The Bear and the Lost Child
In season two of The Bear, on the heels of sharing with his Al-Anon group that he googled the word fun and is having none of it, Carmen backtracks a bit. [I’m] “reminding myself that the sky isn’t falling, that there is no other shoe, which is incredibly difficult, because there’s always another shoe.”
In Carmen’s world shoes are constantly dropping. Carmen is the lost child in a family traumatized by addiction and dysfunction. Season two invites us into these family dynamics. We come to better understand Carmy and root for the future he imagines for himself as Claire, Sydney and the rest of The Bear family push his growing edges.
Carmen is perfectionistic, quiet, withdrawn, angry, uncertain and desperate to be perceived as good enough. Throughout seasons one and two we see Carmen flashback to his time working at a world famous, Michelin starred restaurant under a particularly heinous head chef. The scenes always include this chef taunting and tormenting Carmen as Carmen immerses himself in his work. At one point the head chef tells Carmen he should kill himself. Carmen keeps working, his reaction imperceptible.
In episode six we’re taken back to Christmas dinner five years earlier in the Berzatto home. Michael, older brother to Carmen and Sugar (Natalie) and beloved “cousin” to Richie, is still alive.
We’re introduced to Donna Berzatto, matriarch of the family. She’s hosting Christmas dinner for her children, extended family members and close family friends. Donna’s emotional turmoil is reflected in the pacing of the episode, the intense focus on the kitchen timer alarm and the chaos in the kitchen as she prepares Christmas dinner.
Donna’s emotions create a roller coaster effect for her family as she is increasingly affected by the alcohol she’s drinking. We can feel the intensity of her internal conflict, the desire to provide a beautiful meal for her family, the self loathing she directs outward when she falls short of her own expectations, the desperate loneliness and unworthiness that no one’s words can assuage (though her family tries, repeatedly). She cycles through excitement, joy, anger, hurt, frustration, anxiety. At one point she threatens to shoot herself with her husband’s gun because, as she levels at Sugar, “no one would miss me anyway.”
Carmen picks up the caretaking mantle from Sugar, the default caretaker, and helps his mother in the kitchen while trying to anticipate and manage her emotions. He is overwhelmed. We see him retreat further inward and lean into control, control of himself, control of the kitchen, attempts to control the events that he knows will precipitate an emotional explosion. Witnessing this part of Carmen’s family life helps us understand what draws him to the chaos of the restaurant industry. The tumult, the hypervigilance, the control of self, these are as familiar to Carmen as his mother and his mother’s kitchen.
Lost children survive dysfunction and chaos by disappearing into the background and retreating inward. They become still and quiet and wait for the storm to blow over. In adulthood lost children continue feeling lost and unseen, they struggle with feelings of worthlessness and often feeling isolated, sad, angry and afraid. They struggle with feeling safe enough to reveal themselves to others. They often turn to perfectionism and overwork to feel worthy.
What is familiar in Carmy’s world is the lashing out, the casual cruelty, the roller coaster of emotions. He’s learned to take it in and keep going. Staying focused on performing, perfecting, controlling the chaos. Work is safe, relationships are not.
Throughout season one we see Carmen’s reluctance to share his feelings most pointedly in his interactions with Sydney and Richie. We also witness some growth in this area as he slowly opens up to them in different ways.
In season two we watch him (bewilderingly) give Claire, his childhood crush and friend, a wrong number when he runs into her unexpectedly. This is about emotional safety for Carmen.
He attempts to avoid Claire, not because he doesn’t like her, but because he likes her. He puts words to this at one point, telling her he’s afraid to pursue the relationship because he’s worried (again) about the other shoe dropping. Claire reassures him that no one is counting shoes and that she is here with him.
Carm’s family of origin experience has made casual cruelty feel familiar. And other, healthier behaviors, including intimacy and vulnerability feel uncomfortable. Avoiding Claire is about avoiding the unfamiliar, no matter how appealing it may be, it can be terrifying to pursue what we’ve never had.
Claire confronts Carmy about the wrong number and because of her pursuit and then her guidance, he begins to let down his guard. He starts to open up. He talks about Claire to Sydney and the staff. He shares Claire’s opinions about the menu with Sydney. This is a Carmen we’ve never seen. A less guarded Carmen, a Carmen who is open to Claire and is enjoying all that it means to be in the early stages of a relationship. But there is a restaurant to open on an increasingly impossible timeline.
Sydney is frustrated by Carmen’s behavior, not that he’s in love with Claire, but that he’s gone missing when she most needs him to focus on the impending opening.
In the final episode Carmy accidentally(!) locks himself in the cooler as the soft opening of the restaurant, service for friends and family, begins. Away from the chaos, without any control, he spirals. Tina whose growing edges have been pushed along with much of the other staffs’, checks in on him at the end of the night (someone has finally been called to fix the door handle and, now, let Carmy out of the cooler) and tells him how well they did.
Carmy can’t take this in. He’s spiraling in shame, anger and self loathing. He tells Tina he has failed her and the staff and it won’t happen again. He lists the things he missed while he was caught up in the joy and excitement and infatuation of his relationship with Claire.
Not realizing Tina has left and Claire has taken her place, he promises to abandon his relationship with Claire. She has received him with care and humor and compassion and joy, and this feels so good, too good and too unfamiliar to him. He blames his “failures” on the relationship. He must return to his safe place, rigidity, control, isolation, focus on work, rejection of joy and amusement. He remembers that his safety lies in a world without intimacy.
Richie stops Claire on her way out, she’s crying but doesn’t say why. Richie goes to the cooler door and yells at Carmy, “what did you do, Carmen? What did you do to her?” Carm is silent and Richie intuits that he’s broken up with her, Carm yells something at Richie and Richie responds, “okay Donna” invoking Carm’s mother’s behavior toward her loved ones. Carm becomes enraged and screams at Richie, “what does that mean?” Richie says, “why can’t you just accept something good into your life?” Richie draws the parallels he, the outside observer, has witnessed in the Berzatto dynamic. The self loathing that sets one up to isolate and reject the love and help and concern of the people who are genuinely trying to love you. Donna has it, so does Carmy and it seems Michael did, too.
The final episode of The Bear sets the stage for Carmen’s potential healing. As life reminds us, the potential for healing is often preceded by chaos, pain, and a glimpse of something better, should we be willing to do the work to get there.