For a drama about cooks and folks who love food, there were fewer shots of beautiful meals than you might expect. The cinematography was creative and artful, but the camera stuck mostly to the grubby kitchen of the Original Beef of Chicagoland, an Italian sandwich joint whose owner, the erratic but charming Mikey Berzatto (Jon Bernthal), had died by suicide. The first season followed Mikey’s younger brother Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), who left his job at a Michelin-starred restaurant to save the family business only to find it mired in debt, shady side hustles and health violations.
The show mined the Beef’s cramped kitchen from every frenzied, unflattering angle. Each food order in “The Bear” was an emergency. The work was backbreaking, sweaty and thankless. At a certain point in the astonishing 18-minute tracking shot in “Review” — the penultimate episode of the first season that happens in real time — nerves are so frayed that an accidental stabbing comes almost as a relief.
The show’s second season, all 10 episodes of which drop Thursday, builds in surprising ways on an audacious gamble. Having finally united the resentful old-timers on staff with the hoity-toity newbies over their shared mission to save the restaurant, the show zags where you expect it to zig: Carmy shuts the place down instead. He wants to create something better with Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), a brilliant trained chef like himself, and the rest of the crew at the Beef. The restaurant they spend the new season building is (you guessed it) the Bear.
The show’s title has long operated as a roving metaphor for things you love that hurt you. In the first season, the bear’s freighted symbolism was tethered to Carmy. It sometimes seems to stand for his brother Mikey. If it also stands for the ambition that drove Carmy to the top of his field and away from his family, it stands for the family, too (the Berzatto kids affectionately call each other “bear”). The bear stands for anxiety. For a too-rigid sense of vocation. And — as the show expands to center characters other than Carmy — for the restaurant industry as a whole.
The new season opens with Marcus (Lionel Boyce) caring for his sick mother in a dimly lit room. He applies lotion to her hands, does what he can to make her comfortable and, before driving away, scrapes the ice off his windshield. These scenes are quiet, grounded and notably unvexed by sticky or evocative metaphors. As beginnings go, in other words, they couldn’t more perfectly oppose the first season’s opening gambit, a surreal but rather didactic dream in which Carmy frees a snarling bear from a cage on the bridge where Mikey killed himself. The former models a less self-annihilating concept of service and a less tormented approach to grief.
‘The Bear’ subverts tropes and brings a restaurant kitchen to life
While the show rarely addresses the gentrifying overtones of turning the Beef into the Bear (could any of the Beef’s regulars dine at the new spot?), it works hard to suggest that everyone’s stock is rising. Marcus, who once worked at McDonald’s and spent the first season obsessively refining his recipe for the perfect doughnut, is now in charge of creating three cutting-edge desserts for a restaurant whose goal is a Michelin star. Sydney, who started out staging at the Beef after imploding as a caterer, became Carmy’s sous-chef last season and is now his partner in the business. She in turn promotes Tina (the fantastic Liza Colón-Zayas), a line cook with no experience in fine dining, to sous-chef.
Carmy and Syd are still learning to lead, and if their mistakes last season stemmed from a desire to break the culinary cycle of abuse and helm a kitchen free of the ugly patterns they both came up in, their choices this season prioritize promoting from within. In lieu of hiring pros, they invest heavily in the Beef’s old crew, paying for some to go to culinary school and arranging for others to stage at top-tier restaurants.
The new season doesn’t just give up its distinctive old setting, in other words; it also functionally atomizes the team it spent so much time building. Several episodes are structured around a single character’s quest to become a worthy and meaningful contributor to the new restaurant by apprenticing elsewhere.
Marcus’s episode, which has the pastry chef training in Copenhagen under an expert played by Will Poulter, feels like a short story. So does “Cousin” Richie’s. Syd’s episode, which she spends touring some of Chicago’s best (real) restaurants, proves that the show has changed in at least one respect: It no longer resists the temptation to film beautiful food beautifully.
While all this is happening, Carmy — tangling with permits and inspections and mold — is seeing whether there’s room in his life for love (and room in his oven for anything besides the denim he stores there). And Natalie (Abby Elliott), the Berzatto sister who spent much of the first season grousing, finds a way into the business that turns her longtime function as the family’s anxious, vigilant “fixer” into a strength rather than a pathology.
The single-character storylines make it all the more rewarding when the ensemble reunites. The standout episode of the season is undoubtedly “Fishes,” about which I can’t say much except that it equals and arguably exceeds “Review” in its intensity.
The first season of “The Bear” was a dissertation of sorts on stress and why people might choose it. It was a great high-low premise, this setup with two brothers as warring cooks: one elite, one blue-collar, both compulsively chasing the adrenaline that kitchens provide. Sometimes the series felt like a story about debt; Mikey left the restaurant $300,000 in the hole to Uncle Cicero (an amiably menacing Oliver Platt). Carmy spent much of that first season trying to understand his brother’s chaotic bookkeeping — a mission that (in one of the show’s weaker twists) ends when he finds roughly that amount stashed in cans of tomato sauce Mikey left for him to find. The show was sometimes about class, too, and whose standards count — the regulars’ or the newcomers’.
It isn’t about that anymore. Not really.
But the show was and remains a very particular kind of tale, in the mold of the archetypal short story writer O. Henry. Not about gentrification, exactly, but about how the struggle to belong can backfire. Carmy longed to work with his big brother. Mikey, whose troubles eventually drove him to suicide, wouldn’t let him. Misunderstanding why Mikey kept him away, Carmy, eager to prove himself, overshot the mark: He went to culinary school, got hired by a brilliant but abusive chef, and earned the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star award. His success is also his failure; he outgrew the world he’d hoped to join as his brother’s equal.
Given this context, Carmy’s anhedonic attraction to kitchens makes sense. The unrelenting pressure “The Bear” so vividly portrays causes breakdowns and fights, certainly. It brings out the absolute worst in people. It can also, however, drive truces that blossom into acceptance from people who have seen you truly hit bottom. “The Bear” makes a good case for why troubled people might seek out harsh and even abusive environments where they can function in order to heal from the ones in which they can’t.
If the show has very plausibly presented Carmy’s professional success as an artifact of his trauma and isolation, it has also, to its credit, gently released his stranglehold on the story to make space for quieter players such as Marcus, Tina and Syd. (And noisier ones, such as Richie.) “The Bear” nails how constant crisis can at least briefly dull grief and, when experienced jointly, forge an ungainly but lasting sense of community. It knows how to sell that story. But it also — as it proved by demolishing the kitchen that made it distinctive the second it started to feel like a crutch — knows when to let that story go.
The Bear (Season 2, 10 episodes) is now streaming on Hulu.