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A sweet, sometimes frustrating Bob's Burgers asks Tina to grow up

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“Yes Without My Zeke” tells us all we will ever need to know about the titular character and his best friend in this or any other world, Jimmy Jr. Those two love each other, and much of the fun of tonight’s episode comes from the steady escalation in just how explicitly the pair are able to communicate their true depth of feeling for each other. The early going takes something that has generally been true in past episodes—that Jimmy Jr. will transparently change his mind about wanting to do something based on how Zeke is doing—and makes it the defining feature of their relationship. Jimmy Jr. is one of either the show’s weirdest or most bleakly logical characters, depending on how hard you find it to reconcile his frequently brusque dismissal of Tina because she cramps his particular vision of being cool with his desperate need for validation from Zeke. That’s been a rich area for past episodes to explore, especially with the show’s occasional strong suggestions that a lot of it is to do with Jimmy Pesto Sr. being so disapproving when it comes to his dancing.

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In practice, though, “Yes Without My Zeke” isn’t about the two sides of Jimmy Jr., because he never really sees or hears Tina at all. She hasn’t been as invisible to him as she is tonight since before her big birthday bash way back in season one. He very vaguely notices Tina is talking to him in the opening cafeteria scene, but even then Tina can determinedly mumble her way into making her siblings’ proposed sun tan bingo a hot date because he’s already so distracted by what Zeke wants. Once Zeke gets back from detention and reveals he has already self-sabotaged his way into an almost certain ticket to reform school, Jimmy Jr. never again acknowledges anyone else unless they are explicitly helping work out how to fix the problem. And, right up until the climax, that is very specifically not Tina. Even as she openly roots for the plan to fail, even as she casually dismisses how much Jimmy Jr. misses Zeke even before he’s gone, nothing she says merits a response from the boy she inexplicably loves. (Well, it’s inexplicable if you take butts out of the equation.)

That is this episode’s big, self-imposed limitation: Tina’s entire emotional arc, the thing that drives and structures the kids’ whole story here, unfolds entirely in her own head. It’s not until Louise, who I’m not even being sarcastic at this point when I call her one of the show’s more emotionally intelligent characters, checks in with her sister right at the end that anyone properly acknowledges what she has been fuming about the entire episode. And that’s the biggest drawback to the episode’s approach, that Tina is stuck in the same character beat for most of the half-hour. Nobody ever calls her out for how uninterested she is in saving Zeke, even as she declares inevitable defeat every 15 seconds. Bob’s Burgers can always change its mind later, but tonight plays like the show admitting there’s nothing new to reveal about Tina and Jimmy Jr., that the latter is already everything he is ever going to be and the only question left is whether Tina is prepared to accept him for who he is and help him be happy with the Zeke he loves. The point of this episode isn’t discovering something new about any of the character dynamics, but rather forcing Tina to reckon with her selfishness and how good a person she wants to be, even when it means giving up the butt of her desires.

Character frustrations aside, the kids’ scheme is a lot of fun to watch unfold. Arthur Evans is the small-statured karate enthusiast the show never even knew it always needed. It’s a funny bit of sweetness that the show never makes the new kid look bad, if occasionally overeager: He sneaks in through the window with no trouble at all—I mean, forgetting the first time to prop the door open isn’t exactly trouble—and throws the stapler far and true as promised. Maybe the other kids kept him from overextending himself by not having him try to take down Mr. Frond, but I wouldn’t bet against him. Especially not against this Mr. Frond, who is pure farcical foil here. I’m not going to disagree that he’s not not pulling off that women’s camouflage tank, but sartorial daring aside this is an especially sad vision of the guidance counselor. He asserts his authority to the unseen kids by boasting he has absolutely nowhere else to go, and he messed up the ceiling in futile pursuit in a way that has at the very least made an enemy of Mr. Branca. The kids feel like they were due for an unequivocal victory, and this one’s a rout.

Bob and Linda’s story is almost entirely separate from the kids’ story, only crossing over briefly as the restaurant closing for the film shoot makes the first Belcher kids’ meeting redundant. Randy returning to the restaurant to complete his indie film A Life Well-Steved—later renamed A Life, Well, Steved—is the perfect setup for Bob to be the only sensible person in the room, right up to when he loses it just as much. Each Randy appearance uncovers new ways in which he is the worst, and his bizarre, possibly subconscious decision to rhyme his entire monologue is an inspired addition to the list. What’s delightful about his and Bob’s interactions is that Bob is artistically minded enough to recognize the script’s shortcomings and to know about The Seventh Seal, but it’s not like he’s actually talented or discerning when he’s forced in front of the camera. Grumbling disbelief gives way to exasperated anger gives way to increasingly manic certainty that he and Randy are onto something here.

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The best Bob’s Burgers episodes find ways to, if not exactly change the status quo, at least to nudge and augment it. That opens up new jokes the show can tell with its characters, plus new ways they can be incorporated in supporting roles—a Louise who is not quite as devoted to being an agent of chaos is useful in a school heist plot like tonight’s, where she can direct the action without threatening to take over. “Yes Without My Zeke” is less satisfying in this regard, as Tina does push against the status quo by being so transparently callous toward her friends’ heartache, but the episode itself ignores her until she recognizes what the right thing to do actually is—unlike her dad, she is allowed to complain in the corner without being called out for it, which means her story has no reason to progress. That’s frustrating because, as soon as Tina snaps into action, she’s instantly so much more interesting! Picking a favorite Tina moment from the first two thirds of the episode is choosing the funniest of a whole bunch of aggrieved murmurs—and each one is fun enough on its own, but there’s not much of a cumulative effect here. But a helpful, active Tina is a Tina trying to obscure her time spent crawling above the boys’ locker room by explaining that was actually her brilliant, beautiful friend none of them have met. It’s a Tina who hatches an audacious plan and admits right before they put it into action they probably ought to pray to God that the cable beams will hold. And yeah, it’s a Tina who can admit that she would rather share a happy Jimmy Jr. than have a heartbroken one all to herself. That’s a sweet takeaway, and maybe it is truer that Jimmy Jr. remain oblivious to that growth, even if it feels like the show is leaving some new jokes or new ideas on the table to stay true to all its characters. With nine seasons now officially in the books, there are worse choices a show could make.

Stray observations

  • “That kid who always wears a karate outfit to school? Or at least I think it’s a karate outfit. I don’t really get fashion.”
  • “So you saw a ladder but grabbed a broom?” “You’re lucky you’re cute!”
  • “Whoa whoa whoa. It’s okay for me to make karate jokes.”
  • “I can put a wrist lock on him, take him down. Is that cool?” “No! Maybe...”
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