In the season finale of The Big Bang Theory the viewers get a glimpse of a Sheldon who is growing up, but is unhappy about it. The season has been about changes for Dr. Cooper – he’s had professional setbacks as he began to search for a new field of science to study, and his relationship with Amy is deepening as she expects more from her partner. But what throws his world in a tizzy is Penny and Leonard’s engagement, and all of the changes that their union will bring to the dynamics in his relationships with the two of them, separately and as a trio. When Leonard and Penny start discussing living arrangements, the changes become too much for Sheldon and he feels he needs to check out – in the real world, of course, none of this would be acceptable, but in TBBT land, with Sheldon’s particular brand of uniqueness, all of this really is understandable.
When Leonard brings up moving out, Sheldon is nonplussed. He just assumed that things would go on as they always did – the two guys would live together, and Penny would drop by and sleep over from time to time. In his reality, all of this makes sense and he doesn’t see a need to change anything – his outrage and offense at Leonard’s concern over Penny’s happiness is all too real because there’s a perceptible shift in their friendship: as Penny’s future husband, Leonard will now have to be committed to Penny and put her needs and interests (within reason) above all else; and though it’s not explored in this episode, the implied truth is that Penny’s relationship with Sheldon will also change. Sheldon cannot handle that not only because he’ll miss Leonard, but also because he hates when something comes along to shake up his carefully-arranged life – it’s akin to someone walking along and dickishly scattering all the pieces off a chess board.
But there are moments where Sheldon could become stronger because of all this change, and that’s why it makes sense that he hops on a train to a journey of self-discovery. He’s relied too heavily on Leonard and Penny – the two have been holding his hand (that’s why the running joke of them being his parents rings true) and helping the guy navigate in a world that doesn’t “get” him – once they’re married, their ability and willingness to continue may wane (not even bringing up the possibility of kids). He’ll have to figure the intricacies of a world he still doesn’t understand on his own. His other friends aren’t as patient or understanding and Sheldon’s still not completely open with Amy. Do I think Sheldon’s being a bit dramatic? Perhaps. I mean, it’s not like Leonard and Penny will abandon Sheldon – and they’ll always be there for him, but the day-to-day interactions would be altered. In a perfect world, Leonard, Penny, and Sheldon would all live together, except that would be awful – for any newlywed couple the prospect of a roommate’s pretty dismal, never mind it being one as difficult as Sheldon.
And as if losing Leonard isn’t enough, Sheldon’s continuing quest to find professional fulfillment is stymied by the university’s refusal to let him change fields. Even though I understood nothing of why Sheldon’s abandoning string theory, and I understand nothing of the new field he’s choosing to embrace, I love, love, love this story line. Sheldon’s identity is wrapped in his work, and to have him question all of the time, energy, and passion that he invested in string theory is really an incredible thing – I think Sheldon as a wanderer is appealing because it’s almost as if he’s a college kid stepping out into the world after the cocoon of school. I wish the minutiae of Sheldon’s work was dumbed down a little bit (sometimes I feel like Penny when I watch him go on about his science stuff), but you don’t really need to know the details of the work to see that it’s important to Sheldon, and that this existential crisis he’s experience is really a big deal – one that no one, with the exception of Penny, truly understands.
Because the episode is so Sheldon-heavy, the other characters are understandably less prominent. The other major plot has Howard and Bernadette trying to figure out what to do about Mrs. Wolowitz. I think the writers are doing something very interesting by juxtaposing the two couples – Howie & Bernie and Penny & Leonard, and their respective dependents Mrs. Wolowitz and Sheldon. It’s a bit of a before/after dynamic with Howie & Bernie being the model of what marriage looks like – and right now, it ain’t too pretty. Mrs. Wolowitz is predictably horrible to the revolving door of nurses that pass through her house, and it looks like it’s going to be up to Howard and Bernadette to take care of his ailing mother. What’s interesting is that in the last few episodes, the action between Howie and Bernie primarily takes place in Mrs. Wolowitz’s living room. It’s a clever way of inserting a feeling of stasis – they’re not going anywhere, so we might as well get used to seeing them on the same set. I hope that the writers will tone down (or eliminate) the Grendel’s Mother aspect of Mrs. Wolowitz’s character, and instead focus on the toll an issue like a sick parent can have on a relatively new marriage. Bernadette sweetly points out that because she’s Howard’s wife, his mom is her problem now – and then she jokingly asks for a divorce – but there is a kernel of truth in her quip, and as seen in past episodes, the two Mrs. Wolowitzes don’t exactly get along.
There was another character that got a major crisis in last night’s episode: Stuart, the sad sack comic book store owner, who seemed to have been faded away this season, despite being added on as a main cast member last year. Stuart’s an outsider to the group, mainly functioning as Raj’s temporary best friend when Howard was orbiting space. Once Howard returned, a balance was reset and Stuart’s fit was compromised. But I guess that’s just because Stuart’s place in the gang is always reliant on his relationship with Raj, otherwise, I’m not sure what he brings to the group. It doesn’t look like he joins the guys all that much in their Comic Con adventures or their video game nights, and he’s not a scientist like Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, Howard, Amy, or Bernadette are – and though intellectually he’s more on par with Penny, she far more comfortable in social situations, and doesn’t relate to his oft-crippling self-doubt.
So because Stuart’s role is more recurring than main cast, I was surprised that the writers decided to burn down his comic book store. It’s clear that the comic book store acted like a watering hole for the guys – in the earlier seasons, they would spend time, flipping through the comics and discuss their problems with dating and work – but as the show progressed, the guys got girls and professional successes. It’s fitting that the store burned down because they no longer need it. I’m not saying they’re giving up comic books, but they no longer need a gathering place like the store because their family unit is so strong and complete, that they seem to prefer spending time with each other and Leonard and Sheldon’s instead of the comic book store – plus, the addition of the girls makes the place a less desirable meeting place because neither is into comic books (despite their game attempts).
So the death of the comic book store felt more like another major change for Sheldon, than an important shift in Stuart’s life. It’s gratifying that the writers are starting to explore Sheldon’s inability to cope – this inability was perfectly played out in the fight between Sheldon and Stuart. In a very well-acted scene, Sheldon has a melt down in the store, oblivious to Stuart’s very real plight. It makes sense that Sheldon has only a passing awareness of Stuart’s pain, and instead focuses the disaster on how it will affect him. The fact that he cannot offer support or sympathy to someone who at best, is a mere acquaintance, shows that despite his considerable growth, Sheldon’s still an emotionally-stunted human being – which is why his journey is so important and necessary.
I think the cast was really tremendous in this episode, though I was disappointed at Raj’s barely-there presence. He, like everyone else, made some huge strides this year, especially in his ongoing search for Ms. Right. I think his breakthrough came last week, which is why the writers were fine in making him an almost-walk on instead of a major contribution to the plot. But Parsons, Galecki, and Cuoco-Sweeting were great, matching each other step-by-step. I thought the scene in the train station was a killer, and interesting twist on the episode’s division on maturity: it’s Sheldon and Penny who understand that he needs this sojourn, and it’s Leonard who doesn’t want things to change. It’s unclear exactly why Leonard’s so against Sheldon’s leaving, but some of it may be that if Sheldon returns more confident and introspective, he may not need their friendship as much. And even though he’s been hoping for just that in the past seven years, it would be still a jarring prospect for him to have to deal with: an independent Sheldon. huh.
It’ll be neat to see how the next season opens with Sheldon’s return – will he revert to his old ways, or will his trip be healthy for him? Also what does his absence mean for Amy? What are we to take from the fact that he jumped the train and left without telling her or discussing this with her – it’s telling that it’s Leonard and Penny that get to say goodbye – a way of almost recalling the first few seasons when before everyone coupled up, it was Sheldon, Leonard, and Penny.
Some random thoughts:
- When Howard suggests to Bernadette that she take vacation time to take care of his mom: “I wanted to go to Hawaii, not Hell!”
- Christine Baranski makes a welcomed return as Dr. Hofstadter – she’s just as mean and awful a mom as usual, but the Broadway TV vet is always good for some laughs.
- It’s sweet that Dr. Hofstadter approves of the engagement because of Sheldon’s glowing report of Penny – it sucks that she cares more about Sheldon’s opinion than Leonard’s.
- Penny’s explanation of Leonard’s job: “He works with lasers and atomic magnets.” Love it. And yeah, I probably said some equally dumb science stuff myself.
- “Move across the hall? Did you take a marijuana?”
- Strawberry Quick fixes everything (just make sure you use the powder and not the syrup)
- Sheldon: “”Don’t be melodramatic, I’m just boarding on a train and leaving forever”
It’ll be weird not to have The Big Bang Theory to recap for the next few months and I wasn’t terribly prolific on my viewing, but I’m glad I jumped back into it…