'Chuck' recap: The big twist
I don't think anyone would ever claim "Chuck" was full of suspense. It's not a show where the spy plots ever contain much actual menace. Usually that's OK, since the show wants to be a goofy caper, an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of everyday life. But every time the show tries to raise its stakes even a little bit, this basic inability stands in the way of it being able to do so. Last season, I wrote about how what "Chuck" needs is a bad guy, someone that the characters can focus their efforts on defeating and how that could propel the show forward. So far, in Season Four, the series hasn't done that, outside of the phantom-like Volkoff, who's mentioned but never seen or heard. In this episode, the show brings Volkoff onto the scene in a big way, and it finally figures out a way to integrate a serious baddie into the world of "Chuck."
What's even better is the way that bad guy is brought into Chuck's normally cozy setting: through a twist. OK, it's not the world's biggest twist. If you didn't start thinking something was up with Timothy Dalton the second he showed up on screen, you've probably never watched television before. And if you didn't have a rough idea of his true identity and allegiance, the second his bloodily dying body "disappeared," well, then I don't know what to do with you. But that didn't make any less terrific the moment when he emerged in the lab, triumphantly reuniting with his charge, Chuck's mom. Finally, there was a bad guy who was worthy of our good guys, and, worse, his right-hand woman had just used a device to rob Chuck of that which makes him special and worthwhile in a fight: the Intersect. It's a compelling, twisty bit of business, and "Chuck" pulls it off amazingly well.
The "First Fight" of "Chuck vs. the First Fight" just happens to be the first big blowout between Chuck and Sarah (and with good reason, what with her role in capturing his mother). But the show writes this much more skillfully than it has the other Chuck-and-Sarah fights this season. This one actually bruises a little bit, and that the show contrasts it with an actual fight the two are participating in against the bad guys seals the deal. It feels like after a bunch of episodes in which emotional conflicts were clumsily grafted on to the spy stories, the show is figuring out again that it works best when the two elements combine more naturally, when the storytelling pushes the spy stuff to comment on the emotional stuff and vice versa.
One thing I'm wondering about is just how similar this plotline is going to be to "Alias." The show has Dalton's character (Tuttle, later revealed, of course, to be Volkoff) comment on how much he liked the show, and the fact that the character of Mary Bartowski seems like a big batch of constant reversals could shape up to be a problem. On the other hand, I really like what Linda Hamilton is doing with the character, and I will likely enjoy this "just when you think you've got her pinned down, she surprises you yet again" series of plot twists for at least a little while longer. When Mary betrayed her son by erasing the Intersect and then took up with Volkoff, it was heartbreaking. When she slipped Sarah the means to escape the explosion that took out Orion's lab, well, it made her seem even more mysterious. Which side is she on? Do the writers even know? Similar to how "Alias" played with the true allegiances of Sydney Bristow's mom right up until the end of the show, "Chuck" is trying to have its bad guy cake and give us moving, emotional storylines too. We'll find out if the show can figure out a way to get out of that earlier spy show's shadow as the season goes on. For now, Hamilton's sterling performance is enough to keep me hanging on her every moment on screen.
Or maybe it's the fact that she seems utterly committed to the seriousness of this storyline. It'd be one thing if the show were playing this as yet another goof, but when Ellie and Mary meet up again after years and years of being apart, the show doesn't even need to show us all of their conversation for the moments to play as movingly as they do. This is a girl who's kept getting her heart broken by her mother, over and over again, yet Ellie's always willing to go and meet her halfway because that's who she is. And now, it would seem, she's just going to get her heart broken again, even as she presses forward into figuring out the last few mysteries her father left for her. When she finds her dad's old Mustang (top down and a note to her conveniently left on the seat where she'll find it and not disturbed in any way), it's a nifty way to hook Ellie into the main spy storyline without having her find out about Chuck's return to the CIA too quickly. Ellie and Awesome have had their problems integrating with the storyline this season, but this episode promises some great stuff coming up for them.
Finally, there's everybody else, who mostly hang out around the edges of the storyline but get nice moments themselves, like Casey coming in to save the day at the end of the big fight sequence or Morgan hanging out in the bar and trying to act smooth, asking Chuck about the specials of the day. After a shaky start, "Chuck," Season Four, has found a way to use the majority of its characters very well in its most recent episodes. If it keeps this up, it could be on track for one of its best seasons yet, if not the best one. Here's hoping the streak continues.
Some other thoughts:
- Some very nice music choices in Monday's episode, I thought. Frightened Rabbit always makes the proceedings better.
- Nice touch, getting Scott Bakula back to read that letter. I know it probably cost quite a bit, but it's nice to hear his voice guiding his kids from beyond the grave. And what do you think that weird, glowy, green thing under the Mustang was supposed to be?
- "Chuck" has toyed around with taking away the Intersect from Chuck before, but always because that was what he wanted. Now that it's been taken from him involuntarily, I wonder just how much he'll fight to get it back and if he even can fight to get it back. Should be fun to watch.
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi, right) meets his mother's old MI-6 handler, played by Timothy Dalton. But all, as it always is with these things, is not as it seems. (Credit: NBC)