“Chuck vs. the American Hero”
March 29th, 2010
Sometimes, when critics receive episodes in advance and when previews run rampant online, those of us without those episodes and who choose not to watch those previews nonetheless hear the basic content of an episode. And when it comes to this week’s episode of Chuck, it was absolutely impossible to ignore the subject matter of this week’s episode.
What’s interesting is that these responses were both positive and negative: news that this episode would directly speak to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship tends to divide the Chuck viewership between those who are excited about it because it’s the reason they watch the show and those who are excited about it because it means they might finally get around to resolving this issue. While some live or die based on this story, most viewers tend to view it as a part of the show that’s fine in small doses, and fine in theory, but occasionally overpowers the rest of the show’s narrative.
And so episodes like “Chuck vs. the American Hero” are either the highlight of the season or a necessary evil in order for the show to keep on track heading into the rest of the year; in this case, after a bit of a rough start, the episode manages to prove engaging enough and twisty enough that any of my concerns with their relationship were (mostly) pushed aside for the time being.
I have some serious issues with the obstacles that the show chooses to place on Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, or more accurately what they tell us about these characters. I don’t care about other potential partners: I’ll buy that people make impulsive decisions about men or women, and that sometimes Sarah falls for someone like Shaw or Chuck falls for someone like Hannah. I have more trouble buying something like Sarah losing her mind over Chuck killing someone, primarily because it seems mighty hypocritical: she kills people all the time, and has even done so in cold blood in Chuck’s presence, so for her to be so turned off by that realization without being able to read between the lines and see that Chuck has not been fundamentally changed by this process seems like something that a few minutes of personal introspection would settle in real life. Instead, it becomes something big and dramatic because the show wants to drive that wedge.
The problem is that they established last season that they love each other, and the show had to shift from characters coming to realizations to characters overcoming false boundaries, which is always going to be both less interesting and more blatantly choreographed. And “Chuck vs. the American Hero” basically gives into that idea, choreographing an elaborate plan wherein Chuck tries to convince Sarah to travel with him to Rome. The episode struggles early on because it’s basically just that: sure, you get Devon, Morgan and Casey helping out, but it never really clicks because we know that Shaw and Sarah aren’t meant to be, and we know that the plan can’t work this early in the episode. Things only really start working once Ellie basically tells Chuck to stop being such a pussy, the kind of message that gets things moving: rather than a fairly tepid caper, the story shifts into a compelling bit of action as Chuck goes to save Shaw, Sarah enlists Casey’s help to escape her temporary confinement in order to do the same, and Shaw tries to sacrifice himself for his country only to learn that his country once sacrificed his wife.
That twist does a lot to help the season, really. First and foremost, it gives Brandon Routh something to play beyond mysterious, even if the story begins with an unfortunate bit of acting. I’m with those who feel that Agent Shaw may have worked better with a slightly more likeable actor – this isn’t to say that Routh is unlikeable, but rather that it seemed like the dial was always turned to “mysterious” and so there wasn’t anything for Sarah or the audience to really become attracted to beyond his physical appearance. And so his turn, here, isn’t all that visible: the “Nooo” felt entirely out of place, over-acted and misdirected, but it shows that they didn’t trust Routh to be able to sell the emotion of that moment without verbalization. I don’t think it’s entirely Routh’s fault, really: the show never asked him to show any sort of personality beyond loyalty, intelligence and mystery, and it’s not as if Routh wasn’t living up to the potential of the material. The scream was bad, perhaps, but his sort of brooding mystery is actually quite effective in terms of presenting a threat to Sarah, so I’m curious to see how things go next week.
The twist also, finally, allows for the show to create a legitimate threat to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship that does nothing to suggest they’re not supposed to be together. Sure, the episode cheats its way to the couple being happy together forever by having Casey tell Sarah about killing the guy in the Red Test with no explanation for why he suddenly changed his mind outside of his capacity for kindness, but we’re finally at that point in time where there is nothing keeping them apart but a man blinded by years of suffering caused by his own government and his betrayal at the hands of a woman he trusted with his secrets. And there’s some really great tension in that idea, tension that returns Sarah to when she first became an agent, which returns her mind to when Chuck is first becoming an agent, which brings everything to an exciting and relevant conclusion to what would have been the entire third season; instead, it’s just the 2/3 point, and we’ve got six more episodes to do before the show shutters for the year.
In another weird twist as it relates to my viewing of Chuck, this was an episode that actually got better to some extent once Jeff and Lester came into the picture. While the earlier escapades felt forced, I thought Jeff and Lester’s stalking skills (and Jeff’s homoerotic visions of how the scenario would come to an end) were a nice bit of procedure to bring the episode towards its conclusion. I think, to be honest, that the early story didn’t work because everyone was a bit too self-aware: Morgan, Devon and Casey are too aware of what is going on for the story to feel like any sort of convergence, so it felt distracting rather than ingenious. By comparison, Jeff and Lester remain wonderfully in the dark, which allowed their involvement to feel more novel and really connect as Chuck headed towards the Ring compound.
It’s sort of awkward knowing this was supposed to be the penultimate episode, although I don’t know whether this is good or bad. On the one hand, I think that there’s something nice about these sorts of “big” questions being addressed and revealed earlier than we might otherwise expect, and with plenty of time to reveal the repercussions as opposed to just building towards a climax and leaving some form of cliffhanger. However, on the other hand, it sort of limits its impact to know that the season will just go on, and that the chances of anything earth-shattering taking place remain slim considering how easy it apparently was to add six episodes to the order. I’m not quite sure what to expect next week, but I do know that it has at the very least been set up quite effectively.
- I don’t know if the twist, that Sarah killed Shaw’s wife, was supposed to be some sort of big secret considering how clear it was last week: they spent too much time showing us the Red Test last week for it to be insignificant, and the relative age of the victim made it a bit too clear. Mainly, though, we know that Shaw is a guest star, and we know that their relationship has to end, so what better way than “You murdered my wife?”
- That opening was really meant to give me some deja vu: not only was Curtis from 24 (Roger R. Cross) the Ring operative who enjoyed pulling things out of people’s throats, but Ida from The Middleman (Mary Pat Gleason) was the morgue attendant who he murdered.
- I really wish I hadn’t known that Mark A. Sheppard was going to appear ahead of time: it pretty much guaranteed that he would be the Ring director, since him appearing in an episode where he wasn’t an evil villain seems impossible. As such, I hope somebody pulls that bait and switch in the future.