The Bear’s second season is all about time. Signs in kitchens remind us that “every second counts.” There are foreboding close-ups on clock faces and their fast-changing digits. Kitchen timers in the Berzatto household go off like buzzing little bombs. Even the episodes themselves are structured countdown-style within the restaurant’s six-month timeline to re-open. Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and co. don’t have much time to re-introduce his brother’s beloved sandwich shop into their Michelin-star hopeful The Bear, so how they spend each moment matters. Not just in the kitchen, but in life outside of it too. And when you’re under this much pressure, the stakes are more dire than ever.
The season 2 finale, “The Bear,” opens with Friends and Family night at the titular restaurant. Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) is running expo duties with aplomb, Natalie a.k.a. “Sugar” (Abby Elliott) is seated at front of house, Fak’s (Matty Matheson) usually greasy hair is braided and gelled, and Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is shaking hands with guests, including Carmy’s new girlfriend Claire (Molly Gordon). He’s putting the skills he learned staging at the “best restaurant in the world” on display. When he offers Syd’s father a beverage, he already knows Mr. Adamu doesn’t drink alcohol, so he offers him a luxurious cart of pop instead. And by the end of dinner, he’ll serve a heartfelt surprise dessert for Uncle Jimmy: a chocolate-covered banana that reminds him of his childhood and his father.
But despite the restaurant’s facelift, this is The Bear after all, a show known for running our blood pressure on high. Like Carmy, we’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop. And so it does.
Things start slipping through the cracks: one of the new hires, Josh, has gone missing; Marcus (Lionel Boyce) has to help run tickets but slows down the whole process; there are no more clean forks. (By now, we’re just over six minutes in.) The orders are too slow, and they’re 12 bread baskets late. The toilet explodes on Natalie. Though Carmy personally serves Claire and her friend as a kind gesture, his head is echoing with negative thoughts and terrible self-criticisms. The steak Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) made isn’t to Sydney’s liking and she makes her start over. The seven fishes have gone cold and rendered unusable; Carmy starts freaking out.
But things truly reach a turning point when Sydney starts hearing a muffled “No, no, no, no! Fuck!” from across the kitchen: Carmy is stuck in the walk-in refrigerator.
He’s banging on the door begging to be let out, the other chefs are looking at Syd for some direction, and the order tickets are piling up. Syd is frozen in a panic—until Richie steps up to run expo. He only has five minutes on the clock to get them back on track. Guided by his new staging knowledge, a makeshift inspirational poster of Coach K, and a renewed sense of purpose, he’s surprisingly impressive. He pushes the team without being domineering and keeps a sense of urgency without losing his cool. (“I love you fucking guys, here we go!”) Carmy starts unraveling in the fridge, crumbling under his deep-seated fear of failure, but Richie and Syd are managing to run ship. They’ve come a long way from her accidentally stabbing him in the ass season 1.
Just when they seem to have things under control, Natalie and Carmy’s mother, Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis), is spotted outside.
Natalie’s husband Pete (Chris Witaske) clocks her in the window and invites her in, but she refuses, tormented by guilt and her own fears of ruining the night. She loves and is proud of her kids, but she doesn’t know how to apologize to them. It would be easier, she believes, if she didn’t step foot inside the restaurant. It’s painful to watch, knowing how badly Natalie wanted her to show up. “I don’t deserve to see how good this is,” Donna says. “I don’t want to hurt it,” she adds. Still, Pete insists that she come in because a) it’s cold outside and b) they have to get the dinners in before the baby. “Whose baby?” Donna responds. Pete’s jaw drops as he and the viewers realize in unison: Sugar didn’t tell her mom she’s pregnant. In the end, Pete’s sweet nature is no match for Donna’s stubbornness. She forces him say that it’s okay for her to leave—and she does so.
Behind the restaurant, Marcus goes looking for the missing Josh, only to find him literally smoking crack in the alley. “I think I gotta fire you…let me check,” the well-meaning pastry chef says. He tells Syd about his discovery, which eases up the tension between them that formed earlier in the day when he awkwardly asked her out and she even more awkwardly declined.
Meanwhile, Carmy, alone with his thoughts, starts pouring his heart out to Tina from the other side of the fridge door like he’s in confession. “I failed you guys,” he says. He thinks he did this to himself, that all the things that went wrong, from missing the fridge guy’s calls to approving the wrong artwork, are his own fault because he wasn’t around. He was too buys being in love. Being happy, if you could call it that, for once.
“I wasn’t here,” he vents. “What the fuck I was thinking, like I was going to be in a relationship? I’m a fucking psycho! That’s how I operate. I am the best because I didn’t have any of this fucking bullshit, right? I could focus and I could concentrate.”
Carmy comes to a dark conclusion: that he doesn’t need to provide nor receive any amusement or enjoyment. And he’s completely fine with that. “Because no amount of good is worth how terrible this feels.” It turns out, though, that Tina had left her post by the door and Claire snuck into the kitchen just in time to hear the end of Carmy’s soliloquy. And the part where he described their time together as a “complete waste of fucking time” was especially painful. She leaves crying and says goodbye to Richie.
Now Richie goes to the fridge door. He asks Carmy what he said to Claire, not just out of concern, but out of disappointment and mounting frustration as well. He mocks Carmy and calls him “Donna,” likening his behavior to his mother’s, which only makes matters worse. Still, as dense as he can be, Richie has a point as he calls out Carmy’s self-flaggellation. “I don’t understand why you can’t just let something good happen for once in your fucking life,” he says. They trade insults from other sides of the fridge door; Carmy calls him a loser and a leech on his family, while Richie asks where Carmy was when they buried his brother. They raise their voices and ping-pong “fuck you”s until Richie walks off.
In the fridge alone, Carmy checks his phone to find a sweet voicemail from Claire earlier in the day. She was working at the hospital when she got a sudden urge to call him and tell him that she used to have a big crush on him growing up. She adds that she’s proud of him, and that his brother Mikey would be too. To top it all off, she tells him “I love you” for the first time. Carmy breaks down realizing his grave mistake. Perhaps he realized that Richie was a little bit right too. We all know the concept of work-life balance is a joke; it’s never an even 50-50 split. But going to the extreme and neglecting yourself of amusement altogether? It’s not healthy, and it hurts the people around us too.
Elsewhere, other Bear staffers are dealing with their own families. Sydney’s vomit streak behind the dumpster is interrupted by her loving father praising the incredible meal he just had. This is “The Thing,” he says, finally accepting her line of work and understanding why she put all her passion and energy into this project. Marcus receives an “Every Second Counts” sign from his new pastry chef buddy, Luca, but he doesn’t realize that he’s missed several calls from his ill mother’s nurse. I shudder to think this means bad news for his bedridden mom, whom he has dutifully cared for between shifts.
And, finally, someone with a chainsaw cuts through the fridge door to let Carmy out. This is only night one.
Revamping and reopening the restaurant was one thing; keeping it open is another. With family and friends opening night in the books, The Bear’s journey is far from over. As Natalie made clear to Richie, if they fall behind, they’re done for. They only have one more week of fully booked reservations—what happens after that? How will they pay back Uncle Jimmy’s massive loan? As Sydney’s arc has taught us, even the most promising restaurants have closed. The Bear cannot be one of them.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.