In general, having Penny’s ex-boyfriend return on the The Big Bang Theory is not something I’d be happy about. Penny and Leonard have enough problems in their marriage without an ex showing up to complicate matters even more.
But, surprisingly, Zack’s appearance in “The Cognition Regeneration” actually strengthened Leonard and Penny’s relationship. After months of feeling like these two were headed for an uncertain future (though they may still be), they finally showed a mature side.
So how did they get to this place? Let’s recap: Penny runs into Zack at a bar, and he suggests dinner with the Hofstadters so they can meet his new fiancé. OK, never gonna happen, you think. And yet, it does. But conveniently, Zack’s fiancé can’t make it, which he fails to tell Penny and Leonard until they’re already seated. But whatever, it doesn’t matter, as it allows the night’s big story to unfold. During the dinner Penny admits that her pharmaceutical sales job isn’t that fulfilling, and Zack offers her a new job as head of sales at his restaurant menu company. Hm.
Of course, this can’t be good. Aside from the fact that Penny isn’t even right for Zack—not to mention that they have no chemistry together—it would have to be really extreme circumstances to take a new job working closely with an ex. But Penny is apparently so miserable and unfilled at work that she’s willing to consider it.
Now, what happens next—meaning whether Penny actually decides to work for Zack or not—doesn’t matter. What matters was that throughout the rest of the episode, Penny and Leonard actually work through this dilemma like reasonable adults.
On the drive home, Leonard asks Penny if she would really consider such an offer, and Penny admits she’s not sure. In fact, she might. But she doesn’t say no. You have no idea how happy I was that she didn’t lie to Leonard. Because throughout this entire season so far, this couple has relied on little white lies and ridiculous falsehoods to avoid uncomfortable truths. Not only does Penny tell Leonard the truth, but she gives him a good reason to back up why she’s considering the job—it would combine her restaurant and sales experience and give her a more creative role (plus enough money to perhaps even buy a boat!).
Leonard doesn’t pout, and he doesn’t throw a fit. He simply asks whether it would be weird to work with someone she used to date. “Of course I don’t want you to be unhappy,” he tells his wife, “but I also want you to be smart, and working for an ex-boyfriend isn’t very smart.”
Throughout the course of the next act (and bravo to the Big Bang editors who perfectly orchestrated the back-and-forth), Leonard discusses his concerns with Howard and Raj, while Penny sits down for an honest chat with Bernadette. The other great thing about this episode? Bernadette didn’t take her friend’s side. She admitted that Leonard has a valid point for being concerned about Penny working with Zack, and she would never let Howard work with an ex. “Why? ’Cause you don’t trust him?” Penny asks. “No, ’cause I wouldn’t trust her!” Bernadette counters. “He’s thin and sexy like a Jewish greyhound!” Jokes aside, Bernadette also says she’d like to think Howard wouldn’t take a job she was uncomfortable with.
Over at Leonard’s powwow, Howard says he sides with his friend and that Penny’s even considering taking this job “isn’t cool.” Of course, there’s also Raj, who says Penny is a strong, independent woman, and if Leonard forbids her to work with Zack, it will only push her away. “She’ll leave you eventually, so you might as well get it over with now,” he jokes (or is he?).
But perhaps the best moment of the episode is when Penny comes home and says to Leonard, “You want to talk?” (Jokes Leonard: “That doesn’t seem to be where I shine.”) There was no beating around the bush, no cold shoulders being given, no passive-aggressive attitudes. Instead, it was two adults discussing life, career, and putting each other first. Wow, we might have just had a breakthrough.
“Look, we can have a reasonable conversation, and I won’t get mad,” Penny tells her husband. After a few minutes of conversation, she asks, “What do we do?” We. Not “I”—”We.”
In that moment I realized I want nothing more for this couple than to actually make it. I know I said last week that I don’t think they’re meant for each other—and they still may not be—but I’d sure as hell like them to go down after giving it their all than giving up.
But let’s get back to their conversation. Leonard says, “Look, I don’t want you to be unhappy with your job, so if you take this, I’ll find a way to deal with it.” Counters Penny: “No, I know you’ll try, but it will make you miserable, which will make me miserable. I’m just going to stay where I’m at for now.”
This could have been interpreted as Penny trying to make Leonard feel guilty, but I truly believe she meant that she wanted to do what was best for them both. Only when Leonard promised her that he’d be OK with it (“I want you to be happy”) did she then decide to call Zack and accept his offer. Of course, as it turns out, Zack told her he can no longer offer her the job because his fiancé isn’t cool with the prospect of Penny and Zack working together. (“She said it was a stupid idea and threw a shoe at me.”) Oh, and another great thing about that scene? Penny made the call in front of Leonard, thereby doing her part in making him feel included—something neither has been good about in past episodes.
When Penny gets off the phone, she tells Leonard that he was right and she was wrong. She’s not snarky; he’s not gloating. Instead, he says nothing. Penny wonders why, and he lightens the mood by saying, “not if I want to do this later,” before giving her two-thumbs-up, which we learn is their code for a satisfying romp in the bedroom.
Sure, things could totally change next week. But in the meantime, the Penny and Leonard we’ve been waiting so patiently for has finally arrived. Only time will tell what happens next.
An all new episode of The Big Bang Theory airs next Thursday on CBS.