“Chuck vs. the Pink Slip”/”Chuck vs. the Three Words”
January 10th, 2010
“Trust me, Chuck – it’s all going to work out fine.”
The title of every episode of Chuck implies a conflict. It tells us that Chuck is in a constant state of opposition, and that this show is defined by the adversarial life Chuck lives, trapped between the job the supercomputer in his head forces him to do and the life he would be leading if it were not for that supercomputer. Much of the show’s best material, both comic and dramatic, comes when world collide, when the Castle invades the Buy More and when Ellie and Awesome become acquainted with Sarah and Casey.
And yet, so much of what makes the show work from a creative standpoint is that these elements aren’t in conflict at all. Although it may be tough for Chuck to reconcile these elements, keeping secrets from the people he loves most, the show has always been at its best when these worlds seamlessly become one and the show reflects the beautiful concert of spy and nerd, of friend and friendly foe (Casey), of real family and work family. And what holds it all together is that these are characters who have relationships, who relate to one another in ways that feel funny when they need to be funny, meaningful when they need to be meaningful, and difficult when they need to be difficult. This is a show that wouldn’t work were it not for these characters feeling part of the same world: a world with conflict, yes, but a world which never feels defined by that conflict, episode titles aside.
I say all of this both to celebrate the return of Chuck, and to recognize that the season’s key theme seems to be the characters themselves coming to term with the role that emotional connection plays in this universe. While some feared the show’s game-changing twist would fundamentally change the series’ DNA, it has instead done quite the opposite: the series’ DNA has stayed quite the same, and what’s changed is how aware the characters are of the ties that bind them together which go beyond job descriptions. In “Chuck vs. the Pink Slip” and “Chuck vs. the Three Words,” we discover that for Chuck to tap into all of the knowledge he has available, and for Sarah to discover what she wants to do with her life, all they need to do is realize that the very thing that they believe to be a source of conflict between them may be the one thing which solves their problems.
Which perhaps, in the process, solves the show’s biggest problem, at least for now, and gets Season 3 off to a rollicking start.
The show never quite comes out and says it, but the thesis that Chuck’s inability to tap into the intersect is the result of his emotions is very quickly proved to be the opposite of the truth. The reason he can’t ride down that zip line when he’s in the training exercise is because he knows it’s a training exercise, and because the only person he’s saving is himself; the reason he rides down it at episode’s end, meanwhile, is because it saves Sarah as well as himself. The reason he’s able to flash on how to pass through the vault’s security system is because Sarah promises to talk to him about their feelings when he finishes. Rather than a hindrance, his emotions are the key to why he wants to be a spy, and why he’s able to harness the intersect in situations which get him closer to Sarah (taking out Cruz while trying to get back into the bar, tapping into his guitar skills, etc.) but unable to do so when not (like when he refuses to flash while fighting her, despite flashing while fighting Casey, because he doesn’t want to hurt her). I understand why the CIA is afraid of Chuck’s emotions: Chuck’s heart might keep him from killing Emmett when the intersect wants him to, and it might potentially send him out for revenge if his emotions were to get too high (were something to happen to Ellie, for example). However, his emotions are also what allow him to tap into it, which indicates that they are a necessary component to Chuck understanding how the intersect works.
This scenario forms the foundation for the season’s answer to how, precisely, they’re going to make Chuck and Sarah’s relationship compelling. After coming so close to putting them together at the end of the year, you could sense the show had no interest in making them a couple, and on the surface the “Train Station kiss-off” situation felt contrived. There was a lot of exposition trapped in that first hour, and it seemed pretty rote in terms of the whole jilted lovers situation. However, I think it accomplished two things that are important to the relationship moving forward. First of all, it never tried to argue that either of them no longer have feelings for one another: there was no unfixable mistake, just two people in different places struggling to come together. Secondly, and most importantly, the onus of the relationship has shifted to Sarah. Not only is Chuck unquestionably still in love with her, but the question now becomes about how Sarah comes to terms with her emotions rather than how Chuck manages to juggle all his different commitments. The idea before was that Chuck had to, if you’ll excuse the phrase, keep it in his pants in order to stay professional: now, their emotions have gone beyond lust to a real question of how love and espionage can be reconciled, and both Chuck and Sarah have to confront those questions from their own unique points of view. As I note above, the season’s thesis suggests that the two are more reconcilable than the characters might realize, which is enough of a twist for me to forgive the writers yet another barrier to these crazy kids getting together.
“Chuck vs. the Pink Slip” is an episode that has to do a bit too much for it to really “pop,” but it lays some good groundwork for the season on a thematic level and does a smart, if not particularly original, job of reintroducing us to this universe. The opening was very reminiscent of Josh Schwartz second season of The O.C., where a group of characters splintered by life decisions (Ryan heading back to Chino, Seth sailing away) come back together with a new perspective on their friendships and relationships. There are no surprises in how this plays out, which Chuck returning to the real world and moping around until his attempts to reconnect with Sarah and Casey to prove himself capable of being a spy go terribly wrong just before going surprisingly right, bringing him back into the fold. By the end of the episode, Chuck and Morgan are back working at the Buy More, Agent Bartowski is back in the field, and all seems as it was before.
However, on top of the new relationship dynamics discussed above, the episode also blew away any sense of safety with Javier Cruz’s cold-blooded murder of Emmett Millbarge. The scene doesn’t change the series in any major way, but it’s the kind of scene that this universe has resisted in the past. We’ve never known a character who has died before, and while the ironic music choice of Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” offered some levity the scene is quite substantial thanks to how the show handles it. The fact that Casey lies to Chuck about what happens to Emmett, that only Casey and the audience know the truth, means that Chuck doesn’t necessarily know how dark this world is: he’s still upbeat about being the first person to snatch a snazzy cell phone, and there’s something very meaningful about the audience having foreknowledge of how dangerous the Ring could be moving forward.
As for “Chuck vs. the Three Words,” which has gotten a fair bit of hype leading into the premiere from critics, I think it’s an example where episode structure and thematic purpose combine to be an extremely effective, rather than extremely enjoyable, episode. I’ve never been the biggest fan of what I would refer to as Buy More “antics,” so the return of Lester and Jeff sans Jeffster wasn’t something that I jumping and down over (nor was I cursing it – the characters are funny). And on the surface, the episode grinds the plot to a halt in order to have an episode-long rumination on Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, which considering the danger of overexposing their relationship’s constant “will they, won’t they” quality seems like a terrible idea. And there were moments where it felt like these elements were over the top, that the episode was too carefully designed (Karina in a false relationship as part of her job, Chuck having to talk down Karl by explaining his situation with Sarah in her presence, etc.) for those messages to feel natural enough to sell us on the show’s proposed way of keeping Chuck and Sarah apart romantically despite being emotionally closer than ever in many ways.
However, the episode went beyond being carefully designed to being cleverly executed, managing to both reintroduce the Buy More and heighten the stakes of the Spy plot through the use of the show’s best structural element: turning Buy More stories into spy stories, and turning spy stories into Buy More stories. It means that when we eventually get to the party, the two stories have been in constant communication to the point where the same situation is read differently by the nerds (who see Karina as Morgan’s conquest) and the spies (who see Karina as a hostage). If the show simply turned the spy plot into a Buy More plot, it would belittle the seriousness of the event, but Vinnie Jones’ menace was only enhanced by the shifts from comic antics to serious danger, and it felt as if the worlds were co-existing rather than coming into conflict with one another. The episode managed to accomplish a whole hell of a lot in an hour, and when you think about the sheer number of set pieces it’s a really impressively written hour of television. However, it had to be: for us to buy that final moment of Sarah tearing up, we had to understand where she and Chuck are in their relationship, and the episode managed to do this without sending up red flags for those of us worried about how the show would handle that element this season.
On the whole, these were two enjoyable hours of television, and I marked out (to use a wrestling term) when Big Mike returned, and when Casey got to use his big gun, and when we learned that Morgan’s middle name is Guillermo. However, I do have some concerns, especially as it relates to how Chuck’s intersect works. I think it’s one thing for him to learn things which relate to skill and technique, such as the Kung Fu or the Zip Line (although that doesn’t seem particularly challenging to me – couldn’t he have figured that out for himself?). The situation in the security vault, however, seems different: we didn’t see whether Chuck suddenly got much more fit when he was in Prague, but to me it was very clear that he was never quite that flexible or agile. It’s one thing to provide knowledge, but it’s another to change physical characteristics, and while Levi appears to be in better shape this season I don’t think we’ve seen enough to demonstrate that the intersect is capable of working that level of magic. I understand that it’s all creative license, but I’m curious to see if we reach the limitations of what the Intersect 2.0 can actually do for Chuck at some point this season.
For now, however, we’re moving on to discovering who Agent Shaw is (although casting already spoiled the answer), and seeing how Chuck and Sarah’s new dynamic continues to develop. The premiere works primarily because it reminds us that what we love about this show is how it feels so natural, how its conflict rarely feels contrived thanks to the great character relationships between the characters who try to solve those conflicts. There’s some broadly enjoyable parts to these episodes, but there are also small moments and small discussions where stories which could feel rushed or repetitive feel like they reflect changes in these characters that happened between now and last season’s finale. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but the episodes demonstrate what we knew all along: Chuck is a fun show with a lot of heart, and with a season that appears thematically on point with the show at its finest it is well on its way to becoming an unquestionably awesome part of the Spring’s television lineup.
- The one unfortunate thing is that we have lost the delightful Anna Wu due to budget concerns, as Julia Ling has been cut from the cast. I felt Morgan’s re-entry sort of fell flat due to not seeing her departure with the prep chef, so not seeing that story get proper closure was disappointing.
- As for Morgan and Chuck’s new living arrangements, I both like it (as I do enjoy their dynamic) and worry that it will mean we have less of an excuse to see Ellie and Awesome: I know that the supporting players are on smaller contracts this year, but we only got one brief mention of Awesome knowing Chuck’s secret as it was, and that was before they moved across the courtyard. I just want to make sure the complex character dynamics I spoke of about will still be present in major episodes.
- Karina’s return worked not necessarily because I like the character that much, and more because the character served both a thematic purpose (the spy who will never break the cardinal rule) and a nice bit of fun character stuff for Morgan and his quest to sleep with her. The resolution there felt on point, and the engagement angle (which I saw going down a bad road when I first thought about it) worked since she was entirely cold and thus at no point a “patsy” in the scenario.
- One word: Moustache.