Every now and then, a fictional character can have a profound real-life impact. I’m thinking, for example, of Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso in 2020. There was a moment in the first season of the character’s self-titled show when a simple act of immediate forgiveness symbolized the generosity of show that radiated trans American culture and reminded us of the power of kindness and compassion to change the course of a person’s life.
In 2023, a very different character reveals different truths, and the effect is, if anything, even richer and more meaningful. The character is Richie Jerimovich, brilliantly portrayed by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and the show he appears in is FX’s “The Bear,” whose second season was released last month. Episode after episode, Richie opens a window into the souls of so many of our friends and neighbors. He challenges us. He makes us examine ourselves. He forces us to answer an uncomfortable question: How do we respond to people in pain?
For those who haven’t watched the show or followed the growing amount of “Bear” discourse online, it’s based on a simple and dark premise: an elite New York chef, Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), returns home to Chicago after. his drug addict older brother commits suicide and leaves him the local family sandwich shop.
Of course, Carmy not only inherits a sandwich shop, he also inherits its employees – a collection of longtime friends and co-workers who interact with each other with such high intensity and aggression that there are moments of the show that are actually painful. to look
The entire cast is a delight, but from the opening episode, your attention is drawn to Richie. He was the best friend of Carmy’s deceased brother and serves as the de facto manager of the sandwich shop. He is also angry, difficult and violent. No one is louder than him. No one is more aggressive than him. From the first moment you see him, you recognize him as intolerable.
But just when you’re about to write him off as the villain of the show, you see something else: Richie is in immense pain. He just buried his best friend. He is estranged from his now ex-wife, although it is obvious that he still adores her. He spends too little time with his young daughter. In a moment of sincerity, he tells Carmy that he is “all I got.” That is one reason for his constant, repulsive intensity. He lost so much. How can he lose what little is left?
Like many viewers, I was drawn to Richie, despite all his anger and irrationality. Why? Because we know him We know people to like him In a way, we might even to be he – especially if we have suffered a deep loss. There are millions and millions of Rich people in this USA.
Watching the show, I was reminded of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s April essay in The Times about America’s epidemic of loneliness. “At any given time,” he wrote, “about one out of every two Americans experiences measurable levels of loneliness.” I thought again about the American Immigration Council and Over Zero’s”Belonging Barometer,” which found that “64 percent of Americans reported non-belonging in the workplace, 68 percent in the nation and 74 percent in their local community.”
I was especially thinking about the terrible reality of American deaths of despair, which are disproportionately concentrated among unmarried men, both the divorced and the never married. That description would include Carmy’s late brother, Mikey (Jon Bernthal). He was single. He was addicted to drugs. He took his own life.
When you look at Richie, you realize he could be Mikey. You are afraid that he will be mikey At the same time, though, he’s so unbearable that you wonder how any workplace could tolerate his presence, even if that workplace is his last link to meaning and joy and companionship.
I want to be careful about spoilers, but a show that starts out as Carmy’s story gradually becomes Richie’s as well. Episode after episode, we see him live. It’s not a sitcom-style redemption. He is still struggling. He never throws away his intensity or his mood. But we watch as he rediscovers his purpose.
There is no “Richie moment” like Ted Lasso’s extraordinary act of forgiveness. There are instead a series of moments, but they all rest on an unshakable foundation: However dysfunctional they may appear on the surface, the crew at the sandwich shop actually love each other. And by “love” I don’t mean anything that looks sentimental, or even particularly tender.
The characters scream at each other. They waver. They take three steps forward together and then everyone falls back five steps. Progress happens, but it never feels guaranteed. You don’t know if your hope is false, if disaster awaits in the next moment, in the next episode, or in the next seasons.
The love you see is reflected in the two truths that slowly emerge in the show: Richie has a place, and Richie has a purpose. Although he vacillates from confrontation to confrontation, he stays. Carmy keeps him. They call each other “cousin”, not because they are related but because of the strength of their bond. Even the people who yell at him recognize that there is more to him, virtues that he struggles to convey. And when he is seen as he can be, and not fixed in place as who he is, you can feel the hope radiating from your screen.
One of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture is in the Book of Isaiah. In Christian tradition, the prophet describes the coming messiah and declares, “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a burning wick he shall not quench.” Richie is the very definition of a bruised cane, and as is so often the case, his bruises don’t manifest themselves in attractive ways. It’s easy to love someone who presents as vulnerable. It is harder to love those who manifest their pain with anger and grumbling.
I saw this with my own eyes. I saw how we became a nation of bruised reeds, busy breaking each other. We see the rage but we miss the pain. We exclude the people we most need to include. We whip back to inflict even greater wounds. We forget to look for the virtues hidden under a shell of vice.
I’m not a TV or movie critic. I’m a fan. That means I approach movies and TV shows predisposed to like them. But I can still recognize a transcendent performance, and my amateur recommendation is to give Moss-Bachrach, the actor who plays Richie, all the awards. Now. Episode after episode, his performance reveals both the nature of suffering and the simple human power to tell a person in pain – through actions even more than through words – that he will not be left behind, that he has a place where he truly belongs.