Throughout this season of The Big Bang Theory, there’s been one consistent story and character arc amongst the rest of the stagnant bunch. Ever since Sheldon and Amy broke up, the show has done a wonderful job of exploring, with nuance and patience, the feelings, actions, and inactions that created the divide between the two seemingly compatible partners. Most of that exploration has focused on Sheldon because he was the one who needed to grow and mature the most. Amy had been more than patient with him, and it was time for him to take responsibility for his role in the demise of their relationship. That led to a genuinely earned reconciliation stretched across numerous episodes.
While “The Empathy Optimization” isn’t nearly as deep or fulfilling as those episodes that took a hard look at Sheldon and Amy, it does once again prove that the show’s strength lies in its ability to question and critique its characters. Sheldon has legitimately grown this season, but that doesn’t mean his work is done. He’s repaired his relationship with Amy, but he still struggles to open up to his closest friends. That changes a bit when Sheldon, after lashing out at his friends (and Emily—yeah, I said it) when they try to take care of him when he’s sick, realizes that he’s been insensitive and cruel to the people he cherishes the most (and Emily). That’s where his relationship with Amy comes in. She’s the one that helps him come to that realization after he complains to her via Skype about their reactions to him. The idea that Amy is staying in Michigan to avoid being around sick Sheldon is a little much, especially considering where they left off, but the essence of their relationship is there, with Amy guiding him in social situations and him being more open to accepting her help and criticisms.
In the meantime, the rest of the gang has decided to rent a party bus and take it to Vegas for the weekend, sans Sheldon. Raj comes up with the idea when he acknowledges that the best thing Amy ever did for her relationship with Sheldon was to take a break from him for awhile. He thinks they can all do the same thing, that getting away for a weekend without Sheldon could help bring them closer, or at least make being around him more bearable. Of course, when Sheldon apologizes to Leonard and everything goes well, and he learns about the trip to Vegas, he wants to go. He hates Vegas, but he certainly doesn’t want to be left out. It’s another one of Sheldon’s irritating traits, but one bit of improvement at a time is better than nothing.
Leonard tells him that the only way he can go on the trip is if he apologizes to everyone and gets them to forgive him. He accepts the challenge and suddenly the Sheldon Cooper Apology Tour is underway. He apologizes first to Howard and Bernadette, and even makes them t-shirts to commemorate the moment. Then he apologizes to Penny at an inopportune moment, but still gets his forgiveness. He even apologizes to Stuart, who’s not included in the Vegas trip. It all goes well for him, his genuine embrace of empathy a far cry from the sarcastic Sheldon everyone is used to. When he tries to apologize to Raj and Emily though, she doesn’t accept his apology, and that creates conflict between Raj and Emily because Raj is ridiculous and always stands up for his friends.
While that conflict initially seems contrived, it does serve a purpose, as it sets everything in motion for the final heartfelt moment anchored by a deft touch of character development. Before getting to that, it should be noted that, as has been the case for way too long, Raj and Emily’s relationship is significantly underexplored. Sure, Laura Spencer only recently got a promotion to cast regular, but that doesn’t excuse the show’s complete lack of interest in the Raj-Emily dynamic. The problem isn’t even that Emily is only in a few episodes, but that she’s hardly ever mentioned in the others, except maybe in passing by Raj. There’s no sense that she’s a part of the lives of the rest of the characters, so when she does show up and everything is so normal, with Emily just there, it feels strange. She’s an outlier in a tight-knit group of people, and yet she seems to just blend in. The Big Bang Theory could do a lot more to explore how her character feels in terms of Raj, his friends, and how she fits into all of that. It would certainly make Raj and Emily’s moments of conflict, like in this week’s episode, feel more substantial and meaningful.
But back to what “The Empathy Optimization” ultimately does right though. All of Sheldon’s apologies and attempts at empathy would mean nothing if it didn’t result in some sort of character growth. A lot has been written about how Sheldon Cooper likely suffers from Asperger syndrome, or falls somewhere on the autism scale. Using that theory as context—and the evidence in his behavior certainly points towards such a diagnosis—the final apology Sheldon makes, once again to Emily, is genuinely touching. He acknowledges his limitations, saying that he’s often unsure about how to put his feelings into words, and often doesn’t understand how he comes across. But that doesn’t mean Sheldon doesn’t feel empathy, pain, joy, sadness. Rather, he has trouble recognizing those feelings in others, in himself, and then has even more trouble in figuring out how to deal with them in a rational way. “In my heart, I mean well,” he says. Sheldon is reckoning with himself, his actions, and his feelings, and that kind of character growth is integral to The Big Bang Theory as it moves forward.
- I’m not sure if there’s a reason for Mayim Bialik’s relative absence, but there’s certainly a hole in the show while Amy is off at the conference.
- “Detroit is beautiful when it’s sleeting.”
- “I said what’s new, but sure.”
- Everyone pack your bags for Sincere City, where the only kind of growth you get is personal growth.