Warning: this post contains spoilers from Season 2 of The Bear.
It’s one of life’s cruelest ironies that the people we love the most are also the ones most likely to see us at our very worst. Maybe it’s a comfort thing; we put on airs for strangers and minor acquaintances, try to keep things polite and sterile in front of folks who might get the wrong idea about us, but we feel like we can let it rip in front of the real ones, our inner circle. We get snippy, we cry, we bicker, we scream — whatever it may be, we allow these people to see the worst versions of ourselves because we know they won’t get spooked and leave. Their love is unconditional — at least we pray that it is — and so we feel safe pointing out how loudly they’re chewing or yelling at them to please get the fuck out of our way in the kitchen while we’re trying to cook.
Of course, most of us have probably never driven a car into the house on Christmas, as Carmy’s alcoholic mother Donna (played brilliantly by Jamie Lee Curtis, who will wind up with an Outstanding Guest Actress Emmy for this if there’s any justice in the world) does during the climax of “Fishes,” the sixth episode of The Bear‘s excellent second season. Sometimes love means cutting out people who are being toxic and abusive or inserting a little space between ourselves and someone because we can’t bear to watch them slowly destroy themselves.
It’s a stunning episode — one of the best hours of television in recent memory, rivaled only perhaps by Succession‘s “Connor’s Wedding” — and part of what makes it so impressive is the way it expertly toes this line. We see Donna for the unbearable, deeply damaging person she is and understand why Carmy hasn’t spoken to her in the five years since the flashback episode’s action, but it also makes her home seem like an inviting, familiar place. Set during the Berzatto family’s traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes holiday meal, “Fishes” features a murderer’s row of talented guest stars. In addition to Curtis as Donna, Jon Bernthal turns up again as a still-alive-but-on-a-downward-spiral Mikey; Bob Odenkirk comes to butt heads with him as Uncle Lee, the well-intentioned relative who is nonetheless sick of his nephew’s shit; Gillian Jacobs stars as Tiffany, Richie’s pregnant and very nauseous then-wife (who has since divorced him in the show’s regular timeline); and Sarah Paulson and John Mulaney appear as Michelle, another Berzatto cousin in from New York, and her husband Stevie, who delivers a surprisingly moving Tiny Tim-style speech about the importance of family towards the end of the episode in an attempt to keep the peace.
“Fishes” comes roughly halfway through the 10-episode season, and it makes for a phenomenal centerpiece. It clocks in at a little over an hour, making it more than twice as long as most of the show’s other episodes, and it was shot on film, giving it a warm look that almost instantly reads as “family Christmas.” It’s an outlier for The Bear in both feel and structure, though in some ways it calls to mind Season 1’s “Review,” the kitchen nightmare episode that was filmed in one continuous, chaotic 20-minute take. There are plenty of cuts in “Fishes,” of course — and even some quiet moments, like the tender ones between Richie and a sick Tiffany as he checks on her upstairs — but much of the episode is stressful in a way we’ve grown accustomed to on The Bear. There’s too much food to prepare and not enough time to do it, and the Berzatto family kitchen is packed with too many people shouting and setting timers and generally making a mess of things while Donna grows drunker and increasingly unhinged.
In one hour, it accomplishes so much, revealing more about why Carmy is the way he is in the present day. Hopefully, most of us grew up with less, er, complicated mothers and not quite as much generational trauma as Carmy has, but part of what makes “Fishes” so impressive is the way it feels so relatable. We haven’t all necessarily experienced cars being crashed into dining rooms or forks being thrown at dinner guests by drugged-out siblings, but who among us hasn’t been to a chaotic family gathering where everyone’s running around and talking over each other and someone’s overwhelmed in the kitchen? Who can sit and watch Mulaney as Stevie somewhat-condescendingly making conversation about baseball cards with the Fak brothers (“Do I have access to $500? Yes. I’m a 43-year-old man,” he smirks at one point) and not immediately think of the eccentric family friends of their own that they see once a year? Haven’t we all experienced that point in the night where everyone’s drunk on wine and nostalgia and the tears start flowing? And what family doesn’t have a lovable outsider like Pete, Natalie’s husband (presumably still just her boyfriend in this flashback), the well-meaning sweetheart who commits the cardinal sin of showing up to the feast with a tuna casserole, an “eighth fish” that is immediately tossed outside onto the porch before Donna can see it?
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The episode is full of tiny, significant details that both help to further establish the world of the show and reward repeat viewings. When Richie asks Uncle Jimmy for a job, we can hear Mikey in the other room telling a story, and if you’re able to tune out the primary dialogue between Richie and Jimmy and listen to Mikey’s muffled voice, you’ll hear that he’s retelling the same Bill Murray story we saw him tell in a Season 1 flashback scene. When Lee later calls him out for constantly recycling the same stories, he’s telling a different tale, but the subtle repeat of the Murray story indicates that this is, in fact, a habit for Mikey.
Elsewhere, the frozen banana story Jimmy tells Richie reminds him of his late father and resurfaces four episodes and five years later in the season finale, when Richie surprises him with one at The Bear’s opening night. And Jamie Lee Curtis is so engrossing as Donna, mid-meltdown in her kitchen, that you barely notice when she mistakenly calls Carmy “Michael,” until she firmly and pointedly calls him by his full name — Carmen Anthony Berzatto — just seconds later to prove to him and herself that she’s still capable of getting it right.(Curtis’s performance is all the more remarkable when you remember that in real life, she’s a recovering alcoholic herself who has been sober for 24 years now.) And after Stevie moves everyone with his touching grace, the camera moves off of him and we can just barely hear him mutter “I hope that helps a little” under his breath to Michelle.
Of course, that grace ultimately doesn’t help; instead, it makes Donna emotional, which in turn prompts Natalie to set her off by asking if she’s okay, which eventually leads to the whole car-through-wall thing. But it’s an incredibly touching moment nevertheless. We’ve seen Stevie spend most of the night being kind of smugly detached, so it hits even harder when he says, “I was thinking about what you said about bears and how they’re aggressive. They’re aggressive, but they’re kind. They’re sensitive. You guys have been so kind to me. You let me hang out with you every holiday. I don’t have a family like this. And I’m really grateful that you make space for me at this table and you make time for me on the holidays.”
It’s a reminder that in spite of all the toxicity and substance abuse, there is love in the Berzatto household. They’re warm and funny and welcoming, and they open up their home and their family to non-blood relatives like Richie and the Faks. That’s what makes this Christmas so tragic. The love is there, but they’ve just gotten a little too comfortable showing each other the ugliest versions of themselves.
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