Ayo Edebiri's Sydney Is the Real Hero of 'The Bear'
Sorry Carmy, you might be hot, but Sydney is the reason we're into the FX show.
The first thing you probably notice watching The Bear, this summer's breakout FX show airing on Hulu, is the yelling. There's so much yelling in The Bear, mostly by men. The loud, testosterone-driven energy is one of The Bear's selling points. It's been heralded as one of the most grimly accurate depictions of working in a restaurant kitchen, but one of the reasons it has blown up is in no small part thanks to widespread internet thirst for Carmy, the protagonist played by Jeremy Allen White, whose dirtbag intensity and sadness has inspired lust among those who are drawn to broken types with piercing eyes.
But the real hero of the show created by Christopher Storer is not actually Carmy. It's Sydney, the eager sous chef played by the comedian Ayo Edebiri. If you find yourself getting exhausted by all the male pain, just focus on Sydney's arc. Whereas Carmy is all brooding energy, Sydney translates her ambition into a sweetness that can mean she's easily underestimated when she absolutely should not be.
In the pilot, Sydney arrives at The Original Beef of Chicagoland, the restaurant Carmy has taken over from his dead brother, Mikey (eventually played by Jon Bernthal in a flashback). Mikey left Carmy, a highly lauded chef, a no-frills family establishment that slings Italian beef sandwiches and other grub of that ilk—rolls piled high with juicy meat, giardiniera, mortadella, etc. In his brother's stead, he's trying to make it both solvent and evolve the kitchen into something a little more ambitious and precise. Just what Carmy's food goals are with the establishment honestly never made fully clear until the very end of the season. He's interested in elevating it, but seems to mainly want everyone to call each other "chef."
Sydney and Carmy are cut from similar cloth. Like Carmy, she's trained in the culinary arts—she went to the Culinary Institute of America and did stints in fancy kitchens where her job was just to grate lemon zest—but didn't come from the privileged world of the people patronizing those venues. She still lives with her dad and, after a failed attempt at catering, she worked at the postal service. She gravitates toward Carmy mainly because she admires his talent. She wants to work in his kitchen because she wants to work for him, and he hires her on to cook the team's family meal before making her his number two.
But The Beef is a volatile place. She's immediately forced to contend with Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the yelliest of the men and Mikey's best friend who calls Carmy "cousin" despite the fact that he's not actually his cousin. Richie is grieving, too, but he's also extremely annoying, and his macho posturing as a representative of what he thinks is the "real Chicago" makes him unfriendly to Sydney, who he sees as an interloper because her tastes and proficiencies align more with Carmy's. While their interactions are outwardly hostile—she accidentally stabs him when he backs into her knife following an argument—it's Sydney's dynamic with Carmy that is one of the show's most fruitful innovations.
Sydney and Carmy have an understanding and rapport with one another that makes them allies, and at times it feels like a genuine friendship is brewing. He trusts her and eventually gives her advice on how to improve her already lauded recipe. But he's also an incredibly shitty boss, who takes advantage of her admiration of him and willingness to help out. It's difficult to tell how aware of his own toxicity he is, but he is toxic. He's resentful when she accidentally serves a dish of risotto and cold braised short rib to a critic that gets The Beef a positive write up, and he's verbally abusive to the whole staff during a busy crunch, which leads her to quit.
Of course, she returns in the final moments of the season, when Carmy finds that Mikey left him a stash of cash in tomato cans. They immediately agree on what they are going to do with the money: reopen The Beef as a fine-dining establishment (with a window for sandwiches), fulfilling both of their dreams. It's a very nice ending, bathed in hazy light, but I can't help wanting to yell at Sydney to run far, far away. It feels like there are two options for her: She'll burn out under Carmy's thumb or she'll transform into someone as hardened and brutal as he is. It will make for good TV, but Sydney's soul is on the line.
The Sydney-Carmy dance is not unlike another on TV: HBO's Industry, which returns on August 1. It depicts another uncomfortable dance between an upstart and her male boss/mentor, the singularly focused young banker Harper (Myha'la Herrold) and her eccentric, demanding managing director Eric (Ken Leung). Neither relationship is at all sexual, but that doesn't mean the talented young woman of color at the center of the story isn't being taken advantage of. For Harper, she realizes that to advance she has to align with Eric, whose behavior can be threatening: He locks her in a room to yell at her. By the time the first set of Industry episodes finishes, Harper has made a deal with the devil to futher her career. Similarly, Sydney stands on a precipice.
In this season of the The Bear, Edebiri's performance is a breath of fresh air. While the rest of the show is aggro, she brings a lightness even when Sydney is as stressed as everyone else. You want to root for her drive rather than shirk from it. Here's hoping that she doesn't become a mini Carmy wherever the show heads next.