TV’s greatest ’emotional villain’ is born

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FX Jeremy Allen White in The Bear (Credit: FX)FX

In season three of The Bear, Jeremy Allen White’s tortured Carmy has emerged as a monstrous but still sympathetic anti-hero that we can’t stop watching

In its third season, The Bear has given television its next great sympathetic anti-hero. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) – the scrappy, soul-tortured chef struggling to save a sandwich joint and then start a new upscale restaurant in previous seasons – now behaves like a monstrous egomaniac. But where classic anti-heroes are criminals, a mob boss like Tony Soprano or a drug dealer like Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Carmy has emerged as an emotional villain, offending everyone around him. Determined to earn his restaurant, The Bear, a Michelin star, he is a bully in the kitchen and gets into shouting matches with Cousin Richie. He avoids his mother and can’t bring himself to apologise to Claire, the ex-girlfriend he adores. Even Sydney, his protégé and potential business partner, has had enough, repeatedly telling him to shut up. Yet he remains sympathetic, the good-bad boy, because he is hardest of all on himself, and because we can see the deep sadness behind that behaviour.

The new season is full of creative risks. Many pay off, including a beautiful, wrenching episode focused on Carmy’s pregnant sister, Natalie, and their mother. Others don’t, like the distracting parade of cameos from real-life celebrity chefs. None is bolder than making Carmy the heavy. It’s a daring move that works because it goes to the heart of the entire show, dealing with loneliness, emotional baggage, and loving-but-toxic family dynamics.

Carmy’s quest for a Michelin star takes him far from season one, when he inherited his brother, Mikey’s (Jon Bernthal) sandwich shop, but it’s true to who he was before: a first-rate chef in the top restaurants around the world. His ambition for the newly opened Bear leads him to issue a list of what he imperiously calls “non-negotiables”, which include changing the menu every single day. That challenge makes the staff’s heads explode and also blows up the restaurant’s budget.

He has invited Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) to become his business partner, but makes menu changes without her and is so hot-tempered in the kitchen that at one point she tells him, “I need you to calm down. I am not asking. I am not your [expletive] babysitter.” Syd is still the one person Carmy listens to, and their bond is intense. But by the end of the season she is considering an offer to become top chef at a different restaurant and seems to have a panic attack about the choice. It’s as if Carmy’s inner turmoil is contagious.  

For all the human warmth he shows now, Carmy might as well still be locked in that freezer

So much for the fans who are looking for a Carmy-Sydney romance and have flooded the internet with that hope. (The actors vehemently shut down the idea in recent interviews.) Whatever he is feeling, he is too emotionally cut-off to express it to Claire or Sydney. The previous season ended with Carmy locked in the restaurant’s freezer, berating himself out loud and insisting that being in a relationship was a distraction from his business. “That’s how I operate,” he rants. “I don’t need to receive any amusement or enjoyment.” For all the human warmth he shows now, he might as well still be locked in that freezer.

But, as with Tony Soprano and Walter White, we have access to this troubled anti-hero’s thoughts, this season more than ever, and can see that Carmy’s emotional coldness is a symptom of pain, not wilful cruelty. The entire first episode is an almost silent journey through his mind and memories, flashes from restaurants he worked at, a moment when he sits outside in the car dressed for Mikey’s funeral but can’t make himself enter the church. It’s all eloquent and sad.

The season is filled with flashbacks, and recurring memories in which Carmy thinks of Claire, who fled after overhearing his remarks from the freezer. He sees the two of them in romantic moments in the blue darkness of night, and having playful conversations in daylight. But he won’t call her. When the well-meaning but comically boneheaded Fak brothers, Neil (Matty Matheson) and Ted (Ricky Saffieri), ask why he doesn’t just tell her he’s sorry, Carmy says, “It’s too hard.”  

Reflecting Carmy’s state of mind, the season is also filled with loneliness and funerals. Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) talks about isolation and loneliness, but when Nat asks if he’s alone he changes the subject. At a so-called funeral dinner to mark the closing of another upscale restaurant, Carmy is surrounded by real and fictional celebrity chefs, but all he can do is stare at the chef played by Joel McHale, the cruel boss whose behaviour he now mirrors and who in flashback has told him he’s reached the limit of his talent. He is haunted by the possibility of failure, just as he is haunted by his brother’s suicide and his mother’s emotional instability. He’s just a mess.

Much of the credit for keeping us rooting for Carmy goes to White, who is expert at playing good-bad boys. As Lip in the long-running series Shameless, he played a poor but brilliant university scholarship student whose self-destructive behaviour cost him his best opportunities for the future. White brings a similar balance of brilliance and self-destruction to Carmy, along with the edginess of his recent Calvin Klein underwear ads, which with The Bear has made him a key “internet boyfriend” and sex symbol.

And much of the deft balance between hero and anti-hero comes from the series creator Christopher Storer, who wrote and directed most of this season’s shows. He is unflinching in displaying Carmy’s brutal treatment of the people he loves, yet always keeps an eye on how self-protective that is, how deeply damaged he is emotionally and how much he yearns for the warm connection he can’t let himself have.

The season overall is meandering, with critical responses ranging from good to disappointed and occasionally bad. Storer is clearly using this season to set up the next. FX and Disney have not commented on a fourth series, but many reports have speculated that it has already been shot. The last episode of this season ends with cliff-hanging questions – Will Syd stay or go? Will The Bear itself survive? – and with the words “To be continued”. Carmy may or may not have a restaurant in the future. At the moment he is left with a worse-than-ever inner life. It is torture for him but endlessly rewarding and watchable for us, more proof that The Bear is a classic in the making.   

Season three of The Bear is streaming now on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK.

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