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  • Writer's picturecasey

The Bear episode 2.06 "Fishes"

This show is so special. It’s doing everything right- the soundtrack, the cast, the setting, the dialogue, the themes. But more than anything, its real charm lies in how deeply realistic these characters are. The Bear is both one of the most realistic and artistic shows I’ve ever seen, and that’s so exciting to me. In the 90s/2000s era of “quality TV” we had The Wire, hyper realistic, at times to the point of being monotonous, and 24, which readily sacrificed plausibility for relentless action. To me, The Bear represents all the best things that today’s tv is doing; first and foremost, it’s proving that gut-punching familiarity doesn’t have come at the cost of delivering a spectacle.

And nothing makes that point better than “Fishes”. Once again making no effort to be consistent in episode length, “Fishes” is an outlier of season 2 at over 40 minutes long, but it is worth every second. It’s a flashback from Christmas past as the entire Berzatto clan gathers for a very loud and eventful feast of the seven fishes.

Jeremy Allen White and Jon Bernthal in "Fishes". Image courtesy of IMDb.

First let’s talk about the elephant in the room- the amount of famous people in this episode. They just keep coming. I honestly consider the cast of this episode to be a spoiler- seeing and recognizing the stars as they arrived to Christmas dinner felt like a deliberate and important part of my experience as a viewer. Just like Carmy I got to smile and think “wow, it’s so good to see you, I didn’t know you were gonna be here!”- followed immediately by wondering what could possibly be in store with all these people together.

Jaime Lee Curtis takes it the fuck away as Donna in this episode. She called it the role of a lifetime and spent several minutes looking into Jeremy Allen White’s eyes before filming, and learning about the care that was taken in making this episode affirms for me that they knew exactly what they were doing. Before we see her, though, the episode opens on the three kids- Carmy, Sugar, Mikey- talking about her.

Sugar is begging Mikey to do something about their mom (“and here I am just fucking in the middle because you’re you and Carmy’s Carmy”), Mikey is begging her to resist the urge to ask Donna if she’s okay (“You ask somebody if they’re okay, they immediately start thinking they’re not acting okay… and that immediately makes them start not acting okay”), and Carmy is begging them both to come back inside so he’s not stranded with the rest of the family (“can you come inside and be you real quick? I don’t know how to deal with these people”).

Of course, it’s The Bear, so this exchange all happens quickly amidst some yelling from Fak, but nonetheless, there’s so much to this interaction if only there was time to unpack it. But things are moving right along and a beat later we’re in the kitchen with Carmy and Donna. Before this episode I often thought no environment looked less appealing than the back of house at The Beef. And then we cooked with Donna, and it made everything about these people make sense.

Jamie Lee Curtis in "Fishes". Image courtesy of IMDb.

It’s a nightmare kitchen, and not just because she’s cooking seven fishes in there. Carmy steps in like he’s entering a minefield, which he honestly is. Donna’s slamming things and throwing things and dropping things and setting an egg timer for God knows what. But through it all, we ride that fine line of chaos and rhythm, and there’s a musicality to the exchange that happens through all the noise:

“Carmen. I’m spilling shit everywhere. And I’m behind on the lobster. Carmen. I have a question. Cousin Michelle’s friend Steven, is he gay?”

“Is who gay? Ma, Ma, Ma, Ma. Why are you doing the seven fishes thing? Nobody ever eats this shit.”

“Steven. Is he gay? I mean, he seems kinda gay. You know, he’s arty and I mean I love him and everything but he’s gay. I think. And it’s tradition.”

“It’s tradition that he’s gay?’

“No. The seven fishes. What the fuck do you think I’ve been doing this since 4 o’clock this morning for?”

This seems like a good place to mention that cousin Michelle and her actually straight boyfriend Steven are none other than Sarah Paulson and John Mulaney. Even without us knowing Steven and Michelle, we’re able to recognize that they’re quirky yet endearing together and fit right in with the Berzatto clan.

For the first half of the episode Donna is wound pretty tight and everyone is treading very lightly around her (and making sure that Pete throws the tuna salad he brought the fuck away), but it has the endearing familiarity of any family gathering. She gently urges Richie’s pregnant wife to change clothes and lay down in her bed; she tells Carmy she loves him and she’s glad he’s home; she welcomes uncle Cicero into the kitchen with a kiss.

But soon, the relatively lighthearted family dysfunction transitions into a truly traumatic display that perfectly informs all the behavior we’ve seen from the Berzattos throughout the series. Something goes awry in Donna’s hell kitchen right as Sugar walks in, exploding with “It’s like I have to do everything for everyone. No one fucking lifts a finger to help me. Can you just go upstairs and get Dad’s gun out of my drawer, I think I’m just gonna blow my fuckin brains out, and then you guys can make dinner because I don’t think anyone would fuckin miss me.”

All the while, Carmy and Sugar reassure her that they are, in fact, actively helping her. When someone else walks in to offer a hand, Donna screams at them all to get out, out, “get the fuck out!!” In the hall, Sugar siphons a hug off cousin Steve, sharing an understanding of what they just walked into- and out of.

In the next room, Mikey and Richie are in the throes of recounting a tale from a wild time in their past. An unimpressed Uncle Lee, played by Bob Odenkirk, cuts them off, lamenting that he’s heard this story a thousand times. The conflict unearths what is clearly a deeper, longstanding beef (no pun intended) between Mikey and Lee. Lee doesn’t let up, spoiling the end of the story for the rest of the room and then declaring, for everyone to hear, that stories seem to be the only thing Mike is capable of finishing. Cicero enters the room and breaks the ice but doesn’t stop the tension from mounting between the two of them.

Bob Odenkirk in "Fishes". Image courtesy of IMDb.

As everyone sits at the table, Carmy makes good on his promise to handle Donna- he follows her upstairs after her explosion resulted in her storming out of the kitchen. Gently, with that faux nonchalance you use with volatile people, Carmy asks her what’s up. Donna releases that she can’t do this on her own anymore, but doesn’t think that anyone in this family cares about her at all. Like they’ve been doing this whole episode, Carmy lays reassurance on her that everyone is willing to help- to which she fires back that she had to beg him to come home. He insists that he is happy to be there and everyone downstairs appreciates her. She laments that she “makes beautiful things for them and no one makes beautiful things for me”.

Carmy doesn’t really know what to say to that- the self-imposed nature of the seven fishes hellscape is almost comically obvious to everyone but her. Instead, he offers to walk her downstairs and sit at the table together. She declines, and when he decides to wait until she’s ready she asks him why he’s treating her like a child. In the briefest moment that Carmy lets go unchecked, she also calls him Michael. But a moment later she full-name’s him with an icy “Carmen Anthony Berzatto do we have a problem?” He says no and the next moment she’s breaking down in tears, and on a note of relative peace and love Carmy leaves her to go sit.

He enters the dining room just in time to see tension resurface between Mikey and Uncle Lee. After some taunting from Uncle Lee, Mikey throws a fork at him. It gets a reaction from Lee, so he wants to throw another, but the consensus at the table is that Lee’s being a jagoff, but Michael is making everybody nervous. No one will give him their fork. Lee lays on honestly brutal onslaught of verbal abuse “this guy’s nothing and he’s nobody… you loser… you loser fuckin monster.”

We have to spend a minute on the horrendously mean things that have been said to both Mikey and Richie. It’s actually crazy how often they’re called losers, nothing etc. It would be enough to break anybody. If the rest of this gathering wasn’t such a fragile Jenga tower I would’ve been rooting for him to throw the second fork.

Alas, they’re interrupted by Donna finally gracing the table with her presence, eliciting a round of applause. For a second it looks like they might salvage this night. Steven says a grace that I’m pretty sure they let John Mulaney write himself and it’s very nice. So nice that it makes Donna start to cry again.

But if you forbid a question in act one, you can bet someone’s gonna ask it in act three. Sugar just can’t help herself. She asks her mom if she’s okay. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Oh, Natalie. Do you know how much I fucking hate that you ask me that. Do you ask the rest of these people if they’re okay? Do I not look okay, Natalie? Did I not just bust my ass all day for you motherfuckers? Am I okay- Are you motherfuckers okay?! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you, Natalie.” The whole time Sugar is so meek I could cry. Interjecting when she can that she didn’t mean it like that and can they go upstairs, but Donna just explodes and then storms out of the room alone.

Abby Elliott and Gillian Jacobs in "Fishes". Image courtesy of IMDb.

There’s a brief moment of a kind of relief, of the thing you were dreading finally happening, and the table lets out some nervous breaths and chuckles. Then Mikey throws the fork. It’s instant. Lee lunges at him, Mikey flips the table, everyone is on their feet keeping the two apart. The thing that stops it is maybe the only thing that could stop it. Donna drives her car through the wall. The episode fades out over Mikey banging on the car, repeating “Ma! Open the door! What did you do?! Open the door! Ma!!”

This is really just another love letter from me to The Bear, but there was a full house in this episode, and I obviously didn’t get to everyone! Did “Fishes” resonate with you? What were your favorite parts that I didn’t cover? Why is this show nominated for outstanding comedy? Did the academy see this one?

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