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Richarlison, “The Bear,” and the power of serving others

Redemption can sometimes be found not in achieving greatness, but in helping others do so.

Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Images

Note: this article contains spoilers from Seasons 1 and 2 of the Hulu Original Series “The Bear.” Please note this if you have not watched or finished the series. With thanks to Brett Rainbow for the story idea and encouragement to see this through.

Let’s begin, as one so often seems to these days when talking about popular culture, with Taylor Swift.

Early in the second season of Hulu’s dramatic streaming series “The Bear,” the character of Richard “Richie” Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an irascible, divorced father and kitchen worker at the titular restaurant, drops his young daughter off at school. Desperate to make and keep a connection with his child but at his musical wits end, he calls out to her — “Eva! ...I love Taylor Swift too, I just needed a break. You know?”

Yeah. We know. Well, Tottenham Hotspur striker Richarlison certainly would. Richy, as compared to Richie, made the news in the September international break after calling out his young teammate Vitor Roque for playing Taylor Swift music in the Brazil changing room. It’s safe to say he’s not exactly a fan either, and we probably won’t be seeing Taylor in any North London luxury boxes wearing a Spurs shirt anytime soon.

Taylor Swift never makes a personal appearance in “The Bear” but her music is inextricably tied to the story. A small side plot involves Richie attempting to procure Swift concert tickets, not because he likes her music but because he’s desperately attempting to stay relevant with his daughter and ex-wife. In a flashback, we see Richie’s ex Tiffany wearing a Swift 1989 album t-shirt, suggesting Richie’s tickets are not just for Eva, but for Tiff as well. Over the course of the second season, viewers watch as Richie Jerimovich is slowly transformed from someone who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Swift, to a genuine, bonafide Swiftie, as depicted in one of the most memorable and moving scenes in the series. But more on that later.

Taylor Swift — and the similarity of nicknames — are small connections between a television character and a professional footballer. Trivial, really. But there’s something deeper here too. Both Richie and Richy (note the spelling) are characters that sometimes polarize opinion, are complicated individuals, and are dealing with significant personal adversity that affects not only what they do but who they are. They are not the same, but their journeys feel in some ways like they are on parallel tracks, and their redemption arcs are similarly powered through acts of service to others.

Photo courtesy of FX and Disney.

Let’s start with the fictional character, and for that you need some background on the show. “The Bear” centers itself around Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a talented sous chef at some of the best fine-dining restaurants in the world, who returns to his home city of Chicago to oversee a run-down sandwich shop (The Original Beef of Chicagoland) owned by his brother Michael, who recently committed suicide. This puts him in charge of a host of miscreant cooks who loved his brother but barely know him, and who deeply distrust him as a haute cuisine chef who is “slumming it” at his late brother’s restaurant out of a sense of obligation.

The show is about Carmy, but chief among this cast of supporting characters is Richard “Richie” Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Michael’s best friend who grew up near the Berzatto family. Richie, an odd-shaped jigsaw piece of a person, assumed leadership of the restaurant after Michael’s death until Carmy’s arrival. Richie, known colloquially as “Cousin,” is an abrasive, stubborn, and sarcastic smart-ass who is incredibly combative and difficult to get along with. Divorced and struggling, he’s a quintessential, combative fuck-up with no marketable skills and no real prospects for escape from his inner-city Chicago life. Thrust into leadership after Michael’s death created a vacuum, Richie regularly butts heads not only with Carmy but with the other cooks in the restaurant.

Over the course of the first two seasons, Carmy works first to stabilize The Beef from the chaos perpetrated by Michaels death and to earn the trust of its employees, but then, with his lieutenant Sydney, he eventually decides to close the restaurant in order to open a fine-dining restaurant in its place (The Bear), empowering The Original Beef’s cadre of cooks and turning them into chefs. In the process he finds himself blocked by repeated intransigence and hostility from Richie, who resents Carmy taking over, changing a Chicago institution into something new. Richie is jealous of Carmy’s success and successful escape from Chicago, and also afraid what this change means for himself. At several points, this conflict escalates into physical altercations.

The magic of “The Bear” and what makes it riveting television is in the characters and how they change over time, and none — not even Carmy — are more captivating than Richie Jerimovich. Most of us have probably known someone like Richie — an asshole who masks his own shortcomings by insulting and demeaning behavior towards everyone around him. Richie’s journey over the course of the show is one of the most magical and moving character transformations I’ve seen in modern television, taking a character who is designed to be dislikable and transforming him into the beating heart of the show. It’s a television trope, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying as a viewer.

Richie is a man in purgatory. He’s deeply insecure about himself, his place in the world, and his relationships with others, particularly his family. He is utterly unmoored by the death of his best friend and deals with it the only way he knows how — by lashing out against everyone around him. Divorced, unmarketable, desperately trying to stay connected to his daughter Eva, Richie is caught in a self-defeating loop. He wants out, but doesn’t know how. He yearns for something more but doesn’t know how to change. He’s trapped within himself with seemingly no exit, which is a terrifying place to be.

At his lowest point, Richie confesses to Carmy that he knows he’s a liability to the restaurant and what Carmy wants it to become. He’s watched the personal and professional growth from the other cooks, doesn’t see that in himself, and acknowledges his fear that Carmy will cut him loose. The Original Beef is all Richie has ever known. He associates it with Michael, he’s managed to claw himself into a place there, and he doesn’t know what will happen to him if that’s taken away, forcing him to deal with his grief.

Sporting CP v Tottenham Hotspur: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a lot of ways, Richarlison couldn’t be more of an opposite to Richie Jerimovich. Richy is demonstrably a kind and gentle soul, generous with his time and his money, deeply sensitive, a good friend and teammate. He came from nothing, worked hard to get out, and knows how lucky he is to be playing football at the highest level in England and for the Brazil national team. His story is one of personal growth, but also in many ways one of sustained triumph.

But there are similarities, too. Like Richie, Richarlison has at times appeared at sea by his insecurity about his current place in football. He was brought to Tottenham by Antonio Conte at the beginning of the 2022-23 season from Everton. In Merseyside, Richy was one of the main foci of the club’s attack, though Everton had been slowly declining for years. He signed with Spurs for a staggering £60m, a figure that rightly or wrongly comes with its own set of pressures. It’s also not difficult to conclude that he was signed at the time as the eventual replacement for Harry Kane who had been — publicly and privately — agitating for a move away from Tottenham.

And in his first season at Spurs, Richarlison struggled. His game never seemed to fit Conte’s tactics, and he failed to find a run of good form. It didn’t help matters much that he also struggled with injuries throughout his first season, including one that very nearly ended his ability to play for Brazil in the World Cup.

His international duties were an additional source of pressure. As Brazil’s No. 9, Richarlison carried the weight and responsibility of an entire football-mad nation on his shoulders heading into Qatar 2022. He scored a couple of outstanding goals in that tournament, but Brazil underperformed to their expectations. Even when healthy, Richarlison just couldn’t seem to do enough for club or country to justify his transfer fee, and with each sub-par performance (along with Spurs’ floundering form) the fans turned on him.

Tottenham’s 2022-23 season went completely off the rails in the spring, and Richarlison’s relationship with Conte similarly hit the skids. Even when healthy and doing good things on the pitch, Richy found himself frequently on the outside looking in. You could see from his body language that it was not going well. Things came to a head last March when, after a Champions League loss to AC Milan that knocked Spurs out of the tournament, Richarlison gave an interview with Brazilian media where he said his first season at Spurs was, in his words, “shit.”

“I didn’t understand...I was playing well, we won against Chelsea and West Ham and suddenly I was on the bench. I played five minutes against Wolves, asked the reason and no one told me why.

“Tuesday they asked me to take a fitness test in the gym and told me I was going to start Wednesday if I passed it. And I was on the bench. There are things I can’t understand. There was no explanation again, let’s see what he [Conte] will tell us Thursday but I’m not silly, I’m a professional that works hard every day and I want to play.

“There hasn’t been enough minutes given to me, this season - and forgive my language - has been shit. I don’t have enough minutes, was injured for a bit, but when I’m on the pitch I give my life. I played well in two games, especially against Chelsea, so I think I should have played last night, but I can’t go on crying about it now.”

Photo provided by FX Network/Disney

What unites the fictional Richie Jerimovich the restaurant employee and Richarlison the footballer isn’t necessarily in their tragedy, but in how they escape — or attempt to escape — through acts of serving others. The restaurant industry, famously, is a service industry. Customers come to a restaurant, they order food, and it is brought to them by literal servers. The act of creating and presenting food is a deeply personal one, especially at the level of high cuisine, and is inextricably tied to the act of service. Customers may enjoy your food, but if they don’t feel a connection to the entire process, from start to finish, they may not return. One only has to scan Yelp reviews for any number of eateries to find examples where people appreciate the food but don’t come back because the service experience was poor.

In one of the best episodes of season 2, Carmy sends “Cousin Richie” for a two week apprenticeship at an upscale restaurant in Chicago where he knows the head chef. Richie is immediately tasked by the front-of-house head with doing nothing but polishing forks. He chafes at what he views as disrespect — Richie interprets the menial labor as punishment and and inwardly rages at Carmy, whom he assumes sent him there to get him out of the way for a while while the new restaurant renovations are finished.

Over time, Richie observes how the dedicated front-of-house staff at this Michelin-starred restaurant treats its customers and he forges a deep respect for what they do and how they are able to make connections with people through not just food, but impeccable service. He watches the staff in their duties and learns to appreciate how every role is tied together to give the diners the best possible experience. He watches the expeditor work hard to make sure the kitchen is running like a well-oiled clock and internalizes how respect achieves better results over confrontation. He discovers that he resonates with the idea of making people happy through food and through customer service. As he drives home, singing along full-throated to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” the penny finally drops.

On his last day, Richie has an encounter with the head chef, Terry (Olivia Colman), who tells him that she took Richie on not as a favor (“I don’t do favors”) but because Carmy told her that Richie is good with people and that he believes in him, even if Richie didn’t believe in himself. Richie returns to The Bear with a newfound confidence and belief in himself and channels it positively, dedicating himself to outstanding front-of-house duties at the restaurant’s soft opening. At one point Richie even takes over as an emergency kitchen expo while Carmy is locked in the walk-in fridge (long story), effectively organizing a chaotic kitchen during a frantic service that was in danger of flying off the rails. In the process Richie realizes that he has a role in fine dining, and that he’s good at what he does. He finds his place. He also finds himself.

Tottenham Hotspur Training Session And Press Conference Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

I think about Richie’s journey on “The Bear” while watching Richarlison play football under Ange Postecoglou. On paper, Richarlison looked like, if not an ideal Ange Postecoglou No. 9 at least a pretty decent facsimile of one. That role never seemed to click for him in the early part of the season, and it looked for a while that he’d be, again, relegated to a reserve role.

But the injuries to Ivan Perisic and Brennan Johnson this season changed things. Richarlison, who is an adept wide attacker even if it’s not his preferred role, was placed in Son Heung-Min’s wide left forward role, with Sonny moving centrally. Richy is still struggling to score — he has only one league goal from an 11 minute cameo vs. Sheffield United — but after Monday’s pass to set up Son Heung-Min’s first half goal against Fulham, Richarlison now has the most Tottenham assists of anyone on the team not named James Maddison.

He is also getting into good scoring positions this season. Since moving to left wing he’s averaged over 28 touches in the opposition box per 90, a significant increase to his first few matches. While he’s not, and never will be, considered a creative player like James Maddison, he’s increased his shot-creating actions in each of the past three matches while on the left. He’s averaging a npxG+xA/90 of 0.71, second on the team for players with a minimum of 200 minutes, and significantly higher than Dejan Kulusevski who has played twice the number of minutes. Richy is still working incredibly hard both on and off the ball and is starting to forge an impactful and fruitful relationship with Son, the man who effectively took his job.

It’s not a perfect metaphor. I would never consider Richarlison to be a pass-first attacker. Of course he’s not going to be fully himself if he’s not scoring goals — it’s a striker’s primary role and Richarlison is a striker. He’ll continue to take shots in upcoming games. He may score them. He may, as he did more often against Fulham, put them into the upper deck of the stadium. But you get the sense that Richarlison is realizing that while his role in this team is not what he thought it was, it can still be gratifying. He may not be putting the ball into the back of the net right now, but he’s certainly providing some excellent service to his teammates, which is rewarding in its own way.

Service, by its definition, isn’t about yourself. The people dedicated to service, in whatever area it is applied to, do not do it for self-gratification. It’s about putting yourself into subservience to the needs and wants of others. A servant has his own wants and desires, of course — but to serve is to take pleasure in the satisfaction and success of others, and often to allow ones self to be a part of something greater in the pursuit of a larger goal. It is a fertile medium for personal growth, but it’s something that has to be embraced in order to grow and bear fruit.

Richie’s story at The Bear isn’t over. The season ends with him making a breakthrough on personal actualization but his relationship with Carmy possibly broken. He’s in a better place now, but there are still multiple ways in which the writers can throw obstacles in his way in the next season. Nothing is ever straightforward in television. Richarlison’s move towards service isn’t nearly as dramatic (despite some notable story beats, Tottenham’s season isn’t yet a made-for-TV drama), but we are watching in real time as he adapts his game in a new role towards the betterment of the squad. It’s a long season, there will surely be more bumps in the road, and we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out, and how Richy feels about it at the end. But it sure feels like a positive to me.

Or as Taylor Swift sang: Don’t be afraid, we’ll make it out of this mess / It’s a love story, baby, just say, “Yes”

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