Holiday-themed episodes tend to have a way of forcing TV shows to really focus on creating a connective thread between the episode’s various plots. Sometimes the holiday theme is a way to bring a bunch of characters together for one big chaotic bit of comedy. Sometimes it allows certain pairings to separate and yet remain thematically connected across the half-hour. Tonight’s Valentine’s Day-themed episode of The Big Bang Theory falls into that latter category, with the day of love and companionship (or loneliness and gross capitalism, depending on where you stand) promoting an episode structure that sees each subplot nicely tied together.

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Considering that the show has struggled to find a way forward for all the characters after intensely focusing on Amy and Sheldon’s relationship for the first half of the season, the cohesive nature of this episode is more than welcome. It starts with the group of guys sitting in the cafeteria, Sheldon inviting all of them to join him and Amy for a special Valentine’s Day live stream of ‘Fun With Flags.’ Howard declines because he’s breaking in a new hot tub with Bernadette (Sheldon has no idea what he means), Leonard declines because he has dinner plans with Penny and also declines any future invitations, and Raj declines because he’s hanging out with Emily, or so he says in the saddest voice possible. Thus begins a discussion about whether Raj should finally break up with Emily, something he’s been thinking about for quite some time. For too long the show has ignored their relationship, so it’s nice to see their issues getting some screen time.

Eventually, Raj decides he’s going to do it; he’s going to break up with Emily and call Claire, the woman he met at the comic book store, and ask her on a date. Or at least that’s what the weird flash-forward thing suggests he’s thinking about. Inevitably, it leads to Raj thinking that he’s going to be alone for the rest of his life, that he can’t help but sabotage every relationship he enters into. That emotional setup sets the stage for Raj’s storyline intersecting with Amy and Sheldon’s, as he calls into ‘Fun With Flags’ and begins venting about his relationship troubles. On their own, the vignettes aren’t so interesting; the show has been down this road with Raj before, so seeing his insecurity pushed to the forefront just isn’t very fresh or interesting. However, the way “The Valentino Submergence” structures these segments makes for good comedy. Every time the camera cuts back to ‘Fun With Flags,” Sheldon is seen to be more and more distraught by the fact that his show has been derailed. The final cut sees him with his head buried in his arms in complete defeat, and it’s a hilarious bit of comedic timing. The coda that ends the segment also keeps things nicely balanced between sharp and charming; ‘Fun With Flags,’ somewhat amazingly, is always reliable.

The pairing of Howard and Bernadette has been less reliable this season. The two have hardly shown any chemistry, and the show has leaned heavily on dated sitcom tropes in the absence of any real emotional stakes. The events of “The Valentino Submergence,” thankfully, signal a change in their dynamic. It’s not just in the big reveal though, which is that Bernadette is pregnant and Howard doesn’t know yet, her plan to tell him on Valentine’s Day interrupted by a rabbit floating in their hot tub that they then have to take care of. It’s also in their mundane reactions while taking care of the rabbit that they name Valentino. For the first time all season they feel like a real couple, like two people who have things in common and find comfort in one another. When Bernadette reveals to Valentino (and the audience) that she’s pregnant, it all clicks into place. Of course the rabbit has brought them together, acting as a kind of child for them to practice on. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but the fact that the reveal comes late in the episode works to subvert the rather familiar trope, allowing Bernadette and Howard a little goodwill moving forward this season.

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Even Leonard and Penny, who have also seemed rather stagnant ever since tying the knot, get to show a bit of emotional connection this week. When their dinner plans don’t pan out, as the restaurant is overbooked, the two eat fast food in their car while Penny muses on getting old. She’s thinking about how she met Leonard when she was 22, and how quickly the time has gone. She’s starting to feel old, but Leonard has a solution. Tonight, for one night, they’ll do something fun and young. What follows is a journey through a number of options that they don’t actually want to do. Penny turns down dancing because Leonard is horrible at it, and she also turns down his food fight because it’s a food fight. Then, when they decide to see a midnight screening of Moulin Rouge, they can’t help but show their relief when the tickets are sold out. It shows that they’re beginning to accept their lives as a married couple, that their idea of fun may not be the same as when they were younger; at least they’re accepting it until they crash ‘Fun With Flags’ in skimpy Valentine’s Day outfits and throw confetti all around the room.

“The Valentino Submergence” largely works because it’s a character-driven episode. There’s no contrived premise, no pointless hijinks; just characters interacting with one another, spending time with each other, offering up a few punchlines and some solid emotional advice.

Stray observations

  • “Once I ordered an Uber by accident. I just got in and went somewhere.”
  • Sheldon’s Valentine’s Day description of ‘Fun With Flags’ is pretty spot-on: celebrating the “timeless love affair between wind and flapping fabric.”
  • Amy answering a question she often gets through the ‘Fun With Flags’ videos: “No, I just blink a lot; it’s not morse code for ‘rescue me’.”
  • I hate Kripke so much. Get him off my TV.
  • An episode highlight: Howard calling a rabbit anti-semitic.
  • “Cut off his head? That’s where his little nose is!”

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