Review: In Season 3, ‘The Bear’ Is a Mess

The below contains plot details from Seasons 1, 2, and 3 of The Bear.

When we last saw Carmy, Cousin Richie, Natalie, and the rest of the gang at the Bear, the titular Chicago restaurant at the center of Hulu’s most-streamed new show of 2023, things were not going well. Chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) was locked in the walk-in cooler he fled to during an anxiety attack; his sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) was left to keep the kitchen running. In the opening moments of Season 3, though, all of the chaos and discord of the show’s first two seasons is gone, replaced by a lengthy montage of surprisingly mellow flashbacks that gently lull you back into The Bear’s distinctly hectic universe.

We first encounter Carmy long before the Bear (the restaurant) is ever a twinkle in his eye, as he heads off to stage at top restaurants in New York and beyond, including stints at Daniel Boulud’s Daniel and Noma in Copenhagen, both of which make cameos. He snips tiny flowers with Luca (Will Poulter), the “hot pastry chef” who inspired a million thirsty tweets in Season 2, and cooks alongside chef Andrea Terry (Olivia Colman) as he develops his culinary skills. Other flashbacks, like memories of David (Joel McHale), the asshole chef who viciously criticized Carmy and his dishes, are equally instructive, offering insight into why Carmy found himself hyperventilating inside that walk-in.

Until now, we’ve mostly seen Carmy’s personal and professional traumas in brief — short glimpses of his interactions with David or his mother’s Christmas Day rage — but those scars really come into focus in Season 3. For the first time, the show provides a full picture of exactly how Carmy became such a wounded perfectionist. His experiences are deeply woven into both his menu and his extensive list of “non-negotiables,” an increasingly neurotic set of rules that he believes will help the restaurant earn a Michelin star. Carmy is so focused on excellence, in fact, that he decides to quit smoking — not for his health, but because “he doesn’t want to waste the five minutes” to go outside and burn one.

By the end of Episode 2, the viewer is fully thrust into the loud, confrontational world of the Berzattos. Cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Carmy are at odds, general manager Natalie (Abby Elliott) is stressed about finding new staff, and Neil Fak (Matty Matheson) is dispatched to fix a very annoying blinking light in the kitchen. Everyone’s yelling at each other, and it really starts to feel like The Bear again. The restaurant is like any other fledgling eatery — struggling to figure it out as the kitchen staff handles Carmy’s incessant menu changes and the high level of service both he and Richie, who’s in charge of the front of house, demand. They’ve also reopened “the beef window,” where Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) slings juicy Italian beef sandwiches to a demanding crowd of neighborhood locals.

Predictably, the kitchen staff are struggling. Pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is grieving the loss of his mother in the days after the Bear opens. Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) is having trouble keeping up with the pace on the grill station, despite Sydney’s gentle teaching. And Sydney? She, too, is starting to crack under the weight of always being the most rational, level-headed person in the room. She and Carmy are not connecting in the ways they have before. Instead of a romance, creator Christopher Storer has served up a friendship and a professional relationship on the brink.

For this viewer, that’s a decidedly preferable outcome to all the insinuations that these two were going to end up in some tortured love affair. It’s fun to speculate about Sydney and Carmy having hot sex in the kitchen, sure, but that storyline would’ve done a disservice to the essential role that Sydney has played in the development of this restaurant. She is the calm in Carmy’s storm, and the series never fully reckons with her labor. Carmy offers her an ownership stake in the restaurant, which he views as recognition of her contributions, but he cannot give her that same recognition on a real, human level.

Also eternally complicated is Carmy and Richie’s relationship. Even though Richie is playing the part of a healed man — he tells Carmy that he “needs to integrate” and regularly uses therapy-speak to criticize Carmy’s emotional volatility — you can still see his angst simmering beneath the surface. Sometimes that angst boils over into screaming and shoving matches with Carmy in the kitchen, and it’s almost a relief to see him release a little steam.

Carmy, on the other hand, has not figured out how to handle the increased pressure, even though he’s regularly attending 12-step meetings. He’s still having consistent flashbacks of all of his traumas, he’s pounding nicotine gum, and obsessively iterating on the menu. He’s losing his mind over tiny differences in nearly identical stoneware bowls, and spending money like there’s no tomorrow. He can’t stop thinking about his ex, Claire (Molly Gordon), yet can’t muster up the courage to apologize to her. At any moment, it feels as if Carmy is one tiny inconvenience away from ending up back in the walk-in.

The restaurant does, improbably, seem to be clicking. The early buzz is positive, and it’s busy every night. Its early success hides the dysfunction that’s roiling underneath the surface, perhaps a bit too well. Between the interpersonal upheaval, the financial uncertainty, and the impending birth of Natalie’s child, which comes at a decidedly inconvenient time, it always feels like the Bear is hurtling toward disaster. The series is, if nothing else, deeply committed to the brinkmanship inherent to the restaurant industry.

Jeremy Allen White wears a white chef’s coat while standing next to Ebon Moss-Bachrach in The Bear

Carmy and Richie in a rare moment of tentative peace
FX

Perhaps as a response to some allegations of awards season “campaign fraud” in The Bear’s classification as a comedy instead of a drama, Storer and the show’s writers really lean into its comedic potential in Season 3. There are vicious arguments, sure, but there are also some genuinely funny spats, including a hilariously frustrated Edebiri wrestling a mountain of cardboard boxes while standing inside a giant dumpster. There is certainly more emotional balance than in the two preceding seasons, and the light moments are always a welcome reprieve from the lingering heaviness.

The series also, finally, gives its incredible supporting cast an opportunity to shine. Episode 6, titled “Napkins” and directed by Edebiri, focuses on Tina and her journey to the Bear, something we’ve all been dying to know more about since her first moments on screen. We see her start to come into her own as a chef, workshopping dishes and perfecting her technique. After watching Marcus fall in love with pastry in Season 2, we see him use his tragedy as inspiration to create beautiful desserts. It is also delightful to watch Matheson as the hapless Neil Fak, spilling water on tables and pretending like he isn’t perfectly competent at restaurant work. In general, the entire Fak family, including Neil’s brother Ted (Ricky Staffieri) and a few other relatives that pop up in hilarious cameos, is a charming foil to the acerbic Berzattos.

The Bear really returns to its roots as a show about family dysfunction in “Ice Chips,” when Natalie is forced to call her chaotic mother Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis) for support as she prepares to give birth to her child. It is 30-plus minutes of pure, breakneck stress, propelled by Curtis’s anxious energy and the innate chaos of childbirth, that exemplifies the Berzatto family way. They love each other, and there are real moments of tenderness and honesty, but this is a family that can rarely resist an opportunity to twist the emotional knife. Maybe we keep coming back to The Bear because we relate to that dynamic in our own families, trauma be damned. Curtis and Elliott are exceptional in these scenes, which are some of the season’s most emotionally evocative.

There is occasionally a sense, though, that The Bear is trying to do a bit too much all at once. Sometimes, the constellation of heavy themes that it explores — mental health, family trauma, how food systems work, economic uncertainty, ageism, toxic chef culture — collapses in on itself, and scenes are muddled. The Bear is at its best when its actors are unrestrained by so many intersecting plot points and can pour their vast emotional depth into the moment. Even seemingly minor Season 3 moments, like when Carmy’s late brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) first meets Tina, punch well above their weight.

The Bear also doesn’t seem to know what to do with Claire and Carmy’s relationship, and 10 episodes of will-they-or-won’t-they is a bit much. Not even a last-ditch intervention from the brothers Fak is enough to untangle that writhing ball of emotions, and the show doesn’t put much effort into trying. That could probably be said for every interpersonal relationship on this show — we’ve seen exactly why they’re a mess; the path forward, though, is much less clear. Maybe that’s intentional, a reflection of Carmy’s uncertainty about whether or not he can actually achieve the perfection he seeks, but the show leaves too many threads hanging in the air for it to feel cohesive.

Knowing that The Bear’s fourth — and apparently final — season has already been shot, it is not surprising that so many of the show’s central conflicts linger. So much of Season 3, though, feels like a distraction from what we actually want to see. We want to see Carmy and Sydney figure it out, we want to see Marcus grow as a pastry chef, and for Tina to finally get her due. At the very least, we do get a satisfying confrontation between Carmy and David the asshole chef, one of only a few moments of heartfelt closure in the entire series so far.

Adding to the distraction away from the show’s emotional core is its insistence on fawning over restaurants and the chefs behind them. Even though The Bear’s commitment to authenticity and incredible care shown to restaurant culture is a huge factor in its success, this season is also overly reliant on deep culinary reverence. The camera is, as ever, preoccupied with the minutiae of restaurant operations — cleaning gunk from kitchen equipment grooves with a wooden skewer, trussing a chicken with Thomas Keller, trips to Restaurant Depot — but in a way that, for the first time in the show’s run, can be exhausting. So much time is dedicated to long, sweeping shots of beautifully plated dishes that it can feel like you accidentally flipped over to an episode of Chef’s Table. That feels especially torturous when you’re still dying to know how Carmy and the rest of the crew fared on the first night of service, and later in the season, as you wait to see how it all shakes out.

The deference to chef culture feels especially unnecessary in the finale, “Forever,” which centers on a funeral of sorts for the real-life Chicago restaurant Ever. A glut of cameos from top-tier chefs certainly lends credibility, but by the time the finale arrives, it’s fine dining propaganda overkill.

The cast’s fiery chemistry does propel the show past some of its sloggier moments, but there are many wasted opportunities to learn more about Tina, and Marcus, and Ebraheim, not to mention the unnamed dishwashers and porters and servers who make the Bear possible, many of whom never even utter a line. Not nearly enough time is devoted to how Sydney is coping as the madness swirls around her. Ultimately, in Season 3, The Bear — the show, and the restaurant — is a little unmoored. Carmy still hasn’t figured out much of anything. Sydney’s literally hyperventilating at the thought of what to do next. And who knows how mixed critical reviews might impact Uncle Cicero’s willingness to keep funding the dream.

The season begins and ends at a crucial moment for this group. The restaurant’s future is as questionable as ever, which leaves a great deal of room for opportunity as we await Season 4. Here’s hoping that Storer kept in mind the incredibly salient advice that Chef Terry gives to the chefs assembled in the season finale. “People don’t remember the food,” she says to a murderer’s row of culinary luminaries as they mourn the fictional closure of Ever. “It’s the people they remember.”

Watch season 3 of The Bear on Hulu now.

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