“106 miles to Chicago //
Full tank of gas //
Half a pack of cigarettes //
It’s dark, I’m wearing sunglasses.”
[The Blues Brothers, 1980]
Few shows in recent memory have so skillfully induced sincere feelings of existential dread and anxiety as FX’s The Bear. And yet, for all the expletive-ridden arguments, the dull clanging of stainless steel pots and pans, the spillages, the panic attacks, the locked fridges, the unanswered phone calls, the sizzling heat, the family feuds, the never-ending money troubles and the heart-pounding desire for order – the show provides one constant: its surroundings.
These kind of exchanges are the lifeblood of The Bear
All throughout The Bear, which added its flawless second season in late June, the city of Chicago is the ultimate reference point. The show’s protagonist and Chef de Cuisine, Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an accomplished chef with experience in spots like Noma and the French Laundry, is sadistic in his pursuit to turn his deceased brother Mikey’s failing Italian sandwich shop into something capable of contending with his previous workplaces.
In doing so, Carmy’s return to the restaurant, based in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood, reopens the wounds inflicted by deep-rooted family trauma. His grief, a central theme of the show, is shared with his sister Sugar (Abby Elliot) and Cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and their unique relationship provides the foundation for often-pained reminiscence.
One flashback shows Mikey (Jon Bernthal) in full storytelling flow, recounting the time he and Richie met iconic Chicagoan Bill Murray (Bill-fucking-Murray!) at a party for former Chicago Blackhawk Denis “Savy” Savard’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Sugar–donning a sensational Chicago Bears sweatshirt–Carmy, and Richie are all entranced.
These kinds of exchanges are the lifeblood of The Bear. The moments of apparent normality, the deftly meaningful family interactions that at the time might seem insignificant. The show cautiously encourages the audience to associate recurrent feelings of grief and pain with the surroundings in which they take place.
Take the compelling character arc of Richie that dominates the second season. His breakthrough moment, which comes in episode seven (“Forks”) is a euphoric one: a now famous montage of Cousin belting out Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” while stuck in traffic, before speeding off like a heroic knight. The following overhead shots of the city at nighttime frame on Ceres statue, the faceless figure that sits atop of Board of Trade building on LaSalle Street – an easily missed part of Mikey’s Bill Murray flashback.
In an emotionally battering few minutes, we’re able to enjoy Richie’s redemptive moment, all the while being reminded that he too is experiencing loss, and undergoing an emotive journey.
Mood-setting overhead shots are a theme of The Bear. And while it flirted with them in season one, it leaned into them in season two. The early-morning and late-at-night commutes of Sydney, Carmy’s second-in-command (played by the wonderful Ayo Edebiri) are a beautiful example of this. Her walks to the restaurant are often artfully interspersed with shots of the city’s famous elevated metro system and the endless waterways of the Chicago River, soundtracked by something like Serengeti’s “heat not hot” – itself a homage to the city’s cultural lynchpins.
Failure is something with which the characters are forced to confront on a daily basis
That’s not to say that The Bear is immune to criticism for its portrayal of Chicago. While the soundtrack seems specifically engineered to maximise emotional impact, the absence of any house music–a cornerstone of Chicago’s musical heritage–is an oversight. Local Chicagoans have also rightly pointed out that the River North neighbourhood in which The Bear is set, resembles more of a sanitised business district than the gritty urban space it appears to illustrate.
There is however genuine acknowledgement of broader local issues, namely the gentrification of certain areas and the monumental challenges restaurants face in the post-pandemic world of job stagnation and economic insecurity. Particular attention is given to the difficulties faced by the working class neighbourhood of Bridgeport, an area more closely aligned with that which The Bear seeks to portray. The very real chance of failure is something which the characters are forced to confront on a daily basis.
The Bear leans into Chicago’s long sporting tapestry
One thing The Bear incessantly references, even in the most acute ways imaginable, is the city’s rich sporting culture. Whether it’s Sydney’s infinitely fresh rotation of vintage Chicago Bulls championship-winning shirts; Richie’s “Bad News Bears” nickname; the constant references to the White Sox-Cubs rivalry–one of the deepest in baseball (“of course you’re a Cubs fan…”); the rapid recounting of White Sox legend Minnie Miñoso’s career statistics; Fak (played by one of the show’s creators and actual chef, Matty Matheson) and his Christmas baseball card grift; The Bear leans into Chicago’s long sporting tapestry.
In season two especially, the sports references help anchor certain character developments. Sydney’s newfound obsession with legendary college and Olympic basketball coach and Chicago native Coach K demonstrates her steely determination to avoid her past culinary failures. Pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) and Luca (Will Poulter) bond over Bulls’ legend Scottie Pippen during Marcus’s stint in Copenhagen, helping both to realise their own role; that of the facilitator and the foil to the top dog (MJ/Carmy).
Many of these idiosyncrasies point to a deeper meaning. Cicero (Oliver Platt), often referred to as Uncle Jimmy, who so often plays the wise mentor to a number of the Berzatto’s, is a master at deploying the sports metaphor. His parable about “little Stevie Bartman” and the collapse of the Cubs in game six of the National League Championship Series against the Marlins is Uncle Jimmy in his prime. “Alex Gonzalez’s fuck up, trust me, is the real fuck up”, he tells Carmy. “He [Steve Bartman] ends up taking the blame for an entire squad who, literally, took their eye off the ball.” It’s Jimmy’s way of warning Carmy: “You don’t wanna be unfocused. Do you wanna be the guy? Then be the fucking guy.” Even those who aren’t fans of baseball would want to run through a brick wall for Uncle Jimmy after a talking-to like that.
And that’s The Bear’s pull. Its truly unique achievement is its ability to delicately manipulate the emotional readiness of its audience. It’s like a great conductor, slowing and speeding up and contorting all around it, while at the centre, a unifying force remains stoic and calm. The city of Chicago is The Bear’s anchor, to which the characters – and viewers alike – are able to attach themselves when things get a little ropey.
If The Bear can be seen as a meditation on life’s uncertainty, it’s equally a meditation on its simple moments. The sports rivalry. The lines of a movie you can recite without hesitation. A funny story, well told, from a night you will never forget. A good meal.