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The Big Bang Theory: “The Maternal Combustion”

Johnny Galecki, Christine Baranski, Jim Parsons, Laurie Metcalf
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Relationships are hard. If we’re lucky, we put forward a patient and caring attitude that allows us to develop them over time. Whether it’s a friendship, a romance, or a filial relationship, they all take work, and they all have a profound effect on us as we grow older. What “The Marital Combustion” proposes is that we never really stop having to work on those relationships because they’re so multifaceted, and that, over time, people tend to change, shifting out understanding of them and ourselves.


“The Marital Combustion” explores two of the more intriguing mother-child relationships on the show. With Leonard and Sheldon set to receive an award for their groundbreaking paper, their moms come to town to celebrate and bask in their professional success…or at least Mrs. Cooper does, as Dr. Hofstadter has always been reluctant to give Leonard any sort of praise. Her psychiatric background informs her parenting technique, which involves doling out love as a reward. On the other hand, Mrs. Cooper’s brand of unconditional love is informed by her Christian beliefs. The contrast between the two parenting styles and belief systems, coupled with the fact that Leonard and Sheldon turned out to be very alike, at least intellectually, provides some of the most interesting character work of the season.

In terms of comedy, the pairing of Mrs. Cooper and Dr. Hofstadter (played wonderfully, as always, by Laurie Metcalf and Christine Baranski) is a natural one, their conflicting belief systems allowing for particularly cutting barbs. What’s nice about their interaction though is that it never really devolves into an explosive disagreement. Yes, the two get their shots in–Mrs. Cooper laments Dr. Hofstadter’s cold existence, while Dr. Hofstadter slaps her head in disbelief that Sheldon’s mother could believe that God had made her plane ride safe and smooth–but the conflict serves a distinct purpose, which is more than can be said for most of the show’s bickering, which often feels contrived; it’s conflict for the sake of conflict. Here, the arguments lead to reflection and introspection, with Dr. Hofstadter realizing that their may be more than one way to raise and child, and Mrs. Cooper recognizing that, as a Christian, she should be more understanding and less confrontational. It’s not just a warm, fuzzy conclusion though; it’s an insight into Leonard and Sheldon’s relationship. Leonard and Sheldon have been friends for a long time, and seeing the way their mothers interact with one another upon meeting each other for the first time is a fun way to show just how far Leonard and Sheldon have come as friends. Sure, they always had science in common, and they have a close friendship now, but they came from totally different backgrounds and still find themselves at odds with one another every so often. Relationships are work.

Maternal affection extends to the episode’s B-plot, where, after sitting around all day playing videogames and barely managing to put on pants, Howard, Raj, and Stuart are put to work by Bernadette. She says she’s sick of feeling like she adopted three teenagers and that they all need to start pulling their weight, especially if Raj wants his wool sweaters laundered properly. For once, Bernadette asking for help around the house doesn’t feel like a trite decision in order to generate friction between her and Howard, or one that paints Bernadette as unnecessarily bossy. Instead, Bernadette is the sympathetic character here, and while that means that the guys have to bear the brunt of the reductive stereotypes–Howard and Raj in particular are either incompetent man-children or sensitive, smart guys, with no middle ground to be found–it’s still refreshing to see the show cast some light, however brief, on the imbalance in Howard and Bernadette’s marriage.

Plus, the storyline gives us one of those signature Simon Helberg physical comedy bits. After he cleans up some garbage that fell on the floor, he revels in his ability to be a man and actually do one damn thing around the house. He basks in his glory as Bernadette congratulates him. Then, when he goes to give her a kiss, his shoe sticks to the floor. “Okay, maybe I missed one spot,” he says before taking another step and losing his sock. It’s an easy bit, but an effective one, as Helberg has always brought a physical aspect to his comedy, be it his exaggerated facial expressions or the contortion of his body in strange, hilarious ways. His small, skinny frame means he’s adaptable to a number of physical situations, and his character’s history of being a mama’s boy underscores his more timid (but funny) physical moments.


While the maternal relationships that ground the episode are interesting, the most compelling relationship going forward is one that’s only mentioned briefly at the beginning of the episode. Leonard’s mother mentions that he’s been engaged to Penny for a year now, and wonders when they might get married. He insists they’re taking it slow, while Dr. Hofstadter posits that their on-and-off romance, coupled with this lengthy engagement, might signal problems in their relationship. It’s one of the more intriguing ideas leading into the finale, as Leonard and Penny’s engagement/relationship has hardly been a focus this year. Their romance has felt underserved all season long, but that small comment from Dr. Hofstadter might be enough to spark some exploration in the future. Considering that next week’s finale is titled “The Commitment Determination,” The Big Bang Theory might finally get back to one of it’s more interesting, versatile, and longest-running stories: Leonard and Penny’s relationship.

Stray observations:

  • Is it worth mentioning that Penny’s “Asian baby” comment is weird and offputting? Or do we just consider that par for the course on a Chuck Lorre show?
  • I thought that this week’s episode tag was one of the better ones of the season, with Raj, Stuart, and Howard gleefully singing “It’s A Hard-Knock Life.”
  • “As a bit of an elephant seal buff…”. Stop right there, Sheldon.
  • When Amy asks Sheldon for flowers, he refuses, citing that he’d be giving her a “bouquet of severed plant genitals.”

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