Everyone has insecurities. Whether in regards to our careers, our relationships, our sexual performance, our media consumption or any other number of things, we all have certain sore spots that, when mentioned or exploited, leave us feeling terrible about ourselves. Few feelings are as human as being self-aware of our failures. “The Expedition Approximation” builds around the exploration of various insecurities, and while the overall effect isn’t overly profound, it’s a welcome change of pace in a season that’s had its own fair share of shortcomings.

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The episode begins with the group gathered around the table in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment, where Penny is being complimented for taking her work seriously while Howard pokes fun at Leonard, asking him how it feels to know that his gorgeous girlfriend is flirting with doctors all day while he sits around looking like a bum. It’s a small moment played for a laugh (and a solid one, in no small part due to the way Simon Helberg delivers the punchline with that dismissive hand gesture), but it’s a harbinger of what’s to come. His comment doesn’t necessarily kickstart the events that unfold later, but they reveal the episode’s focus on power dynamics in relationships and feelings of self-worth.

While gathered around the table, Raj brings up a potential research opportunity for Sheldon in his new field of dark matter. A research group is looking to send teams down into salt mines, and Raj thinks it’d be a great opportunity for both of them to get in on the ground floor of something new and exciting, and to make progress in their respective fields. Sheldon agrees, but the group laughs it off, knowing that the two of them could never work together in such a confined, harsh environment. Sheldon and Raj, perhaps emboldened by their friends’ lack of faith, decide to stage a simulation of what they would experience in the coal mine. Against Raj’s advice, and resulting in one of the episode’s best laughs, Sheldon Googles “hot, dark, and moist” in order to find a suitable substitute for the coal mine experience. Eventually, they decide to make camp in the steam tunnels below the university.

The majority of this storyline is predictable comedy, but it’s not withouts its pleasures. We know we’ll see Sheldon struggling to adapt to the enclosed space while getting increasingly annoyed by Raj. They’re easy beats, but considering the fact that Jim Parsons and Kunal Nayyar get so little time to work together as a duo, there’s a vigor to the rare pairing. The two play particularly well off one another when Sheldon decides that singing mining songs would be a great way to keep his mind off of his claustrophobia. “Do you know any mining songs?” asks Raj. “Only the hits,” replies Sheldon, before he dives into a dark and morbid tale of labor and death. What’s great about the way Nayyar and Parsons play the scene is that Nayyar allows Raj to be disturbed, but not surprised. Of course Sheldon would know some horribly depressing mining song. It’s what he does.

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Among the morbid tunes and melting Kit-Kat bars, Sheldon reveals that his anxiety in the steam tunnels isn’t just caused by claustrophobia. In a wonderfully touching monologue, he tells Raj that he’s scared of starting his research all over again after building a respected reputation for himself in the field of string theory. There’s real vulnerability in his confession, and Raj, always the most caring of the group, responds in kind, weaving a beautiful tale of how the continuous exploration undertaken by the Voyager program kept him hopeful when he left India for America. It’s a resonant (and relatable) moment, and brings these two characters, however briefly, closer together. The scene loses some of its effect when Sheldon eventually leaves Raj stranded after seeing rats appear behind him, but there’s still the residue of something earnest there. It’s a start.

In the episode’s other storyline, Penny sells the car Leonard gave her when she was a struggling actress and gives the money to Leonard. “Now we’re even!” she heartily exclaims, but Leonard isn’t as excited. The show does a great job of setting us up for a potential argument right away–Penny is being particularly hostile toward Leonard for not accepting the cash, dismissing his feelings of nostalgia–before pulling the rug out from under us. She presents Leonard with a picture of them next to the car, enclosed in a frilly pink frame that says “Best Fiancé Ever.” It’s a solid bit of misdirection that expertly plays on audience expectations. We expect Leonard to be overly sentimental, and Penny to be kind of cold, so it’s nice to see the writer’s subvert that for a tender moment.

Still, the exchange of money leads to what Penny coins a “shift in power” in the relationship. She’s no longer a starving actress who needs to rely on her boyfriend, and she thinks that might make Leonard insecure. He’s appalled, even though he knows she’s right. “I can’t believe you’d say that. You know how insecure I am about my insecurities,” he says. This leads them to consult Howard and Bernadette, hoping to gather some sort of wisdom about how to handle finances in a committed relationship from the group’s lone married couple.

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It’s a fantastic setup with the potential for a great blend of comedy and drama, but what follows is a series of scenes that can’t decide on what tone or message to convey. Howard and Bernadette essentially spiral into a series of arguments about their money and contributions to the relationship, kickstarted by Bernadette’s statement that she makes “so much” more money than her husband. The ensuing arguments are bitter and hostile, and frustrating to watch as a viewer. This is the same couple that gave us one of last season’s sweetest moments, where Howard sang to Bernadette when she was in quarantine. Here, Bernadette is reduced to a shrill, nagging wife, and Howard a petulant man-child. The entire storyline is contrived, humorless, and unnecessarily harsh. Are we supposed to laugh at the verbal abuse these two so readily throw at each other? It would seem that’s what the show expects, but the bitterness and cynicism on display is hardly playful sitcom fodder; it’s downright toxic. Even a late-episode acknowledgement of culturally ingrained gender roles (e.g. the male feeling like he needs to be a provider) by Bernadette can’t save the storyline. If we’re really reaching for something positive here, the episode does use Leonard and Penny as audience surrogates, letting us know that using your partner’s insecurities or past indiscretions as a weapon in an argument is a shameless and immature thing to do.

But that’s giving the storyline more credit than it deserves. Sheldon may have left Raj behind in the steam tunnels, but there was real heart and connection to their scenes together, and their actions and dialogue fell in line with what we know about these characters. The same can’t be said for the vile exchanges that made up the rest of this episode. While the former storyline puts Raj and Sheldon into an unfamiliar and challenging situation, therefore injecting their relationship (and the show) with something fresh and exciting, the latter storyline completely ignores any sense of character progression or narrative consistency, instead peddling some of the nastiest “punchlines” the show has ever produced.

Stray observations:

  • Learning that Sheldon and Raj lasted a whole 11 minutes in the steam tunnels was a fantastic late-episode punchline. Sometimes, this show gets its misdirection beats right.
  • Sage advice from Raj: Stick with Hannah Montana until season two, because the show was really still finding itself in that first season.
  • Shadow Of The Colossus was mentioned, in depth, on a mainstream comedy watched regularly by about 16 million people.
  • “I’m not just a genius in bed.”
  • Sheldon: “Are they making fun of us?” Raj: “Yep.” Sheldon: “I miss the old days when I didn’t know.”
  • “In my mind, that broke the tension with comedy and led to sex.”
  • Raj, on Howard’s lack of sauna etiquette: “I love Howard, but the dude needs a little shame.”
  • Bernadette asking Howard how much he paid for his latest Star Trek collector’s plate: “Was it more or less than falconry school?”
  • Sheldon doesn’t deal with claustrophobia so well: “I’m tempted to crack you open and suck the air right out of your lungs.”

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