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Blind Spot: Mommy Issues and Protection Rackets on Chuck

Yes, Mama Bartowski is as slippery as an eel.

Mary Elizabeth Bartowski has proven so adept at her spy training--possibly with some extra courses on emotional manipulation thrown in--that it's impossible to get a bead on just what her true allegiances are.

Double-crosses, triple-crosses, and some quick excuses all add up to a vastly complicated picture of who Mary really is and this week's episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Aisle of Terror") gave us some very different snapshots of Chuck's estranged mother.

Is she a villain? A hero, as she maintains? Just how convenient is her cover story? And why would she go to such lengths to convince her son of her innocence... only to have everything blow up in her face?

You read my advance review of this week's episode, but now that it's aired, here are my slightly more spoilery thoughts about "Chuck Versus the Aisle of Terror."

As I mentioned in my initial review, his week's episode was all about trust and the way in which we protect the ones we love. If we believe Mary's story, she left Chuck and Ellie behind because she had to "close the door" on her real life after her undercover assignment infiltrating Volkoff Industries got her in too deep. She claims to have sacrificed her life and her relationship with her children in pursuit of the greater good, in the name of national security.

It's a story that's perhaps reassuring to Chuck: she didn't willingly walk out on him and Ellie but had to protect them. Her absence from their lives ensured that very continued existence. But there are some problems with her claims. For one, there's no record of her with the CIA, a circumstance she explains away by saying that her records were expunged from the agency. But what undercover assignment lasts twenty years, really? And then there's the truth of the situation that Casey discovers and keeps from Morgan and Chuck: Mary's a liar.

I'm glad that Casey didn't tell Morgan the truth. The scene in which he looked in Mary's file and told him flat-out that her story checked out didn't ring true to me at all. It was too easy and too pat. Which is why I'm glad that it wasn't the truth at all. In keeping the information from Morgan, Casey made the decision to handle this on his own. Or at least with Sarah by his side.

Which is where a monumental breach of trust comes into the story. Chuck finally confided in Ellie that her had made contact with their mother and arranged a rare meeting, one that came on the heels of Mary stalking Ellie around a children's store while she shopped with Devon and Honey. Was she feeling a wee bit guilty about running out on her kids? Did she want to see what Ellie had made of herself? Was it a case of curiosity? Or of contrition?

Chuck has been lying to Ellie about being involved in the spy world again, for the sake of protecting her. But each of these characters is an adult. It's not for someone else to "protect" them from the harsh truth of life. Chuck has deceived his sister time and time again for the sake of easing her mind. It's not right and it's not honest.

But it's just what Sarah and Casey do. Rather than tell Chuck the truth about Mary, they stage a kidnapping and grab Mary right in front of Chuck, believing that his blind spot when it comes to his mother has clouded his judgment about her true motives, whatever they might be. It's a brash move, considering that Sarah and Chuck are romantically involved and he's a vital member of their team. It's their actions that are a true sideswipe to Chuck's heart, more than the shot he receives from his mother.

If he can't trust Sarah, who can he trust?

By removing the opportunity for Chuck to decide how to proceed, they shift him back into the position of asset rather than spy. Of someone who needs protecting rather than one who is equipped to decide their own course of action. They've reduced Intersect 2.0-active Chuck to someone reactive, someone whose blind spot extends to more than just his missing mother.

For a split second, I thought that the black van-staged kidnapping was Volkoff's men or someone else entirely, but I was surprised to see Chuck pull off the balaclava and reveal Sarah herself. Is it for the best? Possibly. Not since Irina Derevko returned to menace Sydney Bristow on Alias has a mother-child relationship been so deliciously overwrought.

But the telling thing is actually how Chuck handles it. Shocked, he returns to the restaurant to tell Ellie that their mother isn't joining them but drops a bombshell on her: it's because Mary is a spy. I'm wondering just how much Ellie will be able to parse this message and realize that the reason Chuck was able to track her down is because he's a spy again too.

Secrets and lies always have a way of blowing up in people's faces. You don't need nightmare toxins or plastic explosives for that. The human heart might be resilient but it too has pressure points.

I'm still struggling to figure out just what Mary wants and why she chose now to return to Los Angeles. Her explanations seem valid--she knew Chuck was wearing Kevlar, she held him at gunpoint to "keep up appearances," and she turned over the toxin and criminally insane/evil scientist Wheelright (guest star Robert Englund) to the CIA as promised--but her methods don't cry out for universal adoration. In fact, the way in which the toxin handover was handled put Chuck in severe danger and actually led to him being exposed to the toxin.

(Which, if I'm honest, I was hoping would turn into a homage of the "Over the Edge" episode of Batman: The Animated Series, in which we'd see Chuck's greatest nightmares play out. We got a quick shot of that but not the full effect.)

The question likely to be resolved in weeks to come: has the incident in which Sarah betrayed Chuck's trust destroyed their shot at happiness? This being Chuck, I'm sure that it hasn't in the long run, but Sarah hasn't exactly done their relationship any favors, either. In fact, I dare say that the coming confrontation between the two of them will lead to a major breakdown in their relationship. This isn't something that can be recovered from with a sexting spree or a training montage.

Which is a good thing: I prefer it when the tension between Chuck and Sarah comes from internal sources, rather than external ones. The course of true love never did run smoothly and one can't expect that there wouldn't be a rocky road ahead for these two spies. I'm hoping that the breakdown--notice I didn't say breakup--leads to some further exploration of Sarah's past and her emotional baggage.

In the meantime, we got an episode that was filled with narrative tension, between the return of Mary Bartowski and that storyline's significant twists and turns, and some humor as well, courtesy of Morgan (a.k.a. "The Magnet") and Casey. I loved Morgan's Ross and Rachel line, the antics of Jeff and Lester and the titular Aisle of Terror this week, complete with its pictures of such horrific things as old people, inter-species relationships, and babies in costumes. (Is it a baby or a snail?)

But sometimes the most terrifying thing isn't a horrible nightmare at all but just the cold, hard truth: you can be blindsided even by those you love.

But I'm curious to know what you thought of this week's episode. Was it as strong as I made it out to be ahead of time? What lies ahead for Chuck and Sarah? What is the deal with Mary Bartowski? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the First Fight"), Chuck goes on a rogue mission to avoid confronting Sarah after their first real fight; Ellie looks into the Bartowski family's past.


mark said…
I enjoyed the review. I did like the ep. very much. All the things that make Chuck so good. Does Chuck and Sarah have to go through the angst right before the series takes the Christmas break.
mark said…
I enjoyed the review. I did like the ep. very much. All the things that make Chuck so good. Do Chuck and Sarah have to go through the angst right before the series takes the Christmas break?
Anonymous said…
Chuck is awesome when it brings it's A game like tonight ! Good stuff.
Anonymous said…
Given the overall comedic tone of Chuck (the show, not the character), a glimpse into his worst nightmares might be too deep, too serious. Maybe they should have kept us in the dark as to who was kidnapping Mary, at least until next week's episode. But you're right that this breach of trust will be a wedge between Sarah and Chuck. No smooth sailing anymore. Lots of problems to unravel because we have a full season to tell the story -- yes! I love this show. :-)
Tracie said…
I wished that for Ellie's sake, that they would have waited until after the meet-up before taking Mary, but I trust the writers and I can't wait until next week.
Mike said…
Well, I thought it was completely obvious that Sarah and Casey were going to abduct Mama Bartowski when they were having the secret meeting. Casey says that it's too bad she's gone and don't know where she is and then the shot goes to Sarah's face. She knows exactly where she is right now... cut to that scene. I was yelling at Sarah to not do it! :D

Good episode with the perfect blend of all the genres. But someone should have picked up that teddy bear!
Amrit said…
You know in a way I totally agree with what casey and sarah did. Let me explain, the last time that chuck and the team acted on emotions was shaw, shaw knew the team just like mama b and papa b that day warned them that it was a trap and they still went and the person who paid the price was chucks dad, he died because they did not think before they went and tried to capture shaw. Now mama b in casey and sarah's mind had lied to chuck and everyone, they think that mama b could pose a threat just like shaw and you have to remember that to sarah and casey, chuck, ellie, awesome and morgan are just as much their family as it is chucks and so their hearts are in the right place. I have no issue with them wanting to protect their loved ones and chuck may feel betrayed but he must know this. Mama b is an enigma no doubt but it is better to be safe then sorry and I do hope we find out more before the season is out, I have no doubt that chuck will realise that sarah did this out of love for not just him but his whole family! and as chuck said at the end of the last episode, casey, morgan, sarah, ellie and devon are his family and it is this very realisation that makes sarah and casey's actions or the more noble!
mary_althene said…
I'm really weary about Chuck and Sarah's relationship, how is it going to turn out now that what happened has happened. (chills!) I can picture Chuck right now having that same facial expression on S03E09 when Chuck was having trouble flashing because of bottled-up emotions and then Sarah says, "Well you can always talk to us". Then there goes his frightening expression, looking back and forth on the two, Sarah & Shaw, but this time, it'll be Casey, with the i-have-trust-issues-with-you response "Yeeah, aah, no.. thanks. I don't think that's gonna work for me." Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Well, I'd like to see Sarah woo Chuck for his love back if Chuck ever gets hit in the head, if you know what I mean. "Boeing!"

great review btw! ;)
rockauteur said…
Irina Derevko has been a great addition to the cast of Chuck this year... I mean, Mary Elizabeth Bartowski, excuse my error.

How come Sarah doesn't really have a cover this year yet Casey still has to work at the Buy More?

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