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Brigid McCabeJuly 21, 2023
Character Carmy Berzatto stands in a kitchen with an apron on. “The Bear” follows Carmen Berzatto, an award-winning chef who is grieving his brother while trying to keep a dysfunctional but sentimental family business alive. The second season of the show recently received 13 Emmy nominations (photo: Hulu).

In the pilot episode of the FX series “The Bear,” Carmen Berzatto, known as Carmy, slumps at the desk that belonged to his recently deceased brother, Michael, which is cluttered with an ashtray, a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a statue of the Virgin Mary. In a montage later in the episode, a prayer card commemorating Michael’s death is included along with bills, notes and receipts on the same desk. The card quotes the Book of Daniel: “My God hath sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me…” (6:22).

The first season of “The Bear,” released on Hulu in June 2022, follows Carmy, an award-winning chef who was working in New York City before Michael’s suicide prompted his return home to Chicago. Having inherited the family restaurant, The Beef, from Michael, Carmy processes his grief while trying to keep a dysfunctional but sentimental business alive. The second season, released on June 22, delves deeper into the Berzatto circle as Carmy and his staff attempt to transform The Beef into a new restaurant, The Bear.

A commitment to authentically complex characters has been central to the success of “The Bear,” which received 13 Emmy nominations this month. Though never explicitly stated, the Catholic identity of the Berzatto family becomes increasingly evident throughout the show. That identity, though underplayed, provides rich cultural context for a family and community in turmoil. It weaves in customs and habits that bring the characters and their complicated relationships fully to life. The visuals and allusions to religion in “The Bear,” however brief, impact the narrative in a way that eliminates the need for longer scripted conversations about religion. It is a unique gift of the Catholic faith: sometimes mere glances at the images and rituals of our faith can reveal God as vibrantly as any lengthy discourse can.

One visual recurs several times throughout the show: a small prayer card that features Christ holding a little lamb.

This Catholic presence is particularly evident in Episode 6 of Season 2, titled “Fishes,” which takes place roughly five years in the past, as the family celebrates Christmas Eve with a Feast of the Seven Fishes party (a Catholic, Italian-American tradition). The party is hosted by the Berzatto matriarch, Donna, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who has decorated the house with nativity sets and has a crucifix hanging in the kitchen.

Early in “Fishes,” Carmy, Michael and their sister Natalie stand on the front lawn and discuss the emotional instability of their mother. “Carm, will you handle mom?” Natalie asks. Then she smirks and says, “Our Mother of Victory,” to which her brothers simultaneously reply, “pray for us.” The show echoes this call-and-response two episodes later, as Carmy, Natalie and a family friend, Richie, prepare to open their new restaurant and dedicate its opening to Michael.

One visual recurs several times throughout the show: a small prayer card that features Christ holding a little lamb. The artwork is from the “Fresco of Jesus as Good Shepherd,” created by Josef Kastner in the early 20th century for a Carmelite church in Döbling, a district in Vienna. While never stated, it is fair to assume that this prayer card is actually one side of Michael’s memorial card featuring the quote from the Book of Daniel.

In the midst of tremendous loss, these emotional mementos are a reminder of the affection that remains between the family members.

The prayer card appears for the first time halfway through the first episode, thumb-tacked to a wall in the kitchen. In a moment of high anxiety, we see Carmy focus in on the image; this is followed by a flashback of Michael looking over his shoulder, laughing and bathed in light. Early in the next episode, the image re-emerges as part of Carmy’s stressful dream, which also includes glimpses of his brother.

There is also a notable connection between the card and Richie, a problematic and volatile family friend who spends the first season fighting with coworkers, cursing people out and ultimately getting very little work done. In Season 2, Episode 1, Richie rescues a poster of Fenway Park that had belonged to Michael and that had been accidentallyripped during the chaos of renovation. As Richie tapes the poster back together and replaces it on the wall, the shot transitions to show the prayer card that has fallen to the floor. The camera then moves on to capture the framed final note that Michael had left Carmy, which reads simply, “I love you dude, let it rip.” In the midst of tremendous loss, these emotional mementos are a reminder of the affection that remains between the family members.

The power of its Catholic allusions lies within both their cultural depth and their symbolic weight.

In Episode 7 of Season 2, arguably the highlight of the season, Richie temporarily works at a Michelin three-star restaurant and begins to discover his desire to serve others through restaurant hospitality. The morning he decides to start taking himself seriously, he spends a few seconds staring at the prayer card, which he has taped to his bathroom mirror. The silence of the scene is extremely loud: Richie is coming back to life. By the end of Season 2, a nearly unbearable character has become an indispensable and beloved part of the show.

“The Bear” appears as a series about cooking and restaurant ownership, but really it is a show about grief, growth and community. The power of its Catholic allusions lies within both their cultural depth and their symbolic weight. They provide a more fleshed out characterization for the family. These visual grace notes of the faith also communicate the family’s shared struggle with love, loss and their search for peace. In a show full of “lost sheep,” the repeated presence of the image of the good shepherd suggests that we are always capable of being found.

“The Bear” is streaming now on Hulu.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the poster shown in the show featured Wrigley Field. The poster is of Fenway Park. 

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