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How ‘The Bear’ Ruined Christmas in July

Everyone’s family trauma is on the holiday dinner table in “Fishes”

Jamie Lee Curtis poses during an episode of the Bear.
Jamie Lee Curtis’s “Donna” has been getting rave reviews for her appearance in “The Fishes”
FX/Chuck Hodes

* Spoilers for “The Bear,” Season 2, Episode 6, below

Rarely has there been a Christmas Eve dinner as epically fucked as the meal depicted in “Fishes,” the guest-star-laden sixth episode in Season 2 of FX series The Bear. Set five years before the show’s main narrative, the 66-minute flashback is a non-stop dread ride — a gruesome autopsy of a clan bound by genetics, mental illness, substance abuse, and intergenerational trauma.

A family dinner that’s going poorly is a special kind of hell, particularly on Christmas. In many homes, even the most mundane of meals can become a battleground in seconds flat by an upended glass of milk splattered across the floor, or a seemingly offhand comment that pushes squarely on someone else’s buttons. During the holidays, there’s a palpable pressure to not ruin the proceedings — a phenomenon that seems in practice to have the opposite effect. No real family can compete with an idyllic Hallmark Channel fantasy and the expectation raises the bar of behavior to a degree that a blowup is unavoidable.

“Fishes” is populated by a roundtable of stars who gather for a traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes, with Sarah Paulson as cousin Michelle, John Mulaney as her weird boyfriend, and an award-bait performance from Bob Odenkirk as acid-tongued Uncle Lee. Tensions are running high from the onset as Jamie Lee Curtis’ chain-smoking, wine-swigging matriarch Donna Berzatto — who joins the formidable ranks of Livia Soprano and Betty Draper in terms of problematic onscreen parenting — sloshes around the kitchen preparing the elaborate meal. Jon Bernthal retains his role as Michael Berzatto, in many ways the key to his brother Carmy’s trauma.

Carmy from “The Bear” at a Christmas dinner.
The poinsettia shows you what season it is.
FX/Chuck Hodes

An awkward holiday dinner with an assortment of relatives and hangers-on likely rings a specific kind of bell for numerous Catholics, especially those in Chicago and others who grew up in the Midwest who bonded through church or parochial school affiliation. Crowded tables of friends, family, and strangers would be the norm, often leading to a packed post-holiday-dinner bar scene that old friends would treat more like a therapy session.

As the Berzattos’ evening unfurls, the family drinks plenty, tearing open old wounds, and eventually, threatening one another with cutlery. The fragility of mental health hangs throughout the episode, and it casts a longer shadow on Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) and Michael and the armada of restaurant workers in America who don’t have access to health insurance. A focal point for other episodes, Carmy has few lines for this very special holiday episode as he soaks up the family’s dysfunction that he carries with him to the present day. And like other members of the restaurant industry who lack insurance, therapy is likely beyond his reach. In Chicago, this leaves resources like Support Staff and CHAAD, as well as non-profit coffee shop Coffee, Hip Hop & Mental Health, to bridge that gap. Furthermore, his mother’s abuse prepares Carmy for a life of working for abusive chefs like Joel McHale’s character in New York City. The chef reminds some of Chicago icon Charlie Trotter.

Somehow, against all odds, the Berzattos make it to the dinner table but their fate is already sealed — the emotional volume reaches its heartrending crescendo and the night ends in tragedy when Donna drives through the family’s living room, leaving devastation in her wake.

In life, such clear-cut symbols are rare. The arc of an unpleasant family gathering is typically a truncated one where a truly angry party gathers their toys and goes home. That’s a good thing, as the events of “Fishes” are indeed terrible, but the Berzattos’ onscreen trauma can create a kind of relief for viewers in carrying out the most extreme version of a doomed party.

One occasion in particular stands out from my childhood: a Passover seder at my late aunt’s house in Washington D.C. where my family used to gather every year for the lengthy, food-focused holiday. I was probably 10 years old so the details are hazy, but I do recall that my teenage cousin’s guest made an off-hand comment about the Holocaust being ancient history, long ago and far away.

Suddenly, no one was eating. The faces of my relatives drained of color in real-time and as the brisket congealed on the table, at least one couple got to their feet, put on their coats, and left. Verbal fireworks commenced. The scene more closely resembles the infamous Thanksgiving dinner in 1990’s drama Avalon more than the anarchy of “Fishes.” Still, I can’t help wondering if a guest may have wished to knock down a wall or two as Donna accomplished behind the wheel.

Despite his efforts to move forward, Carmy can’t shake that crisis moment, as evidenced by Marcus’s gift of cannoli — a direct reference to the scarring Christmas Eve — on the opening menu at his new restaurant. The Bear was Carmy’s attempt to channel that trauma to build something better. Will he succeed or be devoured by history, trapped in his mother’s claws replicating her mayhem? The writer and actor strikes continue, but a yet-to-be-announced Season 3 should answer these questions.