*Minor spoilers for The Bear Season 2 below
The Bear, a breakneck series about a chef who comes home to Chicago to take over his late brother’s Italian beef spot, was arguably television’s biggest surprise hit of 2022. Earning praise from critics and restaurant industry lifers alike, the show offered a fresh portrayal of the business, one that was both loving and unflinching. Now it’s back for Season 2, which finds Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and the gang preparing to take on the only thing more challenging than turning around your family’s failing restaurant: transforming that failing restaurant into a bona fide fine dining destination.
When we left Carmy at the end of Season 1, things were looking up. For those who don’t remember, here’s a quick recap: Carmy is a prodigy-level fine dining chef who is back in Chicago after working in some of the world’s most renowned kitchens. He’s returned to his hometown to run the Original Beef of Chicagoland, a lunch spot formerly owned by Mikey (Jon Bernthal), Carmy’s brother, who died by suicide. After Carmy revamps the menu, the Original Beef takes off. But as with a real-life restaurant, the Original Beef needs an infusion of money to stay open, and survives only thanks to a stash of tomato cans stuffed with cash left behind by Mikey.
Thanks to that tomato can fortune, in Season 2 Carmy can move past the Italian beef sandwiches and build the restaurant of his dreams. Via the painstaking process of opening his restaurant, called the Bear, Carmy has the chance to finally live up to his potential as a chef, and maybe move past the trauma he experienced during his time in fine dining.
The new season depicts a period of great transition for the restaurant, and everyone who works in it. Sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is reading self-help books and trying to come into her own as a leader in the kitchen, while endlessly dreaming up dishes for the menu. Prickly line cooks Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) head off to culinary school to refine their skills, and pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) takes a trip to Copenhagen to stage at one of the temples of modernist cuisine alongside (ridiculously hot) chef Luca (Will Poulter).
The building formerly known as the Original Beef is also getting a major overhaul, with a look that better suits the forward-thinking restaurant Carmy and Sydney want to build. In just the first few minutes of Episode 1, Carmy has already racked up more than $100,000 in planned improvements and renovations, and he’s just getting started. His sister, Sugar (Abby Elliott), who is overseeing the project, quickly makes it clear that they need more cash. Carmy and Sydney head to visit Cicero (Oliver Platt), Carmy’s arguably shady uncle who gave Mikey the tomato-can money. After only a little prodding, he agrees to bankroll the project, with one major caveat: If they can’t pay him back in 18 months, he’ll own the Original Beef building and sell it to recoup his losses.
The whole issue of funding is wrapped up pretty quickly — maybe too quickly, in fact — and Carmy and Sydney set an admittedly aggressive timeline of just 12 weeks to get their new restaurant ready for the public. While plenty of real-life restaurateurs will roll their eyes at the idea that Carmy somehow managed to get all of his building permits squared away in just a few weeks or that there weren’t massive delays in construction, The Bear still feels eminently accurate when it comes to the often crushing tedium of navigating the world of taxes, permits, and insurance. In what other show about the restaurant industry do we hear about the struggles of getting a fire suppression system to pass inspection, or get an inside glimpse into the absurdity of navigating a mold remediation project? Those aren’t exactly sexy subjects, but they are very real for actual restaurant owners, and The Bear manages to play them both for laughs in a way that actually succeeds.
While the Original Beef is being revamped, the men of the series are revamping themselves. Carmy attends group therapy sessions to deal with his imposter syndrome, perfectionism, and anxiety, and is even starting to process Mikey’s death in a meaningful way. He’s also allowing himself to be vulnerable with new-old love interest Claire (Molly Gordon), a girl from his childhood who makes a surprise reappearance. This relationship marks the first time we’ve seen him connect with someone outside of the restaurant. And it’s not just Carmy. While in Copenhagen, Marcus confronts his dying mother’s mortality as he learns how to gently scoop a quenelle of shiso sorbet. Even dopey cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is processing his feelings, trying to cope with his own insecurities of being left behind as the Original Beef transforms into the Bear.
Meanwhile, Sydney is struggling. She began the series feeling confident and ready to take charge of the kitchen, but in Season 2, she’s having trouble with her recipes. There’s too much salt or too much acid — it’s just not right, and Carmy is too distracted by his budding relationship with Claire to fully focus on helping her refine those flavors. Sydney’s struggles don’t get the same depth of consideration as Carmy’s, and that’s a glaring flaw in this season. We get a few scenes, especially in the finale, that delve into her fear of failure, but the writing doesn’t quite match Edebiri’s incredible acting.
The most emotional depth we get in Season 2 comes in the backstory of the complicated Berzatto family dynamic. In “Fishes,” a flashback episode, Jamie Lee Curtis delivers an incredible performance as Carmy, Mikey, and Sugar’s hard-drinking mother, Donna, downing wine by the bottle as she prepares a traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas. Bob Odenkirk is equally powerful as judgy Uncle Lee, who is the most emotionally measured member of this family. This reminiscence of a dysfunctional Christmas past, complete with emotional blowups, fork-throwing, and a shocking climax, explains pretty much everything we need to know about why Carmy moved as far away as possible from his family as he started his career, and how he ended up totally consumed by anxiety.
The longest episode of the season, “Fishes” is heartbreaking, and also one of the best hours of television I’ve seen all year. It’s The Bear’s distinct brand of gritty realism at its peak, which makes it very uncomfortable to watch, even though it’s nigh impossible to look away. Cameos from Sarah Paulson and John Mulaney, both cousins, only add to the delicious tension. Played to the extreme, the Berzatto family looks like so many of our own families, and it’s a stark reminder of how we — and our work — are all affected by our experiences and traumas.
Toward the end of Season 2, The Bear gets more into the nitty-gritty of running a restaurant, all fire suppression systems and ServSafe certifications. Carmy sends Richie off to a restaurant with three Michelin stars to learn the finer points — and ultimately, the purpose — of hospitality. By the end of Episode 7, Richie is reading Will Guidara’s book on service and well on his way to becoming a proper general manager. He even wears suits now! By Episode 8, Carmy is a little more focused, working out his family shit through a dessert inspired by that fateful Christmas dinner, and the space is finally coming together, even though Neil Fak (Matty Matheson) gets electrocuted several times as he finishes wiring up the building.
As opening day approaches, the frenetic and stressful energy of the first season reemerges. But because Carmy and Sydney have figured it out before, we’re much more confident it’s going to work out this time.
What is less certain is whether or not Carmy has found happiness. He seems content on the surface, especially in the moments he steals away from the restaurant with Claire, but that storyline just doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And besides, we already know that Carmy’s real love is this restaurant, even if it does torture him. On some level, Claire’s sporadic appearances prove that even Carmy knows that to be true.
By the time the finale rolls around, everything is clicking. Sydney is running the kitchen like a boss, the restaurant is (mostly) operating as smoothly as any newly opened restaurant could be, and everyone loves the food. At this point, it’s apparent that Carmy is still, emotionally, a wreck. His complicated relationship with his mother, his anxiety, and his own fear of failure are as omnipresent as ever. That uncertainty makes way for a Season 3 that should be able to authentically keep up its breakneck pace — assuming Carmy can get out of his own way.
Across these 10 episodes, The Bear grew up, and really grew into itself. To make a restaurant comparison, this series is like that great new neighborhood spot where the food, the vibe — everything — is firing on all cylinders. Maybe things fall into place just a little too quickly at times, but it’s as true as it can be to restaurant life without being bogged down in all the boring details. It also maintains that fluency without being overly precious about chefs and the hard work that goes into running a restaurant. What is most impressive, though, is that it manages to do all that as it navigates some fucking heavy — and universally human — emotions.
All 10 episodes of The Bear’s second season are now streaming on Hulu.