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‘The Bear’ isn’t about the pressures of fine dining. It’s about the damage alcoholism inflicts

The face of man looking upward.
In “The Bear,” Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) is an anxious perfectionist, and a child of an alcoholic.
(FX)
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The doors to the Bear may be open, but the elephant is still in the kitchen.

“The Bear,” FX’s Emmy-sweeping, meme-generating, kitchen-whites selling, deeply immersive experience of a series dropped on Hulu on Wednesday, and viewers are scrambling to see what kind of sweat-of-their-brow delicacies it serves up next. By exposing the world to the wonder of the Chicago beef sandwich, the regimented patois of the kitchen and a cast that appears to have been assembled in heaven, “The Bear” has taken restaurant culture to a whole new “Yes, chef!” level.

For an adult child of an alcoholic, however, “The Bear” isn’t about restaurants. Not the wonder of bringing order to the unholy mess of a kitchen that produced Chicagoland’s best beef sandwiches, as happened in the first season, or the NASA-like precision required to conjure a high-end fine dining establishment, as happened in the second.

In Season 3 of ‘The Bear,’ Liza Colón-Zayas and her character’s backstory come to the forefront in the episode titled ‘Napkins,’ showcasing the Puerto Rican actor’s prowess onscreen.

June 28, 2024

It certainly isn’t about the intricate “corner,” “hands,” “Yes, chef!” ballet or the meticulous genius required to create a masterpiece out of a scallop, a sprig of fennel and a blood-orange reduction. It’s not even how the most disparate and seemingly ill-fitting assortment of characters since “Hogan’s Heroes” somehow comes together as a team that lifts each member to better things.

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Nope, for an adult child of an alcoholic, or at least this one, “The Bear” is 100% about the anxiety. Feeling the anxiety. Recognizing the anxiety.

I want to do it but I can’t. OK, I can but what if it’s not any good? It’s good but what if people don’t like it? People like it but what if they don’t like it enough? What is enough? Certainly not “good.” No, it needs to be great. Stop telling me it’s great, you don’t understand greatness, it needs to be better. I’m so tired but put that down because you won’t do it right and it needs to be beyond great. It needs to be perfect. So perfect that time stops and it’s only me up here on top of this verifiably perfect thing and maybe then the voices in my head will finally run out of terrible things to say.

Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about.

Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) knows what I’m talking about. Moments after opening the doors to the Bear at the end of Season 2, Carmy found himself locked in the freezer; in the weeks leading up to the soft open, he had been so busy micromanaging and eschewing help, even from his brilliant sous-chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and his manager-sister Sugar (Abby Elliott), that he never got around to fixing the broken freezer door handle.

For the record:

12:32 p.m. July 8, 2024Carmy finds himself locked in a refrigerator, not a freezer.

Season 3, Episode 1 (Airs Thursday, June 27th) - Pictured: Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto.
The freezer door may be fixed now, but the damage Carmy unleashed isn’t.
(FX)

As his crew stepped up to make the evening a success, Carmy spent his time cursing his fate, unwittingly telling the girl that he loved why he couldn’t have a relationship and a restaurant, then lashing out at Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who actually saved the day, because Richie had the temerity to suggest that Carmy was behaving just like his mother.

Which he most certainly was. Because Carmy’s mother, Donna Berzatto (Jamie Lee Curtis), is an alcoholic, and children of alcoholics, whether they drink or not, tend to behave like alcoholics.

As in obsessing over every detail and then forgetting to do one really important thing. As in swinging wildly between confidence and self-loathing, between ebullient belief and bitter recrimination. As in refusing to delegate, resenting the subsequent work burden and believing that perpetual anxiety is the only thing that stands between you and utter failure.

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I feel anxious just writing about it.

‘The Bear’ has returned for a new season, and its episodes are formed much like an album with different tracks.

June 27, 2024

You can view “The Bear” as a paean to the pressures of genius or the restorative properties of service, but it is also a vivid portrait of the ever-widening radius of damage that alcoholism and addiction can inflict.

As Season 3 opens, Carmy could have come out of that freezer filled with chagrin but also pride and gratitude that he had built a team that could carry on without him. He could have immediately apologized, profusely and in person, to Richie and Claire, gotten a debrief from Sydney and then maybe taken a nap.

He could have chosen to view the incident with a certain amount of insight or even humor and moved the hell on.

Does he? No. Having experienced a dark night of the soul, Carmy chooses to stay put, dim the lights a little lower, add a few throw pillows and settle in for the long haul.

The brilliant first episode of Season 3 is the portrait of a man living in his own head, perpetually reviewing all the high and low points of his life. In an opening scene, he literally traces a prominent scar, wondering what exactly is wrong with him, and then trying to solve it by making One of Those Lists.

A list of nonnegotiables.
Carmy’s list of nonnegotiables.
(FX)
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Nothing about the opening is funny, but I laughed out loud when Carmy started that list. I know that list. I have made that list. It’s not a normal memo to help you set goals or keep a busy life on track. It’s the list people make when they feel totally out of control, when they believe the only way they can survive their anxiety is to harness it, to give it an increasingly difficult gantlet to run that, if successful, will prove they are just fine.

Better than fine. Doing great, actually. Carmy’s doing so great that the Bear is not just going to be a success but it’s also going to get a Michelin star. Year 1. Oh, and he’s going to quit smoking, not because smoking is unhealthful but because it’s a distraction. Also, studies have proved that when you’re under the most stress you’ve ever experienced in your life, that’s the best time to quit smoking.

Having “failed” his first test, Carmy is determined to quadruple the difficulty level of the next.

This, he believes, is how people achieve greatness. It is also how people lose their minds. Sometimes they do both, but usually it is one or the other.

“The Bear” is about which of those things will happen to Carmy if he does not try to figure out what’s driving him.

In Season 1, it seemed that Carmy’s older brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) was his primary source of trauma. Beloved Mikey, who after becoming addicted to painkillers, died by suicide and left the family’s barely functioning restaurant to Carmy.

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Emerging as a hot young chef at play in the wider world, Carmy came back home to Chicago to fix the Beef. And not just fix it but, with the help of Sydney, turn it into the high-end restaurant Carmy always wanted to create with his brother, which might, in some way, bring his brother back to life.

Initially, no one thinks this was a good idea — not Richie, who has been running the Beef with F-bomb-dropping, gun-toting swagger. Not Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt), who had been trying to save Mikey by pouring money into his failing business, and certainly not Sugar, who is healthy enough to be alarmed by her brother’s confession that he has nightmares and wakes up screaming every night. She begs Carmy to go to Al-Anon to help him cope with Mikey’s death, which he does.

But as it turns out, the ghost of Mikey is not the problem. Or at least not the only problem.

Midway through Season 2, creator Christopher Storer, writing with Joanna Calo, plated one of the most nerve-wracking and emotionally powerful hours of television ever recorded. Flashing back to a time when Mikey was still alive, we meet “Mom,” Donna. Donna is funny, smart and a brilliant cook. She is also an alcoholic and she is making a big Christmas dinner — the Feast of Seven Fishes. By herself. Not because no one has offered to help but because she doesn’t need their help; she just wants their love and appreciation, which, being an alcoholic, she is incapable of recognizing or receiving.

A woman in a dark shirt and pants standing near window blinds and a lamp.
Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis) in a scene from Season 2’s chaotic episode “Fishes,” in which her alcoholism is on full display.
(Chuck Hodes/FX)

Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic caregiver knows what it’s like. It’s like a tornado has decided to make Christmas dinner. Splendid dishes appear from the whirlwind but so do lethal pieces of emotional wreckage — words that hit like bricks and rebar, that cut like bits of broken glass and barbed wire. The gathered family members can only shield their faces as best they can and hope the weather miraculously clears at some point.

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Here, then, is ground zero. A family trained to look at a Level Five catastrophic event and see, you know, Christmas. Mikey’s death didn’t break the family; the family was already broken. And no one ever talks about it.

Christopher Storer, the creator of “The Bear,” discusses how he directed the season’s wild and stressful holiday episode, “Fishes.”

June 26, 2023

As Season 3 unfolds, that is made even more clear. We see glimpses of the different families that have shaped the main characters. Pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) lost his mother the night Carmy went into the freezer; at her funeral, we hear of the love and kindness that nurtured this gentle, talented man. Sydney moves into her own place, and her father says all the irritating dad things about having thin walls and then goes out to buy her a couch. We learn that Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) joined the crew at the Beef after losing her longtime job; she will do anything to help her sweet, if financially hazy, husband support their kid.

Richie, who has grown more than any other character in the show, finally comes to terms with his ex-wife’s upcoming marriage and realizes that he is a good father. Sugar, facing motherhood herself, is forced to finally tell Donna how scared she has been for most of her life. Though still unable to name the problem, Sugar at least recognizes that the trauma of her childhood continues to affect her.

Even Donna has a moment of grace and possible growth.

But Carmy? Carmy remains emotionally stuck in the freezer, cataloging his failings, making lists and listening to the most savage voice in his head, which belongs to the worst boss he ever had. Does Carmy wonder why he would give this toxic guy ascendancy over the other, gentler but still rigorous chefs he has worked under? Of course not.

Because he was taught that love and joy are not to be depended upon. Instead, you have to prepare for the worst, the sudden inevitable explosion of whirling brick and rebar.

Until you can see clearly enough to identify a tornado as a tornado and not Christmas dinner, until you are healthy enough to admit how your parent’s alcoholism infected your life, all you can do is hang onto your anxiety, make a bunch of lists and pretend that constant pain is part of greatness and that everyone wakes up screaming from a dream.

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Here’s hoping that Carmy spends a bit more time in Al-Anon in Season 4 and that he finally says a few words about Mom.

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