The Big Bang Theory has spent the last few weeks dealing with the fallout of Amy and Sheldon’s breakup. While Sheldon is, arguably, not over her just yet, he has been able to at least process his feelings in a legitimate way. He’s found comfort in pop culture and the advice of his friends. He’s steadily come to a realization that perhaps Amy changed him for the better, that her presence allowed him to open up and reckon with his more guarded tendencies. Of course, the show was bound to backtrack, to get back to the Sheldon and Amy romance one way or another.

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Such a reversion back to their potential relationship is a way to truly test the show and its character work after eight full seasons. Exploring the connection between Amy and Sheldon could lead to the show repeating a lot of the same beats that it employed during the build to their relationship, but considering the fact that this comes on the heels of a breakup, there’s a chance for a change in tone and dynamic. Sheldon has shown growth in the last few episodes, and there’s great opportunity to continue that maturity by having them go through a tense “will they or won’t they” storyline.

Despite the potential for repetitious storytelling, “The Platonic Permutation” begins to wade into the romantic drama in a nuanced and heartfelt way. That stands in contrast to so much of this week’s episode, which falls back on narrative beats that are rote and familiar by this point. When Raj, Emily (yeah, she still exists!), Bernadette, and Howard all go to a soup kitchen to volunteer for Thanksgiving, typical shenanigans take place. The entire storyline relies on the old dynamic of man-child Howard and impatient Bernadette. It’s a dynamic that can work from time to time, but it really depends on the premise and comedic timing. Here, the whole plot boils down to Howard complaining about having to work for six hours at the kitchen—at least until he meets Elon Musk there. The segment fails because it never really digs into anything meaningful despite the potential. Plus, it’s one of those Howard plots that exposes just how horrible he is and expects the audience to laugh along. There’s no humor in it at all, meaning every beat falls flat.

Penny and Leonard’s storyline doesn’t pan out much better. While making Thanksgiving dinner for all of their friends, Penny goes to pull up the recipes on Leonard’s iPad. He tells her that his password is his birthday, but she can’t get in. Leonard does it with ease and realizes that she doesn’t know his birthday. That gives Leonard reason to gloat, showing off how much he knows about Penny just to make her feel worse. It’s fun and playful up until the point that Leonard reveals a fact about Penny—that she doesn’t like the orange lingerie he bought her—that he couldn’t possibly have known because she only ever wrote it in her diary. From there the plot nosedives, with Leonard trying to apologize in every way possible, eventually leading to him putting on the lingerie and telling Penny she can post a shame photo of him on Facebook. It’s an unfunny climax; putting a man in woman’s clothing isn’t a punchline, and it’s a disappointing end to a story that otherwise started out with some real tension. The Big Bang Theory seems to be allergic to actually testing Penny and Leonard anymore, especially considering how quickly they moved past the whole cheating thing at the start of this season.

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The main plot of Sheldon and Amy spending Thanksgiving together at the aquarium, in contrast, boasts a tone that’s much more organic and deeply-felt. Rather than contrived bits of comedy, their segment is built on years of character development. That’s evident in the early-episode switch in the story. When Sheldon first agrees to join Amy at the aquarium as friends, he brings along a list of topics to talk about so things don’t get awkward. It’s a premise that the show would normally drag out, but there’s a quick shift, as Amy says that the two of them have been friends (and more) for a long time and are certainly capable of having an adult conversation. They touch on Amy’s dating life while on the car ride, and then bond over Sheldon’s game of “Eat, Fight, Befriend” once at the aquarium. There’s a natural chemistry between Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons, and they bring that to their character interactions here.

It makes the final part of the episode all the more heartbreaking. When Sheldon heads home he confesses that he had a good time with Amy, that it was nice to have a friendship in place after their relationship. Then Amy calls on her way home from Thanksgiving with her mother and says that she had a great time at the aquarium, and says that she’s ready to be Sheldon’s girlfriend again if he’s willing. Sheldon contemplates it, but then says that despite being good at a number of things, getting over her isn’t one of them, and he thinks that he needs to just be friends. Tears well up in Amy’s eyes as she accepts his decision while also regretting her previous one.

Like the whole main plot, the final stretch hits home because it’s built on character, not on premise. It makes sense that Sheldon wouldn’t be eager to go back to Amy, to experience such vulnerability again, and it makes sense that Amy would miss that rapport she had with Sheldon, no matter how difficult he could be. The story could still go wrong from here, but ”The Platonic Permutation” handles post-breakup Sheldon and Amy with real nuance and heart.

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Stray observations

  • Yeah, not really down with Howard making grandma butt jokes. He was unbearable this week.
  • “Nice try. N’Sync forever.”
  • Howard responds to getting called out for thinking the soup kitchen will be like a production of Oliver: “It’s not like I’m expecting them to sing!”
  • Elon Musk is too generous with the gravy.
  • Amy to Sheldon: “It wouldn’t be a holiday without you being mad at a baby.”
  • Laura Spencer has been promoted to a “fractional series regular,” so maybe we’ll be seeing more Emily in the future.

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