Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki

For most of its runtime, “The Septum Deviation” is a lighthearted, perfectly serviceable episode of The Big Bang Theory. It fires off the one-liners, gets in a few great Sheldon tangents, and plays off of the intimate relationships these characters have shared over the years. Then, in one of its storylines, it once again devolves into nastiness. Here though, the nastiness has me questioning the direction of the show. Suddenly, the constant bickering between Howard and Bernadette doesn’t feel like a contained incident in an episode that we’re meant to forget by next week. I’m starting to wonder if there’s more going on here.

First, the positives. In the episode’s leanest storyline, Leonard, after a trip to the doctor, learns that he has a deviated septum and opts for a routine surgery to repair it. He snores, he gets sinus infections, and he struggles to breathe, so the surgery is a no-brainer. Sheldon doesn’t see it that way though, and he has a series of statistics to back up his opinion. Mostly, the surgery acts as a storytelling device that allows for Sheldon to be Sheldon; to list off numbers and ludicrous situations that might lead to Leonard’s death on the operating table. In this sense, the storyline works. Parsons delivering a manic monologue is always good for a laugh, especially when he’s hypothesizing about the deadly possibilities of something as mundane as nasal surgery.

Sheldon, after all, is a mess of emotions as comprehended through equations. What’s lovely about the ensuing narrative, which sees Sheldon force Amy to take him to the hospital so that he can make sure Leonard is ok (or tell him “I told you so” if he dies), is that it gives us a heartwarming version of Sheldon; a version that shows he has real, deep emotions, and an intimate bond with his friend and roommate. Sheldon may be spouting useless statistics about asteroid strikes externally, but internally he’s dealing with the potential loss of his friend. It’s a bit of a stretch in terms of storytelling–Sheldon’s a smart guy, so is he really worried that much about a routine surgery?–but when you consider that last season he lost his childhood idol, and also failed when venturing out on his own in the finale, suddenly his fear of loss and abandonment is rooted in his backstory, and that makes the emotions on display all the more relatable.

Loss plays a part in the episode’s other storyline, where Raj is dealing with his parents suddenly splitting up. He turns to Howard and Bernadette for comfort during this tumultuous time, but they provide little relief. Other than a few muffin-themed puns, the impending divorce only serves to highlight the problems in Howard and Bernadette’s relationship. It’s hard to tell if the couple making the divorce about them is just selfishness on their part, or if the split ignited some dormant, subconscious anxieties Howard and Bernadette have been having about their own marriage.

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When Bernadette tells Howard that she’s worried about bottling up their feelings and criticisms, therefore allowing their marriage to collapse much like Raj’s parents’ did, he suggests a trick he learned in couples therapy where each person says the things they love about one another rather than focusing on negative feelings. Because this is The Big Bang Theory, and because this is its most toxic relationship, the string of pleasantries quickly turns sour, resulting in a bunch of backhanded, passive-aggressive faux-compliments. It’s nothing the show hasn’t done before; only a few weeks ago it conjured one of the nastiest, most cynical shouting matches on this show to date. Here though, something felt different. Bernadette’s cautious, pre-emptive musing on the importance of communication in relationships seems honest, not just a sitcom trope that pushes the narrative towards the passive-aggressive argument. Instead, this argument feels real, rooted in harsh truths that have turned Howard and Bernadette into two unbearable characters. I’m not ready to pull the trigger and say that The Big Bang Theory is leading towards a divorce or separation, but the consistent nastiness of Howard and Bernadette towards each other has to be building to something, towards some sort of relationship hurdle or strife. There’s the potential for meaningful conflict here, a storyline that could span multiple episodes and earn moments of character growth, a far cry from the contrived tension that’s taken place so far this season.

Stray observations:

  • Great bit of delayed misdirection with the couples therapy joke.
  • Leonard wakes up and finds Sheldon sitting next to him, watching him sleep, which allows for another great Galecki line delivery, equal parts complacency and frustration. “OK, why?” he sighs.
  • Tesla is just a poor man’s Sheldon Cooper.
  • “I was distracted. He’s wearing extra baby powder today.”
  • Nothing quite as soothing as a mucus-powered white noise machine.

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