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The Bear Season 3 Asks How To Be Less Fucked Up About Work

The season's slow plot shows how stuck its characters are

Folks are mixed on Season 3 of FX’s The Bear, which released in full last week. The most common criticism I’ve seen is that it’s too up its own ass, leaning into its hallmarks of characters sabotaging themselves and screaming at each other instead of foundational things like plot. I don’t disagree–it’s a slow season that often falls into using volume as a stand-in for action, and the copious use of flashbacks makes it feel even slower. But this season, maybe more than any other, shines a light on its characters’ complicated relationship to work. 

Spoilers for Season 3 of The Bear follow. 

In this season, The Bear, the restaurant the characters spent all last season building, is finally open for real. It doesn’t go great. Some of the problems are garden variety, namely that restaurants are very expensive to run and The Bear is losing money at a rapid clip. Other problems are problems main character Carmy creates himself. Besides the fallout of his Season 2 finale walk-in freakout that saw him ruin his relationship with girlfriend Claire and cousin Richie, we see him ruining The Bear’s chances at success by constantly changing the menu, berating his staff and business partners, and getting in everyone’s way by refusing to cede control. The big narrative question of Season 3 is an upcoming review in the Chicago Tribune, which will make or break The Bear in both the public eye and in terms of its continued financing. In the season finale, the review comes out, but we don’t find out what it says.

Through flashbacks–oh god, so many flashbacks–it’s implied that some of Carmy’s behavior stems from the toxic culture he experienced in previous restaurants, especially at the hand of David Fields, an old boss at a New York restaurant. In the Season 3 finale, Carmy confronts David at the closing party for another restaurant. It’s not the catharsis Carmy hopes for: David says that his treatment of Carmy did what it was intended to do, saying, “You were an okay chef when you started with me, and you left an excellent chef, so you’re welcome.”

David’s comments are horrifying, but Carmy seems to consider them. At the party, Carmy says of David that “I don’t think he sleeps. I don’t think he eats. I don’t think he loves.” It’s said with fury and disgust, but also a certain admiration. In one way, The Bear glamorizes toxic workplace cultures, fetishizing them through its hallmark screaming matches. And it struggles to show healthier cultures with nuance; there’s a bit of a golden glow around the show’s less toxic kitchens, and as much as I sobbed through Season 2’s episode “Forks,” Richie’s lasting transformation just because he spent a week someplace where people were nice to him stretches the bounds of credulity. But in another way, The Bear shows how hard it can be to know what healthy cultures look like, how to recognize your role in perpetuating negative systems, and the slow, non-linear process toward changing them.  

Season 3 also asks if or how the work done in a toxic system can be decoupled from it. Unlike Season 1, which was about saving a struggling restaurant, or Season 2, which was about building a new one, Season 3 feels mainly about the work itself and how the characters relate to it. This is highlighted by how little really happens in the season. There are few external events to move the plot along, just the day-to-day work of The Bear.

Carmy is fucking all that work up. He’s frantically spinning his wheels, working so hard and causing so much chaos in what must, externally, be a very short time. He’s burning through money by changing the menu, jeopardizing the restaurant’s future because he is so afraid of failure. Some of this behavior is blamed on his past, but he’s not just shown as a victim of his traumas. And while the show makes it obvious he’s behaving badly, it also doesn’t just come out and say that the whole enterprise is worthless because of that. Mysterious review aside, the food seems to be good. The staff’s peers seem to admire what they’re doing. Characters are a bit addicted to the adrenaline and chaos, playing their own roles in perpetuating it and finding some fulfilment there, even if it’s mostly fucked up. Even Sydney, who in Season 3 is offered a chance to get out of Carmy’s dysfunctional kitchen such that I spent the whole season screaming “oh my god, take it” at my screen, struggles to decide whether to break away.   

Through characters like Sydney or pastry chef Marcus, we see the possibility of healthier relationships with work. Chef Ebraheim struggles to handle the restaurant’s sandwich counter until he accepts help, offering one model of how things could function better. These are solutions on offer, in contrast to the aspirational environments of the healthier, established restaurants in the show. But how does that actually get transformed into a new culture? Can characters break free of their own unhealthy relationship to unhealthiness? Can or should Carmy be part of that? (“Carmy gets fired” is definitely a season of The Bear I would watch.)

In contrast to “Forks” (which again, to be clear, I love), this messy, spinning-in-place process feels like it reflects how these scenarios often play out in the real world. Though Carmy’s “non-negotiables” list is played as a joke because its items are so absurd, the list’s failure also shows that figuring this stuff out is harder than just writing “work-life balance” on a piece of paper, especially when the better cultures in the show have had years to figure it all out.

I think Season 3’s big question is “How do you unfuck yourself about work?,” a question there’s no easy answer to. Through the retirement of chef Andrea Terry that ends the season, one option on offer is to quit–to decide this isn’t worth it. Another option is the hard, unglamorous path toward fixing it. The Bear gives us glimpses of what that could look like, but no clear process to getting there.

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