How “The Bear” Achieved “Dudes Rock” Nirvana Via Richie’s Transformation

Season 2's "Forks" episode is emblematic of this particular brand of non-toxic masculinity

July 19, 2023 6:12 am
Richie finds his purpose in "Forks"
Richie finds his purpose in "Forks"

The Bear is a show with a lot on its mind. And after recently dropping a 10-episode second season on us all at once, we’re still digesting the bounty that FX’s viral hit has provided. (Please pardon the food-themed pun.)

Like any great piece of art, The Bear has raised more questions than it answered this year. These inquiries include but are not limited to: What is life like for the working class in the post-COVID era? (Pretty tough.) Can people change? (Yes, but only if they try hard enough.) Can you balance being a great artist with also being an emotionally healthy, functional human being? (Answer not clear at this time.) Can one have too much R.E.M. on a soundtrack (Most assuredly not.) Can a donut be fine art? (You bet.) Would The Bear be better served as a week-to-week show rather than an all-at once drop? (I mean, I scarfed down that thing in a week, but even I have to admit yes.

But above all, The Bear creator Christopher Storer and producer Joanna Calo seem intent on exploring the idea of modern-day manhood and what a healthy version of masculinity can even look like. While this sort of discussion has gotten ponderous in recent times, Storer and company work with a deft hand and allow the story and their expertly cast actors to make this most vexing of questions seem like yet another project that can be solved with enough elbow grease and compassion. 

In many ways, The Bear exists in conversation with the great prestige TV dramas that we all love, filled as they are with Difficult Men and Asshole Geniuses. Carmy Berzatto, in contrast, is one of the greatest chefs in the world, as we are repeatedly reminded. He also sincerely tries his best to not be an asshole, treating everyone, especially the women he works alongside, with respect and dignity to the best of his ability, and Jeremy Allen White’s subtle facial shifts always help the viewer map the internal calculations his character is making to be both the best chef and best boss possible, even as that balance seems just out of reach. Carmy wants to be a good man, but he doesn’t necessarily have the proper emotional tools, and he continues to stumble, though he always apologizes after he lashes out at people. (Of course, the narrative demands for this kind of TV show require him to fall and stumble; if he’d already completed his journey, there wouldn’t be much left for The Bear to say.)

But one of the greatest surprises of this recent sophomore season is that Carmy unexpectedly finds himself lapped on his journey towards being a better man, and not just by his head pastry chef Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce, a gentle giant without a mean bone in his body who was seemingly born beautiful and perfect. 

Instead, Carmy is unexpectedly bested by his “cousin” Richie Jerimovich, a loveable piece of shit whose role at the series’ titular restaurant was until recently unclear. While Ritchie started this show as a fiercely loyal fuck-up, stewing in his bitterness for the many disappointments life has given him and serving micro-aggressions wherever he went, he ends the second season as our greatest exemplar of the Dudes Rock mindset.

Considering what a slippery, hard-to-define concept Dudes Rock is, this makes The Bear’s service invaluable. We just didn’t know how much we needed the New Richie.

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Confused? That’s understandable. Dudes Rock was, until very recently, without a modern figurehead. But let’s start at the beginning, roughly a decade or so ago.

While terms like “toxic masculinity” and “microaggression” have, admittedly, become so commonplace as to feel a bit shopworn by now, the social media-led discussions that consumed much of the ‘10s did bring forth a lot of harsh truths about who has innate privilege in society, how it can feel to be on the wrong side of a power imbalance that the other party won’t acknowledge, and how hand-waving away a problem only intensified it. (It also made a lot of guys say, “Oh, I should probably think about some stuff a bit more, huh?”)

Discussions of toxic masculinity became supercharged during the #MeToo movement and after the election of Donald Trump, one of the worst men ever born. Any social movement towards progress will immediately meet with a backlash, which led to a lot of guys insisting #NotAllMen harass women or hold sexist beliefs, which didn’t exactly help the situation.

But the healthier response was the eventual movement that came to be known as Dudes Rock, as men who knew they were not perfect (none of us are) tried to find a better way forward and a model for a healthier, less defensive and oppressive form of manhood, and to help lead other people, particularly impressionable young guys, down a better path.

As these things go on social media, it started (and remains) as a throwaway joke on social media, before turning into an unofficial way of looking at the world. As Matt Christman, co-host of the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House explained in a moment that more or less crystalised the movement, “it’s a dialectical, non-toxic masculinity. It is essentially a way of laundering the toxins out of masculinity. Toxic masculinity, as it is described in discourse online, is an overabundance of negative emotions around the reality of being a man. Those negative emotions are around our sense of insecurity around other men in carrying out manly things…you act out through toxic behavior, because you are trying to reassert you are a man, in the face of your own nagging doubt in the face of other men.”

In contrast, Christman explains, “because of my status, I have been crass, I have been overly aggressive, in asserting my masculinity. I was wrong to do so. But I don’t do that anymore, so your categories of ‘ugh, men,’ they pass through me. #NotAllMen doesn’t mean anything to me. Because I don’t hold anything to these terms. I am just a dude who rocks.”

Dudes Rock didn’t invent the idea of a decent, non-aggro, emotionally aware dude. They’ve been with us forever, and popular culture is littered with them.

It’s Bruce Springsteen kissing his best friend Clarence Clemons on the mouth. It was everything Kurt Cobain ever did. It’s Kurt Vonnegut begging us to take care of each other. It’s every track Kendrick Lamar does with his goofy cousin Baby Keem. It was the beloved website Mel Magazine. It’s every adventure Troy and Abed got up to on Community. It’s Harry Styles angering conservatives by wearing a dress. It’s every Japandroids song about loving your best friend. It’s the time Nick Miller and Schmidt told each other they loved each other. It’s every Jake Johnson character, really. It’s every guy who doesn’t worry about his masculinity, who tries to enjoy life without hurting anyone, while apologizing to anyone they’ve hurt along the way, because we all inevitably do that. It’s a path toward self-actualization and inner peace, achieved by rocking, however that may be defined. But we need something that speaks to our current moment, and now, surprisingly, the Dudes Rock lifestyle is now embodied by Cousin Richie.

Played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, an actor whose deep, tired eyes speak volumes about dashed hopes and who first broke out playing an ur-hipster on Girls that pre-transformation Ritchie would have hated, our hero first finds redemption in the episode “Forks.” 

Sent away to stage at what we’re told is Chicago’s finest dining establishment, Ritchie at first resents having to clean every fork until it’s perfect, and resents the well-dressed, pointedly refined co-workers he suddenly finds himself surrounded by. But over time, and with the help of Olivia Colman, he learns humility and that there’s a way out of his past — filled as it is with a painful divorce, unresolved trauma and guilt over the death of his best friend and a nagging feeling the modern world doesn’t have use for a round-the-way guy like him — and that helping others would help him become the best version of himself. By cleaning the forks, he finally cleanses himself.

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On the path to being a better Ritchie, he joyfully sings along with Taylor Swift, signaling his intention to be a better father. He makes amends with Sydney and Natalie,  the women and co-workers he’s hurt with his thoughtless comments and outbursts. And in the climactic scene in the season finale, confusingly also titled “The Bear,” he steps to the plate reborn, taking over for a sidelined Carmy to help the kitchen push through the sort of logjam of too many orders that sent Sydney into an anxiety spiral last season.

The Bear might be the best example of a cultural product that exists right at the Generation X and Millennial axis. It has the overriding concerns of the latter, such as an interest in examining mental health and interrogating the changing nature of masculinity, and a tendency to flip One Great Man style narratives on their head. But The Bear (and presumably Storer) has the cultural tastes of the former, including affections for ‘90s independent cinema and alternative rock, and a fixation on artistic integrity. Furthermore Storer, who handpicks much of the show’s music alongside co-executive producer Josh Senior, has turned a number of songs into recurring themes that signal ideas to the audience. Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” evokes simmering dread, Refused’s “New Noise” all-out panic and as of this season, R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies” denotes the terror and wonder of sudden infatuation. 

All of these concerns come together when Ritchie, upon being told by Sydney to “drive,” starts leading the kitchen in a scene set to Pearl Jam’s “Animal,” a song The Bear uses to denote just-fucking-going-for-it-dude and a band that is (and this cannot be a coincidence) lead by one of the least toxic, most overtly feminist men to ever front a massively popular rock band. By the time Ritchie has led the team out of crisis, we are looking at a man transformed, a man who values himself and has found his purpose, and one who will later basically, and successfully, throw love at Carmy after he enters a downward spiral. 

Of course, just as no one with sharp taste would ever call themselves a hipster without a hint of self-mockery, anyone who invokes the Dudes Rock idea is doing so with a tongue-in-cheek self-consciousness. Because to be a Dude Who Rocks is not the goal or destination; it’s a journey towards being better than who you were yesterday,  a better son and a real good friend. We can all have moments of triumph like Ritchie’s, but victory is fleeting for the Rocking Dude, as it is a day-to-day struggle, and without question we will see Ritchie and his new suits continue to face setbacks and internal demons next season. Perfection is not achievable, only progression, but The Bear demonstrates the journey is worth it, and there’s no better time to start than right now.

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