Chuck – “Chuck vs. First Class”

“Chuck vs. First Class”

January 25th, 2009

One of the things that Chuck has always been good at is effectively telling the same stories without actually, you know, telling the same stories.

The show has always been about a hapless spy who oscillates between, to quote Daniel Shaw, “Bond and a Jerry Lewis Movie,” and whether or not Chuck is capable of handling himself has always been a point of tension. And yet after slightly more than two seasons, I still enjoy that dynamic, and feel as if the show has maintained the charm of Chuck’s incompetence without feeling as if he has made no progress. While Chuck has grown progressively more competent with time, including with his recent developments made possibly via the Intersect 2.0, his response has more or less been the same, and it’s allowed the character to grow without fundamentally changing.

So when “Chuck vs. First Class” starts with Shaw announcing that Chuck would be going on his first solo mission, I had to wonder whether the show was interested in upending the balance of these efforts, and whether Chuck’s success (since we knew he’d be successful) would lead to a newfound self-confidence or even cockiness.

However, the episode manages to offer a series of events that are absolutely familiar and yet which surround emotions and responses that reflect a growing emotional complexity in Chuck that shows maturity without taking away what makes the show work so well.

The action on the plane in “Chuck vs. First Class” was a lot of fun: Steve Austin is a great presence in a role like this one, and Chuck tapping into the Intersect to learn fencing, ending up in a coffin with a dead man, and then being all set to use his nunchucks only to have his plans ruined by some shifting luggage, were all humorous and enjoyable. Chuck struggled with the mission in a way that was as hapless as we’d expect, so watching him try to drug Hugo and failing nicely walks that fine line between dangerous and laugh out loud funny. There are no “huge” action setpieces in the episode, as that luggage set was actually quite tiny and simple at the end of the day, but the action was well-plotted and showed a good understanding of what makes his character work in these situations.

However, what I liked most about how the “mission” part of the episode was handled was that Chuck was very much aware that he couldn’t have done it without Shaw and Sarah’s help on the ground with their magical flight control stick that happened to be hidden in the desk at Castle. While setting Chuck up on his first solo mission could have completely upended their dynamics, instead it demonstrated how much the team needs each other; he isn’t entirely dependent on them, at least not in a problematic way, but he also isn’t the kind of spy that can single-handedly handle a mission that is going to adapt and change with time. However, the episode makes a compelling argument that no one can truly handle their situation alone, and everyone is looking for an ally to pass time on a flight of shame across the Atlantic, or to bolster against workplace insurgents, or to help make the solitude of living the life of a spy more bearable.

The show has, of course, dealt with all of these points before: Chuck has often lamented how his life as a spy has separated him from his family and the people he cares about, and his trip to Paris where he wasn’t even able to get off the plane was another reminder that being a spy means, effectively, not being Chuck. And there’s something about that which offered a nice counterpoint to Chuck’s slight sense of newfound independence, as he needs his team in order to complete his mission but yet remains tied to them even when he wants to be able to stow the key in a locked box of its own and head off to see the sights with Hannah. Chuck wants to be a real spy, but he also wants to have a real life, and while the show succeeds at integrating the world of Chuck’s friends and family into the spy world, Chuck isn’t as capable and it hurts him. And so he’s left with a model of the Eiffel Tower, and a “meet cute” that might never turn into anything.

Except, of course, the end of the episode, as Kristen Kreuk’s Hannah shows up at the Buy More looking for a job (or so we presume – she might just be there to see Chuck, having managed to get a job somewhere else). I had my doubts about Kreuk going into her guest spot, considering that she spent most of her recent time on a show that I have very little affection towards (Smallville), but I thought she was effortlessly charming here. My notes for the episode keep suggesting she “looks charming,” which doesn’t make any sense out of context but which I think works. There’s no sense that she’s there as some sort of object of Chuck’s desires, and yet she is imminently desirable, and she and Chuck share a nice rapport. The writers have given her a sense of history, and a position of disappointment similar to Chuck’s, that makes her someone we as an audience can connect with and that Chuck himself would find interesting, so the idea that she’ll be sticking around for a while is a good sign for the season’s immediate future.

The story with Shaw and Sarah, meanwhile, was interesting in how it demonstrated both the authority and fallibility of Shaw as a character. Brandon Routh is strong at selling both, but it’s the latter that I found really interesting. He obviously knows enough about Sarah to be able to read her file and understand her hangups, but it’s interesting how his own damage in regards to his wife’s passing (Eve Shaw, killed amidst the investigation to stop The Ring) blinds him to Sarah’s lie. He relates with Sarah because she also made the mistake of falling in love with a spy, and yet he doesn’t see that she’s actually done it twice, which is why she was off-grid in Lisbon. Shaw is a character so focused on his singular goal and on his wife’s tragic death that he isn’t able to see what’s right in front of him, and who you could argue places Chuck’s life in danger in order to expedite the retrieval of the key that could unlock the secret to help him achieve those goals, and it makes for an interesting character dynamic that helps raise particular themes in new ways: it raises issues of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, for example, without turning it into a “thing.”

And although there were plenty of fun moments in the A-story, I thought the B-story was an extremely enjoyable turn of events that finally leveraged the potential of John Casey working at the Buy More as Morgan unwittingly allows Casey to practice his insurgency uprooting skills on Lester and the Buy More Mafia. The story nicely tied into the theme of needing someone, as Morgan reaches out to Casey in an effort to solve his problems with the minions, but it was also just a lot of fun: the antics were humorous (Morgan glued to a chair, Morgan in the crane game, Lester getting interrogated), and it was enjoyable to see the worlds of Casey and Morgan collide on common ground for the first time ever. The show continues to find really fun pairings amongst its cast, and this one (while always there so long as they were colleagues at the Buy More) was nicely brought into focus without taking the Buy More story into particularly challenging territory. It never “connected” with the main story as some of the best ones do, but it felt like a nice addition to the story that never served as a distraction.

I don’t know if I’m ready to say it’s the best episode of the season thus far, but I think “Chuck vs. First Class” is the episode that nicely transitions the show from its present position into the rest of the season, which is not an easy job and one the episode was well-suited for.

Cultural Observations

  • It’s plenty cheesy, but I thought using the game of trying to figure out who all of the various people in first class might be as a way of introducing Hugo Panzer was well-played, especially getting in the comment about how he looks like a professional wrestler (since, in case you weren’t aware, Steve Austin spent a large number of years as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the WWE).
  • Speaking of which, isn’t Hugo Panzer an awesome name?
  • I shall wait anxiously for the Volleyball incident at the company picnic to play an important role in a Casey episode.
  • I probably don’t comment on this enough, since there’s usually a guest star or two to take away those paragraphs, but Zachary Levi was really great here: not only did he sell the physical comedy stuff, but his conversations with Kreuk really sold someone who was too excited to be going to Paris to be sitting in First Class, and her read of Chuck would have been cheesy if Levi wasn’t so good at selling that side of his character.
  • Really enjoyed that Lester has a framed photo of Jeffster on his bedside table.
  • I will say two things right now: if Hannah turns out to be a Ring agent, I am going to be extremely frustrated. I would be only mildly annoyed, however, if Shaw’s wife turns out to be alive. Furthermore, I have no opinion of Hannah ending up being the daughter of the Ring’s big bad.
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