Unlike my other blogs, I’d like to begin this one with a quick disclaimer - there’s some ground work you need to do before you venture deep into this piece. If you do not know what The Bear is, you need to go finish this checklist first:
- Stop reading
- Go watch it
- Process your feelings
- Come back
- Read this blog
- Reprocess your feelings
- Share your thoughts with me!
As you can tell from my rather blunt introduction, The Bear is a show that I TRULY loved: it felt novel, intriguing, unpredictable, and most of all, made me feel a lot of feelings solely because of its spectacular (and very complicated) characters. In fact, never in the history of television have I come across a show where every character seems to have Main Character Energy™. In fact, it’s taken me four tries to just streamline what I could possibly put down.
Just by reading the synopsis for the show (Carmen/Carmy, a Michelin Star chef returns to run his family’s sandwich joint after his brother’s death by suicide), I knew I was going to have lots of mixed feelings about it.
And not surprisingly - I did.
The show puts us in the hot seat of what it's actually like to be in the back of a restaurant: the chaos, the screaming, the panic, the emotions, the conflict, every single infinitesimally small bit of it. Every episode left me feeling like I had just finished an hour’s shift in the busiest restaurant in Chicago (as well as feeling all the feelings of every character). For a regular viewer, that can be… a lot.
That being said, while picking what aspect I wanted to break down for my thought piece, I had to go with Carmy’s character. Throughout the series, they build and tell his character story pretty well. However, his character is just such a frustrating one. If I met this man in real life, I would probably need a vacation after one interaction. I know, I am sorry. In the series as a whole, he fits in only because all the other characters are also deeply flawed.
The real wholesome characters of the show were Sydney (Carmy’s new sous chef who is hardworking and meticulous about organising and creating a respectful environment in the kitchen) & Natalie/Sugar (Carmy’s older sister - her role is the thankless supporter/middle child who emotionally grounds people in the kitchen). They are such strong anchoring characters - primarily because they help everyone around them express themselves, nudge them out of their passivity and accept everyone while also trying to hold their ground! Sydney plays the emotional regulator for everyone by calming things down, and if you see Natalie and Carmy, they are two sides of a similar upbringing, emotions and situations; yet their life choices and expression are very different.
Carmen is such a complex character. He always left me feeling on the fence of whether I actually like him or not. He comes across as shut off, a perfectionist, rigid, guarded, aloof and disconnected, prone to outbursts, and that’s me being polite in my description of him.
But throughout the series, I still found myself sympathising with him. I ended up creating feelings for him because he literally has no expression. I realised I couldn't help but like the guy despite his (many) flaws. I think my conflict lies in always rooting for the underdog; the guy who surpasses all obstacles, who is actively working on being better; i.e. a person who is ‘trying’.
I think when it comes to Carmy, a few personality aspects that are really blatant are his inability to cope with grief, his passivity, and his avoidance to address anything even remotely emotional.
The loss of Mikey (his older brother) impacts almost everyone who works at this sandwich shop, whether they have or haven't met him. The series touches upon complex grief, especially with Carmy (and his dreams) where he feels a deluge of feelings (hurt, anger, envious, betrayal, guilt, frustration, etc) towards Mikey. It almost seems like he lost a part of himself when Mikey died - lost his hero, and more importantly, lost his previous life by coming back and starting his career again. Building the sandwich shop all over again feels like he is building himself back up after the loss has shattered him completely.
You see emotions like hurt and rejection come up through his recurring nightmare - one where he’s the host of a televised cooking show - and while he is angry that Mikey didn't allow him to work in the shop before, he also carries immense guilt that he could have stopped Mikey from killing himself. Carmy is forced to look at his emotions and process it in his dream even though he refuses to do it in his waking life. It shows that you can't outrun your emotions and even though one can pretend not to see them, they will ultimately play in your subconscious.
The series magnifies the rippling effect of how people grieve differently, as well as how the people in close proximity to the griever can get impacted. There are lots of grief metaphors throughout the show, to the extent that even how the show starts is almost abrupt and chaotic - which is kind of the way grief leaves you - catching you by surprise and overwhelming you with emotions. Every episode leaves you feeling like you’ve been thrown in the deep end and you have to struggle to stay afloat.
The dual process model of grief talks about an individual’s reaction to loss in two ways: either like they have been stuck in the past or finding escape in a future that doesn’t exist so you never have to look back. We can see Carmy processing his grief through the second type; however, he is called out by Natalie to look at his emotions and process them through his AA meetings.
I do think the show makes this journey in grief wholesome in the first season - if you see the bear as a metaphor for grief and vulnerability - we can see the progression of how it first starts off as the physical manifestation of a cage in his dream and then by the end of the season, it is no longer a cage and he’s come full circle to a point that he ends up renaming the restaurant to the Bear, almost allowing the grief to come out and be part of the process of building the shop.
Everything aside, Carmy also happens to be the most passive character in the show. It really annoyed me that he just wouldn’t really do anything significant. He dissociates every chance he gets and would rather be passive about things in his control instead of taking any action. Everyone else had to carry his weight for most of the duration of the show.
Carmy seems like he is always in a fight-or-flight state because of his chaotic environment and he ends up freezing almost every single time. There is passivity when it comes to his work where he doesn’t want his personality to come into the work - instead, he hyper focuses on the food so that it can talk for him. But here’s the thing. Going into this perfectionism realm of ‘only focusing on what’s perfect and ignoring everything else’ sadly doesn’t exist. So he ends up feeling like he is not in control and his passivity never really lets him gain control.
When we look at his relationship with Mikey, we see that they were opposites. Mikey took the lead, was outgoing, took initiative, and got things done. Carmy, on the other hand, is almost thrown into being a boss and running a kitchen where he would constantly need to step outside the passive role. Richie, for Carmy, would end up playing a crucial role, because he is almost a bully to Carmy and it seems like our main character is comfortable being bullied. Even when he was working in one of the best restaurants of NYC, his executive chef bullied and was abusive to him. This conflict of power seems to challenge his passiveness to take on a more active role, making him bring himself to the table and take charge of the shop.
There is a strong element of avoidance, which is the most bugging part of Carmy’s personality. He will be passive or straight up avoid anything that has the potential to be emotional. Take his relationship with Claire (his girlfriend in the second season); he would rather give her the wrong number instead of giving her a chance, i.e. avoiding the whole thing rather than exploring it.
We can assume that the reason he is so passive in his work is because Mikey not allowing him to work in the shop felt plain hurtful; so he uses it to fuel his ambition instead - by pouring himself into working for a chef in a Michelin star restaurant to escape that hurt. And sadly, he continues to pour himself into his work to escape the hurt of Mikey’s death.
He almost outsources his functionality by trying to make the sandwich shop up and running instead of addressing his own feelings and dysfunction. Even in his dreams, he is constantly avoiding feeling anything (including the multiple times he dreams of the kitchen burning down). His avoidance makes him so quick to outsource things; he tries to organise his environment (by implementing techniques like the French Brigade) so as to prevent the constant triggers of his emotions rather than taking control of his own emotions and processing them. It almost feels like he’s playing a game of ‘pretend that we are a real kitchen and hopefully the emotions catch up’. However, his dreams still force him to reflect on his emotions and pay attention to them.
Carmy is an intense character, there’s no doubt about it - and if he came for therapy - it would be a long and painful journey, yes, but also satisfying for everyone around him. We can see that he is genuinely trying to make change but also the personality traits of avoidance make it seem like it’s even more of a struggle. Carmy, if you are out there reading this, you deserve to be the main character. You just need to embrace it.
Remember that we are all rooting for you!