Last year, FX and creator Christopher Storer unveiled The Bear, an eight-part character study that wowed critics and set social media ablaze with photos of their new messy white boy crush, star Jeremy Allen White. Set in the hectic kitchen of a Chicago sandwich shop, The Bear’s first season was a rush of adrenaline and anxiety punctuated by moments of profound despair and the occasional gut-busting laugh. Now The Bear returns with a very different flavor profile. The restaurant is closed for renovations, slowing the pace of the characters’ lives and giving them much more room to grow, change, and stew in their feelings. Dizzying long takes and barely comprehensible crosstalk are still on the menu, but they’re no longer the main course. The Bear: Part Two expands the show’s palette and investigates cuisine as both a craft and a calling from multiple perspectives. Like a great meal at a loved one’s wake, it is at once comforting, heart-breaking, and life-affirming.
Season Two of The Bear follows young Chicagoan chefs Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and Syd Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) and their crew as they risk everything to open their first restaurant, transforming a humble sandwich shop into a fine dining destination. What was intended as a face lift becomes a gut renovation, not just for the restaurant but for the people who work there, as they each endeavor to be equal to the challenge ahead and worthy of the investment that’s been made in them. Time and again, these chefs (and at The Bear, everyone who works at the restaurant is called “Chef”) make sacrifices for one another in the hope of creating something that will make them all proud. And, if they’re very lucky, it might even pay the bills.
In this sense, The Bear is the anti-Succession, a tender dramedy about great human beings banding together and sweating blood for the opportunity to serve others and probably go broke in the process. Like last season, it’s a study of the very special, often very unhealthy individuals who dedicate themselves to their craft above all else. Moreso, however, Part Two is a show about service, and the desire to serve. Cuisine is not only an expressive art or a complex science, it’s also a means by which to nourish another person. Fine dining, done well, is about far more than a great meal, as middle-aged wastrel Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) learns in his spotlight episode. It’s about giving diners a magical experience, where their needs are met without ever having to ask, where incredible memories are made. It’s a Disney vacation, a journey that people save up for, anticipate, and rarely get to repeat. The price tag is high, but the margin is tiny and the hours are grueling. There’s only one reason to get into this business, and that’s because your sense of reason is totally outweighed by your need to do it.
But, as Carmen Berzatto is discovering, satisfying that need is not the same thing as finding happiness. This season digs deeper into the wounded psyche of the anxious perfectionist as he struggles with his own fear of joy. Carmen tells himself that he doesn’t need to be happy, only satisfied with his work. This assertion is challenged when he reunites with his childhood crush, Claire (Molly Gordon). For the first time, Carmen has something comforting in his life apart from his culinary career, but all signs point towards one becoming an obstacle to the other. Rather than merely repeat tired tropes about angsty, independent artistes, The Bear deconstructs the notion that a person has to choose between greatness and happiness, asking why we believe that in the first place. What experiences taught Carmen to be so suspicious of love or comfort? Can these fears be overcome? If so, will his peace of mind come at the expense of his business, or his partner, Syd? Star Jeremy Allen White surpasses his own sterling performance from last season, as his romance with Molly Gordon’s Claire reveals a new fragility in his already very vulnerable character.
Though Carmen’s crisis of purpose is the spine of the season, The Bear is a true ensemble show, with each regular cast member receiving ample time to develop their character and show off their skills. (This is to say nothing of the parade of top-shelf guest stars whose appearances are better left a surprise.) Carmen’s new social life leaves Syd to manage more of the business and face the daunting restaurant world alone. Journeyman pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) and former line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) study hard to meet the restaurant’s new Michelin Star standard. Carmen’s sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) takes a more active role in the business and finds herself in the process. Perhaps most compelling of all is the story of Richie Jeromovich, Carmine’s best friend and quasi-cousin. Richie hides behind a facade of working class machismo, but as the rest of his sandwich shop comrades level up, he finds himself without a plan or purpose. Richie’s reinvention is the season’s most far-fetched development, but also the most uplifting. His spotlight episode, “Forks,” had this critic pumping his fist and wiping tears from his eyes.
There’s a sign that’s hung up in multiple kitchens visited by The Bear’s protagonists throughout the season, which reads: “Every Second Counts.” When it’s first seen by Marcus during his apprenticeship in Copenhagen, it’s merely the classy version of a motivational poster, speaking to the immense professional pressures of fine dining. But each time the sign recurs, it takes on a new, deeper meaning. For Richie, it begins as a painful reminder of the years he’s squandered without a dream or a direction. By the end of his journey, those same three words become a sign of hope, a reminder that the seconds ahead of you are as important as the seconds behind you. Its final recurrence in the season’s closing episode underlines the scarcity of that time, and how each moment we are offered can be spent only once. This one device is practically a meal in itself, the perfect summation of the season, a multifaceted look at art, craft, mortality, grief, and purpose. Happily, that’s just one of the dishes on The Bear’s tasting menu.