Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Beard”

“Chuck vs. the Beard”

March 8th, 2010

Tonight, apparently, was a night where television appealed to the Myles demographic. After watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother that dealt with my lingering frustration over events earlier in the season, Chuck delivers an episode which confirms everything that I’ve said since the beginning of the season in terms of how the Intersect 2.0 operates, how Chuck is evolving as a character, and how that affects the world around him.

And yet, sort of like with HIMYM, I’m left somewhat underwhelmed by “Chuck vs. the Beard” even though it went down a checklist of many of the things that I like so much about this show. The problem, I think, was that it tried to do so many of them simultaneously without any really grounding the episode in any particular threat. There were too many coincidences, too many contrivances, and too many scenarios where the fun of “Viva Buy-Moria” took over from (rather than added complexity to) the fairly serious consequences of The Ring’s latest plan to take down our intrepid heroes.

The episode takes the show to places it should have gone sooner, and places that give the show a lot of great material heading into the rest of the season, and does so within the guise of what seems like an all-time classic episode of the series. And while there’s a compelling case to be made that Chuck, as a character, requires the support structure that the ensemble cast and its different spheres offers, I’m not sure that the episode itself was strengthened by that diversity.

From the beginning of the season, I’ve been one of those backdoor television viewers who yells at the screen things that the characters should be realizing. Chuck, as a character, has spent the season moving further and further away from his original self in order to become more like a spy, and this week we discover that the inner turmoil that created has led to Chuck being unable to flash. He believes that this problem is due to “too many” emotions, some sort of overload, but we’ve seen since the beginning that the problem is a lack of clarity: early in the season, he flashed most when he was doing something for Sarah, or protecting Awesome, or doing things for people he cared about.

My big problem with last week’s episode was that I didn’t buy that Chuck had changed as much as Sarah and others seemed to argue, that the character hadn’t done anything that terrifying or that concerning. All it should take, really, to set him back to rights is someone slapping him across the face and reminding him who he is, something that any character could do at any time. “Chuck vs. the Beard” is ultimately the episode that serves this function, which is why the elaborate circumstances which allow for that function seem a bit unnecessary. To me, the episode is about Chuck being more honest to himself, but the episode pushes the limits of the show’s universe to a point of dishonestly, almost, in order to achieve the effect. The end result is what I’ve been arguing all along, that he needs to embrace rather than disconnect from the support structure in order to flash and be a spy, but done in a way which lacks the subtlety that I associate with that message.

There are a lot of iconic images in this episode, many of them within the “Viva le Buy Moria Revolution” story that included a Jeffster performance (Of CCR’s “Fortunate Son”) and a flag planting. But unlike the last time the bad guys invaded the Buy More to this degree, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus,” there was almost no sense of danger: the bad guys just went into Castle without even leaving someone behind the guard the employees, and the revolution felt like it was happening independent from the action and never had a real moment of connection. The one scene where the two came into direct contact, where Diedrich Bader’s character commented on their revolution, was amongst the most tonally confused in the whole episode: the dialogue (about liberation/freedom) was corny, and it was as if the Ring operative suddenly turned into the audience rather than remaining anything even close to a threat. The idea of Castle being invaded should actually feel like an invasion, but instead it seemed two ships passing in the night, with the show seeming more interested in the (legitimate) hilarity of the Buy More than the potential for the Ring to present some sort of threat. Perhaps it was that they cast Bader instead of an actor who could actually be sinister, but something just wasn’t meshing between those two stories.

At the core of this episode is the irony that emotions are what make Chuck’s flashes both possible and impossible, so if we’re going to have the episode where Chuck reveals his secret to Morgan, and if we’re going to have the episode where Chuck admits that he’s still in love with Sarah despite his self-delusions, I think we needed more honest human discussions and less invasions and ploys and revolutions. The scene with Chuck and Morgan tied up and discussing the truth was great, but the shift from Casey and Jeff’s humorous fight to Chuck’s tearful admission was completely off, to the point where I thought Levi was actually sort of fake in the scene. The scene is three seasons in the making, sure, but it didn’t feel like the episode led up to it very elegantly, and the trappings built around it to create the situation felt like they overshadowed the moment itself. And there were so many plot holes that I won’t even bother listing them all, simply because they make both our heroes and the Ring look highly incompetent.

This is, at its core, an exciting episode: sure, Levi’s direction was pretty generic and at times distractingly so, but the ramifications of these events were not unsubstantial, and the idea of Ellie and Awesome running off to Africa, and Casey having a mysterious former acquaintance at the Ring contacting him, and Morgan being in on Chuck’s secret, have plenty of potential. And when the show has its denouement, the dramatic moments (like Ellie and Awesome) hit hard, while moments like Morgan wondering whether Chuck is flashing while playing Duck Hunt are perfect examples of how great these characters are and how much the events of this episode could lead to strong material in the future.

But I don’t think that excitement can hide the fact that this one felt like it was trying to do everything instead of trying to do one thing. I love the ensemble nature of this cast, and some of the show’s best stand-alone episodes have been those which brought the show’s worlds together. The problem here is that this is a very personal story for Chuck and Morgan, and it felt like the episode built around their relationship muddled rather than clarified their journey towards a new stage in their lives. And while I love Jeffster, and I love Big Mike, and I enjoy fun fight scenes as much as anyone else, I felt like this episode could have better achieved its goals with something a little less inclusive and a little more subtle.

Cultural Observations

  • The one story that had a legitimate sense of danger, at least on the surface, was Awesome and Ellie in a precarious position: however, the episode pulled that away when they revealed that it was just a ploy to get everyone away from Castle, leaving that threat to be presumed rather than present. Similarly, the threat of Castle self-destructing was too preposterous for the situation, which left no real danger: some sort of gas lockdown would have made more sense, even if the show has gone to the gas a lot recently.
  • Okay, can’t resist one plot hole: how was there not some sort of security system in Castle that would alert Sarah/Casey that Castle was being broken into? Or the CIA? Or the NSA?
  • The continued convenience of shadowy organizations happening to be unable to send any information to outsiders about their location was justified in “Santa Claus” by terrorist-like cell structures, but this wasn’t provided for the Ring, and the convenience of it all is getting a bit contrived.
  • I rag on the Buy More stuff a bit tonally, but I thought Jeff swooping in to save Casey was a lot of fun – I’m not made of stone, people.
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