VV’s The Bear essay contains spoilers for Christopher Storer’s FX on Hulu series. Check out TV reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
To turn the immortal Seinfeld quote around, Christopher Storer’s The Bear is the opposite of a show about nothing. The series’ second season, which dropped on Hulu in June 2023, is a continuation of its different interests (from the culinary arts to alternative rock music), varied themes (from young careerism to grief and depression) and layered storytelling involving an ensemble cast. The Bear season 2’s narrative backdrop is the intense preparation for the restaurant re-opening of “The Original Beef of Chicagoland” as “The Bear”: a revamp justified by the large amount of money — left by Mikey (Jon Bernthal), the brother of protagonist Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) — found in tomato cans at the end of The Bear season 1.
The Bear season 2 gives Marcus (Lionel Boyce) a focus episode during an internship in Denmark, and cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) spends his own episode later on during a week-long apprenticeship at a fine dining establishment. The new season has small roles played by Olivia Colman and Will Poulter, and has an hour-long flashback Christmas episode in which Jamie Lee Curtis, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson and others appear. The attention to musical detail and close curation of the soundtrack escalates in these new episodes, with refrains stretching across individual episodes but also the season: remixes, different versions and even score music written for other films being used. And the first season’s alternative rock is generally diversified, as everything from Brian Eno to Taylor Swift is given a place in The Bear season 2.
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At its core, The Bear season 2 is about different modes of refurbishment, for which the central effort to revamp the restaurant acts as a framing metaphor. The claustrophobic kitchen cooking scenes (and shouting matches) of the first installment are replaced with calmer and less frequent scenes of food making, outside the restaurant. Characters soul-search and self-improve instead of getting caught in Carmy’s crossfire. And The Bear season 2 is sprinkled with show-stopping moments, like the original batch of episodes, despite being designed modestly — not needing to hit many declarative dramatic highs, not overstating itself stylistically. There are a number of these across the 10 new episodes, but two of the highlights centralize Carmy and Richie’s individual refurbishment projects, as the former character learns to love again when someone from his childhood reappears, and the latter comes to terms with his ex-wife moving on, despite keeping him in her life as the father of their child.
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The first of these moments comes in the final 10 minutes of episode two, “Pasta.” Carmy spaces out in a grocery store, staring at different vanilla ice cream options as he holds the freezer open, almost willing the inanimate objects to skip ahead of their responsibilities and give him the answers to much bigger, more debilitating questions — about his pain, about why it is such a struggle for him to be happy. Claire (Molly Gordon) calls out Carmy, walking towards him as he snaps back into consciousness. White’s character turns away from the freezer and towards the woman as Peter Buck’s guitar introduction comes in on R. E. M.’s “Strange Currencies.” The character dialogue exchange is as follows:
Carmy: Claire. Hey.
Claire: You — you got there.
Carmy: Yeah, it took me a second.
Claire: Took you a second, yeah.
Carmy: It’s been, uh…
Carmy: Forever. Definitely.
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The conversation ends with Claire asking Carmy “How’s your life been?” “I’ve no idea, yours?” he responds. “I’ve no idea,” she answers. The scene cuts away to the team gutting the kitchen after finding lots of mold, before cutting to Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) having dinner with her father on what would be her dead mother’s birthday.
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The Bear season 2 episode soon cuts back to Carmy and Claire, now out eating food together. Carmy leans his head against a marble wall that shows his reflection in it, offering a continuation of their previous scene together and its emphases on reflective surfaces, conversational transparency and clarity. “Strange Currencies” continues to play out in full in the background as the characters work through a series of conversational platitudes, both catching up on the period of each other’s lives they have missed and reminiscing about their childhood together. When talk shifts to what Carmy does now, Claire responds to the news that he is opening a restaurant enthusiastically, telling him that he has kept his promise. Carmy cannot believe it, but he’s fascinated that she claims to remember his planned name for the restaurant, which he bets she cannot get right. “You’re the Bear and I remember you,” Claire tells him, before a two-way joke ensues about different payment methods for Carmy to pay her the million-dollar bet.
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It’s only in the next episode that Claire realizes Carmy has given her a fake number, but because he is trying to protect her from himself rather than out of spite. In this meeting scene, The Bear does what it is so good at: providing the ingredients for a familiar dramatic setup, then cooking them unpredictably or in the wrong order or to an end result that builds upon the recipe. As a spectator, one learns so much from what is both said and unsaid at this stage — from the way Carmy looks at Claire, as if he can pause the image and focus on each of its details; from the way the register of his voice wavers between deep admiration for this forgotten but important figure from his past; from his depression, and the belief that he does not deserve the potential happiness or even love that may come from the reunion. Because The Bear is an authentic depiction of mental illness, it allows viewers to fall into the trap of thinking that Carmy will let the situation steer him rather than he it, because this is what he wants so much himself, but finds so difficult to have.
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The trap is one in which Carmy lets the scaffolding of customary romantic drama become more than scaffolding and transform into his real life. It is a trap of his own making, which should not be a trap, and it is something he must work towards realizing he can have, but only receives later in the season. Carmy’s depression initially prevents him from living out the real aspects of scripted drama that do happen beyond the page or away from the screen, such as this romance with Claire. His depression stops him from being a character, in some ways — which would manifest here as the male lead who falls in love rather than fighting against it. Instead, Carmy is more real, which impacts his decision making and generates prestige television writing capturing the difficult, inconsistent rhythms of mental struggle. After all, this is a character who opens the next episode by speaking at a group therapy session and talking about how he Googled “fun” — which confused him when he stacked its characteristics of “amusement” and “enjoyment” against his own life.
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There are various other moments in The Bear season 2 that place male mental health front and center, such as one in episode 7, “Forks.” Convinced he has been sent away by Carmy to work in a fine dining establishment for a week as punishment, Richie sulks at being told to polish forks rather than doing any cooking on his first day there. His supervisor, Garrett (Andrew Lopez), is on the receiving end of his resentment towards being there, in such a different food environment to what he is used to. After the pair get off to a frosty start, Richie gradually begins to respect Garrett and finds enjoyment in the new culinary setting. About 10 minutes into the episode, Richie and Garrett even have a brief moment where they truly bond, and it is another show-stopping sequence in which writing, direction and performance synthesize and The Bear’s sparks fly.
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As Richie cleans glasses at the end of a shift with his sleeves rolled up, he asks Garrett how old he is. “That’s an HR violation. You’re not supposed to ask,” Garrett replies. “Fuck off, Garrett,” Richie responds, laughing with his new and unexpected friend. Garrett confesses that he is 30 years old. Confused when Garrett says that he does not like to cook — to “rattle the pots and pans” — Richie follows up by asking him why he therefore works at a restaurant. Cutting to the chase, Garrett tells Richie that, “a couple of years ago, I had a drinking problem. And I got sober […] Through that experience I learned about acts of service, and I just like being able to serve other people now.” No longer interrupting nor wisecracking (as he often does), Richie simply nods as Garrett gives him the short version of a long struggle with his own demons. Richie does not say it, because the conversation is not about him, or perhaps because he would not be ready to, but it feels as if the nods are more than just indications that he is concentrating on what Garrett is telling him.
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Richie is aware that he is lost — like his cousin Carmy, but not at the stage of being able to talk about it in therapy. And he also believes that this makes him broken, even irreparable. This encounter with Garrett — someone who could not be further from him in terms of personality and interests — provides Richie with an opportunity to learn about himself. It is a similarly pivotal moment in the season to his cousin’s reunion with Claire. As The Bear season 2 progresses, Carmy’s moment leads to Claire becoming his girlfriend, demonstrating a process of breaking down the obstacles he cannot help but put in front of his own happiness. But the season finale rebuilds this obstacle, leaving their relationship in an uncertain state.
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Richie’s moment means he returns from the apprenticeship in a suit. “I wear a suit now,” he tells his colleagues as they put finishing touches on The Bear ahead of opening day. He cannot help but smile as he repeats the new mantra. In their different ways, Richie and Carmy are moving in the right direction, with the shared destination being fulfilment and contentment, even if they slip together in The Bear season 2 finale. By this 10th episode, their new restaurant may be refurbished and ready, but they are still finishing themselves. They may have hosted a successful friends and family night in terms of the quality of the food and service, but like the majority of the characters in The Bear, Richie and Carmy are works-in-progress. It is the characters around them — both each other and people that enter their lives, for short or long periods of time — who reassure them that they will get there. They will reach the point where they are no longer rebuilding, where they are being.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) has just finished a PhD on contemporary fiction at King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer. George’s recent publications include Avatar Review, BRUISER, Clackamas Literary Review and Watershed Review, and he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at: https://georgeoliverkowalik.wordpress.com/.
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