The Bear Doesn’t Work Without Jon Bernthal as Mikey Berzatto

The Bear season 3 confirms that the show's first big guest star remains its best.

“THE BEAR” — “Napkins” — Season 3, Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, June 27th) — Pictured: Liza Colón-Zayas as Tina.
Photo: FX

This article contains spoilers for The Bear season 3 through episode 6.

Things aren’t easy for anyone on FX’s The Bear. The show, which just premiered all 10 episodes of its third season on Hulu, routinely puts its characters through the crucible of running a dysfunctional kitchen.

It has to be tremendously hard for actors Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach to continually capture the psyche-shattering stress that comes along with being Carmy, Syd, and Richie, respectively. Still, even with all those challenges, one role on The Bear looms large in terms of its difficulty level and importance to the series’ overall mythos. This story quite simply doesn’t work without Carmy’s older brother, former Original Beef of Chicagoland proprietor, and friend-to-all Mikey Berzatto, played by Jon Bernthal.

The Bear hasn’t been shy about stunt casting big name actors for its guest starring roles. Following the success of season 1, the show put its critical and culture cachet to good use by adding Jamie Lee Curtis, Bob Odenkirk, John Mulaney, Gillian Jacobs, Olivia Colman, and Will Poulter to ithe supporting ensemble of season 2. Several of those faces return in season 3 and are joined by other heavy hitters like Josh Hartnett as Richie’s ex’s new fiancé Frank and John Cena as Fak cousin Sammy. While all of these performers are excellent in their respective roles, they ultimately stand on the shoulders of Bernthal’s Mikey, who not only set the template for all guest actors on The Bear but the tone of the entire show as well.

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Mikey Berzatto is nearly impossible to play because he’s not a person so much as he is an ideal. He exists only in the memories of his loved ones, having died by suicide shortly before season 1 began. Those memories haunt the show. You feel Mikey’s presence because the characters feel it. And the actors performing those characters surely feel it too because Bernthal crafted a vibrant character to contend with.

The Bear has been great from its first episode on. But it didn’t fully become the best version of itself until season 1 episode 6 “Ceres,” in which Mikey is first introduced via flashback. As Mikey attends to the Berzatto family dinner and enthralls his siblings with a story that they’ve all heard a thousand times, the melancholy at the center of the story firmly locks into place and is never dislodged. Every character on The Bear makes more sense when you remember what they’ve lost. Even Syd, who never knew Mikey, has to confront his shade within Carmy’s baby blue eyes every day.

Thanks to Bernthal’s magnetic charm, the audience doesn’t even have to abstractly conceptualize what the Berzattos lost. We see it time and time again via flashback. The latest example comes in season 3 episode 6 “Napkins.” The installment, directed by Ayo Edebiri, is about Tina’s (Liza Colón-Zayas) backstory, but it’s also about Mikey and how he turned the Original Beef of Chicagoland into something that mattered to a group of misfits.

After Tina suffers the indignity of rejection after rejection, she stops by the Original Beef to wait for her train home. Richie provides her with a free coffee and sandwich, which she takes to the backroom to eat and softly cry over the mounting frustrations in her life. When Richie, Neil, and Mikey notice the weeping woman in their dining room, they elect to send Mikey over to investigate. What follows is a beautiful 10-minute conversation about nothing…and everything.

Mikey isn’t some sort of wise sage. Truth be told, he’s actually a little dumb. He remains beguiled by the picture of a beautiful floral arrangement that Carmy sent him from Noma in Copenhagen. He is, however, empathetic enough to understand that it’s means something to Carmy and he intuits that it might mean something to this crying stranger as well. Of course, Tina doesn’t see the significance of the edible flowers but the scene drips with the irony that one day she’ll be making elevated dishes just like under the auspices of the genius chef who sent the photo.

In place of pretty words or prettier flowers, Mikey can offer only some time to listen. And it turns out that’s all Tina needs. The pair bond over how things are always hard – something’s always breaking, or somebody’s always late – but kind of lovely as well. There’s a whole planet full of kids out there armed with the energy to do great things, and the ignorance to not realize how hard it will be. It’s not a deep conversation by any means, but it’s an important one. It brings Tina into the fold as an employee at Original Beef and later The Bear.

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Like most scenes set in The Bear‘s past, the moment works because the actors involved have the ability to reckon with it. There’s an ineffable spark to Bernthal that makes you understand deeply why people are drawn to him and how, through sheer force of personality, he created a work family to replace his broken one at home.

Carmy’s brother didn’t just leave him a restaurant – he left him their mother, their sister, their cousin Richie, and all the people whose livelihoods depend on Italian beef sandwiches. The stress is palpable on The Bear because we know Jon Bernthal’s Mikey Berzatto is the one applying it. And we can see that stupid smile of his every time he does.

All 10 episodes of The Bear season 3 are available to stream on Hulu now.