Chuck – “Chuck vs. The Ex”

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“Chuck vs. The Ex”

November 10th, 2008

If I was going to make one complaint about Chuck’s 99% sublime second season, it would be that we haven’t spent enough time on Chuck himself – sure, he had his crisis in the premiere, but the show has dealt mainly with his relationship with Sarah as opposed to really letting Zachary Levi cut loose in this role. While he is perhaps the most unsung hero of the show, Levi continually gives Chuck a certain humanity that makes this show work, quite simply – without him, I’m not sure it would be the show it has been so far this season.

As far as episodes go overall, this one was a bit slower and more open-ended than our last few, the multi-episode arc element meaning that we get only part of a broader story (plus, this week’s Buy More storyline was one of the weaker ones in a good season for the store). But the return of Jill, Chuck’s ex-girlfriend from Stamford who broke his heart by running off to Bryce Larking so soon after their breakup, is the kind of thing that lets Levi demonstrate that he is the heart of this show, an element that can often be forgotten when we’re running at the kind of breakneck speed this season has been maintaining.

And that’s what turns what could have felt like a slow, exposition-driven introduction to a new character into something so successful: sure, it’s a bit slower plot wise than anything we’ve seen lately, but the episode was so chock full of double entendres, stylish one-liners and hilarious iPhone photos that any loss of momentum is entirely negated. This is a show that can stop, detour, or hit any multitude of speed bumps, and something will be there to pick up the slack, what little of it there is.

First and foremost, my concern: the Buy More plot tonight was just a bit too slight for me. The CPR course gave Captain Awesome something to do, and I enjoyed seeing more of Tony Hale’s Buster-esque assistant manager, and Lester raising his hand to “Who’s ready to to pound some plastic?” was hilarious, but it was a bit of a lame-brain storyline. It was never given enough time to really develop, and Morgan’s underwear heist and the finale choking incident both seemed kind of weak in an episode that was really quite interesting elsewhere in terms of adding new storylines. The Buy More folks themselves were great, but mostly in contexts outside of their storyline: Jeff and Lester were great, for example, blowing Chuck’s cover on his Ferrari date, or fake catfighting with their fake Jill and Sarah during the CPR session. I think that we need to see that happen a bit more, because with long-term developments like this the Buy More can feel a little slight especially when Chuck isn’t around for very long.

Those long-term developments are the return of Jill Roberts, Chuck’s girlfriend who he clearly never really got over. Jordana Brewster is a lot of fun in the role, bringing life to a character that we should hate out of empathy for Chuck but that we kind of like for her kindness to him now. The opening flashback is very generous to her as well: her friend is the one who appears to be the heartless one, while Jill seems to have been conflicted about the decision (especially since she wasn’t about to break the news about Bryce). I think there’s more to that relationship than coldness (Read: I accidentally saw some spoilers and have put together a theory), but what we get here is more natural: two people who once had a connection trying to find some common ground during a fairly substantial chaos.

The episode had to deal with a lot of subtle shifts in tone, and most of it was interpersonal: the machinations of the plot, then, had to be designed to facilitate the back and forth of lies and secrets flying between Chuck and Jill in the episode. On that front, they delivered – the mystery was well paced to bring Jill and Chuck together on their own terms, even if the entire “Wireless headset that can talk into Jill’s phone” was a bit of a contrivance in order to add an element of conflict to their relationship at a convenient time. But Levi and Brewster were totally on the right page, chemistry wise: while you could tell that Chuck’s lies were part of what dragged her into their entanglement, at the same time there was this quiet kind of connection that underwrote everything they said.

When they eventually get together in the end, I think it works: it’s a bit accelerated, obviously, but there is enough back story that they feel like they should: two people rushing into a complicated situation and risking, as we saw in the scenes before the credits, their positions in the process. This is very much an unresolved storyline, which does kind of cheat things a little: we’re left with Chuck happier than he’s been in a while (in a relationship he feels, naively, is not embroiled in his spy activities), and yet learning through Sarah and Casey that Jill’s about to be put in mortal danger. The show has been much more light-hearted than that for a lot of the season (especially in the last new episode, “Tom vs. Tom Sawyer,” where even the end of the world was done through an arcade game), so this feels like a good time for a change of pace.

And it was a good change of pace for most characters: Ellie didn’t really have much to do but to give Chuck a history lesson, but Sarah filled the female side of the storyline by being able to give some long looks at what could have been. While it hasn’t been central for a few episodes, Sarah still cares for Chuck, and she knows that she has gone through all of this before. But, Jill is allowed to give in to Chuck’s charm, and she knows that she feels something for him – it’s going to make for some interesting stuff next week, based on the previews, but I thought it was played really subtly here. They’re not rushing into this storyline for any of these characters, and the potential drama of Ellie finding out about this and Sarah being unable to contain her concern for Chuck’s well-being in the face of a dangerous mission feels earned and natural.

The real stars here, though, were the writers for putting together such a great set of gags. For the Canadiens fans, the good doctor was named Guy LaFleur. For the viewers who want their jokes visually, you have the amazing iPhone photo that pops up when Casey calls Chuck (It made me laugh very, very hard). And, for those who have everything, you have you absolutely wonderful Chuck/Casey kiss that will make the fanfic writers go crazy (Does Chuck have fanfic? I hope not). I had actually wanted to note the earlier hug between Jill and Chuck as the episode’s most awkward moment, but I think you’ll understand if I revised that opinion once Chuck’s saliva plan was hatched. Casey as a whole was on fire in this episode: his “Who hasn’t?” response to the question of sleeping with Bryce Larkin was one of the episode’s best lines (although I’ll list my favourite, worthy of its own twitter post, below), and his outfit at the restaurant with the wig and facial hair was my favourite gruff supporting male cast member costume change since Emerson Cod on the last new Pushing Daisies.

So in the end, we get an episode that is filled with classic moments, of some great character work, but not a lot of plot that wasn’t manipulated to serve those purposes. That’s fine, for now: there’s a couple of cliffhangers (mainly the fact that Jill’s would-be assassin was CIA, a fact that I don’t remember Sarah sharing with anyone unless I’m terrible mistaken), but the show was smart to get this episode out of the way in a breezy fashion that opens the door to the remainder of the month-long arc. Either way, I’m excited to see where we go from here.

Cultural Observations

  • We got to hear Yvonne Strahovski’s real Aussie accent tonight, as she was posing as the Australian doctor, and…I was a little disappointed? The exponential increase in hotness often associated with accents wasn’t present, but don’t worry: I won’t hold it against you, Yvonne.
  • Both Captain Awesome and Casey’s iPhone photos have been great – Dirty Sexy Money used character-specific-song ringtones for a while, but that got old quickly: something tells me Casey’s awesome face would never, ever, get old.
  • Favourite line of the episode, for no particular reason: Jeff’s “If I wanted to take tests, I would have been a boat captain.” I just cracked up, forgive me.
  • It was really weird seeing Chuck in a green Buy More shirt…almost as weird as seeing Morgan’s old haircut in the previouslies. That’s a smart change, right there.

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