Like many an episode in this eighth season, “The Clean Room Infiltration” was hit-or-miss. The “A Very Sheldon and Amy Christmas” portion? Hit. The bumbling-geniuses-chasing-a-bird portion? Not so much.
First, the good stuff. Because Raj’s 'rents have begun divorce proceedings and Papa Koothrappali has flown in from India to crash with his son for the holidays, Raj can’t host the gang’s Christmas dinner. That gives Amy Farrah Fowler the chance to hold the traditional Victorian Christmas she’s always dreamed of, and the whole group is onboard with the idea … except Grinchy McGrinchmas, Sheldon, who objects because of the figgy-puddingness of it all (“English pudding … you get yourself all excited for pudding, and here comes a cake with raisins in it”).
Amy tells him he’s going to participate, though, and he goes along with it, a move that’s another sign of how comfortable and, more important, reciprocal, he’s finally become in their relationship. It’s the biggest and best growth we’ve seen in Sheldon throughout the last couple of seasons, and it’s a maturity that’s come without compromising who the character is at his core. For example, though he reluctantly agrees to celebrate the holidays Amy-style, he’s still ticked off that she kissed him under some mistletoe in public, “like we were the stars of a Tijuana sex show.” To retaliate — again, he’s still Sheldon, and in love with his girlfriend or not, this public display of affection combined with the holiday celebrating he loathes cannot go unchecked — he plots a Christmas-themed revenge. He and Amy agreed not to exchange gifts with each other, so, he tells Bernadette as she’s driving him to Amy’s dinner that he is going to get Amy a gift, a really great gift, which will make her feel really awful, because she, as per their agreement, will not have a gift to give him.
Sheldon logic continues when he and Bernie make a pit stop at the mall, and Bernadette shares that the best gifts she’s gotten from Howard are the ones that show how well he knows her. “(Amy) loves medieval literature — Chaucer’s her favorite,” Sheldon says sweetly. “Her eyes sparkle when she watches old French movies. I enjoy how harp music causes her fingers to dance, as if she’s playing along.”
“Wow, you really do love her,” Bernadette says.
Sheldon: “I do. Now let’s find the kind of gift that makes her feel small and worthless.”
One quick perch on a mall Santa’s lap later, Sheldon’s got the very thing: He presents Amy with a cute pic of him and Santa, in a recordable frame on which he has left a message: “Happy Holidays to my dear Amy. I hope you treasure this as much as I treasure you.”
“And you got me nothing!” Sheldon smugly tells Amy, who is visibly touched by his sentimental present. “Christmas is ruined, let’s never speak of it again.”
But — and even though you probably saw the general idea of this coming, it’s still incredibly sweet — Sheldon doesn’t get the last word on great gift-giving to significant others. Amy presents him with a wrapped box full of cookies, holiday treats she baked using his beloved Meemaw’s recipes, which Amy procured by calling Meemaw herself.
“They’re perfect,” Sheldon says, sampling a tree-shaped treat. “It tastes like her hugs.”
Christmas: 1; Amy: 1; Sheldon’s Grinchy ‘tude toward the holiday: 0.
Eh, maybe not. “I can’t believe this,” Sheldon says. “I’m happy, you’re happy. Maybe a holiday that’s all about giving isn’t so …”
(Raj reaches for a Meemaw cookie.)
“Get your hand out of that box!” Sheldon says, slapping away Raj’s cookie-creepin’ appendage.
Christmas: 1; Amy: 1; Sheldon’s less-Grinchy ‘tude towards the holiday: 1. Still, that’s a win-win-win.
Now, that other story line. I’m all for a little slapstickery, especially with this being the show’s holiday episode and all, but a Leonard and Howard pairing in general is rife with possibilities, and this one just didn’t deliver, from the reliance on their clean-room suits for a sight gag to the way the whole thing devolved into another berating of Howard as the most hapless member of the group (the dude went into space!).
Leonard and Howie are working in the university’s clean room, and just as they get ready to call it a day, a pigeon flies in, which is a problem because, as Howard spells out, “this room isn’t supposed to have dust in it, and we just let in a flying crap machine.”
Each thought the other had closed the loading door that leads to the clean room, but somehow the blame lands on Howard, who, if I may defend him for a moment, has kinda been the season’s punching bag. He’s been skeeved by his mom’s odd relationship with Stuart, his marriage with Bernadette seems fraught with stress, his serious lack of ball-throwing skills were harped on in “The First Pitch Insufficiency,” and he was humiliated when Stuart went on a date with Howard’s second cousin, Jeanie, whom Howard lost his virginity to when they were teens. This clean-room scenario is just one more instance of his friends pointing to Howard as the least intelligent among them, which (a) has grown tiresome eight seasons in, and (b) dude went into space! Throw that up against any of the other three’s career accomplishments.
Back to birdland: Leonard and Howard have called in backup in the form of Raj, and thanks to a blast from a fire extinguisher, they get the pigeon on the ground but kill him in the process. That brings up a painful memory of another time Howard committed birdicide — he accidentally sat on a blue jay when he was a kid — so he agrees to perform bird CPR. It works! But just as the trio is about to liberate the revived pigeon from the clean room, a crow flies in.
“Someone should really close that loading-room door,” Raj says while Leonard and Howard discuss which one of them will take the blame for the fact that the clean room will have to be shut down for weeks so it can be restored to its uncontaminated state.
Or, as Penny suggests when Leonard checks in with her, they could simply erase their names from the clean room sign-up sheet and flee, like they were never there in the first place.
Next scene: Leonard, Howard, and Raj gleefully singing “Jingle Bells” in the car on the way to Amy’s Victorian Christmas dinner, crisis and blame (and humor, mostly) averted.
• Who’s already planning Raj’s theme holiday idea, a Tom Hanksgiving, for next year? Pair it with Frank, Toofer, and Lutz’s Merlinpeen from 30 Rock and Frank Costanza’s Festivus, and that would be a fun trifecta of pop-culture celebrations.
• Diggin’ those Superman, Yoda, and Batman stockings hung by the bookcase with care at Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment.
• Dr. Koothrappali, talking about his 20-hour flight from India and finding the glass-half-full aspect of the long trip: “Did you know when you fly transcontinental without your wife, you don’t pray for the plane to crash?”
• Sheldon, having put up with as much of Bernadette’s Christmas caroling as he could during their car trip: “In the last ten minutes, Santa came to town, kissed Mommy, and ran Grandma over with a reindeer. I had a drunk uncle who did all those things … nobody sings songs about him.”
• Bernadette: “So your evil plot here is to buy your girlfriend a present?”
Sheldon: “That’s right. So stay on my good side, or I’ll get you a little something, too.”
• Amy’s favorite parlor game for her traditional Victorian Christmas experience: “Ball of Wool,” in which you place a ball of wool on a table, sit on opposite sides of the table, and see who can blow the ball of wool off the table. Gives you a whole new appreciation for the modern alternative of sitting carb-comatose in front of that annual A Christmas Story marathon on TBS, doesn’t it?
• Raj’s caution that Howard should be gentle while performing birdie CPR: “If you pop him, I will vomit.”
• This is the last new episode of 2014, and the only one to air in the last five weeks of the year. Maybe CBS thinks we won’t notice since there are 87 syndicated episodes of TBBT airing on any given day?
• And, in the spirit of the holidays and this being our final Big Bang Theory recap of the year, a Happy Merlinpeen and Festivus to you and yours, and may your holidays be filled with no games of Ball of Wool.