Chuck – “Chuck vs. The Gravitron”

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“Chuck vs. The Gravitron”

November 24th, 2008

The Jill Roberts-arc of Chuck was not what one would call new territory for the series, considering that Chuck’s past relationships from Stamford was such a focus of parts of the first season and earlier this season with the return of Bryce Larkin. The different of degrees, however, is that this is entirely Chuck’s burden: while Bryce had equal parts baggage as it related to Chuck and Sarah, Jill is all Chuck and therefore presents itself as his problem to handle. For two episodes, though, he’s melted into her arms only to have it all thrown out the window when he learns, as we did last week, that she is in fact a Fulcrum agent.

What “Chuck vs. the Gravitron” does so well is pit Chuck as much against himself than it does against Jill or against Fulcrum. While this entire season has been quite a fine showcase for Zachary Levi, this episode is a prime example of the kind of dramatic work that he is often required to bring forward in this type of role. His scenes with Jill this week followed exactly the arc they needed to: starting with terrified at the secret between them, moving into simple awkwardness, and then eventually turning into a realization that “the past is the past,” something that he hasn’t quite been able to do before.

And unlike some other shows, where burning through the built-in dramatic storylines leaves them nothing to accomplish, I get no sense from this episode that Chuck’s journey is complete, or that the season has no further direction. As it concludes Jill’s storyline on a high note, I have complete faith that they’ll find another one in a week’s time – and that’s the joy of Chuck right now.

For the most part, this was the least cohesive of the recent string of episodes, in terms of the integration of storylines unrelated to Jill’s arrival. Sarah’s Thanksgiving dinner was used as a wonderful feast to conclude the episode, but with the Awesome’s departure delayed and minimal time spent on Morgan, Jeff and Lester’s arrival the storyline never developed (look for the Awesomes to pop up later this season, however). By the same token, Big Mike’s security concern ended up resulting in yet another fantastic and amazing Big Mike Buy More Action moment (his uber-clothesline on Leader contending with his amazing desk slide from last season), but it was more convenient than it was connected.

No, this was an hour best spent on the twists and turns of Jill Roberts, who once loved Chuck but now values whatever code Fulcrum has her under over anything that they had together. There’s always a trade-off playing a role like this, and Jordana Brewster was kind of hit by it: while she was great in her one scene where, hooked up to a lie detector, she set the record straight about what happened back at Stamford, the duplicitous nature of her character gives her such a negative impression that her strong performance will be vilified to some degree. Yes, Jill ended up being evil, but Brewster played both sides of the character well and deserves a lot of credit for that. Beyond the obvious prettiness that might drive some to call for her return, I think that she made a strong addition to the cast and went beyond her “I wear glasses because I’m smart” entrance into becoming someone who played out the turns in this episode quite well.

This wasn’t, of course, your most logical of episodes. Chuck’s programming knowledge of the Castle was apparently quite expansive considering the things he was able to accomplish, and I’m still not sure if Jill tricked the lie detector or not when she told them that she wasn’t leading them into a trap with the leader. This also plays into her scene with Chuck: was she telling the truth about Bryce? About the past? Considering it picked up on her final lie after he untied her, I have to presume it was an accurate machine, so that ended up muddling things a bit.

But the whole point of the episode was for it to present a very muddled and confusing set of circumstances for Chuck to analyze. As he says to Sarah early in the episode, he could see a normal life formulating before his very eyes before he found out the truth about Jill, and he takes on this mission entirely because he wants more closure than revenge. He doesn’t bumble through this mission so much as quite naturally struggle with it: this isn’t something they teach you in spy school, and it isn’t something that anyone (even Sarah, who we’ve seen numerous times this season make mistakes in the line of fire due to her emotional connection with Chuck) can overcome easily. The fact that Jill can, in fact, separate it almost too easily (both then and now) is perhaps the greatest slight on her character, and something the show is smart to highlight in Chuck’s final scene with her.

Overall, the pacing of the episode was really sharp: while it was clear halfway through that the drama would not be so simple as the first Jill-related capture seemed to indicate, it felt like they went through the right level of “Chuck as hapless spy, Chuck as lovelorn spy, Chuck as gullible spy, Chuck as Triumphant Spy” at each turn. As noted above, this journey ultimately has no impact on Sarah or Casey (although I’ll get to them in a second), so for them to be able to focus so heavily on Chuck and maintain both dramatic and comic strength shows you how much Levi has committed to the role. Sure, he’s been good all season, but I find he really kicked it up a notch here.

Of course, Sarah not mattering isn’t possible considering the tension between them; the one negative of the episode was that its quite meaningful conclusion, that it was Jill being willing to kill Sarah which convinced Chuck that she was not someone worth helping or saving, denied us of Sarah kicking Jill’s ass. Obviously, it didn’t really fit with the tone of the episode, but there’s been a really great tension between them all along that I kind of wanted satisfied by a girl fight. That said, there was enough romantic tension to make up for it in the scene was Sarah basically teaches Chuck how to fake a meaningful kiss so as to not appear suspicious. This raises the obvious question of how she got so much practice in this particular area (wouldn’t Chuck love to put her through that lie detector test…that sounded really dirty), but for the most part it’s just our second really awkward “It’s for the mission, sure, but showering together and having a really hot almost kiss are still kinda sexy” moment in two episodes.

As for Casey, this is definitely a lesser episode for him compared to last week (and next week, considering that we’re getting what I’d consider our first Casey-driven hour of the year with the arrival of Alias’ Carl Lumbly as his former mentor), but that doesn’t mean Casey doesn’t get to be awesome. Sure, Big Mike stole his job as enforced with that awesome clothesline, but Casey’s role of Antagonizing Chuck (both with his ear pull for his kissie noises (“Have some self-respect Bartowski, you’re a man!”) and him threatening Chuck with a window departure for trying to ask his own question (“I rescind my question”)) was filled with the usual awesomeness by Adam Baldwin.

At the end of the day, the Jill Roberts Trilogy was a resounding success: it introduce new characterization for Chuck, it played with his and Sarah’s relationship, it gave us some tense action sequences and some strong dramatic turns, and the small elements (Casey’s High C, Big Mike’s clothesline) felt in line with some of the best the show has done. While the middle episode struggled a bit plot wise (lacking this episode’s resonance or the first episode’s suddenness), they came together to put Chuck more at ease with himself if not at ease with his position. While a piece of drama from the past may be gone, or as gone as it can be when it so defined his post-college experience, there’s plenty of drama (and comedy) left in the show’s structure, and the second season has another 14 episodes to show it off.

Cultural Observations

  • How long until the NBC store features a T-Shirt with a menacing Hulk-like image of John Casey with the tagline “UNLEASH THE CASEY” under it? Also, how long until I buy one if they do? Answer: not long.
  • While, as noted above, we are getting to see the Awesomes later this season, I thought that their son didn’t get much to do in this episode, and that Ellie’s little freakout felt like Sarah Lancaster again got short-changed. The show hasn’t spent much time with them since the proposal, really, so I do hope that they get back to them if only for a change of pace from the Buy More side of things.
  • Speaking of which, another week and no Anna – I wonder if she has a movie, or if there just wasn’t enough money in the Front 9 and they’re saving her for something. Wouldn’t Morgan have brought her to Thanksgiving if we’re speaking in story terms?
  • The joyful look on Big Mike’s face as he’s about to go fishing, and him running in slow motion thereafter, must have been so much fun to shoot/edit. I want their jobs.
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