Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting

The eighth season of The Big Bang Theory has spent a lot of time avoiding the dramatic tension that one would have assumed to be central to the plot after the many twists and turns of the previous season. For instance, Leonard and Penny got engaged, but other than one episode near the beginning of the season, their engagement has hardly been mentioned. It’s always been there, but never really discussed. The same can be said for Sheldon’s (attempted) disappearance at the end of last season, when he hopped on a train and just took off to get away from everything. Other than a discussion in an earlier episode this season, Sheldon’s sudden abandonment of his friends and, more importantly, Amy, was never really addressed. The aforementioned were big moments last season, and it’s been disappointing to see the show continually avoid exploring the repercussions of Sheldon’s actions, or the evolving relationship between Leonard and Penny.

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But damn, if that avoidance purposely led to tonight’s complete downer of an episode, then perhaps it was all worth it. The Big Bang Theory has always excelled when delivering more emotional episodes, ones that dig into character relationships and feelings with sharp insight and just the right amount of humor. Tonight’s season finale, “The Commitment Determination,” put these characters through the ringer like no other episode before it. It’s a finale that made sure no one left this season unscathed or on stable ground; maybe Stuart is doing okay, in his own Stuart kind of way. If some of the plot beats felt contrived, like the fact that Sheldon has an engagement (I think) ring, that can mostly be forgiven because for the first time in awhile, The Big Bang Theory is treating its characters like people with real motivations, feelings, flaws, and issues.

It’s not often that an episode of The Big Bang Theory boasts a theme connecting all the storyline’s, but tonight’s finale does. All three storylines, in some way, deal with confrontation and compromise in relationships. Each one begins with an acknowledgement of some sort of problem that each couple­­–or in the case of Bernadette, Howard, and Stuart, trio–has failed to confront. For Raj, that’s the fact that his girlfriend, Emily, is kind of dark and twisted, her personality not exactly matching up with his love of Crate & Barrel. For Howard and Bernadette, they’ve yet to confront Stuart about moving out of the house and giving them the space that they need. After all, this is supposed to be the real start of their life together, in an actual house, but there’s Stuart eating all the yogurt again. Then there’s Leonard and Penny, and Sheldon and Amy, two couples dealing with commitment issues. Leonard and Penny have yet to set a date to get married, and it’s clearly wearing on them, making them question their devotion to one another. For Amy, the fact that Sheldon has yet to initiate or consent to sex, and would rather weigh the pros and cons of watching The Flash, suggests to her that Sheldon may not be as devoted as she wants him to be.

From these flash points, the storylines unravel into chaos and explore dark thematic territory like infidelity, intimacy, commitment, and compromise. Every relationship on the show suddenly becomes much more complicated, and that’s for the better. While it would have been nice to see some of the issues here explored over multiple episodes, there’s something stirring about watching these relationship dynamics shift all at the same time, because sometimes that’s how relationship problems happen; they go unacknowledged for quite some time and then suddenly announce themselves as loudly as possible.

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The most low-key confrontation in the finale is the one between Bernadette, Howard, and Stuart. In predictable fashion, the married couple can’t muster the nerve to kick Stuart out, especially since it’s his birthday, so they settle on keeping him around for awhile and making him a celebratory cupcake. The other three relationships at the heart of the episode end in devastating fashion though. Raj, having learned that Emily wants to have sex in a cemetery, momentarily considers breaking up with her before he gets scared and tells her that he loves her. Raj has always been afraid of being alone, so the move makes sense in terms of character, but this time it’s not as funny as it should be, partly because of all the misanthropy in the rest of the episode. More than that though, it’s sad because he’s failed to be true to himself, failed to take Emily’s feelings into consideration, and ultimately ignored their compatibility issues. This won’t end well for either of them, and knowing that the train wreck is coming is perhaps worse than seeing it take place.

While the consequences of Raj’s many compromises are up in the air, it’s much more clear where Sheldon and Amy stand. Having spent the entire episode apart due to Sheldon’s complete lack of emotional sensitivity, Sheldon and Amy finally hope to reconcile over a video call. Before Sheldon can begin to apologize though, as it seems he’s ready to do, Amy jumps in and airs some of her grievances. She talks about how patient she’s been with him, and how exhausting it’s been emotionally to have to give so much to a relationship without getting much back. She’s reached a breaking point, and so she decides that she needs to step back and take a break from their relationship to gain some perspective on what she wants and whether or not Sheldon can give it to her. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but one justified by character history, as it’s been clear for some time that Amy has been more than patient with Sheldon and that he often takes that for granted.

Then there’s Leonard and Penny; for all intents and purposes, the Sam and Diane of The Big Bang Theory. It’s seemed clear for some time that the two would end up together, that after their engagement all would be well, the “will they or won’t they?” finally settled. It’s to the show’s credit then that the finale complicates things for the two, and just as the characters, and us viewers, were getting complacent. Firstly, when the two decide to drive to Las Vegas and get a quickie marriage, it’s not a moment of joy, but rather one with an undercurrent of crippling avoidance. By going to Vegas to get married, they’re putting an end to the questions about why they haven’t set a wedding date, but they’re not actually dealing with the deeper reasons behind their lack of urgency.

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Leonard reveals part of his hesitation on the car ride to Vegas, admitting to Penny that while he was away on that northern expedition for months, he kissed another woman. It’s a smart reveal in terms of flipping the relationship and gender roles, as Leonard has always been the one who’s pictured this perfect monogamous fantasy with Penny, while Penny is the one with the sexually adventurous past. By making Leonard the one who has cheated, the show not only avoids throwing Penny under the bus and undercutting seasons-worth of character development, but it also complicates and deepens Leonard as a character. It introduces a major flaw in his “nice guy” routine and presents an obstacle for the two going forward, as they continue to drive to Vegas but with a palpable air of disappointment hanging over them.

What’s beautiful about the episode is how quietly devastating it is. There are no real big confrontations or shouting matches, just a whole lot of compromise and broken spirits. There’s a verisimilitude to “The Commitment Determination” that’s remarkable; it’s often the slight disappointments in our relationships that are the most heartbreaking because, unlike the loud confrontations, there’s no resolution, no catharsis. We’re just left to wonder how long this feeling lasts and what the hell we do next.

Stray observations:

  • I can’t believe Sheldon is even considering not watching The Flash. It’s a great show!
  • However, Leonard does understand that Sheldon’s commitment to TV shows no matter how much the quality drops off is dangerous: “Smallville almost wrecked you.”
  • “Other than Jenny Craig, you’ve never broken up with a girl in your life.”
  • Stuart just can’t catch a break: “He didn’t have jaundice, he just looks like that.”
  • That’s a wrap on the eighth season! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, everyone. It’s been an inconsistent season, but the finale has me intrigued about where these characters go from here. I’m not expecting a turn into dark thematic territory or anything, but maybe some actual dramatic tension rooted in true-to-life relationship problems. Hopefully I’ll be seeing you all in the fall!

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