“Chuck vs. Santa Claus”
December 15th, 2008
When someone thinks of what a good Christmas episode should be, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” will meet many of these criteria. It has plenty of jokes within the holiday spirit, characters dressed up in seasonal garb, generous samplings of Christmas-themed music, and the absolutely genius decision to have Reginald VelJohnson reprise his role as “Big Al” from Die Hard to go with the episode’s Christmas-themed hostage situation. In these moments this episode felt like what we all expected: one of the most funny and enjoyable shows on television delivering a note of holiday cheer.
But what we got was less an example of a good Christmas episode than it was a demonstration of Chuck’s ability to balance the emotional with the hilarious, the dramatic with the comic, and the danger with the laughter. When things seemed to be wrapping up too neatly at the halfway point of the episode, it became clear this was about something more: it was about learning how far people were willing to go to protect those they loved, and continued a long streak of fantastic dramatic work from both Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski.
It’s another fantastic episode, if not quite the one we expected, from a show that put together quite a great opening to the season.
When this episode first laid its cards on the table it felt more than a bit off: the hapless negotiator seemed an odd foil for the events of the episode, and we went an inordinately long time without Chuck flashing on anything. Ned Rhyerson (a name stolen from Groundhog Day) was just another normal guy, who conveniently shoots Casey in the foot and ushers out the two federal agents from the building in a systematic fashion? And who ran into this Buy More, after stealing a car for more or less no reason? I had presumed this was heading into humorous or heartwarming territory, and that Chuck would succeed at calming him down, but that happened in about five seconds. It was all seeming a bit off, but then we learned that the head negotiator was going to come into the store.
From that point on, the episode was just downright great, presenting the first person who learns that Chuck is the intersect in such a way that it becomes less an issue of national security than personal relationships. The team couldn’t extract Chuck and end the situation immediately because of both the fear over breaking Chuck’s cover and Chuck’s own unwillingness to leave his family and friends in that situation while he sits safely in the Castle. Chuck chose to give up his secret with Ellie’s life on the line, while Sarah eventually makes a decision to kill the Fulcrum agent out of fear for Chuck’s life more than the safety of CIA secrets.
That’s been the show’s calling card this season, plot developments that feel less like plot and more like a natural evolution for these characters. Sarah and Chuck’s relationship had gotten to a point where she obviously cares for him, and where he clearly cares for her, but yet they swore off the chance of ever dating. And while Sarah has ethics that always hold her back, Chuck has always really had no reason not to be in love with her. What he got in this episode was a reason, her decision to kill the Fulcrum agent for, as far as he knows, no justifiable purpose.
It isn’t that he didn’t think she was capable of killing, but it was a combination of circumstances: the man was clearly surrendering, there was no threat to her life, and she was wearing his mother’s charm bracelet. That last one was the one that hit home: a gift to her earlier in the episode, the bracelet was something of him that he even admitted he should be giving to a real girlfriend, but he chose to give it to her as a reflection of their non-work relationship. But this was a stark reminder of her work role, that she isn’t the kind of person who can just sit back and enjoy a Christmas dinner. She is going to have to, by necessity, turn off some part of herself in every situation: she either has to ignore her work side entirely to have fun, or turn off her feelings in order to be able to kill Fulcrum agents.
Strahovski continues to do great work with very little lines or monologues, found mostly in little looks and glances, while Levi manages to cross between charming and funny to serious and concerned in just the right kind of way. They’re the emotional core of this show, and this episode offered one of the series’ best investigations of their relationship yet. It wasn’t very Christmas-y, with only Sarah’s family objection to Christmas (in her house the season of Salvation Army Con Jobs) really playing into the holiday spirit, but it nonetheless felt like the right time to make this point. I’d hate to know what they would have done with this pre-break episode (the show doesn’t return until February) if they hadn’t had the Back 9 order since before the season started airing, but this was a perfect mid-point for the season.
And it was perfect because all of that dramatic stuff was perfectly balanced by comedy in just the right points. While it was a bit contrived to force Awesome and Ellie into the situation, and I thought that their little storyline about risk taking was underdeveloped, their presence helped to give the entire cast a role to play in an episode that never felt overloaded with material. We got your usual little quips (Learning that Jeff only has eight toes, learning that Lester calls the Love Chatline when in a death-defying situation, watching Emmett and Big Mike’s genius entrance), but it was neat to see people interacting together who don’t, normally speaking, do so on a regular basis.
It’s what made the grand caper to stop Ned, involving Lester getting karate-kicked in the head, Morgan emerging from the snow with a pummeling of fake snow, and Awesome and Big Mike performing quite a fantastic (and effective) tackle, all the more fun. It was a fantastic balance of humour (Lester waking up with a grin on his face after spotting the cleavage above him, Big Mike in general) and actual storylines (Morgan’s heroism being missed by Anna as she focused on caring for Lester, Awesome’s risktaking reminding him that Ellie was more important and that he should cancel his skydiving trip). There was nothing big in these smaller stories, but it was a great balance of comedy and drama: it’s hard to believe that Chuck and Morgan would have anything even close to a comparable emotional state at the end of this episode considering what happened to Chuck, but you feel Morgan’s pain and confusion almost as much.
This is really Chuck’s calling card, a show where you care and get excited for the entire package more than an individual part. Josh Schwartz’s other show right now, Gossip Girl, is so compartmentalized, parts being entertaining and others feeling like total cliches, but Chuck comes together. They nailed the action, with a nicely visceral fight between Sarah and the Fulcrum agent, while also nailing the comedy (See: Big Mike and Big Al’s giant jumping slo-mo bear hug), and everything in between just falls together.
And they could have just delivered an episode like that, with some action and some comedy, and fans would have been content: instead, they throw in a relationship-changing event, a ballsy move that I don’t know the show would have been prepared for this time last season. But now, with a lot more confidence and a lot more precedent for deft handling of these scenarios, Chuck is the show who can do anything – even taking on Santa Claus and substantial plot development in the same episode.
- I don’t know whose idea it was for Reginald VelJohnson to appear as a washed up version of his Die Hard character who is cousins with Big Mike and shows up at the Christmas hostage scenario, but my god it was genius. The star of “Family Matters” didn’t really get much to do in terms of lines or anything, but his very existence (and that bear hug) were more than enough to make this one of my favourite cameos of this nature in quite some time.
- Like any episode of Chuck, there were still some major questions at play here: what happened to Casey at the tree lot? And how was it that there was no record, at all, of Ned in the CIA/NSA computers? The show may have been dealing with a more elaborate plot with major consequences, but the show still gets away with a fair few holes – not a criticism, it’s standard, but it just hit me at a couple of points in this one.
- Great use of music all around: from the Die Hard inspired (or stolen from) use of dramatic thriller Christmas carols, to some nice injections of the traditional Chuck music, to the bookending “Jingle Bell Rock,” and from the angelic strains of “Silent Night” accompanying the cleavage to the triumphant “Ode to Joy” accompanying the giant bearhug.
- Continuing what is always a tradition, here’s the “Things I forgot to mention that Sepinwall’s review reminded me of”: the amazing moment when Sarah realizes she has no one to call when everyone else call’s their loved ones, and Casey’s paper cuts (“This is Buy More, not Basra! Get it together!”)