"The Bear" hides crusts of meaning and trauma in an episode about the Feast of the Seven Fishes

In a flashback that informs its hero's drive and darkness, the show puts celebrity cameos to meaningful use

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 29, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

The Bear (Chuck Hodes/FX)
The Bear (Chuck Hodes/FX)

The following contains spoilers from Season 2 of "The Bear" from Episode 6 "Fishes" through the finale.

Tradition is prime among the many wonderful, terrible traits that make us human, with no example externalizing this quite so well as the holiday meal. Our gatherings of family and friends are freighted with reverence and meaning, defying any attempts at alteration regardless of whether a clan's defining actions serve us anymore, or if they ever make sense.

This is the first point made by "Fishes," the sixth Season 2 episode of "The Bear." In a flashback to a Christmas five years past, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) nervously heads into another chaotic kitchen, the one ruled by his mother Donna (Jamie Lee Curtis). 

She's frantically prepping the family's version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an arduous undertaking she takes upon herself despite the rest of the family begging her not to do it. She asks for help and then moans that nobody is helping her. Alarms ding every couple of minutes, accentuating the insanity of Donna's frenetic tarantella between her wine glass, a blazing stove, and a countertop stacked with pots and pans in use or used up. 

The BearJeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)

Splattered marinara covers everything — the screeching kitchen timers, walls and appliances. It dots the ceiling, as if an artery were opened by force, creating a crime scene of heat and havoc. When Carmy asks why she's made a gigantic stock pot of red gravy on top of juggling the sea's bounty Donna hisses at him, "Because nobody eats this s**t!"

Donna is angry, chain-smoking and getting drunker by the moment. Nothing can placate her. But even if she weren't working herself into a rage, Carmy would still have to contend with belittling snipes disguised as affection from his brother Michael (Jon Bernthal), and calm his sister Natalie (Abby Elliott) and her raw nerves. 

Hence we're presented the second tectonic moral of the "Fishes" story: Nothing scars more deeply than a traumatizing holiday dinner. 

The family caretaker often serves the head chef of such celebrations, working themselves to exhaustion with little left to show for it. Appropriately, Carmy, Nat and Michael's mother is played by the queen of horror movies, suitable casting for a woman who looms large in their lives. 

Our first whisper about Donna comes in the fifth episode of the first season, "Sheridan," when Carmy's line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) tells him that Mike brought her to Christmas one year. Carmy asks if his mom was psycho as he nervously drums a spoon between his thumb and forefinger.

"She wasn't calm," Tina replies diplomatically, "but the food was great."

The BearJeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto, Abby Elliot as Natalie "Sugar" Berzatto and Jon Bernthal as Michael Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)

Donna's dark mood is as much a part of the Berzattos' holiday tradition as the fishes, and like the feast nobody can explain where it comes from nor know what will set it off. Other than Natalie reflexively asking if her mom's OK, which she can't help doing. Donna responds by shattering a dish, fleeing the room and returning to the scene by driving her car through the living room wall. Later Carmy confesses that ruined cannoli for him.

Nothing scars more deeply than a traumatizing holiday dinner. 

"The Bear" deserves all the hype poured over it for the usual reasons – its atmospheric directing, writing, awareness of place, and performances collaborate to grant its consumption a sense of urgency and necessity. 

On top of this, these new episodes capture the philosophical and ethereal essence of the story at every turn, blending practicality with what one might refer to as the romance of culinary pursuits. It treats each episode as a chance to evoke the sensory singularity of food, for better or worse.

And as second season progresses, its multicourse presentation of visual symbolism grows more sublime. Sitting with it for longer than one binge unearths the many meaningful cues coursing through the story's soul.

As Carmy and his head chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) rise to the challenge of transforming what used to be the Berzatto family's money pit of a sandwich joint into an upscale bistro gunning for a Michelin star, they push everyone else on the staff to advance their skills as well. 

Each crew member embarks on an intentional improvement quest shepherded by instructors who are precise and demanding without being abusive. This is part of Carmy and Sydney's respective fresh starts. Both had hard-driving, soul-crushing psychopaths for bosses and aren't keen to inflict that mistreatment on their people. Instead, Carmy opts to shape those around him into extensions of his talent and strengths while he takes a stab at starting up a relationship with Claire (Molly Gordon), a girl he grew up with.

The BearJeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)

Regardless of his best efforts, certain parts of the plan fail, including the building itself.  What begins as a remodel uncovers mold, termites, and dead vermin in the walls. Cleaning up the surface isn't enough. Unless the rot lurking underneath is dealt with and replaced with all new material, they can't move forward. This is true of the building and the man who inherited its problems.

"Fishes" is a somatic pairing with "Review," the acclaimed real-time one-shot episode near the end of Season 1. "Review" captures the 20 minutes where all the order Carmy sought to impose on The Beef disintegrates, bringing out the worst in him – and "Cousin" Richie, Michael's best friend (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and everyone else. 

That episode's brevity allows director Joanna Calo and series creator Christopher Storer to place the viewer inside its crisis so we can feel the anger and frustration building in that claustrophobic space.

"Fishes," co-written by Calo and Storer and directed by him, takes us to a similar place, body and soul. But its hour and six minutes are equally as disciplined, trapping us in the Berzattos' brand of family dysfunction beside Carmy and refusing to release us before our nerves are as fried as his.

It all starts with Curtis' scarlet-clawed mother bear, who is brash and histrionic, responding to soothing flattery from her generational peers like Uncle Jimmy (Oliver Platt) while ripping into her daughter for daring to ask if she's OK. When she draws on her cigarette through tensely pressed lips you feel sorry for the cancer stick, wondering who is killing who.

Not content to merely employ "Fishes" as a psychological assault, Calo and Storer impress the allegorical significance of this Christmas dinner through its guest star casting. Before Curtis appears we see Bob Odenkirk as Uncle Lee, referenced in the season premiere. (He's the Lee Layne of KBL, an acronym recurring through Michael's shoddy bookkeeping.) Odenkirk is also a Chicago-area native, lending an extra sprinkling of regional specificity to the story. Only Bill Murray could match the perfection of that choice, but he's already been namechecked in a previous story of a celebrity run-in.

"Fishes" traps us in the Berzattos' brand of family dysfunction beside Carmy and refuses to release us before our nerves are as fried as his. 

The meta parade continues with Sarah Paulson – Emmy winner and FX royalty – as Michelle, the cousin who's doing better than Carmy, Nat and Michael. Her boyfriend Stevie (John Mulaney) is clever and erudite and has been around long enough to navigate the family's explosions. Gillian Jacobs plays Tiffany, who is still married to Richie in the flashback and is also pregnant. 

The first season's sleeper success makes "The Bear" an easy yes for any of these guest stars, but their familiarity also illustrates Carmy's nagging sense of inadequacy. Natalie's too; she's tortured by her mother's verbal digs, including one that explains the pitiless origin of her nickname, Sugar.

The BearAbby Elliot as Natalie "Sugar" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)

This nod at fame's hierarchy begins when we first glimpse Bernthal in the series. White's years of starring in "Shameless" lends him recognizability, but perhaps not on the level of Bernthal, who starred in "The Walking Dead" and headlined "The Punisher" among other roles. 

Placing Bernthal at the end of the table where a string of greats are seated in places of honor tells us how this family views Michael, Carmy's hero. Michael can't help but regress to hurling forks at Uncle Lee until the older man screams, "You're nothing!" at him on repeat. Storer draws out this moment into an eternity, steeping the viewer in Carmy's horror and discomfort. If this respected elder declares his brother is nothing, where does that leave him?

"Fishes" captures the sensory power of this holiday meal in all its disarray, tension, momentary joy and lasting pain. It's a vision of Michael and Richie in better days that weren't so great after all; Michael is living at home, it turns out, and reduced to throwing forks at Uncle Lee to goad him into a fight . . . for no good reason. 

The BearJon Bernthal as Michael Berzatto in "The Bear" (Chuck Hodes/FX)

But Carmy may be the only family member who can appreciate what Donna sees as her plight in life, which he explains to Richie and his Alcoholics Anonyous support group when he admits that there's nothing fun about his drive to succeed. "I make things beautiful for them," she whispers to her youngest at that terrible Christmas dinner, "and no one makes things beautiful for me."

Stevie tries to lighten the mood with a rambling speech (that proves Mulaney's ability to carry a naturalistic monologue) where he offers his interpretation of the Feast of the Seven Fishes since nobody can agree on its origin story, which is true of the actual tradition. Steve posits that the point of the feast is to take extra time with loved ones. "And we have to chew more, and we have to listen more. And we only get to do this tonight, one time," he says.

Minutes later, Michael cements that evening in Carmy's memory by hurling another fork that ends up in a pyramid of cannoli instead of Uncle Lee's head, almost bringing them to blows – a fight interrupted by Donna's auto accident.

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At the end of the season Carmy, Sydney and Marcus reclaim the cannoli with a savory creation Marcus christens The Michael. It's part of an opening night menu that's both nostalgic and future-gazing, bold and healing. But Carmy can't resist the Berzatto tradition of ruining gorgeous celebrations and ends up locking himself in the walk-in refrigerator because he failed to secure an easy repair. 

He bangs away at a door that won't let him out, cursing maniacally as the people he prepared to navigate disorder do precisely that, ignoring him while successfully executing his vision entirely from a place of love. 

His chosen family redeems Carmy, enabling him to triumph professionally where Michael couldn't. And unlike their boss, his crew refuses to allow the howling demon at the heart of their kitchen to ruin a meal to remember.

All episodes of "The Bear" are streaming on FX on Hulu.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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