Unexpected Grace in an Italian Beef Sub Shop

On Hulu’s The Bear

There comes a point when all the preparation, all the learning, all the experience in the world cannot dig you out of a pit. Maybe it is when you are young and a sports career ends due to injury and everything you have practiced and trained cannot heal you. Maybe you are still young and months away from attending the college of your choice when depression creeps in, ignoring and bypassing your many achievements and accolades, so nicely collected on your college application. Maybe it’s a diagnosis of a chronic, lifelong illness with no cure. Maybe your child starts throwing tantrums, unhappy with the way anything feels. The parenting books and experts you consult cannot fix the problem. You try all the tricks and the tantrums just keep coming. Maybe someone you love dies, before you get the chance to reconcile or apologize. No amount of knowledge or gold stars can fix that. The pit seems to grow deeper and deeper, until you’re really just facing the sheer rock-face of impossible on your own. I don’t think I am alone in this. At least I hope not.

This is the basic premise of the show The Bear, and to be honest, this heartbreaking fallibility is exactly why I am a huge fan. Too often we see shiny, clean narratives of “problem, solution, resolution.” But from every experience I described above, I can tell you that the real world almost never operates that way. 

The hero of The Bear is Carmy Berzatto, a classically trained chef who leaves his prestigious job to take over his family’s restaurant in Chicago after his older brother dies. The restaurant at best qualifies as kind of a dive, called The Original Beef of Chicagoland, and comes with its own baggage of shady characters, boring recipes, and questionable health practices. But, pretty quickly, we discover the grief, scrappiness, and heart beneath The Beef. 

Carmy’s older brother, Mikey, previously ran the restaurant with problematic business practices and leaves Carmy with not only a mountain of work but also a mountain of debt. Carmy wants nothing more than to make his late brother proud and bring all of his training and expertise to bear. The problem is The Original Beef is really a sandwich shop, mostly making Italian beef subs and spaghetti, and cannot withstand the weight of Carmy’s ambition.

Sydney, the sous-chef, arrives in the first episode, well versed on culinary techniques and traditional kitchen practices. She provides the conscience of the show, with her exacting standards, devotion to Carmy, and exposure to higher cuisine. Her attempts to organize the kitchen into a French brigade, like you would find at true fine dining establishments, are met with skepticism and sabotage.

Her foil in all of this is Mikey’s best friend, Richie, far and away the loudest presence on the show. Richie manages the front of the restaurant, interrupts and speaks over everyone (especially Sydney), and cannot do much right. It is assumed that Richie will be in the way of the actual work of the kitchen while contributing nothing. But Richie has the experience of living in the neighborhood, knowing the customers, and knowing what they want. 

In a genius way, we get to know the characters in the same way we would get to know anyone we work with. We rarely see their home lives and only see what they present to us in the kitchen. How much do we know about our co-workers? Each episode allows us to learn a little bit more, but again, only as much as we would as members of the same kitchen staff. But over the course of eight episodes, our original assumptions are turned on their head. 

Despite the bad behavior, the yelling and screaming, and the self-destruction, we quickly learn that every character on the show is grieving someone. And you cannot outwit or outwork grief — it will find you. Most are grieving Mikey, the lovable, charismatic older brother, best friend, and boss they lost to suicide just a few months before. But perhaps there is an additional layer to the grief, the inability to solve or fix their grief with their skills or experience.

Carmy is overwhelmed. He dodges calls from creditors, vendors, and his sister. He will not go to Al-Anon meetings with her. All the knowledge and prestige in the world is not going to pay off his debt. There is a reason restaurant employees, especially chefs and kitchen staff, have some of the highest rates of mental illness, especially depression and substance abuse: the demanding schedule, expectations of perfectionism, intensity of work environment, and lack of support systems. This show is gritty and portrays all of those realities in deep detail. 

Sydney had a goal and failed to meet it. She is grieving her failing dream to open a catering business so she desperately latches on to The Beef, in the hopes that she can organize and manage it into success, in the way she could not for her own business. 

Richie, in a moment of honesty, confesses his regrets. “I didn’t see it. I should have done something,” he says, referring to Mikey’s death. Richie’s pride in being the guy who always knows what’s going on, feels he missed something, that he did not know Mikey after all. I have a huge soft spot for characters who, at first glance, appear strong, gruff, and tough as nails, only to discover hidden depths of emotion and tenderness (see Roy Kent of Ted Lasso, Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation, etc). They remind me that the outside rarely tells the whole story. Richie does not belong anywhere besides the restaurant and despite his actions, he is lost without it. 

A standard show would have the team work together and pay off the debt, learning lessons about collaboration and hard work. It would have been easy for the writers to solve the problems by making everyone understand Carmy and Sydney’s plan so that they could execute it to perfection. Instead, even up to the finale, The Original Beef of Chicagoland seems doomed to fail, which would result in a secondary wave of grief, at losing not only Mikey but his restaurant, too. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that The Beef absolutely should fail, mired in debt, unsaved by any of these characters’ best efforts. The pit is deep, but instead of a lesson about working together, we witness a miracle, from the person and place you least expect it, with words of love and affirmation.

And that is why I really love this show. We have all reached moments where we are standing in front of a grease fire unable to put it out (metaphorically for most of us I hope), beaten down by conflict and IOUs. All of our training, diplomas, French brigades, and business schemes cannot rescue us. But somehow, love breaks through. Frederick Buechner wrote, “I think grace sometimes explodes into our lives like that- sending our pain, terror, astonishment hurtling through inner space until by grace they become Orion, Cassiopeia, Polaris, to give us our bearings, to bring us into something like full being at last.” When that explosion of love comes, we are carried and saved by the most unlikely of gifts: the grace of the unpredicted and the mercy of forgiveness that meets our deepest need.

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7 responses to “Unexpected Grace in an Italian Beef Sub Shop”

  1. Sam says:

    Such a great show and such an excellent reflection, Jane!

  2. Jane says:

    Thanks Sam!

  3. Deanna Roche says:

    You have convinced me that the show needs to go onto our must see list. Great article!

  4. Gary says:

    Great write up! As a decades long restaurant worker I related, sometimes too strongly to the content.

    I actually kind of loved how meaningless the ending of the first season. All it really did was set up for more drama in a new situation. The real moments of grace came in the quiet pauses and moments of acceptance, sometimes after disaster struck. Grace was waiting outside in the back , not at the next success or achievement.

  5. Chinwe says:

    Loved the show, love your reflection, and love Buechner. Thanks!

  6. Lois Moore says:

    Ditto Chinwe; best new show of the season (sorry, Andor),

  7. […] Jane Grizzle’s reflection on The Bear is spot on. […]

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