet…


I love to watch shows about cooking. There’s something strangely fascinating about watching people take what seem like random ingredients and transform them into a meal. Enter FX’s The Bear. When I watched the initial episode of season one, I didn’t think the show was for me. The episode is chaotic and confusing as characters talk over each other, often arguing about irrelevant issues all within the confines of a busy and enclosed kitchen. At the same time, we are provided the first insights into the protagonist’s—Michelin Star chef Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White)—troubled mind. To say that he has demons is an understatement, but those around him understand that he is special. That he can produce food that would be classified as elegant, exquisite, and great. In other words: art.


The premise of the show is that Carmy has left his job in New York and returned to Chicago to run the family’s sandwich shop after the death of his older brother, Mikey (Jon Bernthal), who has committed suicide. Over the course of the first two seasons, we see Carmy trying to manage the problems Mikey left behind along with the various personalities of Mikey’s staff—some of whom have been lifelong friends of the family. At times, it seems as if everyone has known everyone for forever, which makes things messier as Carmy attempts to establish order in his new kitchen. There is natural chafing. There is natural fear that Carmy’s changes will impact income. But there is also a slow-growing hope for each character that they can be something more: that a line cook can learn knife skills and finesse; that a dabbler in baking can learn to execute the desserts devised by his imagination.


For them, the restaurant becomes less a place of employment and grows more and more into a place of passion. In this regard, seasons 1 and 2 are about transition and transformation. Over the course of those two seasons, we see Carmy and his crew first try to make the sandwich shop viable, then throw out that dream for something bigger: the chance to open a fine dining restaurant with the aim at gaining that Michelin Star. Season 2 ends on their opening night. Season 3 explores the aftermath.


In a sense, Season 3 truly explores what it means to be driven to create.

In this, there is quite a lot of footage of Carmy standing in the kitchen—either after hours or early in the morning—experimenting with food. He does a lot of staring—a lot of contemplation as he slowly shifts a piece of asparagus from one side of the dish to the other. Creating art requires tremendous thinking and concentration. As William Butler Yeats once wrote about crafting poetry, “A line will take us hours maybe/ but if it does not seem a moment’s thought/ our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” In other words, true art takes time on the part of the creator but needs to seem effortless on the part of the audience. In this, The Bear has pulled away the curtain on the artist’s effort. There is a sense of frustration on the part of the staff, and—I might add—on the part of the viewer, as every dish is rejected and thrown into the trash. Yet, for Carmy, that rejection is necessary.


“Chef, it’s not ready yet” is a line he learned from his former boss and antagonist, chef David (Joel Mchale), and one that is echoed in Carmy’s kitchen.


This is the first hallmark of how we perceive the artist: the drive for perfection. Unfortunately, Carmy’s drive isn’t healthy as he is burning through the money they’ve received in order to hold his restaurant to the standards he’s established in pursuit of that star. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, Claire (Molly Gordon), as he believes their relationship can’t last, especially because it makes him happy. He’s on bad terms with his childhood friend, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who manages the front of the house. And he’s becoming increasingly dismissive of his Chef de Cuisine, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), who, in turn, becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her role within the restaurant. As season 3 comes to a close, it becomes ever clearer that the show’s title, The Bear, refers to so much more than the name of Carmy’s new restaurant. It is about the angst and struggles that torment him from within. The bear is literally the monster that drives Carmy to greatness, as acknowledged by his pastry chef, Marcus (Lionel Boyce), when he says, “Take us there, Bear.”


This leads us to the second hallmark of our perception of artists: A true artist must be tormented.


And there is plenty to torment Carmy: his brother’s suicide, the burden of expectation that everyone has placed on him, and the “ulcers, panic attacks, and nightmares” he incurred as a result of chef David’s emotionally abusive kitchen. As a precursor to Carmy’s current problems, there is also the matter of his upbringing. Long before he stepped foot into a chef’s role, Carmy and his siblings had to deal with the volatile and unpredictable emotions of their mother, Donna (Jaime Lee Curtis). While we aren’t provided much insight in terms of how or if Donna’s parenting influenced Mikey’s suicide, we are given a front row seat for the damage it has inflicted on Carmy’s sister, Natalie (Abbey Elliot), whose greatest fear is that she will transfer the trauma of her upbringing onto her unborn daughter. Natalie is the heart of the restaurant. She is able to manage personalities when Carmy won’t, and she is often able to see and understand the emotions driving various character interactions. She provides the stability needed for everyone—the staff, the investor, and the rotating electricians/plumbers/handymen—to communicate with and understand the quirky and volatile nature of Carmy’s brilliance.


Because he’s the artist, because he’s gifted, it enables those around him to excuse his behavior (to a certain extent). At the same time, there is an expectation on Carmy’s part that his behavior BE excused. Whatever partnerships he may have forged, he perceives himself as the boss above all bosses. After all, if everyone around him has the belief that his abilities are what stand between their collective dream of success vs. failure, then he’s allowed to take out the stress of that burden on the people who support him the most. There are those who fight back against his outbursts—like Richie and Sydney. At some point, however, Carmy himself begins to question if this quest for greatness is worth the sacrifice. In other words, is art worth the trauma? Would he find peace if he just let it all go?


Those are questions I’ve been wondering myself lately.


I suppose the answer lies somewhere near the individual compulsion to create. For Carmy—the bear—the perfection of his dishes is the only thing where he allows himself to feel a sense of worth. He can accept all of the bad in his life, the decision to leave Claire (who is interestingly also referenced as “bear” even as Carmy says she gives him peace), and the trauma he endured to become great IF he has the payoff of success. And because the thing that drives him IS trauma, he attains a tunnel vision related to the success of the restaurant, dismissing all of the things that are crumbling around him in the process.


As Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt), the chief financier, asserts towards the end of season 3, “Dreams are a son of a bitch, aren’t they?”


Yes, Uncle Jimmy, they absolutely are.


But not everyone has to live inside their trauma or to create toxic relationships in order for their art to thrive. It feels like we’ve accepted the belief that true art can only come from a place of pain because it’s the healthiest outlet for a person who struggles. It excuses the obsession. It excuses the years of dedication needed in order for an artist in any field to hone the skills that would make that person great. More importantly, it excuses the selfishness needed to devote so much time and energy to an endeavor that may not pan out because—at the end of the day—an artist’s success is also tied to luck. No matter how talented Carmy has become, he would be nowhere if the right doors hadn’t opened for him. If he didn’t know the right people.



Even so, I feel an affinity for Carmy and his crew. I know what it’s like to aspire to be more—to crave validation. To believe that all the time, effort, and sweat I’ve dedicated to honing my craft will ultimately pay off with that lucky break. I know what it’s like to have a “bear” pushing me. There’s something thrilling in the creation, but it’s also a hard and dark place in which to exist. Our traumas have the potential to make us who we are. But ultimately, we owe it to ourselves to move past our pains and to understand that simply creating is its own satisfaction even if the creation is small.

 

Writing & Publishing Updates:

 

In the Kingdom of Happiness 

 

81,000-word short story collection

These interconnected stories focus on the attractions of Märchen Land, a place of hyper-realistic beauty whose motto is “Where Fairy Tales Come to Life!” Through the diverse cast of characters, the collection examines the contrast between fabricated fantasy and our own humanity.  

 

Status: On Submission

 

After the Autumn People 

 

121,000-word literary novel 

A woman facing terminal brain cancer pens explosive “last letters” to the people in her life, including her childhood friend whose own world is upturned; after finding out her diagnosis is a fraud, she has to confront the fallout and the truth of her traumatic past. 

 

Status: On Submission

 

Sometimes, I Feel Blue 

children’s book (in collaboration with my sister)

The first in a series that teaches children how to identify, understand, and process their emotions as they explore shades of meaning.

 

Status: In Progress

 

 

Image generated by AI.

 

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