Opinion | ‘The Bear’ and the Need for a Place to Belong

Every now and then, a fictional character can have a profound real-world impact. I’m thinking, for example, of Jason Sudeikis’s Ted Lasso in 2020. There was a moment in the first season of the character’s self-titled show when a simple act of immediate forgiveness symbolized the generosity of a show that radiated across American culture and reminded us of the power of kindness and mercy to alter the course of a person’s life.

In 2023, a very different character is revealing different truths, and the effect is, if anything, even richer and more meaningful. The character is Richie Jerimovich, brilliantly portrayed by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and the show in which he appears is FX’s “The Bear,” the second season of which was released last month. Episode by episode, Richie opens a window into the souls of so very many of our friends and neighbors. He challenges us. He makes us examine ourselves. He forces us to answer an uncomfortable question: How do we respond to people in pain?

For those who haven’t watched the show or followed the growing amount of “Bear” discourse online, it rests on a simple and dark premise: An elite New York City chef, Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), returns home to Chicago after his drug addict older brother commits suicide and leaves him the local family sandwich shop.

Of course, Carmy doesn’t just inherit a sandwich shop, he also inherits its employees — a collection of longtime friends and co-workers who interact with one another with such high intensity and aggression that there are moments of the show that are actually painful to watch.

The entire cast is a delight, but from the opening episode, your attention is drawn to Richie. He was Carmy’s late brother’s best friend and serves as the sandwich shop’s de facto manager. He’s also angry, difficult and abusive. No one is louder than him. No one is more aggressive than him. From the first moment you see him, you recognize him as intolerable.

But just when you’re about to write him off as the villain of the show, you see something else: Richie is in immense pain. He just buried his best friend. He’s estranged from his now ex-wife, even though it’s evident he still adores her. He spends too little time with his young daughter. In a moment of candor, he tells Carmy that he’s “all I got.” That’s one reason for his constant, off-putting intensity. He’s lost so much. How can he lose the little that remains?

Like many viewers, I was drawn to Richie, in spite of all his anger and irrationality. Why? Because we know him. We know people like him. In some ways, we might even be him — especially if we’ve suffered profound loss. There are millions upon millions of Richies in these United States.

Watching the show, I was reminded of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s April essay in The Times about America’s epidemic of loneliness. “At any moment,” he wrote, “about one out of every two Americans is experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” I thought again about the American Immigration Council and Over Zero’s “Belonging Barometer,” which found that “64 percent of Americans reported non-belonging in the workplace, 68 percent in the nation and 74 percent in their local community.”

I especially thought about the horrifying reality of American deaths of despair, which are disproportionately concentrated among single men, both the divorced and the never married. That description would include Carmy’s late brother, Mikey (Jon Bernthal). He was single. He was addicted to drugs. He took his own life.

When you watch Richie, you realize he could be Mikey. You fear that he will be Mikey. At the same time, however, he’s so unbearable you wonder how any workplace could tolerate his presence, even if that workplace is his last connection to meaning and joy and companionship.

I want to be careful about spoilers, but a show that starts as Carmy’s story gradually becomes Richie’s as well. Episode by episode, we see him come to life. It’s not a sitcom-style redemption. He still struggles. He never sheds his intensity or his temper. But we watch as he rediscovers his purpose.

There is no one “Richie moment” like Ted Lasso’s singular act of forgiveness. There are instead a series of moments, but they all rest on an unshakable foundation: However dysfunctional they may appear on the surface, the crew at the sandwich shop actually love one another. And by “love” I don’t mean anything that looks sentimental, or even particularly tender.

The characters scream at each other. They falter. They take three steps forward together and then all fall five steps back. Progress takes place, but it never feels guaranteed. You don’t know if your hope is false, if disaster awaits in the next moment, in the next episode, or in the seasons to come.

The love you see is reflected in the two truths that slowly emerge on the show: Richie has a place, and Richie has a purpose. Though he lurches from confrontation to confrontation, he stays. Carmy keeps him. They call each other “cousin,” not because they’re related but because of the strength of their bond. Even the people who scream at him recognize that there is more to him, virtues that he struggles to convey. And when he is seen for who he can be, and not fixed in place as who he is, you can feel the hope radiate from your screen.

One of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture is in the Book of Isaiah. In Christian tradition, the prophet describes the coming messiah and declares, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” Richie is the very definition of a bruised reed, and as is so often the case, his bruises don’t manifest themselves in attractive ways. It’s easy to love someone who presents as vulnerable. It’s harder to love those who manifest their pain with rage and snarls.

I’ve seen this with my own eyes. I’ve seen how we’ve become a nation of bruised reeds, busy breaking one another. We see the rage but we miss the pain. We exclude the very people we most need to include. We lash back to inflict even greater wounds. We forget to seek the virtues hidden under a shell of vice.

I’m not a television or film critic. I’m a fan. That means I approach movies and TV shows predisposed to like them. But I can still recognize a transcendent performance, and my amateur recommendation is to give Moss-Bachrach, the actor who plays Richie, all of the awards. Now. Episode by episode, his performance reveals both the nature of suffering and the simple human power of telling a person in pain — by deeds even more than by words — that he will not be left behind, that he has a place where he truly belongs.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

David French is a New York Times Opinion columnist. He is a lawyer, writer and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a former constitutional litigator, and his most recent book is “Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.” @DavidAFrench

Source: Read Full Article