“Get ready to party hardly.”
Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.
For a show as formulaic and set in its ways as The Big Bang Theory, the best episodes are often the ones that push the characters out of their comfort zones. “The Fermentation Bifurcation” set out to explore character dynamics that aren’t usually a focus on the show. It also attempted a little damage control as far as Raj and his increasingly toxic presence. Both of those elements helped the series bounce back after a particularly rocky patch of episodes.
This week the conflict kicked off when Penny won some tickets to a wine tasting, an activity that appealed to everyone except the pregnant Bernadette and the antisocial, anti-alcohol, anti-fun Sheldon. “Luckily” for Bernie, Sheldon was only too happy to stay home and keep her entertained. Her reaction to that was a hilarious and ominous sign of things to come. “Me? How? Why?”
Sidebar – it was a little weird that Sheldon kept harping on the fact that Bernie can’t use hot tubs when the original pregnancy reveal came while she was sitting in one. I realize that the pregnancy reveal was literally a last-minute decision on the part of the writing staff, but Sheldon kept drawing attention to that lapse in storytelling logic.
As if the promise of an awkward Sheldon/Bernie team-up wasn’t enough, the wine tasting resulted in discomfort all around. Howard and Amy found themselves forced to make polite conversation when they arrived before the rest of the group. Between that pairing and the Sheldon/Bernie storyline, it was fun to see the writers acknowledge and take advantage of the fact that certain characters simply don’t interact with each other on a one-on-one basis. That said, it would have been nice to see some sort of callback to Season 7’s “The Scavenger Vortex,” an episode where Howard and Amy bonded over a shared love of Neil Diamond songs. They may not be close, but it’s not as if Howard and Amy have zero history with each other.
The awkwardness continued as Raj invited Claire for her first outing with the group and Penny’s Season 3 and 4-era ex-boyfriend Zack (Brian Smith) dropped by. Zack added a welcome dose of humor to what was otherwise a fairly tense and uncomfortable storyline. Besides accidentally sparking a new crisis with Howard, Leonard and Sheldon’s science project, Zack was great about poking fun at their poor decision-making skills and generally making a strong case for the idea that this group of geniuses aren’t actually that smart.
Most importantly, the wine tasting storyline addressed the growing problem that is Raj and his generally obnoxious behavior this season. On one hand, his desire to invite Claire and formally introduce her to the group was a rare sign of maturity. There was a sense that Raj generally does care about this woman and wants to move the relationship forward, even if he can’t bring himself to cut ties with Emily. I’m still scratching my head over the fact that Laura Spencer was elevated to series regular status this season when her total screen time can’t have amounted to more than a few minutes. But if Emily is going to be ignored, at least Claire was given the opportunity to do more than chat on the phone and interact with someone other than Raj. Her friendly but blunt personality could make Emily a worthwhile addition to the core group if Emily is ever given the chance.
Raj’s obnoxious behavior was toned down this week, but it was also satisfying to see him taken to task for dating two women. Raj managed to dig his own grave when he accidentally admitted to dating other women. Sadly, that marked the point where the Raj/Claire conflict cut off for the week. As is too often the case, there wasn’t much in the way of resolution, and little indication of how this will impact their relationship going forward. Are we to assume that this is the end of Raj and Claire? Will they resume “keeping things casual” and behave as if nothing happened? Is there a major Emily and Claire-related showdown coming? I wish this episode offered some idea of what’s next for these characters.
Back home, the Sheldon/Bernie story definitely lived up to its potential. There was plenty of awkwardness to be had as Bernie learned just what sorts of fun activities Sheldon had in store for her. Watching paint dry might be preferable to listening to Sheldon wax philosophical about the many varieties of toast or the differing scales of toy trains. Luckily, the writing didn’t dwell overlong on Sheldon’s boring interests and Bernie’s growing disgust. The goal instead was to built a real, tangible bond between the two.
Several times over the past few seasons, Sheldon has shown signs of emotional maturity and a desire to do something nice for his friends for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. This was one of those cases. Sheldon might have trouble relating to others, but he found a way to marry his nerdy interests with Bernie’s frustration over not being able to enjoy things like alcohol in the form of an epic D&D campaign. It was a sweet gesture, and one that seemed to genuinely bring the two characters closer together. For whatever reason, some of the best moments of the past several seasons have revolved around Dungeons & Dragons campaigns..