Examining Hulu’s The Bear as A Modern Fairy Tale

by | Mar 24, 2024 | Uncategorized | 9 comments

I’m thrilled to share this article on The Bear by my husband, Daev Finn. As many of you know from his guest interviews on Gathering Gold on the father wound and on fairy tales, Daev is a psychotherapist with a specialization in men, grief, and fairy tales (three separate yet often interrelated subjects). Prior to becoming a therapist, Daev spent 20+ years in the visual effects industry, and has written many articles on the intersection of media and psychology. You can learn more about him and read his articles on his website. Daev maintains a private practice in person in Boulder, CO, and is also available for online support.

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This article on the Hulu/Fx Series The Bear will have spoilers. It is not meant to be a review of the show, but rather is an examination of how it mirrors human relationships and experiences back to us. In particular, I will examine The Bear from a Jungian standpoint and explore why it is a modern fairy tale.

The Bear stars actors Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach among the many other actors in this ensemble cast. Part of the charm of this series that it is an ensemble. The camera and story never linger too long on the “lead”, Jeremy Allen White’s Carmen “Carmey” Berzatto. I hasten to point out that there are many other fine actors intermingled into this fairy tale, including Jon Bernthal (who has a Bear in his name), Jamie Lee Curtis, Lionel Boyce, Liza Colon-Zayas, and Oliver Platt.

The Bear takes its name from the bear at the beginning of the family name Berzatto. It also hints at the intermingled depth of fairy tales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears(there are three siblings) as well as possibly the bear of mental illness. It further implies possible ancestral family struggles that the Berzatto family, well… still bears.

THE FAIRY TALE OF THE BEAR

When I write I am often looking for the mythical or fairy tale connection to a story: What is the journey that someone is on? How might a series like The Bear be a modern fairy tale? And why is it an important fairy tale? Many factors make this a modern fairy tale, but there are distinctions in why it attracts me as a modern fairy tale.

As a modern fairy tale, The Bear does something that I have found fairy tales began to do intermittently in stories like Hansel and Gretel, which I consider an important fairy tale.

In that story, we meet two children who are already individuals as seen by the fact that they have actual and relatable names. Instead of being rescued, they repeatedly rescue themselves. Finally, the main attributes of these characters are not their remarkable beauty or virtue, as highlighted in most fairy tales, but rather their intelligence and resourcefulness.

In essence, Hansel & Gretel bears the weight of future fairy tales to come. These tales would eventually begin to amplify themes of self-agency, individuality, and resourcefulness.

This may sound modern and new, but these mythological themes  are very old.

I do not believe that it is coincidence that a major shift occurs in fairy tales in the late 19th and early 20th century. At this point we see an increase in stories of individuals with self-agency in characters such as Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), or Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). These characters and stories seem to herald a new century, with values that again amplify the importance of being an individual and finding one’s inner strength.

In The Bear, we do find some of the same themes amplified. The writers do this by abandoning the prince and this story instead lingers on the peasants outside the castle. We ignore the typical fairy tale emphasis on beauty, wealth, and power, and underscore other important motivations for these fairy tale characters. This is why the characters feel real to us, and why in the end they represent us. Finally, we abandon the fairy tale castle itself, which we see in the background but never approach.

Let’s dissect this further.

ABANDON THE PRINCE

When I examine fairy tales, I am trying to often look for the takeaway the writer may be amplifying for us. In the past, I have written about some issues I have with fairy tales where the hero is often seen as a prince who comes into the story with wealth and power and now wishes to acquire beauty. This is what I call the three graces of fairy tales (beauty, wealth, and power). The heroine’s story often gets cut off too soon, robbing her of her journey because she is rescued by the prince.

The Bear has done away with the prince altogether.

Instead, we focus on the peasants outside the castle. We focus on those of us who have to live in the real world and are not surrounded by entitlements and privileges.

In essence, the Bear does what I often wish fairy tales would do. I imagine in my mind the camera leaving the entitled prince in the throne room and wandering down to the scullery kitchen, where we find the much more interesting and relatable stories of those who work behind the scenes. Here is where we find imperfect heroes who are not necessarily trying to find their happy ending, but rather grappling with understanding their story, their journey… and what their purpose may be.

The Bear, as seen in Carmen, is precisely this down-in-the-kitchen imperfect hero.

He doesn’t swagger with princely confidence, even though he is a master chef.  He doesn’t want to keep his hands clean; he is in the trenches side by side with his kitchen crew. He doesn’t always keep it all together, and that is because he is human and not one-dimensional.

In short, he is a better fairy tale hero because he feels real and flawed, and because he has things that motivate him beyond acquiring beauty, wealth, and power. Carmen is closer to Cinderella as an archetype because he starts from humble origins. Perhaps he can be seen in Aladdin if we are looking for a male counterpart, but neither of those quite embody Carmen’s journey.

ABANDON THE HIGH CASTLE

The fairy tale castle in The Bear is the castle-like dark spire of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago.

The camera work grounds us by showing us Chicago. Importantly, it grounds us outside the castle, down on the streets where the regular people live.

In effect, we have taken the camera out of the medieval castle and explored where the most interesting action is occurring. We explore with the baker as seen in Marcus. We explore with the cooks, like Tina. We explore with the jester that we see in the character of Fak. What are they all up to when not tending to a prince or princess? What is their story?

Down here on the streets, the storylines are also never obvious. No one tells us too directly what they are struggling with. They don’t over-explain, and sometimes (or often), they don’t explain at all.

We find these people who are much like us working in a grimy kitchen, looking to find meaning and purpose in their own lives. They are not imagining themselves as princes or princesses. They are trying to figure out where they fit in this city and in their personal stories.

Some of these moments are bullet-pointed with phrases like Every Second Counts, or when someone tells Richie he doesn’t respect himself.  In abandoning the castle, we get to see that each character has their own story arc, and they are seeking their purpose in life.

THE BEAR AS TRANSFORMATION

The Bear, most importantly, is a fairy tale of transformation that does not lazily make characters work to acquire beauty, wealth, and power as I have stated. In a beautiful scene, Sydney prepares an omelet for Natalie, and you see the sense of pride she feels from doing this for someone. This simple scene carries much of the emphasis in the series. Sydney is nurturing someone, and providing for them, and this brings her purpose and fulfillment.

This fairy tale asks us: what is it that we are doing and what are we chasing? What is our motivation for what we do, and is it making us happy?

The journey that each character is on is important in this fairy tale, and we take time with that in Season 2, even if we only touch on it with a beautiful but sometimes quick montage that may hint at some of Sydney’s motivation.

We get deeper into each character, and this is another strength of the series. It meanders in these stories, and it tells us that they are important, too.

We have abandoned the castle, the prince and princess, and a quick happy ending, and yet in particular season 1 felt like such a satisfying – if not also a bittersweet – ending.

Perhaps the takeaway that the writers are amplifying is one of finding your place and purpose in life. The Bear comes closer to the takeaways of older myths, which emphasize an inner journey of self-discovery and finding oneself. These things may be in fairy tales, but we lose them because of the shiny things on the surface of the story.

In this way, The Bear is about transformation and this is what we see.

One of the things that I am tracking in a series is the story arc a character is on, and whether there is some kind of transformation that speaks to us, the viewers.

Perhaps it speaks to a deep unconscious human need to have our stories, our human experience, reflected back to us in ways that allow us to see and feel our own story.

In mythology and fairy tales, transformation was often explored symbolically. Pumpkins become a horse-drawn coach. A frock becomes a gown. A pauper becomes a prince. These are symbolic transformations and have never actually been about material gains, and yet this is the message that has been received for hundreds of years now.

However, in The Bear, we get to have a satisfying experience of transformation that is relatable. We see this transformation happen with characters trying to find themselves and support each other. We experience the transformation more keenly when it feels like the stakes are high, and that our heroes (and they are all heroes) may fail.

The restaurant transforms, the characters transform, and in many ways, it has that satisfying fairy tale feel of transformation.

It feels maybe more satisfying because it is hard-earned and that feels real to us, and maybe it feels hopeful as well.

STRUGGLING WITH THE BEAR

Finally, The Bear also presents us with the opposite of finding our purpose and finding meaning in our lives. It shows what happens when we wrestle with that inner bear – and lose.

The character of Michael (Jon Bernthal) embodies someone who, like the others, has been struggling to find meaning and purpose, but the painful past he carries holds him down. We don’t know enough about what he carries because, again, The Bear is never obvious. We are shown little pieces as life outside the castle can be complex and difficult.

Michael is struggling with a bear that becomes his annihilator. In his struggle, Michael becomes lost. Before he goes, though, he tries to leave some hope for his family, a mission statement that may be embodied by the simple words:

 “Let it rip.”

Michael’s failure to make it out of his dark journey is a reminder that fairy tales and mythology may present us with stories about descending into the Underworld, but the Bear emphasizes that not all of us make it out of the Underworld when we descend.

This is because real life is not a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending. In trying to find our purpose and meaning we may become lost, as Michael does, and this affects his entire family and his friends, who care deeply about him.

The loss of Michael is felt in the show, and the amazing acting by Jon Bernthal reminds us why. He embodies real gravitas for Michael and makes us miss this character whose loss affects the story and has bent all of these stories toward that hole that he left behind.

This is another sobering message of the Bear, and it is something that is interwoven in the story we have seen. I believe more is yet to come.

THE AUDIENCE CONTRIBUTION

It is not clear where the story of The Bear will go in season 3.  There were so many satisfying moments in season 2. Richie stepped into himself. The restaurant was transformed. Uncle J. told Uncle Lee to shut up. At the restaurant, the team pulled together – and yet discordant notes began to filter into the last episode. The toilet broke down, and mom showed up like a Shakespearean ghost to haunt the restaurant.

Something was not right and it quickly began to unravel.

We seemed to have reached a zenith of transformation outwardly in terms of the restaurant, but this is a story of inward transformation, and there are threads to this story that are not yet addressed. It isn’t about the pumpkin turning into a coach or the frock turning into a gown.

There is no glass slipper, and Carmen is not going to be rescued.

At the end of the season, he is like Hansel, trapped in a cage, suddenly stripped of his self-agency and flooded with crippling doubt.

Instead, there are bears to deal with, they are lurking nearby down here in the streets of Chicago with all of us peasant people who have our demons in the closets and ghosts in the attic.

It is not so clear though what is to come, and it is not clear why the formula that Carmen thought would work, did not. Was it a foul seed planted by Uncle J?  Was it the shadow of mental health issues still lurking in the shadows? Mom brooding outside considering whether she should burn it all down?

Not knowing where this is going next is also satisfying.

One thing I will leave you with, though, is our part in this story.

Yes, we the audience are not just viewers, but participants who affect where a show will go by tuning in. Our participation determines if the show continues; it has always been this way.  How often have your children asked to hear their favorite fairy tale again and again, and ignored the other stories altogether?

We, therefore, have some effect on the outcome.

If the writers respect the viewers who tune in then there is a plan for how this will all unfold. If the studio suddenly sees The Bear as a cash cow, then this may spin out into unsatisfying directions that will no longer feel right to us, the audience, and the story will end.

I hope that there is a plan, and an ending to this story that will resonate with all of us.

How did The Bear resonate for you?

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9 Comments

  1. I’d say it has an element of bildungsroman too.

    Reply
    • Thank you for the comment. I am not familiar with the genre of bildungsroman, but I will add that to the list of things I am not familiar with, but would love to know more about! Things I also would love to dive into deeper, Norse mythology, Chinese myth and fairy tales. It’s a wide subject that has a lot more opportunity to explore for a long time.

      Reply
      • I think Charles Dickens Great Expectations is the most famous example.

        Reply
  2. I am a long time reader here at Conscious Transitions and I absolutely loved this guest article! I worked in the restaurant industry for many years as I went through school and I met some of the most fascinating people through that experience, as well as learned a lot about hard work. I think The Bear is one of the best shows in the past several years and I even made five of my friends “the Sydney omelet” for brunch one day. I think your point about it being satisfying that we don’t know where The Bear is heading is a poignant one. Many times in shows we can accurately guess the answers to cliff hangers, but this one has more complex feelings to it. Transformation is also a very important concept to me in my life and I love seeing it on the screen, or reading about it here. Anything to get closer to it or understand it more deeply. Thank you so much for sharing, this spoke right to my heart!

    Reply
    • I am so happy you enjoyed the article. I like to talk to people about working in restaurants, and the culture. I’m also so impressed with The Bear. This is one of those unexpected shows where people seem to support each other. I had a moment of anxiety when Tina sabotaged something Sydney was cooking early on in the first season. But I was so relieved that this was NOT where the series went. When this behavior of “meanness” (I’m looking at you Walter White) did not persist, I realized that there was something different about The Bear.

      I love the theme of transformation as well, and I like looking for clues that we are in a story about transformation. Perhaps at some point, I’ll expand on this theme in a future article building on what I wrote from my thesis on Cinderella’s Glass Slipper. I hypothesized that the glass slippers, “verre” in french is close to the word verité in French, meaning truth (or latin if you prefer veritas). In other words transformation is personal about one’s truth, one’s purpose.

      thanks again for your comment I appreciate it!

      Reply
      • I would love to see another article on Transformation or about clues that indicate a story about transformation!

        I think another nice aspect about this show is how Carmen and Sydney’s relationship is depicted. I appreciate that Carmen, as a mentor, is able to own his mistakes and role-model doing better. I feel that most stories show mentors having all the answers and always doing the right thing, but that is not reality. I have found it challenging to find professional mentors in my own life who also role model owning mistakes and learning, but I feel this is a very important aspect of a great mentor.

        Reply
        • Hi Carolyn,

          I appreciate what you say, and I would like to write more on transformation. I’ve been keeping some Cinderella, Snow White, and Alladin – things in my back pocket for a while.

          I also appreciate the relationship between Carmen and Sydney. He is a flawed mentor a flawed hero. I think this is where some of the new twist on fairy tales comes in… the fairy tale hero is not depicted as having everything all figured out, and altogether.

          This is because the transformation is an internal one, and must be an internal transformation. Anyway, there is a lot to explore here.

          Reply
  3. There’s been such a focus on the anti-hero in media (breaking bad, sopranos, etc) – I wonder if Bear represents a modern hero who can’t really leave home.
    Typically in the mono myth hero’s journey, he must cross the threshold and leave home – bear is still home (and haunted ) he has returned to his home without an elixir to solve all their problems nor his own.
    I suspect a season 3 could grapple with him trying to leave vs stay.

    The trapped motif woven throughout as well. (At home, In his head, in the cooler, by his moms car, etc)

    Keep going – do a post on all the great shows / fairytales!

    Reply
    • I agree, I feel fatigued by the antihero, and we seem to see it more and more. If you follow a series hoping for a turnaround (even unconsciously) and it never comes – then it can be a very unsatisfying experience.

      Shows like Breaking Bad are confusing because I think we hoped for redemption, but too many bad things happened to allow for that. The series House is another example of someone who had opportunities to wrestle with his demons, but the writers failed him, not the psych team that tried to help him.. and don’t even get me started on Game of Thrones.

      Thank you for joining the discussion and the encouragement to continue writing about shows/fairytales!

      Reply

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