“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome”
January 18th, 2010
Chuck, like any person with a secret identity or someone who lives a double life, is constantly forced to balance his friends and family from his normal life with his work for the CIA. And early in the show’s third season, the show has made this point especially clear with the integration of his brother-in-law Devon into the show’s espionage, which really highlighted how much more effective Chuck is because of the fact that he has a personal connection with particular missions. When he’s saving himself he overthinks and gets flustered, but when he’s saving someone he loves he is focused and capable of accessing the intersect and saving the day.
“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome” is positioned as the second part of last week’s investigation of these types of questions, and while there’s some leaps taken by the show’s writing staff in terms of getting the action rolling, the episode confirms how important those themes are going to be for the remainder of the season. Showing a tight narrative drive inspired, one presumes, by the initial short episode order (which was extended from 13 to 19 after these episodes were already finished and the season had been plotted out), the show intelligently positions a new character as a mediation on the same themes that matter most to its regular characters, and uses an exciting episode to introduce him into the fold.
When Chuck started its second season, it was a show that was suddenly free to be whatever it wanted to be: no longer setting up a premise, the show proved itself simultaneously capable of some really compelling standalone stories as well as some great bits of serialized storytelling with it characters and their pasts. The show didn’t feel like it was heading to a particular place so much as it was taking stock of its universe and demonstrating their ability to find great material there; it’s not dissimilar to what happened with Parks and Recreation earlier this season, where a show stops searching for its identity and starts proving that it has found it. That’s how I felt during Season 2 of Chuck, and the show cemented its place amongst my favourite series in the process.
The third season, however, is quite different. This time around, they clearly have a story they want to tell, and because they went into the season thinking this was their last chance to tell it, and because they felt they only had 13 episodes, things are coming hot and heavy: the show wastes no time introducing Daniel Shaw (who we saw off-screen at the end of “Chuck vs. the Three Words”), and is willing to off Angie Harmon’s Sydney Price in a single episode. Some of this is undoubtedly made more apparent thanks to the fact we got four episodes in eight days, but the show is not wasting time dragging out story elements or letting the show fall into a more standalone structure (which is it capable of doing without much of a drop in quality).
I’m a pretty big fan of Daniel Shaw as a character for a number of reasons. The first is that I really like Brandon Routh, who I think unfairly got blamed for some of what made Superman Returns a problematic film for some people (I thought it was alright, personally); he’s got a good presence, and cast as the anti-Chuck he nicely captures the confidence that Chuck lacks. There was one lame attempt to make him out to be some sort of lothario that seemed misplaced (and in some ways misdelivered), but Routh otherwise sold this character’s determination and ability really well. I was particularly struck by how the character was introduced, omniscient and seemingly with a death wish as he puts a gun in Chuck’s hands and orders him to shoot. We realize before Chuck does that he knows what he’s doing, but it was a really compelling scene that (as noted above) I’m kind of surprised wasn’t used as a climax as opposed to an Act 2 turn.
I think the character fits really well into this universe because he gives the show a more organic way of playing with the types of themes that the show has had trouble with early in the season. This is not to say that these episodes haven’t been good, but the show can’t always actually involve Ellie and Awesome in cases to remind us that Chuck has a family, and Chuck and Sarah’s relationship drama doesn’t work when it’s just them having a series of repetitive conversations where we want them to just say what they feel and get on with it already. But Shaw’s sense of isolation, that he has forgone all personal connection and in the process become reckless and obsessive over the Ring (we presume because of the death of his wife, considering the ring he put on at episode’s end), allows the show to comment on Chuck and Sarah, and Awesome and Ellie, on a thematic level even if the plot itself has nothing to do with them (although, of course, it did here). Sure, there are some plot complications too (no show can ignore a potential love triangle in this situation, and Shaw is not dissimilar from Bryce Larkin), but the show did a good job of positioning the character thematically upon his introduction.
As for the rest of the CIA story, I thought it was a fun continuation of the involvement of Devon in the spy world. While Alan Sepinwall and I had a discussion about whether or not it was believable that Awesome would be picked up by the Ring and presumed to be a spy (or more problematically a spy who would be of interest to the Ring), I thought the stretch was ultimately worth it for the dynamic where Chuck had to play the role of the handler. While Casey’s line was a joke in terms of script purposes, it isn’t actually hard for Chuck to remember what it was like to be terrified and scared, and seeing him overcome that part of himself to help guide Awesome through the CIA facility (continuing the trend of Chuck being able to tap into the intersect when it helps the people he cares about) was a nice bit of character work. I like any episode that places Chuck’s character under the microscope, and I thought that the episode did a good job showing how far he would go for family (getting past his fear in the office building) but demonstrating that he still isn’t capable of pulling the trigger when it comes to life or death. He’s still not a “normal” spy, and while the show is arguing that this is part of his identity, it was good to remind us that even with the intersect in his head Chuck remains nervous and not a huge fan of firearms (although Casey, just to clarify? Big fan of the guns).
And while I was initially concerned about the Buy More story, I thought it was handled extremely well. When it became clear that the show was doing the “Employee newly placed in position of authority struggles to discipline former friends” storyline that is one big cliche, and since previews had spoiled the fight club reveal for me, the story could have been labourious. But I think they did a pretty good job of making the story work, both through Big Mike and Morgan’s really quite sweet father/son dynamic and a couple of nice connections with Chuck’s story that helped keep it from feeling too disconnected. Chuck’s kick starts Lester on the path to Fight Club, Chuck’s conversation with Morgan inspires the latter’s decision to stand up to Lester, and the fight club’s electrocution strategy played nicely into the action beats once Sydney Prince ended up at the Buy More in the climax. I may not be a huge fan of Buy More stories in general, and felt like the show didn’t do anything interesting with the Fight Club bit in and of itself, but it was slight enough and connected with the main story often enough to feel like part of the same episode.
The episode does rush its way through a couple of logical gaps, and I think they could have done something a bit more novel with the Buy More Fight Club story, but at the end of the day it’s an intelligent and exciting transition episode that performs its most important role – introducing Daniel Shaw – with a confidence that indicates the show continues to operate at a high level creatively.
- I always liked Angie Harmon on Law & Order, and she was quite a lot of fun as Sydney Prince. I wonder, with a 22-episode order, whether she would have stuck around a bit longer, as she seemed to really enjoy playing someone evil and it showed in the strength of her performance (which never felt too serious for the show, which is always a concern when you’re given “evil” as a dominant character trait.
- I made the argument in discussing the episode that the Ring could be quite similar to SD-6, so I’m choosing to take Harmon’s character’s name as an Alias reference as well.
- The idea that Devon is unable to lie was a funny gag in isolation, but it turned into something great once Chuck spun the story about Casey’s alcoholism and public urination – Ellie’s disgust, followed by her forceful confiscation of Casey’s alcohol in the final scene, was fantastic.
- Morning, in case you didn’t know, is Big Mike time, also known as time for “reflection, and pastry.”
- Of Chuck’s ways of talking Devon through his ordeal, the labeling of watches as “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys” was my favourite, and I grinned when Awesome remembered to tear off the piece of tape when giving the watch back to Sydney.
- Are we to presume that Shaw was referring to Bryce when he nodded towards Sarah during his discussion of remaining unattached? Or is there some other big of history we don’t yet know about?