This article contains spoilers for The Bear season 2.
Near the end of the first episode of FX‘s The Bear season 2, the unthinkable happens. After a typically long day of renovating their Original Beef of Chicagoland lunch spot into the chic gastro experience The Bear, chefs Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) discover that they, improbably, have nothing left to do for the night. It leads to the following exchange.
Carmy: “It feels weird though, right? It’s too chill?”
Sydney: “I don’t know. We can go home early?”
Carmy: “What are you…uh?”
Sydney: “Oh … I don’t know. What are you gonna … “
Carmy: “No idea.”
The camera then follows Carmy home just so that we can see how little of an idea of what to do with his free time he really has. He sits around like an NPC in a video game, twiddling his thumbs and fiddling with a pocket knife. He walks around his apartment, glancing at the many past due bills he’s accrued and the hastily scrawled out plans to repay them. He glances down at his phone as if expecting some sort of answer to come from there.
And then: he’s right back at the restaurant. It’s that same evening or preposterously early the following morning, who can even tell? Sydney and Carmy’s sister Sugar (Abby Elliott) are there ready to get back to work. Carmy and Sydney had a chance to enjoy their first night off in God knows how long. And they failed miserably in their attempt to make anything out of it. Their noses are immediately back to the grindstone – the only place those noses ever go.
In some ways, the conclusion of The Bear season 2’s first episode serves as a thesis statement for the nine remaining episodes to come. Anyone who has worked in the tense environment of a restaurant kitchen, or merely anyone who experienced it through The Bear‘s supremely stressful first season, knows it’s an emotionally heightened crucible that bears (pardon the pun) very little resemblance to “real life.” Attempting to start a new restaurant in particular is a grueling, surreal endeavor in which the stakes are financial life or death, complete dedication is required, and failure is the norm.
Why do people like Carmy and Sydney continue to try to open new restaurants if the stakes are so high and the chances for success are so minimal? It’s because living on the knife’s edge like that is intoxicating – so intoxicating that the “normal” life seems bland and colorless by comparison. Still, isn’t a quiet, normal life what we’re all supposed to strive for? Carmy attempts to do just that in The Bear season 2 and the results are ultimately tragic. To be clear, there’s no such thing as a “normal life.” The word “normal” passes a value judgment about the correct or proper way to spend one’s time. For the purposes of this article though, let’s acknowledge “normal” as simply an existence without perpetual fealty to one’s unbearably stressful job.
When Carmy encounters his old flame Claire (Molly Gordon) at a convenience store in episode two, the pair immediately pick up where they left off. It’s clear that they share a mutual interest in each other and could embark upon a nice, normal relationship but Carmy resists it anyway, giving Claire a fake number (the “555” should have been a dead giveaway, girl). Still, Claire persists, gets his number anyway, and they begin a fairly charming courtship.
Some online commenters have reported that the Carmy and Claire scenes are the weakest aspect of The Bear season 2. I understand where they’re coming from but I think part of that critique misses the fact that Carmy and Claire’s relationship is probably supposed to be a bit by-the-numbers. Due to his demanding career, Carmy’s emotional and social development has been arrested to the point where attending a simple house party is like walking on Mars.
Through much of The Bear season 2’s run, Carmy leads what we would recognize as a fairly normal life. He’s got a job, albeit a tough one, but he also has a girlfriend/friend-who-is-a-girl who he is able to spend time with. If ever given a night off, Carmy wouldn’t merely pace around his apartment, glancing at his phone anymore. He’s got places to go, things to do, and people to see outside of work. You know, like a normal person would.
Of course, living a normal life doesn’t come easy to Carmy. And we find out why in the brilliant flashback episode “Fishes.” For, as stressful as the Berzattos’ jobs have been historically, family life is somehow more stressful for them. Carmy, Sugar, and Mikey’s (Jon Bernthal) alcoholic and likely mentally ill mother Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis) turns every family dinner party into a war zone. By the time Donna crashes her car through the living room, interrupting Mikey and Uncle Lee’s (Bob Odenkirk) fist fight, one gets the sense that Carmy hasn’t turned to restaurant work to embrace the chaos so much as he has done so to avoid the chaos of what he perceives “normal” life to be.
It all culminates in episode 9 when Carmy becomes perhaps the first person in TV history to experience a panic attack while experiencing visions of domestic tranquility and love. Seriously, just look at this.
Claire is beautiful and kind and gentle. And yet, if Carmy takes her too seriously she could become family. Family is not beautiful and kind and gentle. Family screams “are you motherfuckers ok???” and slaps your face. The only thing that helps Carmy escape his panic spiral is thoughts of Sydney.
Sydney popping up to steady Carmy’s mind and set the discordant R.E.M. song right is admittedly good ammunition for Carmy/Syd shippers. But I think it’s a little more complex than any romantic entanglement. Syd represents The Bear – she represents work. Work doesn’t ruin Christmas dinner. Work won’t miss your restaurant opening. Work won’t blow its brains out on the State Street Bridge. Sure, work won’t make you whole but it also won’t tear you down like a “normal” institution like family would.
Carmy has become addicted to work as an almost literal painkiller to the extent that, in the season 2 finale when he physically gets separated from work by accidentally locking himself in a walk-in fridge, he experiences something akin to withdrawal symptoms. He lashes out like an animal, screaming and clawing at the walls. When work continues on without him and he’s left alone with his thoughts all he can think about is how the prepped materials in the fridge have taped labels, something he never would have let the kitchen do if he had not been trying to lead a normal life with Claire. He eventually confesses all of his pain to Claire, mistakenly thinking that he’s speaking to Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) on the other side of the wall.
“I don’t need to provide any amusement or enjoyment. I don’t need to receive any amusement or enjoyment. I’m completely fine with that. Because no amount of good is worth how terrible this feels. It’s just a complete waste of fucking time.”
As a well-written empathetic show, The Bear was likely always destined to find an audience. It probably doesn’t hurt, however, that it premiered shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic. Like Carmy, many of us were using the all-consuming specter of work to avoid the awkward question of what to do with our free time. And when various shutdowns and work-from-home scenario created unexpected free time, we had to confront just how challenging it is to live a “normal” life when all you’ve ever known is chaos.
It turns out that we do need to provide and receive amusement and enjoyment. And operating outside the safe confines of work isn’t a complete waste of fucking time. Hopefully that’s something Carmy and company are able to learn for themselves in season 3.
All 10 episodes of FX’s The Bear season 2 are available to stream on Hulu now.