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Spies Don't Fall in Love: A Tale of Two Cities on "Chuck"

Hard choices and tough consequences would seem to be the overarching themes of the two-hour season premiere of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Pink Slip" and "Chuck Versus the Three Words"), which picked up the dangling plot threads of last season's cliffhanger and wove them together into a strong forward-moving plot that touched on not only the solitary nature of being a spy but also the weight of the profession's responsibilities.

Chuck's new Intersect 2.0-derived abilities might make him potentially more valuable in the field but, once again, his emotions get the better of him. Not just in the adrenaline-pumping sense of being in mortal danger but also that his feeling for Sarah Walker can cloud his judgment. And clearly the reverse seems to be true as well for Sarah.

Despite the fact that the opening two-hour installment is actually comprised of two separate episodes--the first written by Chris Fedak and Matt Miller and the second by Ali Adler and Scott Rosenbaum--they actually function quite effectively as an opening act for the season, coupling the action-driven subplot of Chuck's new capabilities with the Chuck-Sarah romantic subplot. And, rather than begin the season directly from the kung fu-laden cliffhanger, Fedak and the writing staff wisely jumped ahead six months, slowly revealing just what happened between the almost-couple in Prague and then, in the second half, why things took the turn they did.

So what did I think of "Chuck Versus the Pink Slip" and "Chuck Versus the Three Words"? Let's discuss. (Note: while I've seen the first five episodes of Chuck's third season, I'm keeping the discussion limited strictly to the first two installments.)

The first hour functioned more or less as a reintroduction to the Chuck universe, valuable given the time lapse between the end of Season Two and the beginning of Season Three (it was also a nice jumping on point for new viewers as well), but it also cleared the decks as it were for some new story possibilities. Poor Emmett Milbarge was killed off, Big Mike brought back to oversee the Buy More (in the second episode), and things were more or less reset to where they were: Chuck and Morgan got their jobs back, Sarah and Chuck's relationship was once again on the rocks, and Casey... Well, Casey was still his gun-toting, grunting self.

But while it seemed as though little had changed since the second season, there were some nice character shifts going on under the surface. The first two episodes found Chuck getting what he always wanted... and realizing that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For a series that's functioned largely as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, that's a pretty big leap. Chuck has always wanted to be a superhero and, with the Intersect, he achieved that goal; he's a kung fu fighting, mariachi-playing superhero sans tights.

But Chuck learned that old lesson from Uncle Ben: great powers come with great responsibility and so finds himself at the edge of a moral precipice with Sarah. It's a turning point for Chuck Bartowski: he can either fulfill his duty or follow his heart. Leaving her at the railway station in Prague, Chuck chooses to turn his back on Sarah, to not run away with her, to accept adulthood and the responsibilities therein.

For Sarah, it's an opportunity to have the life she's been so desperate to lead. The two have been on opposite trajectories for so long: Chuck wanting a life of action and intrigue, Sarah yearning for normalcy, for the quiet life she's never, ever had (first as the daughter of a con man and later as a world-traveling spy).

To say that Chuck breaks her heart as he gives her back the ticket and his passport is an understatement of the highest order. When we pick up with Sarah, she's icy, cut off, and emotionally distant, having thrown herself into her work and believing intently with Carina's cardinal rule of spying: don't fall in love.

Yet, Chuck's not exactly happy either; he's too emotional to handle the rigors of the new Intersect abilities, designed for a trained spy with mastery of their feelings under intense pressure. And when he gets pink-slipped by General Beckman, he's a pale shadow of himself, a bearded, bathrobe-clad loser who spends his day loafing on the couch and stuffing his face with cheese balls.

But this is Chuck after all and so Mr. Bartowski ends up crossing paths (none too coincidentally) with Sarah and Casey and finds himself once more attempting to play the spy game. It's a game made all the more dangerous by the emergence of an assassin, a kidnapping, the murder of Emmett Milbarge (to the tune of Wilson Phillips' "Hold On," no less), and a means to prove his zip-line abilities once more.

While the first episode works quite effectively as a season opener, it's the second hour, "Chuck Versus the Three Words" that really started to heat things up. I'm extremely chuffed that the producers opted to bring back Mini Anden's Carina; I think she gels really well with the rest of the Chuck cast and brings not only an unpredictability but also a nice change of perspective as well. Her sultry, devil-may-care attitude conceals a heart of steel. (She might flirt and pout, but usually she's just reaching for her gun.)

Carina's pert looks were contrasted nicely with the guest casting of Vinnie Jones, here playing the deadly Karl Stromberg (very obviously a shout-out to the Bond villain of the same name in The Spy Who Loved Me). I loved Casey's avuncular manner and his interminable toast, as well as Stromberg's wish that his and fiancee Carina's first child will be a "masculine child" (yes, a Godfather shout-out, to boot). (And that's saying nothing of Carina and Sarah's lingerie scene where they seductively slip into their dresses and strap on some knives and guns.)

Some nice continuity with the return of Chuck's mom's bracelet, here picked up insensitively by Carina and which Sarah must have been keeping around all this time. But it's Chuck's videotaped confession--and Sarah's resulting realization at the end of the episode--that show the depth of feeling between the two of them. Both is clearly in love with the other but the pull of duty compels both of them to restrain from acting upon it.

As for that confession, that it occurs while Chuck is sealed inside a vault secreted within Stromberg's house (from which he had to employ some awe-inspiring acrobats to grab a gold suitcase) and is being dosed with some sort of gas is testament to the strengths of Chuck, fancifully combining the romantic with the comedic and the, er, spy-riffic.

Plus, there are some nice subplots building as well: just who is Shaw (glimpsed flicking an old school lighter) and why does Beckman want to warn the team? What will Morgan, now Chuck's roommate, make of his frequent disappearances and long absences? Can there ever be anything permanent between Chuck and Sarah?

All in all, the two-hour opener represents a fantastic start for what promises to be the best season yet of Chuck.

What did you think of the Chuck season opener? Was it all that you expected? Did it live up to the hype? Discuss.

Tomorrow night on another brand-new episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Angel de la Muerte"), Chuck must protect a visiting dictator from an assassination threat; Devon is excited about the idea of being a spy when he finds himself entangled in the latest mission.

Comments

OldDarth said…
A few thoughts:

- fans of the lighter episodes like Seduction could have an adjustment to make, this is a darker more mature show now
- Casey really cares about Chuck – his taking Chuck into the Castle and allowing him see the restaurant plans was no accident
- Emmett’s removal was necessary as the show never got a proper handle on him, killing him is the visual shorthand way of saying things are deadlier this year
- my favourite episodes operate on many levels, The Three Words was a multilayered storytelling confectionary delight
- the Bo Scene is THE most romantic thing in the show to date
- Carina giving the flash drive to Sarah, a true mark of friendship

Intersect 2.0 changed the landscape between Chuck and Sarah’s feet. Now they are walking in each other’s shoes. An undiscovered country for both of them and they are sure to stumble.

The rollercoaster has started to pull away from the platform.

Buckle up! 8)

PS – loved both episodes and the more mature tone of the show.

Perceptive review Jace. Thanks.
MC said…
I LOVED this passage from you Jace:

"For Sarah, it's an opportunity to have the life she's been so desperate to lead. The two have been on opposite trajectories for so long: Chuck wanting a life of action and intrigue, Sarah yearning for normalcy, for the quiet life she's never, ever had (first as the daughter of a con man and later as a world-traveling spy). To say that Chuck breaks her heart as he gives her back the ticket and his passport is an understatement of the highest order."

I applaud you for truly understanding the character of Sarah Walker. Everyone should get this and it would help them comprehend what the writers are trying to portray.

Excellent review as always. Thanks!
Hadley said…
Loved it! Loved it! Loved it! The second episode was definitely my favorite as it really had a lot of momentum and bodes well for a great season ahead. Thanks for the excellent write up (as always)!
Audrey said…
Ditto @ MC's comment.
CleverTitania said…
In some ways it was like Chuck had never gone away, and yet, there's this new glimpse of changes to come. Overall, I was thrilled. Good for Ellie & Awesome (also digging their car commercials w/Morgan) for forcing Chuck on his own, but not going too far. I wonder if the gov has secretly just bought the apt. building by now. Carina's role in this story was a nice touch, and even her unusual ending with Morgan wasn't as dumb and cliche as you might've expected to be (gotta love, "I've had better, but not many.") even with the Star Wars sheets.

I was sad to see Emmett go. Sure, the character was a real tool and everyone hated him, but I'm going to miss seeing Tony Hale in this environment (and regularly for that matter). He simply can't help but be the funniest tool in the world. Also, the absence of Anna is unfortunate. I really liked her dynamic at Buy More.

And on a completely side note; when is Sarah going to learn? If Chuck has something on his mind (or his heart to be more specific), let him get it out before you go on the mission. Even Casey knows she's begging for trouble holding him at arms length.
Unknown said…
Unlike everyone else, apparently, I was not thrilled with either episode. I thought they were kind of slow, and there seemed to be a lot of cheesy moments.

There were great scenes, but over all I was disappointed. So much so that we are planning to watch the Monday episode and if it's no better, ditch this show.

And this is from someone who was anxiously awaiting the return of Chuck.
Anonymous said…
Very insightful review, Jace. Loved both eps, especially VS The Three Words. Very compelling stuff. Welcome back, Chuck!
Unknown said…
Sometimes I find it hard to start watching an ep because then I won't have it to look forward to. Silly me.

These eps made a great season opener. I do hate the "6 months later" followed by the flashback device to show us what happened. However, Chuck didn't dwell too much on that, so I'll let it go.

It's nice, for once, to see characters that care about each other and aren't being selfish. On Desperate Housewives, for example, Carina would've kept the flash drive so that Sarah wouldn't find out how Chuck feels and she'd go with her. But, on Chuck, Carina shows it to Sarah. A small thing, but a nice touch.

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