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'Chuck': The secret past of Col. John Casey

March 15, 2010 |  9:01 pm

NUP_111041_0186  The only thing I dislike about "Chuck Versus the Tic-Tac" is that the whole thing feels so sudden. It tries to make us think that Casey -- our loyal John Casey! -- is actually working for The Ring and has been playing our heroes this whole time. Granted, it ditches that notion very quickly (perhaps sensing that the audience just won't buy it), and it sets up a few nice moments for Casey toward the end, but if this show had wanted me to think Casey was actually possibly a bad guy, I wish it had increased the ambiguity from early on with his character. Then, we might have felt a desperate relief when Casey revealed he, indeed, was on the side of the good guys, rather than a sense that all of this was just happening to further some plot points.

Casey's always been a stalwart patriot. I could buy that he would sell out Chuck. I could also buy that he would sell out Sarah or any of his superiors. What I couldn't buy, though, was the idea that he'd sold out his country. Such an idea would be tantamount to suicide for Casey, and if the show wanted us to really fear that he had gone dark, it should have been laying the groundwork for this long ago. As such, most of the first 20 minutes of this episode fall a little flat whenever we're asked to ponder just how terrible having an evil Casey in his life would be for Chuck. And, yeah, that would be terrible. But it would also rather defy belief. So I'm glad the show didn't try to extend this anymore than it already did.

All of the other revelations about Casey's past, though? I'm pretty much down with those, even if the show found a way to clumsily tie them in to its umpteenth "Chuck, you and Sarah belong together" speech. (Have you noticed how these speeches have been delivered by characters of increasing importance from week to week? First, it's a couple of mobsters, then it's Morgan and Jeff, and now it's Casey himself.) That Casey used to be a man named Alex Coburn who had a fiancee and faked his own death to join a black-ops team (that ended up being a part of The Ring) is a very nice piece to fill in the puzzle of his back story. In general, I'm glad "Chuck" is giving us so many revelations about who these mysterious figures in Chuck's life are, as if the series was worried this season would be its last and wanted to give us as much information as it possibly could about these people.

And, I'll admit it, those scenes where Casey sees his lost love Kathleen are very well done. While it was obvious from several miles away that Casey was going to have a child that he'd never been a father to (and if you couldn't guess said child would be a girl, well, you don't watch much TV, do you?), it was still a very affecting moment when Kathleen's daughter ran into the room and Chuck and Sarah realized just how much Casey had had to give up to become the perfect espionage machine that he is. It was a sweetly poignant moment, and it reinforced the season's central theme: When push comes to shove, will you choose your own happiness or the greater duty you're called to? Casey made that choice, and while he has a good life, it's perhaps not the optimal life.

It left Chuck and Sarah reeling, of course. Sarah considered Gen. Beckman's offer to move to Washington, to start over anew, far from the mission that made her question her devotion to the job. And Chuck, who came up right to the edge of seeing just how merciless he could be without his looser, goofier side (when he nearly killed a man during a fight), seemed ready to go and tell Sarah just how he felt, ready to take the next step into the unknowable with the woman who's so much more than either his handler or his partner at this point. The show sure seems to be building to a reckoning for this couple (probably in the next handful of episodes), and from the perspective of just how far the series is willing to push itself from its status quo, I welcome seeing these two get together and seeing if they can make it work in a way Casey and Kathleen never could.

That theme of love vs. duty reared its head in the story line of whether Ellie and Awesome would go to Africa with Doctors Without Borders or stay in Los Angeles so Ellie could take a fellowship at USC. I was just thrilled that Ellie and Awesome -- who've become way too sidelined this season -- got an actual story line, and while it seemed a bit abrupt when Awesome decided he could grin and bear lying to his wife for a little while longer, it was a very sweet moment, sold well by Sarah Lancaster and Ryan McPartlin. I also loved the broad comedy of Awesome and Morgan realizing that they both know the truth about Chuck now and each trying to get the other to admit it, so as not to leak the big secret to the other.

In general, this episode made good use of Morgan, who was a solid comic foil for just about everyone. I liked the fact that Casey tried to recruit him into his brief plan to get the drug for The Ring (the better to protect Kathleen). And I liked the way he so quickly trusted his best friend when Chuck said something more nefarious was up. Morgan dipping into the spy world could have been way, way over-the-top (think of a whole episode full of scenes like that early one where he spies on Casey), so it was a relief that the episode mostly just made him an accomplice to the plans of various people in his life. He's never going to be a terribly smooth spy, but he can help other people out, and that seems the best way to go with the character.

All in all, though, this was a very good episode of "Chuck." There was stuff I didn't quite buy (that I'm pretty sure the show wanted me to buy), and there were plot twists that felt a little convenient, but for the most part, I was impressed with how the show was able to blend its goofy self with the increasingly dark tone it has been taking this season. The story of John Casey reveals itself here to be an essentially tragic one, but it's also not a tragedy that can't be unwritten. He has a second chance, now that he's a civilian again, and the question will be whether he takes that second chance to do something to make himself happy or to get back in the good graces of the people who control the job he loves so much.

Some other thoughts:

  • * So the pill wears off just before Chuck kills that guy? That's awfully ... helpful. Though I like the symmetry of Sarah becoming a bit wary of dating Chuck in essentially the same way he became wary of dating her in last season's "Chuck Versus Santa Claus."
  • * I think this was one of the first episodes this season to feature our original threesome all working as a team for one reason or another.
  • * This episode also featured what were, hands-down, the best action sequences of the season. Sarah taking out all of those guys after rolling out from under a truck and Chuck using everyday household objects to take out his own coterie of bad guys were both thrilling sequences, and I hope the show continues to up the ante in the weeks to come.
  • * If the plotting seems a little more frantic, remember that this episode was originally supposed to be just four from the season finale. Now that we've got a 19-episode order, it might seem odd that the show is ramping so much stuff up at this point, but if this episode were airing in late April or early May, we'd all be agog at just how far the series was going. If we aren't already, that is.
  • * Some good music choices for the show this week, though I suppose it was inevitable the new Frightened Rabbit LP would work its way into the show's sonic universe somehow. (Granted, I like the CD very much, but it's kind of a predictable choice for the final montage, no?)

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Before he was a fake bartender, Col. John Casey (Adam Baldwin) was in love with a girl ... then broke her heart. (Credit: NBC)

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