The food looks glorious.
In a spotless kitchen, blue-aproned chefs place delicate pieces of exotic foods on glossy white plates. Flanks of steak sizzle. Sauce drips over piles of caviar. Knives easily slice mounds of colorful vegetables. Dressed in the uniform of a head chef, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) directs intense attention to arranging a dish, only occasionally shouting commanding but calm orders to his assistants. Everyone appears to work in seamless harmony. But an ugliness interrupts the purity of the moment.
A second chef enters the room. Seeing an assistant struggling to perfect a sauce, he fires her on the spot with a cold, “Go.”
As Carmy bends over a plate, placing carrot slices on the top of medallions of meat, the chef walks up from behind and berates him: “Why do you hire f***ing idiots? Do you like working with f***ing idiots?” Carmy appears unfazed, but the chef goes on: “You’re terrible at this. You’re no good at it. You are not tough. You are bull****. You are talentless.” Finally, he whispers in Carmy’s ear, “You should be dead.”
Carmy wordlessly continues his task, but a close-up reveals his eyes are bright with anguish and self-doubt.
The Hulu series The Bear crackles with the tension of incredibly high stakes—despite the fact that most of the episodes take place not in a glossy Michelin-rated kitchen, but rather in a failing Chicago beef joint, where toilet pipes burst and bullets occasionally break windows. That encounter with the cruel chef now exists only in Carmy’s memory. When we first meet him, he has recently returned home to Chicago to take over the sandwich shop that his brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) left him after committing suicide—a surprising inheritance considering Mikey never allowed his younger sibling to work in the restaurant. Carmy became an award-winning chef in New York City instead. Now, as he exchanges the prestige of his former position for the mayhem of a gritty sandwich shop, it soon becomes clear this unwelcome inheritance is riddled with problems. The restaurant is deep in debt, the health department awards the kitchen a dismal “C” rating, and one belligerent employee (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) sells drugs in the back alley to help the place make ends meet.
Carmy attempts to establish structure and revitalize the restaurant by instituting a system of order among his employees and catering menial events, but the gap between his former life and his present obligations feels ever more expansive as bills pile and employees clash.
The Bear crackles with the tension of incredibly high stakes.
In the penultimate episode, Carmy’s already fragile veneer finally cracks. Overwhelmed by a frantic and unattainable onslaught of lunch orders, Carmy explodes. He viciously berates his kitchen staff while slamming items from shelves. The abuse he absorbed in his former career soaked Carmy like gasoline; the striking match finally ignites under the pressure of a restaurant crushed by debt, disordered staff, and the immense fear that maybe he is, after all, a failure. His explosion punishes everyone in its wake. Carmy’s brother may have left him a restaurant, but as Carmy struggles in his newfound responsibility there is a more destructive inheritance at work: the insidious nature of shame.
Shame can become so normalized that we forget its weight until it crushes not only our personal lives but the lives of those around us. When we hold the belief that we are inherently bad or worthless—defined by our mistakes, sins, or the negative opinions of others—the world becomes a mirror reflecting back only that which confirms our worst fears about ourselves. Once this happens, shame becomes a collective chaos as we attempt to work out the deep distress of such acute self-doubt and loathing. Like a wild animal set free from its cage, shame has the power to perpetrate a sweeping amount of wreckage.
For Carmy, this “normalization” of shame occurred during his time in New York, where demoralizing cruelty was both expected and tolerated. Yet Carmy experienced the pain of rejection even from an early age, when his brother refused to let him work at the restaurant. As Carmy descends from the prestige of his former role to the harsh grime of the sandwich shop, the New York chef’s condemnations haunt him. The memory consumes Carmy even in his sleep, causing him to sleepwalk and light his stove on fire, nearly burning his apartment down. For Carmy, it may feel easier to burn it all down.
Of course, he does burn it all down, when the pain finally compounds and Carmy’s vicious explosion causes two employees to quit. It may just be a dilapidated sandwich joint, but when one lives with shame, all the stakes are high. Each perceived failure and every encounter with a painful circumstance seem to serve as reflections of our own glaring lack. For Carmy, the chaos of his inherited kitchen feels like the confirmation of his own unworthiness.
For Christians, it is actually the knowledge of this that makes the love, grace, and sacrifice of Christ so profound—that, despite a sinful nature which would implicate us as irredeemable failures, Christ declared we were worthy of saving. Therefore, it is not through perfect living—a life free from anger, chaos, or resentment over an unglamorous career—that we are saved, but rather by the love of a God who proclaims, “Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.”
The Bear offers an example of the crushing power of inherited shame. When faced with his own inability to reinvigorate the dying sandwich shop, Carmy’s compounded shame becomes a collective crisis rather than merely personal turmoil. Like a grease fire jumping from a pan, Carmy’s shame spreads and consumes. And yet, the deeply good news of the gospel is that we are not destined to inherit the agony of our own deficiencies nor pass along this degenerative legacy to those around us. Instead, we have been set free to know we are still worthy, even in the muck of our own making, like a stained apron once more made dazzlingly bright.