Leaving aside the Mulaney-induced scheduling quirkiness that led to tonight’s episode airing a week , after the annual Bob’s Burgers Christmas episode, “Tina Tailor Soldier Spy” is a fine way for the show to close out 2014. As its title implies, this episode is a Tina showcase the likes of which we haven’t seen since, oh, let’s say “The Equestranauts.” Yet the Belcher sister who benefits most from this story is actually Louise, who tempers her usual brash, borderline-psychotic overconfidence with some more human emotions. Yes, this is a Thundergirl espionage story, but it’s also, as the once-again dark-haired Linda recognizes at episode’s end, a sweet little story about a little sister who is jealous of the organization that monopolizes so much of her big sister’s time. Throw in that bit of business about Linda going blonde and Troop 257 being the single most evil assortment of cookie sellers ever assembled, and you’ve got a special episode on your hands. And that’s even before we get to Gene and Bob bonding over the former’s elegant taste in trashion.
For its title character, “Tina Tailor Soldier Spy” is the perfect reminder of how Bob’s Burgers has moved Tina forward from her initial characterization. Basically, she’s still the same ridiculously awkward dork she was way back in the first season, but at some point—her realization of herself as “a smart, strong, sensual woman” in “The Belchies” seems like a good candidate—she just decided to own it, and Tina has been on a tear ever since. All the show really did was take her weirdness, which initially made her withdrawn and socially awkward, and point it outward, letting it filter through all her earnest, gloriously wrongheaded attempts to be affable. That’s what makes all of her interactions so funny, really: Tina honestly thinks she’s being smooth as hell at all points here, at least in the moment. She might later recognize that she was being painfully transparent in her attempts to hide her undercover assignment from her siblings or from her fellow Thundergirls, but, as it all unfolds, Tina is pretty sure this is just what being a self-possessed young woman on a mission entails. She’s spectacularly bad at just about everything she’s asked to do—at least until the endgame, but we’ll get back to that—but her belief in herself is what allows the episode to strike a nice balance between funny and endearing.
Plus, the Thundergirls prove a terrific source of comedy. I’m not familiar enough with the cultures of either gender’s scouts to know how accurate the depiction here is, but my sense is that the episode isn’t really expecting the audience to relate to what’s on display here. This is a self-consciously outlandish story, but the episode is clever in having it both ways. By introducing the specter of Troop 257 through a conversation between Tina and her apparently unhinged former troop leader, “Tina Tailor Soldier Spy” invites us to assume that this mole business is all in her head: I mean, seriously, a mole in a Thundergirls troop? Indeed, most of the episode offers no further hint that this is anything more than a wild goose chase, one sustained by the overactive imaginations of Tina and Louise.
The introduction of Troop 257, which fast reveals itself to be more of a cult-like gang than a bunch of wannabe girl scouts, only confirms that this is one of those situations wherein the insanity of everyone else far exceeds that of the Belchers, but it still doesn’t make the mole feel all that plausible until Reina launches into her big evil monologue. What’s clever about this is that “Tina Tailor Soldier Spy” never really asks us to take the plot seriously right up to the point that Troop 257 confirms that everything has unfolded exactly as Tina’s troop leader thought it did, which allows the episode to have play this ridiculous story straight while still making everyone who took it seriously look silly. I mean, even if she was right that there was a mole, that woman was still an apocalyptically bad troop leader.
The climactic reveal is also where Bob and Linda come in handy. Linda’s vacation as a blonde isn’t really substantial enough to be considered a full-fledged b-story, but it does all it needs to, which is to give the parents something to do while keeping them around the restaurant in time for the denouement. The main story benefits from having the uninvolved Belchers on hand to comment on it from their various perspectives: Bob’s usual befuddled skepticism, Linda’s blondeness-assisted confusion, and Gene’s unchecked cookie-lust. This is a fairly typical role for Bob and Linda, but Linda’s belief that her dye job has somehow made her dumber adds its own unique spin to the proceedings; usually you need to get Linda drunk to make her this confused by what is unfolding. (I mean, we really shouldn’t rule out that she’s drunk here as well. Linda’s a champ that way.) And, on the way there, the episode gives us inspired bits of business like Linda asking to be called “Blom” now, a request that of course Gene happily accedes to, and her and Bob’s extended riff on whether a soldier being shot in the eye is good grist for a sex fantasy.
As for Louise, she is in a similar position as Tina, as it’s likewise difficult to imagine her character being used like this in an earlier episode. Yes, the investigation itself is vintage Louise, but it isn’t all that long ago that the show would have felt no need to explain her motivations beyond invoking a general disdain for the Thundergirls. But now, there’s a sense that that dislike ought to come from somewhere, and it’s heartening that the episode ultimately traces that back to Louise’s love of—or at least possessiveness of—her big sister. Louise has gone from all-purpose force of chaos and destruction to someone more recognizably human; the former made sense in the early days when the show needed that kind of spark to get itself rolling, while the latter is necessary to ensure Louise doesn’t become too much of a caricature compared to the show’s more finely drawn characters. I’d say this shift began in earnest toward the end of the third season with “Boyz 4 Now” and “Carpe Museum”—hey, it’s a scientific fact that Regular-Sized Rudy brings out the best in Louise—and this episode builds on a number of season four entries—particularly “The Kids Run Away,” “Mazel-Tina,” and “Slumber Party,” which also gave us a bunch of tonight’s guest characters—in suggesting that Louise is not the emotionless juggernaut she fancies herself to be. I’m kind of hoping Louise (and the show) wasn’t kidding when she said she was going to wear that friendship bracelet forever. Back off, indeed!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that John le Carre is one of my favorite authors, and that I discovered his work mainly through the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy adaptation from a few years back. As such, I was probably predisposed to love this episode, even if it does rather unsurprisingly end up using the story more a loose inspiration than as a subject of direct parody.
“You’re like the Brett Favre of Thundergirls.”
“Also, your sash is a disaster. Ugh, that was driving me crazy.”
“Troop 119 shaped me into the woman I am!” “I thought your underwear did that.”
“Changing subjects, be honest: Do I look like a Jessica?”
“What do you want to smell like?” “Mm, surprise me.”