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Family Business: Trust Issues on Chuck

If there's one thing that Chuck has dealt with on an ongoing basis, it's matters of trust and fidelity in the spy world, where such things are seen as potential weaknesses to be exploited rather than strengths.

Over the course of the last four seasons, Chuck Bartowski has been transformed from a naive asset into a full-blown spy of his own and I don't mean thanks to the Intersect (which still manages to flash and give him information or enable him to engage in some kick-ass Kung Fu), but rather his demeanor and way of handling himself in the field has changed significantly. Whereas he and Sarah were once on separate trajectories (he wants to be extraordinary! she wants to be normal!), they've now settled somewhere in the middle together, a spy couple whose missions are backdrops for their romantic endeavors.

This week's episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil") found the one-time spy wannabe engaging with his own asset, Vivian MacArthur Volkoff (Lauren Cohan), the daughter of notorious international criminal Alexei Volkoff, who has been spirited off to a top-flight CIA holding facility. But, unlike some of the other agents who work in government espionage, Chuck hasn't lost sight of his own moral compass. It's clear that he cares for Vivian and that the two, whose childhoods are remarkably similar in some ways, are two simpatico souls desperate to reconnect with the parents who seemingly turned their backs on them years before.

But the balance of power has shifted. Whereas once before, Chuck would have been the one duped into assisting, say, the CIA, he now is the CIA and he's the one making promises here, offering Vivian the chance to see her father in exchange for her help on a mission to Macau. The only problem is that Beckman has no intentions of letting Vivian see Alexei and Chuck's broken promise to Vivian unwittingly sends the conflicted woman over to the dark side...

Personally, I'm of two minds about Vivian. On the one hand, I'm glad to see that we're witnessing the birth of a highly conflicted villain, one who is being pulled into the family business, not because of greed or a need to take over the world, but because she doesn't know where her heart is leading her. Volkhoff's unpredictable dangerous quality isn't due entirely to his ruthlessness, it's also due to his world-class gift for emotional manipulation, as we saw earlier this season.

His presents to Vivian--an account card to a bank, which leads her to a safety deposit box containing photographs and mementos of Vivian as a child, Volkoff's most prized possessions--are clearly intended to tip her hand, to make her see that Alexei didn't turn his back on her but kept a close eye on her, grooming her as his future replacement. Which is exactly the agenda that Riley (the always fantastic Ray Wise) pushes when he encounters Vivian on two separate occasions: they need her to step into her father's shoes and what better way than by turning her against Chuck and her handlers? Despite the obvious connection between Vivian and Chuck, Riley is able to effortlessly drive a wedge between the two of them. After all, isn't Chuck responsible for the arrest and detainment of her father?

On the other hand, there's been a lot of focus on Vivian the last two weeks. While I applaud the show's writers for offering us a different type of villain--and a female villain, no less--than we've seen to date, Vivian's development comes at the expense of other characters' screentime, something I hope balances out now more that we've seen Vivian seemingly make her choice (i.e., the final shot of her in the car with Riley at the end).

I can't shake the feeling that the Buy More and its staffers (sorry, Jeffster fans) are more or less superfluous these days (RenFair humor?), as are Ellie and Devon largely. I'm glad to see that Sarah and Ellie are (finally!) bonding between last week's scene and this week's wedding preparation, and their interactions in "Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil" injected some Bridezilla comedy into the mix, to boot. (I didn't, however, need the extended montage of Sarah trying on wedding dresses--would Castle really have a huge assortment of bridal gowns?--but it did at least pay off with the bullet hole-ridden gown that Sarah set her sights on.)

And the positioning of Vivian front and center meant that Casey was once more relegated to the background, something that troubles me when I think of how much fun the missions were when it was Chuck, Sarah, and Casey together. Far too often these days, Casey is paired with Morgan, which is fine but it seems to be happening all the time now... and, hell, Morgan is now his roommate. (Which will, hopefully, mean that the relationship between Casey and Alex might finally get some much-needed development.) Here, Morgan catches Casey involved in something clandestine in a secret sector of Castle. We're not privy as to just what Casey's mission really is, but Morgan overhears that it will involve a TR-476 and there's the matter of that odd corridor in Castle. Just what is he up to? And how does it tie into the Volkoff story arc? Hmmm...

Some other thoughts:
  • Loved the fact that the writers used the famous Lost numbers sequence (4-8-15-16-23-42) on Vivian's Bank of Macau card. A nice touch that was further served by the presence of Lost's Francois Chau (Pierre Chang!) as the bank manager.
  • I was concerned that black-clad Chuck and Sarah's robbery of the bank would tip too much towards being The Matrix but the walked a very fine line and came out on the right side, puncturing the tension by having Chuck and Sarah discuss wedding plans.
  • I'm still not convinced that Castle ("J. Crew for spies") would have an actual selection of wedding dresses to choose from in its costume department, but it was a good way to payoff the earlier scene with Chuck finding Vivian appropriate attire for their mission
  • I'm glad we haven't seen the last of Ray Wise's Riley, here whispering poison into Vivian's ear.
  • I love that Sarah, who was so conflicted about wedding planning, becomes obsessed with it, throwing herself into the arrangements as though it were a tactical mission, dreaming up elaborate plans for a ceremony on a private island and flying the cake in from Paris. It's a believable transformation, and I'm hoping that her need to pull off the "perfect" wedding leads to a return of Gary Cole as her con man father.

All in all, "Chuck Versus the First Bank of Evil" is a fun episode that won't necessarily rank as the very best Chuck has had to offer, but I thought it represented a significant improvement over some of the clunkers we've been given of late.

What did you think of last night's episode? A winner or a miss? What is your take on Vivian Volkoff? Head to the comments section to discuss.

In two weeks on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the A-TEAM"), Chuck and Sarah begin to investigate when they suspect that Casey is carrying out private missions; Chuck fears that the CIA's seemingly-perfect new operatives will render him obsolete; Morgan settles in with a new roommate, and Awesome panics when Ellie embarks on a potentially dangerous line of research.


Heather said…
Just a heads up, the Lost number are 4-8-15-16-23-42, not 32.
Unknown said…
I, for one, am glad to see less Jeffster. Even the RenFair stuff is annoying. I'd rather see more of Ellie&Awesome.

Morgan living with Casey: let the hijinks commence! I'm not looking forward to that, but if we see more of Alex, it could be okay. I, too, miss Casey being on missions, but I think that's part of the NSA/TR-476 mini-arc. Hopefully, he'll rejoin our fav CIA team after it's over.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE seeing Ray Wise. He was so great on Reaper. Nice to see Bret Harrison on V, too. Now if we could only get Missy Peregrym on Chuck...

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