If the second episode of The Bear wants to remind viewers of anything, it’s that appearances can be deceiving. Sure, the Original Beef might be getting its food, staff, and overall shit together but — bam! — in comes a very thorough health inspector who digs up some oil-soaked rags stuffed into an unsealed vent (very cool, by the way) and a pack of cigs near the stove. The eatery is slapped with the dreaded C health rating.
On the flip side, Carmy’s past swanky-food life may look cushy, as he served up $700 dinners plated with tweezers in a kitchen so gleamingly clean it looks like the face of the sun, but his boss — played by a ruthlessly shitty Joel McHale in a choice cameo spot — was a walking nightmare. He was just a bad dude in the kitchen — actively abusive, even telling Carmy that he should be dead. McHale’s white-coated demon is the human equivalent of battery acid. He’s good at what he does, it seems, but he’s absolutely dead set on breaking down every single thing that dares get near him.
Still, back in Chicago, Carmy does seem to hold a sense of pride about where he’s worked, dropping names like the French Laundry and Noma. (Thomas Keller, per all reports, is in real life not nearly as much of an asshole as McHale’s character.) It’s unclear whether that’s because he’s proud of what he achieved food-wise or just that he actually survived it. It’s clear that much of his family seemed dead set on helping Carmy make something of himself — Mikey wouldn’t let him work at the restaurant, after all — so I’m wondering if Carmy’s success is an unholy marriage of his love for food and his fear of letting anyone down.
Inside the Original Beef, it certainly seems like he’s worried about the latter. His brother left him up to his eyes in debt, including fun “break your knees” mob debt we get to hear about from the amazing Oliver Platt. Sydney has a very professional-looking business plan that could help turn things around a little if anyone will listen to her, but first Carmy has to admit that he’s in over his head.
It does seem like things could be going that way at the end of “Hands,” when a few tantalizing bits of optimism slip into view. First, after Richie is tasked with fixing the hole he clearly fucked up patching a few years ago, he’s sent off to the hardware store with Sydney because he, like a number of other people who work at the restaurant, can’t actually drive. (You really don’t need to in Chicago, though it also rings true with both Richie’s character and what I know about some hospitality lifers that maybe his suspended license could have come after one too many DUIs.) Things go poorly at first, but ultimately they do seem to have at least a begrudging sense of mutual respect, though Sydney still shouldn’t go placing any big bets on his kindness any time soon.
We also see Carmy making amends with his sister’s boyfriend-slash-husband, played by a very fun Chris Witaske. Their “guys who don’t like to talk on the phone” shtick is charming, and when Sugar actually gets on, we learn that she and her partner have been going to Al-Anon and are encouraging Carmy to do the same. She makes a valid point that chefs always say part of their job is about taking care of other people, but when do they make time to take care of themselves? (This is a very real issue, by the way. Chefs are notoriously hardworking and burnout is fast, high, and often drug- and alcohol-related.) Given that Al-Anon is the organization for people who were affected by the alcohol abuse of those around them, that gives us yet another layer of the onion to unpeel. Was this something the pair saw growing up? Are they going because of their brother, who we learn from this episode “shot himself in the head four months ago?” Or are all these pieces of a much larger tavern-style pie? We’ve got six more episodes to find out.
We end the episode with both the reassurance that Sydney is sticking around, since Carmy’s apparently committed to doing what it takes to get her paid, and the realization that it was him, not Richie, who left the pack of smokes near the open flame. Whether he’ll ever own up to this is anyone’s guess, but it could act as a nice reminder that even as he’s being held back by outside forces, he can occasionally screw up all by himself.
“Hands” isn’t as frenetic and electric as the show’s pilot, but in a way that’s good. It would be hard to keep up that energy for the whole series, especially as the restaurant does seem to at least be on some long and winding path toward maybe, maybe, maybe getting its shit back together. There’s a suggestion of some sort of chicken piccata dish, and the Italian beef still looks fucking delicious in those close-up shots. If Carmy and Richie can somehow get their aviator-glassed uncle Cicero off their backs while simultaneously getting a better health grade, revamping their kitchen, and convincing people to come to an entirely average-looking Italian Beef stand somewhere in the grittier part of Chicago’s River North, hey, maybe these crazy kids will have a fighting chance at success.
• The fact that Richie has a 5-year-old daughter is very sweet, and that phone call went a long way toward humanizing his character. While we’re obviously annoyed that he found that note from Mikey to Carmy stuck behind the lockers and did nothing about it, we also get it. Mikey was his best friend, and where’s his note? It’s not like Richie burned it or something. He just put it back. He knows it’s there, and hopefully Carmy will figure it out himself someday.
• I loved Sydney’s description of the Original Beef as a place where the food is shitty, everyone acts shitty, and everything just feels shitty. We’ve all been to those places, whether we like it or not, and frankly, sometimes they’re even more memorable than places that are actually perfectly nice.
• Much respect to Richie for his love of Arby’s, even though there are barely any in Chicago, save a couple of weird spots in the Loop where I doubt he’s going. Arby’s is the perfect working-class fast-food restaurant, and it gets far more hate than it deserves. This is the hill I will die on. Come at me, haters.