One of my very favorite memoirs is Joan Wickerham’s The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, which she wrote after her father died by suicide. Like the title, the memoir’s chapters are structured to resemble an index — neat and formal. But the reason Wickerham’s father killed himself will always remain a mystery to her; this messiness is reflected in the indexed chapters, which bear incomplete titles. The haunting space they leave behind mirrors Wickerham’s frustration with her father and the explanation he never gave. Wickerham’s anger shatters the index’s orderly appearance and wreaks havoc on her attempts to make sense of her father’s suicide and who he truly was. As she must also rewrite everything she knew about her father, her memoir (itself a genre that textualizes memory) must take on the appearance of fragmentation and chaos. Suicide is a doubling of death, of both the person and the memories that they leave behind. The broken pieces don’t come with a promise of finality.
Christopher Storer‘s The Bear is about the people left behind in the aftermath of a suicide. The FX series, now streaming on Hulu, follows Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a highly accomplished chef coping with the suicide of his late brother Michael (Jon Bernthal). Coping also involves the fact that Carmen has inherited Michael’s humble sandwich shop, The Original Beef of Chicagoland (also known as The Beef).
We soon learn that Michael was an addict who killed himself at the State Street Bridge — the same bridge we see in Carmen’s dreamlike sequence at the start of Episode 1. In Carmen’s dream, the bridge is deserted, with the exception of a bear locked in a cage. Carmen lets the bear out. He tries to calm the animal down, but it attacks him. Carmen wakes up in The Beef, shaken and anxious. But the life of a chef in a sandwich shop steep in debt forces Carmen to put his grief on hold and fucking make some beef sandwiches. And Carmen isn’t really that sort of chef; within the first few minutes of the pilot episode, we see stacks of culinary cookbooks at Carmen’s work station, suggesting that Carmen’s palette veers towards the finer things. This specific detail will soon illustrate the disparity between Carmen and who Michael was.
At first glance, The Bear is visually and tonally frenetic. Carmen’s memories of Michael often disrupt present scenes without explanation. Family photographs appear for a split second in scenes where Carmen prepares food. An entire episode is edited as one continuous, unbroken take. But the frantic atmosphere fueling The Bear also underscores how deeply wounded Carmen is by Michael’s death – even more than he is willing to admit. The brothers had been estranged; Carmen did not attend Michael’s funeral. As in Wickerham’s memoir, Carmen’s grief blazes fires (literally) in both Carmen’s home and the kitchen he’s reluctantly inherited. So he drowns out the grief eating him alive by working himself to death and isolating from his crew. He gets panic attacks. He throws up before work. Sometimes he stares, transfixed, at fires that he’s started, and wishes his anxiety would burn away along with it. The bear he tries to tame just keeps on biting back.
Drawing on his experience in professional kitchens, Carmen wants to save his brother’s shop by elevating its palette. Making The Beef perfect is the only way Carmen knows to reconnect with Michael. It was only after Michael’s suicide that Carmen found out his brother was an addict. Every happy memory that Carmen ever had about The Beef is now tainted by the realization of who Michael wasn’t. The shop’s plumbing doesn’t work. Its mixer is broken. The tiles have holes in them. It’s a proper shithole, more than a far cry from the elegance of the restaurants where Carmen used to work.
But that’s how Carmen sees his relationship with Michael: it was shit, and then he died, and that was it. The Bear dedicates a huge amount of time to investigating what Michael had been doing. Why does The Beef owe so much money to the Chicago mob? How could Michael let the family joint get this bad? Yet Carmen can’t find any answers – just more dirt and grief and broken mixers.
And so Carmen viciously scrubs the joint clean. He hires Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), a gifted chef whose professional training matches Carmen’s, as his sous chef in order to make changes to the shop. As the newest employee, Sydney is also the only person working at The Beef who wasn’t acquainted with Michael. Her addition changes the camaraderie in the kitchen; her new ideas frustrate everyone, and the rest of the crew perceives Sydney as a threat to their loving memories of Michael’s kitchen. None of them ever had the chance to study in culinary schools. They are ordinary people who fled war-torn countries and were forced to work at McDonald’s to even get close to a kitchen.
The sharp divide in culinary experiences in The Bear makes for a scathing criticism of the elitism in the culinary world, but it also highlights how Carmen’s desperate attempts to fix the kitchen isolate him from the crew, who knew his brother more than Carmen ever did. The Bear traces Carmen’s journey in learning the difference between fixing and healing: how can Carmen make the kitchen his own while still honoring Michael?
We never find out why Michael killed himself, nor do we understand how and when he became an addict. But Michael’s absence affects every single character in The Bear, and we feel his presence in their pain over his death. In Episode 6, we get flashbacks to when Michael was alive and happy. Carmen shreds Parmesan cheese alongside him. The scene is awash in warm hues, accentuating how happy and at ease Carmen is. It becomes clear that Carmen wasn’t always the obsessive cook tortured by the psychic cost of perfection, that his love of cooking came from Michael. Sometime in the past, before Michael became an addict, cooking brought Carmen and Michael together. As much as he denies it because of the pain it causes him, Carmen’s entire career has been driven by his love for Michael. But culinary perfection won’t bring Michael back – and neither will self-isolation and punishment.
When it comes to portraying Carmen, The Bear could have gone with a formulaic portrait of a damaged genius whose talent excuses his bad behavior. Yet the brilliance of The Bear lies in its grounded look at a man whose genius, however bright, is curtailed by his inability to communicate with the people he loves. The Bear‘s fast-paced, intense atmosphere is constant, making all the more poignant the quieter moments when Carmen reaches out to connect with his friends and family. When Carmen attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he’s no longer the prominent head chef; he sits in the back and listens quietly to strangers sharing their stories of addiction. When he emerges, Carmen has a strengthened resolve to listen his crew. He apologizes to Sydney for his mistakes and promises to do better. Beneath the chaos that punctuates every second of The Bear is a show that likewise sits alongside its characters as they process their grief and anguish in imperfect ways.
The Bear understands that grief stemming from suicide is meant to be shared – especially when suicide often sows guilt and punitive doubt in the people it leaves behind. The more Carmen attempts to understand Michael’s motivations alone, the harder it is for him to reach out to the people who could paint a fuller portrait of who Michael was. Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) reminds Carmen that she loved Michael too. His cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) tells Carmen that everyone knew that Michael was an addict and loved him anyway. And the crew’s love for Michael extends to their love for Carmen. Despite Carmen’s closed-off behavior, the chefs genuinely admire his passion for culinary arts. They want to process their grief together, with Carmen – if only he would let them. For Tina, Sydney and Marcus (Lionel Boyce), Carmen’s talent inspires them to be better cooks. They begin to see the value of improving the kitchen instead of insisting on running it the way Michael did.
Marcus, to give one example, is inspired by Carmen’s time in professional kitchens. He copies pictures of pastries from Carmen’s cookbooks and hangs them on the walls of his station. He no longer wants to spend his time baking the same sandwich bread every single day. Marcus wants to be a pastry chef and make perfect little doughnuts. Like Carmen, who was most happy when he was cooking with Michael, Marcus remembers how getting doughnuts made his whole family happy. Love defines their profession. But Carmen is too wrapped up in his own solipsistic grief to remember its influence on him. Michael’s suicide may have distorted every single memory Carmen ever had of his brother. But the fact that Carmen is still in the kitchen his brother left for him is a loving tribute to Michael.
In Episode 7, Carmen throws Marcus’ donuts onto the floor, yelling at Marcus to stop his singular obsession with baking donuts because the restaurant has actual orders to deal with. The donuts lay squashed on the dirty floor alongside the love that inspired both Carmen and Marcus to become chefs. Somewhere along the way, in his anger over Michael’s suicide, Carmen forgot just how much he loved his brother.
It’s a terribly heartbreaking moment in an episode filled to the brim with them. The Beef may need a physical upgrade, but Carmen’s obsessive gatekeeping of Michael’s memory prevents even that. Carmen’s abusive behavior eventually leads Sydney and Marcus to quit The Beef. The place loses itself. There’s an even larger hole than when Michael died.
In the finale, Carmen realizes his selfish mistakes. He picks Marcus’ mangled donuts off the floor and tastes one. He finds a notebook that Sydney left behind. It’s filled with meticulous calculations and notes on how to perfect her cola-braised short rib risotto — the same dish that Carmen dismissed for not being perfect enough. Hidden all around The Beef are bits and pieces of love and hope that Carmen has failed to notice. Ultimately, Carmen also finds a note that Michael left behind for him. It still isn’t a tidy explanation for Michael’s suicide. But it is a heartfelt declaration that Carmen has always known is true: I love you dude.