Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Tic Tac”

“Chuck vs. the Tic Tac”

March 15th, 2010

There have been numerous traces throughout Chuck’s third season that the producers were really working overtime in order to get all of this material into thirteen episodes. This has been a tremendously consistent season from a thematic standpoint, to the point where it’s almost overwhelming: in case you haven’t realized it, the season is about Chuck’s changing identity and notions of trust and belief within our group of individuals.

“Chuck vs. the Tic Tac” is one of the most direct examples of an episode that isn’t about Chuck, perhaps, but is unquestionably part of this ongoing development. This is a Casey episode, and quite a good one, but it is actually probably the most subtle and effective movement in the Chuck/Sarah story that we’ve had in a while. When the show becomes “about” Chuck and Sarah, it sort of slows to a crawl; when it uses other stories to bring to light issues that help offer depth to that whole situation, it seems more natural, comes across as less dominant within the show’s universe.

This is a highly micro-managed episode, one which resists any sort of subtlety in its core story, but it does some nice work where it needs to, and I’ll forgive its bluntness due to its success at setting the show on the right course heading forward.

As a Casey story, this one is a little bit redundant: we’ve seen before that Casey’s past has some rather morally ambiguous elements, and his commanding officer (Robert Patrick) was not that far removed from his Fulcrum-aligned Sensei, even if the show tried to suggest that Carl Lumbly’s character was a result of this villain’s actions. But the story worked because it went a bit further into who Casey once was: we learn that he had a fiance when he was brought in by the NSA, and we learn that he had a daughter that he left behind. It’s not particularly complex, no, but it tells us something: there was a time when Casey made a choice with gravity that he didn’t understand, where he chose his love of country and unknowingly turned his back on any other notion of love. It’s a decision that Casey has lived with for twenty years, and that he can’t rewrite now, which is a nice bit of shading for the character that, at the end of the day, isn’t really isn’t meant for his character at all.

Instead, the episode implicitly (and then, in an overwrite, explicitly) suggests that Chuck is at a similar crossroads. Like I said above, there is no subtlety about this: the drug (Laudanol) pushes artificially pushed Chuck further into robotic super spy mode to spook Sarah, and the episode even uses the discussion of Casey’s identity changes to force Sarah and Chuck to have a legitimate conversation about their feelings (which Sarah keeps from going to the “I love you” place). Outside of the moment where Casey actually tells Chuck “Hey dude, your situation is totally like mine, and Sarah’s really awesome, and you should totally tell her how you feel before it’s too late,” which felt both out of character and a bit anvil-like, these bits of shading actually did the best job as of late to establish just where things stand: we saw Chuck actually go too far in a scene that transitioned from comic kung-fu to the clear parallel with Chuck choking out the agent just as Casey choked out Keller, and so Sarah’s response (considering a transfer to D.C.) actually makes sense instead of seeming like an overreaction. Yes, technically it was a drug-induced reaction rather than any sort of realistic character development, but the visual was effective, and Sarah could easily use that to justify moving further away from Chuck to keep herself from getting hurt.

I know the scene was played for comedy, and with good reason, but Morgan and Awesome realizing they are both aware of Chuck’s identity was a telling scene. Awesome, who has been involved in Chuck’s missions, thinks that it is safest to be far away from Chuck, while Morgan, who has yet to (consciously) see the true side of Chuck’s work as a spy, believes that being close to Chuck is the safest place to be. I don’t think there’s a clear answer to that question, and while the answer will inevitably be the latter (in terms of maintaining the show’s ensemble all in one place), the question needs to be asked, and I thought the episode did a good job of working its way through the pros and cons. Yes, Ellie and Awesome stick around because the show demands it, but I thought that the idea of weighing Ellie’s job opportunity above the potential concerns about being near Chuck demonstrates that sort of balance: just like Awesome is willing to take that risk, Sarah might eventually realize that sticking with Chuck and trusting his assurance that he will never stop being himself is worth the gamble, and worth staying part of the group.

It’s no surprise that we were missing the Buy More outside of Morgan this week, as Morgan’s discovery of Chuck’s powers demanded a larger role for that character but the episode’s fairly serious perspective would have been undermined by too many antics. Still, Morgan was able to bring quite a bit of humour to the episode, and they also got some good sight gags from the Awesome/Ellie storyline (the spin battle) and the Chuck/Sarah side of things (the second time through the CIA vault, for example). It was just enough to keep the episode light without seeming too incompatible with the sentiment (Casey’s daughter, for example) and the danger (Chuck’s drug-aided violence) that defined the latter portion of the episode, and the lack of the fairly static comic characters helped emphasize the importance of the episode’s ending: contrary to a lot of episodes like this, and contrary to the impression we got at the start of General Beckman’s speech, Casey is a civilian, and there are long-term effects to this mission. It would have been easy for the show to write Casey back into Castle (as there are all sorts of breaches of protocol and logic that happen in the midst of the spy storylines), but this was a nice reminder that these stories are serious, and the consequences are capable of stretching into future episodes.

With only three episodes to go in the show’s initial order, which was more or less finished before the additional six episodes were ordered, the show definitely leaned towards telling more than showing in parts of this episode, whether it’s the convenient effects of the MacGuffin or Casey’s on-the-nose observations about Chuck and Sarah. However, the whole episode was working towards a similar purpose, and the fact that it remained effective as both a standalone Casey story and as a piece in the puzzle to the season as a whole indicates that it was a well-executed hour.

Cultural Observations

  • Clearly, Morgan should go by “Ladyfingers” on secret missions.
  • I thought that Chuck throwing Casey under the bus for his theft was clever in terms of getting it out of the way early, but it was the one part of the episode that felt a bit too broad – yes, Chuck running into the glass sheet was broad, but it really shook your expectations, whereas that first scene seemed like it went a bit too far with the comedy.
  • Patrick was, as you would expect, strong as Keller, and I’m guessing that his views on soldiers (always following orders and the like) are going to prove important as Chuck heads towards the end of the season.
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