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Knife's Edge: The Spotless Mind on Chuck


It's been a while since we've had an episode of Chuck that focused on Chuck Bartowski's better half, Agent Sarah Walker.

We've been given slivers of Sarah's backstory--it was only last season that we learned her true name (that would be "Sam" for those keeping score)--but the enigmatic spy who has stolen Chuck's heart has remained largely an international woman of mystery, her heart encased in stone until Chuck came around. But does Sarah love Chuck for the man he is or the man that she thinks he could be? And with the Intersect out of commission for the foreseeable future, what does that mean for their own?

This week's episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus Phase Three"), written by Kristin Newman and directed by Anton Cropper, did not disappoint on that front, giving Yvonne Strahovski the perfect showcase for her skills, both in terms of silently emoting and kicking butt. While the action led Sarah (and Casey and Morgan) to far-flung countries before learning of The Belgian's Thailand hideout (where this "giant blonde she-male" took on an army), the episode itself was more about the lengths we'll go to in order to save the ones we love, whether that might be a literal rescue (in the case of Chuck/Sarah) or a figurative one (Ellie/Awesome).

Love, it seems, is all about making sacrifices... and refusing to back down.

I can't go any further without first praising Strahovski for her gutsy performance in this week's episode, from her high-flying fight scenes (the way she took out that Thai fighter was wickedly awesome) to the more tender scenes. Zachary Levi's Chuck might be the heart of the series, but Strahovski's Sarah is its ethereal soul.

From the way Strahovski silently conveyed her innate sadness and regret upon learning of Chuck's elaborate proposal scenario (complete with multiple sports cars and a white stallion), stabbing herself inwardly for not telling him out loud what she thought was obvious, to the way in which she finally came clean, bringing Chuck back from the edge of emptiness during the Phase Three procedure all summed up her quiet strength and charisma as an actress. (Plus, that shot of her emerging from the water with a knife clenched between her teeth? Epic.)

With Sarah, it's been just as much about what's not been said as what has been, her whole life being a struggle to compartmentalize, to rationalize, to think logically and keep her emotion in check. But when she saw clearly that her chance at real happiness was in peril, she didn't hesitate from crossing several lines in order to save her boyfriend. International incident be damned, really. From kidnapping an official on Thai soil (plucking him right out of the Thai embassy in an automated carpet) to threatening him with an ammonia injection (!!!), Sarah was willing to do whatever she had to in order to get Chuck back safe and sound. If that's not true love, I don't know what is.

Sarah has long seen Chuck as more than just an asset, as more a three-dimensional man than just someone carrying the Intersect. It's bloody obvious that she would love him regardless of whether he could be in the field with her, or whether he had access to the Intersect or not. But from Chuck's perspective, one can see why he might wonder whether his abilities enable his relationship with Sarah. (After all, it's not like she would have been willing to jump into bed with Chuck when he was just a Nerd Herder. We can all admit that she was initially way out of his league.)

Those fears and insecurities were given form by the procedure that The Belgian and his scary scientist helper (whom you might recognize as Adam Sandler's doctor in Funny People), a nod to both Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry's The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and perhaps to Christopher Nolan's Inception as well. I kept waiting for a spinning top to turn up in one of Chuck's dreams, each designed to force him to flash.

I especially loved the final dream sequence at the apartment complex, as Ellie and Awesome drifted back into their darkened apartment and Chuck walked through shards of glass in the living room. Beautifully directed and exquisitely imagined, the sequences allowed us to take a look into Chuck's mind without superfluous exposition, bringing his subconscious thoughts to life in a visual format. Interestingly, however, it's his knowledge of those around him that act as a trigger (such as Ellie's lack of anger about him spying again), reminding his subconscious that he's dreaming in the first place.

But it's Sarah's confession--that she loves him, Intersect or not, and wants to be with him--that pulls him back from the very edge, mere seconds before his entire consciousness would have been wiped out, rendering Chuck an emotionless robot with a computer in his head. Love does conquer all, it seems. Even doomsday psycho-surgical procedures.

Meanwhile, Devon attempted to help Ellie out by drafting the entire Buy More staff to fix the mysterious laptop that Stephen left Ellie in his old car, clearly intending his daughter to find the device. Sacrificing the next 36 hours (and his dignity somewhat), Devon trades medical consults with the Buy More staffers in exchange for spare parts and technological know-how.

He does get the laptop up and running again, just in time for Ellie to return home to solve the riddle. (Fortunately, the response to "Knock-Knock" wasn't "who's there?") It's fitting that the solution should be something deeply personal, something that only Ellie would know ("I'm here"), making me believe that whatever it is that the computer contains--and we're only given Ellie and Awesome's facial response (and a "whoa" for good measure) this week--it's something vital and something that Stephen intended for Ellie, rather than Chuck to have. So it's not an Intersect mainframe. But what is it?

That's the question and one I wish I had an answer for, but we'll have to wait a week to find out just what is lurking on that laptop. Is it something that could restore the Intersect? Or something altogether different?

Regardless, I'm intrigued and I thought that this week's fantastic Sarah-centric episode of Chuck removed some of the sting of last week's sub-par installment, which left me cold. Definitely a step in the right direction and it used the series' sprawling cast to good effect here, while also injecting some humor into a some very tense situations. Well done, all around.

This season of Chuck has been a mixed bag, with some very strong episodes ("Chuck Versus the First Fight") sitting alongside some lackluster ones. I'm definitely missing some of the writers who left after last season--from Ali Adler and Phil Klemmer to Matt Miller and a host of others--who seemed to nail the show's voice and tone better than many of these newcomers. Which isn't to say that they won't in time adapt to the rhythms of the series, but it's been a bit of a teething process, I think, this season. Fingers crossed that the upcoming episodes are more in line with "First Fight" and "Phase Three" and less like "Fear of Death" or "Cubic Z."

But an ass-kicking Sarah Walker taking on anyone and anything getting between her and Chuck? Thank you very much indeed.

What did you think of this week's episode? And of this season of Chuck so far as a whole? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Leftovers"), Chuck's mom comes over for Thanksgiving leftovers dinner the day after the holiday; Morgan and the rest of the Buy More crew deal with the busiest shopping day of the year.


Anonymous said…
I would just like to point out that some of the new writers have been really good. I think Kristin Newman (coup d'etat, phase 3)Henry Meyers (couch lock) and Digregorio ( aisle of terror) are all solid additions.

Cubic z and Fear of Death were both written by Nick Wootton. I would agree with you , they are my least favorite eps of the season.

So 3/4 is not too bad... Hopefully Mr Wootton can turn it around next time...
Chris Serico said…
This and "Chuck vs. the Suitcase" (written by Rafe Judkins & Lauren LeFranc) were my favorites from Season 4. Dalton and Riggle's cameos have been standouts this year, too. Yes, this season's a bit inconsistent, but not nearly as maddening as the drawn-out 'shipper drama of Season 3, which was less enjoyable.
Jace Lacob said…

I actually thought that Riggle was just okay. I thought that his episode was one of the weakest of the series and most definitely of the season. Dalton was aces in my book.
Anonymous said…
A bright spot in what has otherwise been a lackluster season. Newman's previous effort for the show was truly awful, so this one was a nice surprise. I'm glad that the writers penned an episode like this, but as far as I'm concerned, it was a one-shot deal. The show won't be able to do another episode like this without it feeling like a pale imitation of this episode and a cheap attempt to capitalize on the positive fan reaction to this one.
Stellar Drift said…
Sam can't be her real name - that's too stupid. I'm going to assume she just made that up.
theswiss said…
Seems somebody liked this :-)
Johnny Bravo said…
Great review. Too often we see these reviews from people who have no idea what Chuck is about. They glaze over the subtleties and miss the point of why we all watch in the first place.

This was by far Stahotski's best episode. Her range of emotions was on full display. And though you know it was just acting, her ability to tear up at key moments (Morgan bedroom scene), or just to reflect knowingly (when Morgan assumed she told Chuck how she felt), you could sense the raw emotion, the inner struggle.

Fantastic job. Wish we'd see more of this side of Sarah.

The rest of the cast was worked in beautifully. Not too overdone (which is always a runoff) Though the Anna days were good epi's.

More Sarah please!
João Pedro said…
yvonne is simply fantastic. his acting and his way fascinates me. Zachary is also a great actor, love his acting and the way in which he acts with the Intersect in his mind. It makes it look so real, so wonderful. Joshua Gomez is so funny, his face just makes me laugh. And Adam, the colonel as strong, with a brilliant mind estrategistra, and a great attraction for weapons. Anyway, the season is great, I want to have 5,6,7,8,9,10 .... and so on. Can not wait to get on 29 to see the next episode.
Anonymous said…
Yvonne Strahovski was incredible this week; my favourite episode of the season so far, I just loved it!
rockauteur said…
Definitely a much better episode than last week's lame installment that made me literally fall asleep. Great episode. Loved how Lester kept popping up in Chuck's dreams. Very cool way to integrate him.

I was hoping the computer turned Ellie into the new intersect. I think that could be a cool twist and a way to re-integrate her and awesome into the show. But that might be too much. I wonder what the information was! Let's not forget that Chuck still does have the intersect, he just needs to get rid of that mental block!
Nicci said…
Yvonnes acting was the highlight in this episode you could feel every emotion she felt! Not many actors can pull that off! Epic episode!
SpyTV said…
I completely agree with your review. Ms. Strahovski hit it out of the park with this one. The whole episode was beautifully done. I'm a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I completely buy that Sarah could kick just about anyone's butt!

Where I disagree is on some of the negative comments I've seen on various blogs about episodes I really liked a great deal.

Often there are moments, or bits of dialogue that just define an episode. For me, the "tough cop-silent cop" routine in the "Cubic Z" was one of those times. It shows that Zach and Yvonne don't just have romantic chemistry, they both have really great comic timing. I've rewatched that scene so many times, and I always laugh, so for me, there is no way I could consider that a disappointing episode. Even if you thought the fake proposal at the end was contrived (and of course it was, it was made very obvious by the repeated scenes of the ring dropping) the opening caption in the next episde, "what happened next..." is one of those playful nods to the pilot episode where we first see Bryce Larkin "Not an accountant".

Likewise, I think people are way too hard on "Fear of Death". Rob Riggle plays an over-exuberant over the top agent, and he brings an over the top playful sensibility to the role. Do we need to be reminded that this is first and foremost an action-comedy? These are the types of episodes I like to see interspersed between the more serious episodes. No show mixes these up better than Chuck.

Don't get me wrong, I loved season 3, and I didn't even mind the darker direction through the first 8 or 9 episodes, but can you really say you didn't have more fun over the first 9 episodes of this season compared to the first 9 of last season? Come on, be honest now!
**Mamemimomu** said…
Great review. Thanks for that!
Anyhow, this writer (Wooton) comes from some procedural drama cop-show (law and order if I am not mistaken), so I believe he still has lenghts to go regarding comedy. The 2 episodes he wrote were much more based in action/violence/spying than the characters themselves. Yet, i believe he already improved from Cubic Z to Fear of Death.
Unknown said…
Excellent episode. Ms. Strahovski shows how much she deserves a Sarah-centric episode, with her meaning-laden expressions, butt-kicking butt kicking, and of course, her all-around attractiveness. We can see how difficult it is for her to express herself to Chuck, but at the same time, his insecurities demand constant reinforcement--a difficult combination for both of them.

My main (only?) quibble is with the contrived "Chuck's brain is almost wiped clean" moment, but somehow him waking up to Sarah's declaration of unconditional love reverses the entire process. In my estimation, by that time, he should have been left with only a few scattered memories of pre-school.

But we suspend disbelief because Chuck is so awesome.
Diane D. said…
This review was great!! Every aspect of it – hit the nail on the head!!

Yvonne Strahovski is a great actor. From the very first episode in season one you can always see what she was feeling and thinking…we felt it; the struggles, the heartache of seeing Chuck with other women and the need to protect him not just as an asset but as the man she loved, yet couldn’t express it because she was his handler, not that she was emotionally capable. She always knows which emotion to bring to each scene and how deep to take it...and it’s always perfect!!

I like this new season, seeing Sarah as a person – human with emotions - not just a spy. I would like to see more of the softer side of Sarah! Sarah the girlfriend! As well as teaming with Chuck on spy missions kicking butt together!

I love Zachary Levi! He is the new Jerry Lewis! His humor - he's a comedian, he's simply a great actor and an all around great person!!! And oh so good looking!! He and Yvonne are a good match - they make it look so easy and they are are so good together. It really seems as though they are a real couple - the chemistry between them is extroadinary. Can I be jealous of her! I love the line from 'The Anniversary' "This isn't a TV show, this is real life".

But back to the review, Yvonne Strahovski has such a range of emotion and the episode vs. Phase three was one of her all time greatest, from her ‘giant blonde she-male’ kicking butt to her emotional desperation to get “her Chuck” back, as she stated in last years season, “(You’re) My Chuck”! I especially loved the last scene of Phase Three - she was amazing.

I’m very much enjoying this season. I’d like to see more spy work between them as a team with a little of the past thrown in, for example, the bracelet Chuck gave to Sarah for Christmas, the one that his father gave to his mother when Ellie was born. That was a huge part of their relationship – it said so much without any words. A little more romance would be nice as well; it seems that as soon as they became a couple the passion died. The closest they got to it this season was the opening scene of Phase Three when they were in bed…with Lester.

All in all it’s a very good season…I'm enjoying it immensely. Phase Three was the best, and definitley the best of Sarah. I’m always anxious for the next episode.

Jace, GREAT review!! (...and her middle name is Lisa!)

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