Every Second Counts: On FX’s “The Bear”

By Alexandra J. GoldSeptember 18, 2023

Every Second Counts: On FX’s “The Bear”
IN REVIEWS, in headlines, and on Twitter, critics and lay viewers agree: FX’s The Bear (2022– ) is nerve-wracking television. To watch the show is often to feel the show, becoming swept up in the restless mood that has been set in motion by showrunner Christopher Storer, but which can be difficult to pinpoint or articulate. What is it, exactly, that confers the show its distinctive atmosphere—that makes The Bear, as Rolling Stone recently declared, “the most stressful thing” on television?

The anxious undercurrent that pervades the show is a large part of it, no doubt. The show’s protagonist, the young, prodigious chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (a stellar Jeremy Allen White), is a whirlwind of unlikely charisma, greasy hair, and inexhaustible unease. Saddled with the dubious task of turning a failing Chicago sandwich shop into a fine dining establishment, Carmy’s restaurant and staff are in routine upheaval, threatening near-constant financial and organizational ruin. (Restaurants are nothing if not punishing, toxic spaces—ask anyone who has ever worked in one.) In the course of this knotty undertaking, there’s no shortage of familial psychodrama, workplace chaos, and troubled romance; chits fly, tempers flare, and cutlery becomes an improbable weapon more than once. Then there’s Storer and Josh Senior’s pitch-perfect soundtrack and inventive camerawork, both of which help to immerse viewers in the distressing throes of a cacophonous, claustrophobic restaurant service or of a loud, tense holiday dinner. For the show’s characters and for the audience, by proxy, anxiety seethes.

Even so, there’s something else more fundamental at play too: time. Time is central to The Bear, and not just because its signature pace (breakneck) often hurls the audience through several hours of demanding labor and emotional turmoil in a mere 30 minutes, exacerbating its most anxiety-inducing tendencies. More than pace, the show’s obsession with time—as yardstick, menace, instigator, and pulse—transforms it into an essential character that defines the show on a formal and diegetic level as much an affective one.

Nowhere is this idea more pronounced than in the show’s excellent sophomore outing, which has transformed time from an ever-present though latent adversary, as it appears in season one, into an inescapable antagonist: the spectral figure with which each main character contends. Indeed, the season’s particular concern with time is unsubtle. From its promo image, which features a plate fashioned like a clock, to the cascading trill of elapsed kitchen timers that resound in more than one episode, The Bear’s second season establishes time as both a pivotal motif and an inescapable phenomenon. Across the season, time functions as a plot device (the indelible sixth episode, “Fishes,” is an extended flashback), as a thematic conceit (countdowns big and small abound), and often both at once. But time also energizes the episodes’ most profound emotional beats and the accompanying triumphs or failures they yield, as each character grapples with the season’s putative thesis: “Every second counts.”

Building the season around the refrain “every second counts”—a phrase that shows up on three separate kitchen walls and is repeated several times more—seems a dicey proposition, especially given that the show’s other recurring animus, “let it rip,” is, at least superficially, far more electrifying. “Every second counts” could easily risk sounding like a cheap capitalist bromide—the type of empty “corporate-speak” bandied about in many high-pressure, exploitative workplaces in an effort to spur dutiful employees to productivity. Or else, “every second counts” could risk sounding overblown in this context—an injunction better reserved for the life-and-death stakes of a cardiac emergency than for the quotidian urgencies of a restaurant (a fact perhaps not lost on Storer’s writing team, who wryly remind us in season two that “hospital” and “hospitality” share an etymology). And yet, The Bear’s deft use of the phrase manages to avoid both the trite and the absurd; functioning more as “a philosophical meditation rather than just a device to create drama,” as Maxwell Cambria observes, the frequent reminder that “every second counts” never feels unearned or incongruous.

This is owed, I think, to the fact that the show’s usage refuses didacticism. Inasmuch as “every second counts” reads like a straightforward exhortation, its meaning is not prescriptive. What makes the mantra feel emotionally consequential, rather than banal, is how the season slowly unfurls two competing interpretations of it—two competing interpretations of time. And rather than overtly arbitrating between them, the show instead bears witness to the ramifications of both interpretations and, in turn, humanizes each.

We’re introduced to the idea that “every second counts” at the end of the first episode, where the phrase is unspoken but scrawled at the bottom of a calendar that tracks the hasty, grueling countdown to opening day that Carmy, Nat (Abby Elliott, portraying his sister and restaurant manager), and Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, as his partner/chef de cuisine) have laid out for their new restaurant. Framed beneath this meticulous plotting of dates and deadlines, the first interpretation of “every second counts”—Carmy’s interpretation—quickly comes into focus: time is running out. The first interpretation is, in other words, an anxious interpretation: any second not directed in pursuit of this specific purpose or goal is a second wasted, irrecuperable. Time is of the essence.

For Carmy, this fraught sense of time is one that constantly drives him to want to do more and to do better, but it’s also one that mires him in an unshakable cycle of frustration and self-doubt. This becomes clearer when, early in the fifth episode, Carmy bemoans the fact that he keeps “gain[ing] a second” as he rehearses moving between what will be the oven and the prep line in his new kitchen and complains that it’s too outspread. The scene is, in many ways, played for laughs. There’s humor in this pantomime, first, because the scene tropes the classic sports-movie training montage with two colleagues “coaching” Carmy, stopwatch in hand. It’s funny, too, because the “kitchen” within which Carmy thrashes about is, in its present state, nothing but a hollowed-out construction zone that’s falling ever deeper into disrepair, giving his paranoid charade the light touch of farce. And it’s funny, most basically, because the time he’s gained (or lost) with subsequent practice seems so nominal (he’s up to seven seconds from four) that no one else in the room takes it seriously.

Viewed another way, however, it’s a scene that lends wrenching insight into Carmy’s psyche, and one that foreshadows his arc throughout the season, which leads him to walk into a trap that’s partly, if not largely, of his own making. The “training” scene, that is, perfectly distills his predicament: he’s wrestling with time, and it always eludes him. This strained relationship with time not only comprises Carmy’s literal quandary, as he contends with a too-quick restaurant turnaround and a too-sprawling kitchen; it also embodies his figurative one. Anxious and self-critical, as the training scene elucidates, he’s forever embattled with things that he desperately wants to but cannot control—time, most immediately, but also his family’s dysfunction, his brother’s addiction and death, and his own grief. His meager solace is rationalization, which leads him to spiral through compulsive thoughts and behaviors that only further validate their necessity. If he’s “too slow,” as the discomfiting echo of an abusive boss reminds him, then he can keep trying to move faster; if he doesn’t “need to receive any amusement or enjoyment” because it’s a waste of time, as he suggests in a heartrending final monologue, then he can re-devote himself exclusively to work; and if he’s undeserving of anything good in his life, as he intimates, then he can simply deny himself permission to experience it.

Because Carmy refuses to accept the things he cannot control and because he is shrouded in too much fear to change what he can (embracing a real romantic connection, taking pride in his considerable accomplishments), he never achieves wisdom or gains perspective, at least not in any narratively satisfying way. Whatever consolation Carmy takes in the Al-Anon family support meetings he attends throughout the series, it’s not clear that he’s absorbed their message. Instead, he’s left frozen, unable to get out of the narrow box he allows himself to occupy, no matter how badly he might desire to leave it. He’s just locked in, riddled with self-loathing.

Consider, then, the season’s alternate interpretation—Richie’s interpretation. While we encounter the motto “every second counts” several times before episode seven, it’s only in this late-season installment that we discover its origin. In line with the season’s larger “narrative of education,” which sees several key characters embark on adventures to gain new culinary skills, episode seven trails Richie, the sandwich shop’s caustic front man and longtime Berzatto family friend who Carmy calls “Cousin” despite their nonrelation, as he “stages” or trains at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Ever. It’s there that we, and Richie, learn that “every second counts” was a phrase that Chef Terry’s father, a military corporal, used as a sign-off in hundreds of journal entries documenting his travels. Her father, Ever’s head chef tells Richie, filled scores of “pocket notebooks […] full of all these details like the palm trees he’d seen, or escargot he’d tried, or this time the ocean looked purple. And […] the way he wrote everything, it was like a reminder, like a—‘don’t forget this moment’ or ‘don’t forget this interesting, strange detail.’” It’s via this exchange that Richie’s own understanding of “every second counts” is laid bare: seize this moment, live in this second, maximize this time. Each second is an opportunity; it’s never too late. Time is on your side.

Episode seven is one of the standout episodes of season two, if not the standout. That’s owed, in no small part, to Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s captivating performance, as he portrays Richie’s growth from an irascible, aimless idler into a front-of-house dynamo who learns to appreciate his mentors’ dedication to service and understand his own capabilities, not least his gregarious charm. But it’s a standout episode, too, for its stunning “every second counts” revelation, cementing Richie’s understanding of time as a crucial foil to Carmy’s own. For if, as episode seven slyly reveals, “every second counts” is a motto that Carmy himself adopted from Ever’s head chef, having once presumably worked for her, then it’s also a motto he’s ostensibly reinterpreted or perhaps misinterpreted in the process. That is, if for Carmy the idea of “every second counts” is underwritten by a sense of mocking impossibility—an incessant reminder of all the things he can’t do, shouldn’t bother with, or won’t achieve because time is elusive—it is, in Richie’s view (and in its origins), a message underwritten by a sense of vitalizing possibility, alerting him to all of the amazing things that can happen—all of the amazing things that are already happening—if you take the time to tune in. It’s no accident that this episode’s pace feels demonstrably slower and less frantic than most others and that it also seems quieter. In playing with time and sound formally, episode seven enjoins not just Richie but also its audience to observe things differently. It allows us to pay closer attention; in slowing the pace down, we are able to see and hear things more clearly.

For Richie, in short, the idea that “every second counts” is a rudder, affording him the chance to change course and to be present in his own life, even if things haven’t panned out as he’d hoped or even if he thinks he’s too old for a fresh start. For Carmy, though, it’s a fetter. Because he’s worried that too much time has already elapsed or that there won’t be enough, he cannot just live, comfortably, in the present. Either he’s ruminating on the past (consider again the season’s flashback episode) and berating himself for perceived shortcomings or else he’s concerned about the future, “waiting for the other shoe,” as he confides in his girlfriend, and thus recommitting himself to greater vigilance and asceticism as forms of self-preservation in the meantime. He can’t appreciate, let alone recognize, what he has for what it is.

All of this explains why, in the final episode, we observe Richie quite literally master time. As he expertly orchestrates the expo line during the restaurant’s first trial service, he triumphs in a job that hinges on careful attention and, above all, time management; just watch what he can do in five minutes, making the most of each second. It also explains why Carmy is, in the very same instant, ensnared in a roiling panic attack, utterly out of control as time and his “friends and family” (the service, but also the people) move on without him. And lastly, it explains why, in the season’s final seconds, the two characters are left at a crossroads, entangled in a particularly bitter shouting match in which they’re incapable of either seeing or really hearing each other. But, of course, their blowup is virtually preordained: their worldviews are simply too far apart. At this point, they’re just too out of sync.

Like any good finale, season two’s last episode leaves us caught in this unresolved conflict and several others in order to generate tension for a highly anticipated third venture. In leaving us in the midst of this conflict, however, it also leaves us to contemplate both men’s interpretations of time, asking us whether “every second counts” is a clarion call to opportunity—a reminder that it’s never too late, as Richie has embraced to rousing effect—or whether it’s a bogeyman of inevitable defeat—a reminder that it’s always already too late, as Carmy has internalized to devastating effect. Doing so, The Bear seems to hold up to its audience an affective looking glass, revealing to some viewers the real torrent of anxiety’s keen temporality, enabling others to better discern and even abide its unpredictable course, and offering the rest a peculiar comfort and recognition in its sharp reflection. Through the secondhand anxiety The Bear and its depiction of time provoke, the show issues a sort of Rorschach test, and a challenge: if time can serve as both the restless metronome of anxiety and the enlivening thrum of opportunity, then how do we or how can we experience it? How will we ultimately choose to make our seconds count?


Alexandra J. Gold is a head preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Her writing and teaching focuses on post-1945 American poetry and visual art, gender and sexuality studies, and popular culture.

LARB Contributor

Alexandra J. Gold is a head preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program, where she teaches a course on feminism and popular media. She holds a PhD in English literature from Boston University. Her research and teaching interests include post-1945 American poetry and visual art; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and popular culture. Her first book, The Collaborative Artist’s Book: Evolving Ideas in Poetry and Art was published by the University of Iowa Press, Contemporary North American Poetry Series in 2023. For more on her writing and teaching, please visit her website at www.alexandrajgold.com.


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