The untamed energy of the show woke something in me. Carmy’s life in Chicago was real. Authentic. Social. I knew that restaurant and those people. How many times had I eaten at a joint like that?
By Karen Hugg
Holiday dinners were always a wild affair in my family. When my mother hosted, we had a loud gaggle of aunts and uncles over, mostly Polish people with some German and Italian spouses thrown in. Wine, beer, and martinis flowed freely while the smoky scent of roasting turkey filled the air. People talked over each other if they wanted to be heard and laughter always exploded in bursts.
Those were the good times. During other moments, interactions could get awkward and mean. Couples bickered, uncles drank too much, and older cousins would get in each other’s faces. One of my aunts would softly try to calm things down but another would scold at the top of her lungs. Ten minutes later, we’d all be holding hands at the table and saying grace. By the night’s end, the adults would share their fond memories of my father who’d died of lung cancer years earlier, prompting my grandmother to quietly shed tears.
Everyone had some kind of pain in my family. For my mother, brother, sister and me, it was losing my father. His absence wounded each of us in different ways yet none of us really dealt with it. Instead, it manifested as controlling behavior or judgment or anger or depression. Occasionally, denial. I didn’t know what to think and went on feeling emotionally lost for years.
Until 1991 when I visited Seattle. My aunt and uncle had set down roots in Washington state after my uncle’s long career in the Air Force. My aunt encouraged me to try living in the Pacific Northwest to see if I liked it. Recently graduated with little job prospects, I took her up on the offer and didn’t look back.
Afterward, my life blossomed. I met my husband, got a job at a successful tech start up, and lived among polite, kumbaya liberals whose only struggle seemed to be surviving a dark wet winter (which, to be honest, can be a difficult task).
For years, the lifestyle suited me. I hiked pretty forests and ate healthy salmon and took pictures of serene mountains. It was the break I needed. Mild weather, mild people. Pleasant but not intense experiences. Because Seattle was a newer city, there wasn’t much history to preserve. The architecture was bland, the ethnic diversity thin, and the cultural life sparse. There’s not a lot of emotion in this far north city, just a lot of courtesy. And I liked it that way.
I focused on inward-facing activities like raising kids and working in solitude as a professional gardener. I made friends, but in typical “Seattle freeze” manner, not many that felt close, like family. People gently kept to themselves. They formally scheduled social engagements like far-off doctor appointments. So as the second decade of living in the Northwest passed, I accepted the aloneness I often felt in my gut as normal.
Then I watched The Bear. In the first episode, the chefs at The Original Beef of Chicagoland work at a frantic pace, interacting with angst, resentment, resourcefulness, and a biting humor. They struggle to keep the doors open since the former owner, Mikey, committed suicide, leaving the indebted business to his brother Carmy (played superbly by Jeremy Allen White).
Carmy has returned from living in New York, Copenhagen, and beyond where he became one of the world’s hottest chefs. He has ambitions for The Beef to not only financially move into the black but someday become a quality, gourmet establishment. Ritchie, Mikey’s best friend and the restaurant manager, resists, as does the staff. They want to do what’s always worked. They openly make fun of Carmy’s formal culinary training and worldliness, like one big dysfunctional family.
The untamed energy of the show woke something in me. Carmy’s life in Chicago was real. Authentic. Social. I knew that restaurant and those people. How many times had I eaten at a joint like that? More than I could count. How many tough but big-hearted people did I know there? Many. They stretched not only through my family but to friends, co-workers, and random people I interacted with in the city.
I found myself yearning for that way of life. Those raw experiences, the strong personalities, the spontaneity and imperfections. The thing about Chicagoans is they don’t hide their emotional wounds, they wear them like giant tattoos on exposed forearms.
Then I watched the sixth episode of season two, which, in addition to earlier shots of the El snaking through downtown and Lake Michigan glittering at night, almost made me hop a flight to O’Hare.
In a flashback, Carmy’s mother, Donna (played outstandingly by Jamie Lee Curtis), frantically prepares dinner while a loud gaggle of her adult children, their spouses, friends, an uncle, and niece mingle. Booze flows freely while the scent of roasting fish probably fills the air. People talk over each other if they want to be heard and laughter explodes in bursts.
After those good moments, tensions rise. People drink too much. They argue. While Natalie, Carmy’s sister, tries to calm folks down, Donna, his mother, escalates the heat. Things get awkward and mean. Carmy withdraws more and more into himself as Uncle Lee and Mikey trade insults before finally lunging at each other.
Minutes later, when Mikey struggles to get Donna out of a crashed car, Carmy shows us his intense, immobile discomfort by stiffly gazing at the cannolis on the buffet. He’s waiting for it to all be over. Earlier, his aunt offered him a fresh start in New York and we know he’ll take her up on it. This family is messed up and Carmy’s only way toward sanity is out.
I saw myself in Carmy. I was the youngest in my family. I was the escapee whose mother, like Donna, always wished I would come home. But like Carmy, I could only blossom into the person I was meant to be by leaving an intense chaotic situation.
The Bear has shown me a nuance I never noticed before. Now that I’ve left and become a more whole healed person, even found my true self, I can bring that new me back home. I’m more than loss and chaos. Carmy doesn’t return and descend into static pain, he works hard to create his dream restaurant and help his staff grow into more mature roles.
I can go home and move forward with my life too. I can contribute professionally and help others. Some folks I know have even changed and grown too. It’s wonderful. And some haven’t. But that’s okay because at least those people are my messed up people.
The Bear portrays the Chicago I know: an emotional, extroverted, honest-as-hell city. A rough-around-the-edges, world-class beauty. It’s in Chicago that my family and friends will always welcome me home for a warm if imperfect holiday dinner, because in the end, I’m not alone and there’s no doubt I’ll always belong.
Karen Hugg is the author of Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants. She’s contributed to The Washington Post, Wired, Shondaland, and Thrive Global. Follow her on Threads @karenhugg or learn more at www.karenhugg.com.