Friday, October 7, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner" and "Chuck Versus Agent X" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 21 and 22)

Happy Friday Chucksters!  We’re almost through with our look back at the fourth season of NBC’s Chuck, a series of re-posts of reviews I wrote for YourHub this spring.  The last of these “double-feature” reviews will go up next Friday, two weeks before the season premiere on Friday, October 28.  On the 21st, I’ll have a special retrospective about the fourth season.  Today we’re looking at the penultimate set of episodes, numbers twenty-one and twenty-two, “Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner” and “Chuck Versus Agent X.”

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump...

 Episode Twenty-One
“Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 4/18/11

Episode Rating: A

Let’s all give Chuck a big “spy high five,” as Morgan would say, for its best episode in a long while, certainly the strongest hour thus far of season 4.2.  Like many of the best Chuck episodes, all it had to do to achieve greatness was show respect for season two, which is still the show’s best year.  Any given episode from season two can serve as a shining model for Chuck done right, but Chuck Versus the Delorean – the first appearance of Sarah’s father, Jack – was a particularly memorable outing.  Like many great Chuck episodes, the episode worked so well thanks to phenomenal guest casting in the form of Gary Cole as Jack, and his return was more than enough to propel Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner to greatness.  Yet tonight’s episode was so much more than just a reappearance by a beloved guest – it was one of Sarah’s all-time best showcase episodes, a tremendously funny and creative hour, and was filled to burst with great character moments. 

In short, all the stuff Chuck does best but has been struggling to keep track of over the last few episodes.  Not a one of the flaws bringing down season 4.2 was present here, and a lot of that simply has to do with the lack of Vivian Volkoff and the larger story arc.  As an arc, it just hasn’t been working, and seeing how great the show can be with a week off from that story proves just how desperately the show needs to course correct in these last three episodes.  I have faith they’ll finish strong, since as this episode showed, everything else is working like gangbusters.

More than anything, I just had fun watching Chuck and Sarah be a couple tonight.  No relationship woes or arguments, just a great romance at its most functional and entertaining.  Getting conned out of their wedding money was a problem, obviously, but seeing them work through obstacles as a couple is always the best Chuck/Sarah dynamic at this point.  Sarah is quick-thinking and prone to action, and Chuck is the patient, forgiving pacifist, which is a funny combination in and of itself – put under pressure to get their wedding money back, however, their collective reactions were hilarious, and their plan to con General Beckman was one of the funniest stories the show has done this year. 

Still, Sarah was the main focus of this hour, and as usual, Yvonne Strahovski and the writers delivered on every front.  Season 4 has had some problems, but when it comes to Sarah, they haven’t made a false move – this has been the character’s best year so far, and this episode epitomizes why.  Strahovski was hilarious throughout, with or without Chuck – just look at the scene where she impersonates the wedding planner.   Amidst the hilarity, she’s still 100% kick-ass, but also more caring and human than ever before, and that’s where her father, Jack, comes in.

Season 2 devoted a few episodes – Versus the Cougars and Versus the Delorean, among others – to Sarah’s backstory, a sad tale of an innocent young girl raised by a con-man who was never there for her when she needed him.  Yet as we saw tonight, her relationship with her father really was special.  Little-Sarah loved her Dad more than anything in the world, and tonight’s flashback-story was really the tale of how Sarah lost her ability to trust people, an ability she’s slowly regained over the last four seasons.  The story developed subtly, but given what we know about the character, it’s clear that Jack putting his daughter back in her Grandmother’s house was the first step towards her becoming a spy. 

Still, it’s hard to get too down about Sarah’s sad past, since the present-day story in Wedding Planner was all about how much Sarah has changed.  She still loves her Dad, but as we saw in the wonderful sequence where they dance at the fake wedding, the emotional distance between the two of them is more than just mistrust – because of her life in Burbank, Sarah is no longer the child her father raised.  She’s settled down, and she really is happy about it, and while that thought initially shocks Jack, we know he’s far prouder of Sarah this way than he would have been had she followed in his footsteps.  Jack’s transgressions are probably too many for his heartwarming actions at the end of the episode to completely redeem him, but at least Sarah can now see him with the same loving eyes she did as a child, and that, of course, is a big step forward.

Casey arguably made an even bigger step forward by coming clean to Kathleen, even if the confession didn’t go the way he had planned.  Casey is scared of very little in this world, but it’s clear he’d much rather brave a shootout than confront his personal demons, and Adam Baldwin illustrated that perfectly in the moment when Kathleen confronts him.  I believe Casey really is proud of the life he’s led, but it’s clear in moments like these that he regrets the choices he made.  His ultimate confession was so uplifting, then, because of how happy Casey looked coming clean – now that he no longer has to lie or pretend, I suspect he’ll be able to put a lot of that regret behind him. 

It’s one of many plot points coming full circle.  Casey is out in the open about his past, and has a group of friends and the love of his daughter, a relationship he no longer needs to hide.  Morgan is all grown up with a wonderful girlfriend.  Ellie and Awesome have a baby, and Chuck and Sarah are about to get married.  We’ve come a very long way from the pilot, and I’m very excited to see how the season’s final three episodes tie everything up.


--Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc wrote tonight’s episode, which only cemented their position as my favorite Chuck writers.  Since they joined the series in season three, I’ve found every one of their contributions absolutely wonderful, and I actually shouted out in joy when I saw their names pop up in the credits tonight.
--The best scene of the episode was, without question, Chuck and Sarah’s discussion about the ‘flash face.’  It’s such an ingenious bit of comedy, but obvious too, now that I think about it: we always see the flashes from Chuck’s perspective, but what does a flash look like to everyone else?  Nice to see that question finally addressed, especially since it came with Sarah’s own hilarious impression.
--Captain Awesome was only in a few scenes, but he was funnier than he’s been in a long time.  The story with Orion’s laptop hasn’t served Ellie or Awesome particularly well, and removing Awesome from that scenario and making him…well, Awesome, again just highlighted that. 
--Alright, let’s play the Sarah Timeline game again, because it’s so damn fun…the flashbacks in tonight’s episode happened in 1988.  No age was given for Sarah, but flashbacks of Chuck Versus the Cougars put her high-school graduation at 1998, so we can assume she was 18 then and, thus, 8 in the flashbacks here.  That makes Sarah’s birthday 1980, which makes her 31 years old in the present-day (three years older than Yvonne Strahovski).  The episode Chuck Versus the Final Exam showed that she officially became a CIA agent in 2005 when she was 25 by completing her ‘red test’ (assassination test); she later went to Burbank in 2007, at age 27.  But Chuck Versus the Cat Squad stated that Sarah served with the ‘Cats’ “eight years ago” as of 2010.  2002 is, as you might notice, three years earlier than Sarah’s red test, which creates a giant plot hole, as I noted in my review of the time.  We have more information now than ever before, so let’s take a look at all this.  I ultimately prefer the Cat Squad chronology, as it makes more sense that Sarah was a spy for a long time before meeting Chuck.  But we can assume that the Cats, given their advanced skill sets, weren’t comprised of women in their first assignment.  Nevertheless, their last mission was in 2002, and it was implied they were together long before that.  Let’s say two years, for the sake of argument.  That meant Sarah completed training and did a variety of field work to prepare for the Cat Squad in under two years, 1998 being the year of her recruitment.  Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?  If only the writers were as obsessive-compulsive about fictional-character chronologies as I am…. 

Episode Twenty-Two
“Chuck Versus Agent X”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 5/02/11

Episode Rating: A-

Throughout this extra-specially long season of Chuck, I’ve mused that cancellation wouldn’t be the absolute worst thing for the show at this point.  It’s not that I want to see Chuck go, but the show seems to have come full circle – especially since this year’s finale will see Chuck and Sarah tying the knot – and it’s had a good, long life at this point.  The show could end here and be complete, and there would be little wrong with that.  After all, some of the problems I’ve had with the last half of this season have even made me wonder if the writers can continue to keep the show relevant and interesting in a fifth season. 

Chuck Versus Agent X, on the other hand, forced me to completely reevaluate this point of view.  This episode and the last new installment, Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner, have both represented Chuck at the top of its game, showing that even four seasons in, the show really does have quite a bit of life left in it, and that alone is enough for me to start longing for another year with these wonderful characters.  The last ten minutes of Agent X also pointed to what a fifth season could look like, and it’s very exciting indeed. 

Most obviously, there’s the dynamic between Chuck and Ellie.  In the first two seasons, Ellie was always one of my favorite characters.  Back then, nobody knew Chuck’s secrets except for Sarah and Casey, yet Chuck could still always confide (often metaphorically) in Ellie.  Their scenes always struck a chord with me because, amidst the lies and secrets that composed Chuck’s life, there was a striking amount of honesty on display whenever he was with his sister.  She was an absolutely essential part of the show for this reason.  Then, in season three, the cast and the mythology got bigger – the Intersect 2.0, Agent Shaw, the Ring, etc. – and everybody started learning about Chuck’s secrets.  Captain Awesome had already found out at the end of season 2, and Morgan found out midway through season 3.  Suddenly, Chuck didn’t really need to talk to his sister anymore, because he had other friends, people who were also like siblings, who knew the circumstances of his life better than Ellie.  That made Ellie irrelevant, and after some fun spy antics with Devon in the first half of the season, Captain Awesome also became extraneous as Ellie’s husband. 

The writers have tried to address this – first, Ellie found out that Chuck and her father were both spies in the season 3 finale (but not that he was the Intersect), an episode that hinted at how much Chuck and Ellie can accomplish as the brilliant sibling duo they are.  With Ellie in the fold in this way, it seemed she and her husband would finally become relevant again.  As we all know, season 4 took a different direction, as Chuck decided to keep his spy life a secret yet again from his sister, and we were more or less back to square one.  The writers attempted to keep Ellie and Awesome important first by making Ellie pregnant, and then by giving her Orion’s laptop.  None of it has ever really rung true – the pregnancy didn’t make Ellie any more significant to the season’s main storyline, even if it followed a similar thematic current, and the laptop story has gone nowhere for a number of episodes.

All of that changed in tonight’s episode.  Suddenly, the secrets of the laptop were revealed.  Agent X, the first Intersect test subject, is Hartley Winterbottom, better known as Alexi Volkoff (which explains why his accent was far from Russian); the Intersect drove him mad, and both Bartowski parents tried to redeem this mistake in different ways.  As Ellie asserts to Chuck in the final scene, however, their parents didn’t succeed, and have left the task up to their children.  Together, Chuck and Ellie have a shot at saving Volkoff’s mind and soul. 

Sounds like a hell of a set-up for season 5 to me, don’t you think?

First and foremost, this scenario makes Ellie relevant again without having to reinvent her.  Much of what made tonight’s episode so special was just seeing Ellie finally be welcome into the spy fold.  She and Chuck haven’t had scenes this good together in years, because there hasn’t been any honesty on display – now that this barrier has been overcome, there’s no reason for Ellie not to be a bigger part of the show, especially since she and Chuck have a new collective goal.  Saving Volkoff is something uniquely tailored to their skill set – it’s not a mission for superspies like Sarah or Casey, but for these two brilliant siblings.  I’m guessing this isn’t a story that we’ll see play out in full this year, and I’d love to see a fifth season where Ellie gets to work with her brother on tying off their fathers’ loose ends.  As I’ve said many times, there’s really nowhere left for the series to go after Chuck and Sarah get married – a radical new idea like this, however, could give the show some new life.

The most exciting part of it all, of course, is that if Chuck and Ellie do “fix” Volkoff, then the writers have free reign to include their greatest guest star on the show some more.  In his last appearance, I thought Timothy Dalton would work wonderfully as a semi-regular part of the team.  Again, it’s another new element that could creatively reinvigorate the show for a fifth season.  With both these cards on the table, I’m just as excited for another season as I was last year, or the year before, and I hope NBC does the right thing and grants Chuck another set of episodes.

Even though I’ve spent 1,000 words on the more serious aspects of the episode, this was a largely humorous hour, full of classic Chuck humor and some fun Casey-fueled action.  I found just about every moment of the “Las Vecas” bachelor party to be riotously funny, and if Sarah’s bachelorette shower of horror wasn’t as hilarious, that’s only because it didn’t feature Morgan, Awesome, Casey, Jeff, and Lester all together in one place.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen all these characters interact as one unit and, as expected, it was insanely funny – Jeff’s reactions to being captured and tortured were particularly clever, though Casey stole the show with his no-nonsense guerilla-style handling of Volkoff’s men.  Jeff, Lester, and Big Mike’s road trip to “Reneaux” was more of an unneeded distraction than an organic part of the story, but it was a nice call back to the days when these clowns had a lot more to do on the show.

As with many episodes in season 4.2, tonight’s episode also highlighted how well episodes work when Vivian Volkoff is nowhere to be seen.  She’s only there at this point so there’s some figurehead to send out red shirts for Casey to kill, and the show has definitely improved in the weeks when her presence hasn’t driven the story.  I’m still a little worried about whether or not the show can redeem this arc before the end – I’m now thinking season 4.2 should have been all about Chuck and Ellie learning the identity and secrets of “Hartley Winterbottom” – but if they do manage a fifth season, then we know they’ve got something special planned.


--NOTE FROM THE PRESENT: This episode aired the night after US troops killed Osama Bin Laden, which lead to the following comment: Let’s start with the elephant in the room – in one of the first scenes, Casey expresses excitement about the Las Vegas firing ranges, saying “I’ve brought some of my favorite targets.”  He then holds up a picture of Osama bin Laden in crosshairs.  Obviously, this episode was produced weeks ago, but isn’t it just eerily apropos that this episode aired today, of all days?  It certainly gave the joke an extra edge, and allowed me yet another chance for a “USA!” fist pump. 
--Also in current events (as of May 2011): the CAT Squad is apparently in Libya; was this episode made long enough ago that this was an actual reaction to the US invasion of Libya, or another bit of eerie coincidence?  I’ll guess the former, especially since the thought of the CATs doing their thing in Libya is fittingly awesome.
--Last summer, while on a visit to the Warner Bros production lot in Las Angeles, I got to tour a number of Chuck sets, including the apartment complex, Chuck’s kitchen, Ellie’s apartment, and the Buy More cage, but we also got to see some of the generic outdoor sets on the lot that all shows, and some movies, use regularly to create exotic locales.  There’s a forest set that includes a lake in the middle (dry unless the production team fills it) that is fairly small, but is made to look bigger through movie magic (for reference sake, it’s about two blocks distance away from the Chuck writers’ offices).  We drove through this set, and ever since, I’ve noticed it in lots of productions, including numerous episodes of Chuck.  It was clearly the location of “Los Vecas” (and “Reneaux,” for that matter), and while this doesn’t factor into my review, the “Vecas” joke clearly came out of cost-saving necessity, since the forest set is free for the team to use.  They didn’t even do anything special with the set, beyond filling the lake with some muddy water.  Still, the joke is funny, and is certainly a creative way to utilize production resources – even though someone who’s visited the set like me couldn’t help but roll my eyes after Chuck and Awesome apparently just finished a hike that couldn’t have taken them further than the WB security gate.

Our journey through Chuck’s fourth season concludes with
Episode 23: “Chuck Versus the Last Details”
and the masterpiece finale,
“Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger”

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