'Chuck' recap: Who is Hartley Winterbottom?
"Chuck Versus Agent X" was something like four or five different episodes of "Chuck" smashed together awkwardly, until it seemed as though the writers had a bad case of attention deficit disorder while writing this one. And yet, I liked at least two of the stories and was mostly tolerant of a third, so I had a pretty good time. Plus, there was a strong twist to close out the episode and send the show into the final two episodes of the season (and, most likely, the series, considering how bad the ratings have been lately).
Let's start with that twist. As soon as the episode shifted locations to England out of nowhere, I was pretty sure that the adorably pompously named Hartley (later given the somehow-even-more-pompous name of HARTLEY WINTERBOTTOM!) was going to turn out to be Alexei Volkoff. Most of the clues were there: the British location of his secret past, the fact that his dark secret turned out to be an imprinted "evil" personality that Chuck's dad implanted in Hartley's brain in 1980 that somehow went bad and took over, the fact that Chuck's mom spent so long undercover within the Volkoff organization. So, yeah, I was predicting this would be the twist ending. Did it make it any less satisfying when the true history of Volkoff was revealed? Nah.
I think the reason for this is that for the first time this season, it feels like the overriding spy story line and the big moral question of the season are on the same page. If Chuck's dad was directly, accidentally responsible for making a man an evil jerk, then don't Chuck and Ellie have a responsibility to save him, before anything even worse than being sent to a deep, dark corner of the CIA's darkest prison can happen to him? Or does Casey have the right idea? Should the characters all just agree to pretend that they have no idea what happened to Hartley? It's a good question, especially because the answer to how to "fix" Hartley eluded Chuck's dad for so many years. I'm sure if you go back and look at everything Volkoff has done this season, you could find ways that this doesn't make sense, but in the moment, I really like this twist.
The other big development of this episode is something that's been coming since the day the show debuted: Ellie not only knows that Chuck is a spy, but she knows that her dad's work with the Intersect eventually ended up turning her brother into some kind of super-spy. It'd be tempting to complain that the midsection of the episode, which was mostly given over to Chuck telling his sister the truth, was a little rushed, considering how long this has been in coming, but it was still thrilling. Watching Ellie walk into the Castle and see Sarah, Casey and Morgan sitting there, Morgan giving her that little wave, was great. Watching Morgan charge at Chuck with a katana sword that Chuck easily took from him was even better (particularly Ellie's reaction).
One of the things that's always frustrated me about "Chuck" has been that every time the show makes one of these big transitions, it feels like a much more natural show AFTER the big change than it did BEFORE. Is there anybody who would like to return to the days when Morgan had no idea that Chuck was a spy? Or the days when Chuck and Sarah wouldn't just admit they were in love with each other?
Obviously, we only have about 20 minutes worth of evidence here, but didn't the show feel much more natural with Ellie joining Chuck in his mission to save Hartley? If the show is somehow renewed, I hope that Ellie and Awesome become a part of the team. It's a much better use of those characters than just having them end up in their own weird, disconnected story lines.
In case you couldn't tell, I've been working my way backward through the episode, and that brings us to the story lines that opened the episode and the story lines that didn't quite work: the bachelor party for Chuck and the bachelorette party for Sarah. I liked both of these stories at the basic concept level, and an entire episode about this pre-wedding ritual could have been fun, but the story lines felt too rushed, and the show's attempts to shoehorn in spy stuff felt more obvious than usual. As a way to introduce the story line that finally brought Chuck and Ellie out into the open with each other, it was clumsy too. (Plus, is Ray Wise ever going to get anything to do on this show other than wander around looking menacing?)
This tied into the episode’s fifth and final story line, which involved Big Mike, Lester and Jeff growing more and more distressed at not going to Vegas for Chuck's bachelor party, as they were promised. (Instead, Awesome hatched a plan to take everybody hiking.) Their mission to head off to Reno -- which ended up being a town called Reneaux in British Columbia -– felt even more disconnected than the story lines about the Buy More gang already have this season. Now that Ellie and Awesome are involved in the main spy shenanigans, it may be time to cut this crew loose (again, if the show is somehow renewed).
But the episode was so much fun by the end and set things up so nicely for the finale that I just didn't care. Any episode that gives us an older British woman who attempts to defend her long-lost son's honor with a shotgun is my kind of episode, and I hope this bodes well for where the show is going to go in the final two episodes of the fourth season.
Photo: Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) learns her brother's big secret. Credit: NBC
-- Todd VanDerWerff