The showrunners behind Bob’s Burgers have often emphasized that no matter what, the family loves each other, and the jokes come second; as the show’s matured, that essential sincerity (liberally peppered with sharpness, of course) has become one of its selling points. Not that it means things go well for them: in fact, it’s so often the opposite that given their track record, you’d think the Belchers would just avoid having special days any more. But you can always count on the Belchers to make their own fun as often as they make their own disasters.

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And here we have both! Turns out not even Linda can keep birthdays at bay, and is being forced to suffer through her fortieth. The only question, then, is whether she’s in for a pop-referential adventure or a character piece. And while this is a busy episode, “Eat, Spray, Linda” is definitely the latter, as Linda handles a little downhill-roll adulthood debacle while the family races to save her before whatever usually befalls the Belchers can befall her.

This isn’t the first time the show’s separated Linda from the group just to see how everybody handles the resulting crisis: while this episode feels like it structurally owes the most to “My Fuzzy Valentine”—from the three-beat folktale approach of their journey to Bob’s iffy present-making skills, which are as well-meaning as ever but have not improved—the family has also had to run a gauntlet to save her from disaster before, in “Seaplane!” And just like in “Seaplane!”, Linda reminds us she’s perfectly good at saving herself, if for no other reason than she’s the Belcher who goes into every situation assuming she has nothing to lose. (Bob’s been there plenty, but he usually has to be driven there after several missed attempts at social saves. Linda’s more than happy to come in swinging. God help the chalk festival that gets in her way.)

One of the reasons the show has managed to be charming without feeling overstretched is that he endless misfortunes visited upon the Belcher family tend to split the difference between delightfully outlandish and awkwardly close to home. The episode wastes almost no time on any sighs about aging, and gets right to the part where life itself can seem so overwhelming that you just want events to cross that absurdist line and give you an excuse to get back at the world. Linda’s tribulations use sitcom stalwarts and build right along—birthday doldrums, awful grocery-store checkout, keys locked in the car, pants, the vagaries of public transit, skunks, horses—until by the time she crashes the chalk festival she’s moved from mom trope to surreal superhero in that uniquely Bob’s Burgers way.

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The (very low-key) twist on the show’s formula is that this time, the kids—with an assist from Uncle Teddy, whose on-and-off interest in Linda is back on so long as you’re only talking about wrists—have to test what they know about her while trying to track her down. It’s not particularly zany, but part of the point of a show so familiar with itself is that it doesn’t have to be; this episode is happy just to be a gentle celebration of Linda’s ability to bring the family together, even while weathering her own disasters an hour and a half away. It’s charming that the kids happily accept that each of them has a special part of Mom, especially Louise, whose puppy-petting outings with Mom as so good that Tina reevaluates her whole life for a second. It’s charming for Bob, so much as it can be, that enough people dislike Linda that he gets to be chivalrous on her behalf (“No one talks about my wife’s giant hands on her birthday!”), while being surprised at all the sides of his wife he still doesn’t quite know.

If that sounds par for the course, that’s not particularly a fault in “Eat, Spray, Linda,” really. Being structured so similarly to previous episodes offers a lot of opportunity for character continuity, but it also means that this isn’t an episode that’s going to deliver a lot of unexpected beats. It’s a heartwarmer, and that’s all it wants to be. Even Linda’s thrilled with how things turn out: she “kicked this day’s butt,” getting back the confidence we never really figured she’d lost, and ends up a hero to her kids (the survivalist streak rings Louise’s bells, and her encounter with horses is exciting enough it might qualify as a birthday present to Tina all by itself). It’s one of those episodes that shows the warm, gooey family center of Bob’s Burgers, focusing on relationships and even letting the Belchers score a win or two—or six, depending on how happy we are for Gene getting a go at all that pumpernickel.

Stray observations:

  • While the bakery trips and pet-store detours are sweet, it’s The Royal Oyster Hotel that surprised me: the conflicts in Bob’s Burgers so often move along class lines and so realistically shut the Belchers down that the big reveal about the swanky hotel is that everybody who works there loves Linda. (We know why they would—imagine Linda crashing hotel functions—but Bob’s taken aback anyway.) It’s one of the biggest social wins we’ve seen from the Belchers in a while.
  • I recognize that half the purpose of these title puns is to deliberately belabor the point, but this one still has to be up there on the list. (The chalk festival can stay.)
  • “A mayonnaise hair treatment? Mom’s hair’s going to shine like a beautiful sandwich.”
  • So it might be too early to call it, but best delivery of “I’ll do it this afternoon” ever shown in the history of television, right?
  • The voicemail to Ginger was somehow the most reassuring beat of this episode for Linda. Loving her family’s already on lockdown, but Ginger’s characterization is a mile wide and she’s sometimes hard for Linda to swallow, and it’s nice to see Linda excited to talk to her (sort of).
  • It’s always interesting to see Gene hitting a moment of real childhood: both “We’ll never find her! There are dozens of ways to walk home!” and “She has a hook for a hand! I’m sure of it!” reflect that little-kid panic that sets in when Mom’s vanished.
  • Darkest joke, best joke: “That’s like, six—six petals.” “Yeah, not a lot of funerals this month. Mort said to check back around the holidays.”
  • Tina’s journey toward adulthood continues, one practical realization at a time. “I’m beginning to think my secret bathroom trips with Mom aren’t as fun as what you guys do.” Welcome to the big time, kid.
  • “What did that baby do?” “He’s just a jerk.”
  • Thanks to Alasdair for letting me sub in while he was trapped on an express bus to the other wharf.

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