There’s no shortage of iconic images that demonstrate what people are capable of, what true courage looks like, and that capture both the agony and the ecstasy of existence. Earthrise. Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston. Taking a Stand in Louisiana. And, of course, this TikTok video of a kid eating a ten-patty Whataburger in North Texas, as the entire burger restaurant becomes enraptured with and champions his quest.
Let’s break down all of the things that happen here, in the video’s brief 57 seconds, that make this episode worthy of our respect and attention.
0:01: A shot of the receipt, quantifying the enormity of the sandwich: Ten beef patties, five slices of cheese. No vegetables, no condiments — those things are just an obstruction, and would only serve to make the burger harder to eat.
0:05: A man in an Alabama Crimson Tide jacket, like Simon of Cyrene, steps in to aid our hero in his quest. He wipes the young man’s face, allowing him to continue on his sacred mission without having to put the monstrous burger down. We don’t know the man’s name, or his relationship to the young man in question. We’ll call him “Merlin,” as he appears to be a mentor figure on our hero’s journey.
0:10: Merlin, awestruck, watches as his protege reaches the first obstacle in his Joseph Campbell-ian adventure—the enormity of his task, and his sandwich, becomes apparent. He is already on his path. Will he turn back?
0:12: Of course he won’t turn back. He’s already recruited many allies to support his cause. The entire restaurant—mostly young people (perhaps they are on a class trip?)—has surrounded him and offers support. It appears that they are chanting “Ethan! Ethan!” as he attempts to consume the burger, but it’s possible they’re saying “eat them!” We will never know, and we don’t need to know.
0:15: Once more, Merlin wipes Ethan’s face.
0:21: A young woman in an orange polo shirt, an employee of that particular Whataburger location, chants and claps, moved by the spirit of what she sees before her. She joins the young people in encouraging Ethan to slay this dragon. She is all of us.
0:24: Someone wearing a nametag pats Ethan on the shoulder. It appears to be a manager at the restaurant, offering yet another sign of institutional support. As he does this, the entire restaurant bursts into applause.
0:29: Another ally appears, this one with a very large glass of an unidentifiable brown liquid. It might be Dr Pepper, or Coke, but Ethan is singularly focused on his task, and those beverages would interfere with his ability to see it through to completion. For this reason, it’s most likely the beverage is unsweetened iced tea.
0:31: We see once again the size of the sandwich Ethan has chosen to consume. The patties are falling apart, but he continues to bite, and chew, and swallow. There can be no pleasure in this consumption, save the satisfaction of victory. That must be enough.
0:34: Merlin once again wipes the grease from Ethan’s face. Ethan, a happy warrior, appears to be laughing at the gesture.
0:36: A brief flash of the faces of spectators who fear that the battle may be unwinnable. “No!” an onlooker shouts. The stakes, as we enter the story’s third act, increase.
0:40: The structural integrity of the sandwich finally gives in. The burger collapses. Ethan places it on his tray as inspiration strikes—he can eat its constituent parts, rather than attempt to swallow it fully between the bun. “That’s okay,” someone cries. “Whatever it takes!”
0:42: Ethan, now inexplicably dressed in Merlin’s jacket, swallows a large portion of the burger. Everyone in the entire restaurant—the crowd seems to have grown from the video’s early portions—loses their mind. This is how gladiators felt in the Coliseum. This is glory.
0:46: But it’s not enough. There are portions of four patties remaining on the yellow paper in which Ethan’s sandwich was once served. They’re dotted with flecks of melted cheese. Ethan appears to have consumed the equivalent of eight full patties, plus the bun. But even though he appears to be finished, his quest is not yet complete.
0:50: Ethan holds the four stray pieces between his forefinger and thumb, stacked like a sandwich in which every part of it is just more meat. “Come on, Ethan, come on!” a supporter screams. Ethan offers a prayer to the heavens, then he takes the collection of beef in his hand and shoves it into his mouth. We can see the beverage cup to his right. He’s consumed half of it.
0:55: He’s done it. The remaining pieces of burger are in his mouth. The crowd has seen something they believed impossible. They have seen an accomplishment that none among them—save Ethan, brave Ethan—would have even dared attempt. They have borne witness to greatness. They have seen the human spirit tested, and seen its triumph. Sure, they have not seen the Earth rise, like a shining blue marble, from the depths of space. They have not seen a champion crowned on the world stage, under the brightest of lights. They have not seen a stand taken against injustice.
No. They have seen Ethan eat something really, really big, for the same reason a person might be compelled to climb a mountain—simply because it is there.