The Bear delivers a masterful Season 2, and if you look (and listen) closer, a big part of what makes it work so well has to do with what we’re hearing.
One of The Bear’s trademarks is to use the technique of everyone talking at once, overlapping their dialogue – primarily to dramatize the chaos of the restaurant’s hectic kitchen. Everyone talking over each other creates a sense of overstimulation in us, so we vicariously partake in the stress of the environment.
But the way the show uses this technique of overlapping dialogue (and noise in general) is skillful, and it serves a few purposes:
The first is, of course, chaos. Our brains have a number of ways to filter out excess audio inputs and focus in on certain sounds or voices – but when there’s just too much noise to filter out, it can quickly lead to sensory overload. This can lead to irritability, discomfort, excitability, and extreme stress. Sound familiar? The Bear folds in layer after layer of noise to illustrate just how hard it really is to run a kitchen and to make us understand just how much is happening at once – we’re not just watching the characters struggle their way through these hectic times in the back of house, we’re feeling the sensory overload with them. Still, some of the really successful kitchens we get a glimpse into are not nearly so hectic, so the technique is partly also to emphasize the dysfunction of this one. We especially see this when Carmy first arrives in season one and when everything seems to be going wrong in the lead-up to the restaurant opening in season two. And this sensory overload doesn’t only cause stress; it can also lead to a complete breakdown of communication. When so much is happening and everyone’s talking at once, people feel like they’re not being heard. Take the scene in Forks when Richie is feeling insecure because his weak staging is about to come to an end, and he’s worried Carmy was trying to make a fool of him, but Carmy is meanwhile worried Fak is going to light everything on fire. When too much is going on, it’s hard to maintain focus; everyone’s talking, so no one’s listening, and people feel hurt that they’re not getting undivided attention.
Another purpose is actually comedy. Overlapping dialogue can help shows and movies feel more like real life since people usually don’t calmly wait their turn during conversations, but instead naturally overlap one another. But it’s also useful in heightening the comedy. Howard Hawks’ screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s were an early example of doing this to great effect. Hawks sought to imitate real speech and create a sense of speed. This pacing allowed Hawks to find comedic moments even within tense situations. The Bear makes effective use of this combination of naturalism, speed and comic moments. The layering of noise allows for fast-paced comedic juxtapositions and misunderstandings. The naturalism of the dialogue also lies in the way people come back to things that were said earlier – in real life, we sometimes have a delay in auditory processing that causes us to respond to things later. Often, a conversation goes in multiple directions or even encompasses multiple conversations at once, causing us to weave back and forth between thoughts and answers.
All this dysfunction leads us to another purpose of this constantly overlapping dialogue: trauma.
This effect of overlapping dialogue peaks in the episode Fishes – a flashback episode to the Christmas when Carmy, Mikey & Natalie’s mom, Donna, drove her car into the house. It’s an episode that makes viewers feel palpably uncomfortable from the start, and a lot of this is accomplished through the sound of the constant talking over each other. The episode takes us deep into the chaotic household that made Carmy the way that he is. We watch his mother, Donna, fret and meltdown while cooking an insanely intricate Christmas dinner: the traditional seven fishes. Kitchen timers ring out as Donna yells at people in the kitchen while we can also hear other people fighting elsewhere in the house and yelling through the walls. It all melds together to create an intensely suffocating situation for both Carmy and the audience. We can quickly see how growing up in this environment traumatized Carmy and feel its echoes in the other toxic chefs he’s worked for that he can still hear saying terrible things to him in his head.
The seven fishes dish holds a special place in the Berzatto family history, though no one can exactly agree on why. Throughout the day, as Donna struggles to prepare everything in time for dinner, family members continually ask her why she feels compelled to make this elaborate dish every year, and she initially claims that it’s because of the dish’s importance to their Italian immigrant heritage. Later, when she’s alone in the now much more quiet kitchen with Carmy, she reveals the truth. Her desire to keep making the dish year after year, regardless of how much stress it brings her, comes from a deeply held need for perfection and to create something beautiful, no matter the personal cost. The pace slows down for a moment at dinner when Stevie gives an insightful speech that paints Donna’s frantic bid for excellence as a way to show her love to the family and bring them together the best way she knows how. But that peace quickly gives way to more chaos, and the cacophony returns, reaching its denouement when Donna drives her car through the house. In all of this pandemonium, Carmy is silent, only able to focus on her platter of stunningly beautiful and perfect cannolis.
The price Donna pays to make beauty is driving herself to madness all day in the kitchen and then to the point of leaving dinner in tears, destroying her own home and endangering herself and her family. Carmy criticizes his mother as she overexerts herself and tries to distance himself from this behavior, but Donna’s perfectionist streak runs through him as well. He brings a very similar energy to his kitchen, trying to make everything exactly perfect while thinking that he can’t be doing a good job unless he’s truly suffering. Growing up in the cloud of his mother’s dysfunction has molded him in a way he can’t seem to escape – the chaos is hardwired into his brain and is what drives him to push himself until he eventually self-destructs.
In the final episode, this pattern of behavior leads to Carmy becoming removed from everything he cares about and highlights the parallels between Carmy and his mother. He decides to make a fine dining version of the seven fishes dish for the new Bear restaurant in an attempt to “reclaim” his trauma. After watching for years as his mother sent herself to the brink of madness stressing over making the dish perfect every Christmas, he hopes he’ll be able to overcome all of this dysfunction by truly perfecting the dish, using this kitchen and staff in the restaurant to conquer this reminder of years of trauma. But in all of the stress of the evening, it ends up being this very dish that finally sets him off. His cool exterior finally cracks, and, just like Donna, he loses his temper and melts down because he can feel perfection slipping away. The calm of the kitchen is once again replaced by racing music and overlapping dialogue as Carmy boils over.
Soon after, consequences begin piling up – Carmy finds himself locked in the walk-in fridge (which he had never gotten fixed, despite Sydney and Natalie’s reminders.) He finds himself completely removed from the kitchen and everything he had worked so hard to build, trapped alone in the cold with his thoughts and bubbling rage. That he’s unable to directly be involved in the success of this family and friend’s night parallels Donna’s drive to create something beautiful for those she loves but her inability to actually allow them or herself to enjoy it.
Both Donna’s and Carmy’s Achilles heel is their inability to let something “just” be really good – they can’t handle anything less than an unattainable perfection. Donna refuses to even go into the restaurant because she’s worried her presence will ruin their perfect evening. While Carmy spends his time trapped in the freezer, destroying some of his closest relationships. He comes to the “realization” that he’s been focusing on the wrong thing – his relationship with Claire – saying it’s because he should just be focusing on the restaurant, but it’s clear that he really just can’t accept the happiness that he feels with Claire and the fact that she really does love him back. Unfortunately, this revelation comes just as Claire has stepped into the kitchen to check on Carmy. And just like in the house at Christmas, the moment of quiet sadness that follows is quickly replaced with a cacophony of noise as Richie and Carmy scream over one another through the freezer door, with Richie even directly calling out that Carmy is following his mother’s self-destructive pattern. After all of the chaos, just like Donna, Carmy is left alone in the quiet wake of the destruction he’s wrought.
Now let’s look at how the sound design communicates to us what’s really happening in this ending.
Over the course of the season, the overlapping dialogue in the kitchen actually lessens, and we start to see the team coming together into better sync. They’re listening more, implementing effective systems, and showing respect for each other and themselves. They’re finding their flow. We see this in Forks when Richie stages – he finally figures out how to fit himself into a dynamic system and work with a team to achieve a goal. People’s jobs there are incredibly busy and detail-oriented, but because they calmly follow the system, it’s not hectic.
The Bear counters the buzzy, stressful overlapping dialogue scenes with key moments of quiet – sometimes to illustrate isolation, but more often, as the season goes on and characters start to find their way, they’re about a healthy calm. Richie’s conversation with Chef Terry as they peel mushrooms helps him understand how important respect and connection are to a well-run restaurant. In Copenhagen, we see Marcus really taking the time to learn and get inspired to make up his desserts. Even something as simple as Sydney taking a moment to make Natalie a really great omelette illustrates a growing sense of calm, and that she knows how important it is to show people kindness and care. Even in all of the chaos, Carmy does find a few moments of healthy calm himself – but unlike the others, they don’t happen in the kitchen, but instead when he’s with Claire. In contrast to the cold stress of the kitchen, his scenes with Claire feel warm and have a soothing sense of quiet.
In the finale, for everyone else, quiet comes as a triumph, the blaring rock and roll becoming muffled as the crew finally conquers the seemingly endless stream of tickets. For Carmy, however, the effect becomes a kind of metaphor for the way he’s unable to escape the noise inside his own brain. The sound outside of his own mind is muted, separated from him by this big barrier. He’s ranting at himself, hearing the voice of his old abusive mentor and giving himself abuse. The toxic dialogues in his head have made him unable to escape from his deeply held misconception that in order to make something beautiful and extraordinary, he has to be miserable – he has to become a machine. In this dark place, he comes to the conclusion that joy and good things (like his relationship with Claire) are the problem that distracts him from being excellent at his job. However, this is false: while he’s in there, the team outside actually somehow manages without him to pull off a great Friends and Family opening night. He hasn’t failed at all – he and Sydney have built a team that works, even without him, and the night is a huge success.
Carmy’s real problem is the trauma and noise that he carries with him inside his own mind – just like the freezer door. It creates a thick barrier that keeps everyone at a distance, everything they say to him unable to penetrate. But this metaphor also goes the other way – Carmy can be heard through the door the entire time, just like his harsh words do affect those around him. The kitchen staff is able to compartmentalize his yelling and continue with their tasks, just like they’ve had to do when he was standing right next to them melting down. But while the noise in his head may have drowned out even those closest to him, they can still hear him. Through his staging experience, Richie has notably matured and channeled a much quieter, more centered energy and sense of purpose. But growing up in the same chaotic environment means Richie is still able to see through all of Carmy’s rage. Even as they’re yelling over one another, he tells Carmy how much he cares about him. This, in a way, parallels the way Carmy himself had to try to cut through Donna’s fog of dysfunction to show her that he cares. In the end, after Carmy has pushed everyone away, the sound he’s left with isn’t the screaming of the kitchen or even of his own mind, but a quiet voicemail reminding him of what he’s really given up While the absence of noise denotes a calm new page for some, for Carmy, it represents the lonely void he’s trapped himself in.
To really find that positive flow, that quiet, that silence, we have to overcome overlapping dialogues in our heads that stem from trauma, stress, chaos, distrust, and a lack of self-respect. Chef Terry provides the perfect example of this: her first restaurant was a huge success that ended up going down in flames, so now, with her second chance, she makes sure to focus on what really counts. She quietly cleans the mushrooms every day even though she’s the head chef because she feels that it’s worth doing. Her focus is on making every little moment in life count, not just maximizing efficiency or gunning for constant perfection. So to escape that chaos and confusion and bad self-talk, maybe the answer lies in slowing down, letting more quiet in, and also calling the damn fridge guy so that you don’t get locked out away from everyone else – because the key to making the teamwork dream work is actually sometimes talking less and listening more.