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The Truth is in the Tooth: Spies Like Me on Chuck

It's entirely possible to love Chuck but not love a particular episode, even as that episode is a cog in the larger construction of the season... and is clearly building towards something momentous and game-changing.

This week's episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Tooth"), written by Zev Borow and Max Denby and directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer (yes, the writer/director of Party Girl!) found Chuck's mental health impacted by the Intersect as he began to suffer vivid dreams filled with symbols and intelligence database markers and found himself in the land of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when he created an international incident because of his dream-related hunch.

That Chuck's own worst enemy could be himself was a nice twist that will have lasting repercussions on the series as we ramp up to the season finale in a few weeks' time. We've seen the benefits of having a super-computer downloaded into your head--both in terms of intelligence-gathering as well as physical skills--so I'm glad to see that the writers are recognizing that there has to be a physical or psychological cost to being the Intersect.

With great power comes great responsibility, but great power should also bring great headaches. And now that Chuck has gotten everything he's always wanted--the spy life, the beautiful girl of his dreams--the other shoe has got to drop.

So what did I think of "Chuck Versus the Tooth"? Let's discuss.

I felt that this episode was at times the sort of fun and frothy installment that has marked the majority of Chuck Season 3.5, building on the sort of loopy antics employed by both "Chuck Versus the Honeymooners" and "Chuck Versus the Role Models," particularly in the scenes where Chuck teamed up with Morgan to go to the symphony or when Morgan faced off with former girlfriend Anna, returned from Hawaii to drop off some stuff he left behind, or Chuck's therapy sessions with Doc (Christopher Lloyd).

I though that the opening sequence where Chuck and Sarah settle into domestic bliss was nicely played but the moment where Chuck tells Sarah that he loves her and she doesn't reciprocate was oddly glossed over. Given that the two are now living together, I thought it was a given that these two loved each other. Why would Sarah move in with Chuck if she didn't love him? If it was more a case of her having problems actually saying the words aloud, then I wish that that would have been more clearly dealt with within the narrative confines of the episode. Sarah hasn't had a "normal" life and she claims that this is the first time she's felt that way, but I've always felt that she's loved Chuck, in a different way than she loved Bryce Larkin. (While she may be a kick-ass super-spy, I've always felt that, more than Casey, Sarah has been attuned to her own emotions and capable of processing them in a healthy way.)

Saying those three words is a big step in any relationship and Chuck had previously put himself on the line by telling Sarah he loved her earlier this season. But the disconnect there between them feels more than a little forced here, when the two are already living together and cuddling on the sofa, a portrait of comfortable domesticity. Likewise, those three words aren't the source of tension between the two throughout the episode; that role goes to whether Sarah can believe Chuck's claims about the Zambibian president's imminent assassination or whether Chuck is losing his grip on reality.

As I said earlier, I'm glad to see that we're dealing head-on with the dark side to Chuck's abilities, with the Intersect slowly eating away at his mind and invading his subconscious while he sleeps. It's an important part of the hero's journey to see the results of his action and his Intersect-derived abilities are really a Faustian bargain that now threaten his long-term health and sanity, even if he's in denial about telling Sarah (or anyone else) the truth.

Chuck's therapist (the always fantastic Christopher Lloyd) warns him about his condition and he sees first-hand just what the spy business can do to an agent's sanity after being placed in a CIA facility after he assaults a member of the Zambibian president's entourage at the symphony, knocking out his tooth in the process. I loved the notion of Chuck going to get therapy and being able to unload his often complicated thoughts and emotions on someone who was fully aware of his identity and yet not directly involved with him in a personal context. (His decision to keep the therapist's prognosis from Sarah speaks volumes about this.)

Likewise, it was great to see Anna again, returning to the Buy More with a fantastic wind machine-assisted entrance that was later inverted with Morgan's own tuxedo-walk through the aisles of the Buy More. (Nicely played.) I've missed Anna this season; she gave the Buy More a much-needed injection of estrogen and her tart attitude balanced some of the off-kilter madness of Jeff and Lester. Here, she returns to find a very different Morgan than she last saw and decides that she wants him back... giving Morgan the opportunity to turn her down. It's been encouraging to see Morgan himself getting some much needed maturity in the last few weeks, really since he discovered the truth about Chuck. I don't think we would have ever seen Morgan Grimes turn down the advances of any woman--even one who had broken his heart--at the start of the season.

But there was also some oddly disjointed darkness lurking within the episode as well as some major narrative leaps as well. After arriving in Africa just last week, Ellie and Awesome had already returned home at the start of this week's episode as Devon recovers from his bout of "malaria" and convalesces at their apartment (already beautifully fixed up after it got trashed last week by a Bengal tiger). It felt odd to see them back already and to have their African excursion curtailed so sharply. Given The Ring involvement, I can see why Justin wanted them back in Los Angeles after he had gained Ellie's trust so that he could move her into position and reveal his true mission: tracking down Stephen Bartowski.

While that makes sense if it had all played out over the course of, say, three episodes, it felt really rushed here with Ellie deciding that she couldn't confide in Devon, couldn't trust Casey, and would assist a guy claiming to be a CIA agent help to find their father--who specifically does not want to be found--before even attempting to discuss it with her brother. Yes, Devon acted like Ellie was crazy but her behavior is erratic. She doesn't know Justin AT ALL and isn't suspicious about the fact that he claims that they didn't meet by chance in Africa and are now meeting again in LA.

(Personally, I also felt like Chuck's foray into the mental institution was cut short and wasn't used to drive the narrative stakes as it should have been. I would have actually had the episode end with him stuck in the CIA facility and then introduced Merlin and the rest in the following week's episode. But that's just me.)

Likewise, I was finally hoping that we'd put the Daniel Shaw storyline to rest but Chuck's sudden realization--spurred by a series of dreams--that Shaw is alive sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I was really hoping that Shaw was dead, that Chuck had in fact saved the day by killing Shaw in order to save Sarah's life. But the prophetic dream he has at the very end of the episode, following the ones where he seems to be processing his own guilt over Shaw's demise, points towards a reversal of this. So is Shaw alive? Is he still working for The Ring? Is he still out for revenge against Chuck and Sarah?

All in all, I liked "Chuck Versus the Tooth" but I didn't love it. Chuck was right in the end about the Zambibian scientist, about his dreams, and likely about Daniel Shaw being alive. Which took some of the tension out of the episode as everyone came around to his way of thinking pretty quickly, even after the tooth he knocked out at the symphony turned out to be nothing more than an ordinary human tooth.

Instead, the episode seemed constructed from two very different elements: one that was light and frothy with a Spies Like Us-vibe to it and the other that was really dark and surreal. Chuck has been able to balance out these tones quite effectively in the past, but I felt like they missed the mark here, resulting in an episode that was at times fun but somewhat toothless.

What did you think of this week's episode? Agree or disagree with the above assessment? Glad to see Anna return? Did you believe that the Daniel Shaw storyline was over for good? Or did you always know Shaw would be back to cause trouble for Chuck and Sarah? And is it a given that Ellie will discover the truth about Chuck before the season is out? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Living Dead"), Chuck asks Morgan to help him on a side mission after his latest dream but their investigation becomes complicated when Stephen Bartowski (Scott Bakula) returns and learns that Chuck downloaded the Intersect 2.0... but Chuck's father may be able to help him.


NDBob said…
You pretty much sum up my feelings. I like a lot of the concepts they were trying to introduce, it just felt a bit rushed. The 13+6 format and the limited budget seem to have taken some pretty good story arc ideas, and put a major crimp in the execution. Another two "filler" episodes before this one to establish Ellie and Devon in Africa (and the relationship with Justin as well as to introduce the dreams and developing problems with Chuck's mind would have benefited the storyline greatly.

Also very disappointed they seem to be going to the old standby of Shaw not really being dead --- I saw them leave that opening in 13 when he floated away, but was hoping they wouldn't go that route.
MeganE said…
I think there were a lot of great elements in this episode but they just didn't quite come together. It was surprising to see Awesome and Ellie back so soon (and have their apartment be perfectly restored) and, while I like the idea of Ellie entering into the spy world, that storyline does feel somewhat rushed. Like you, I think that maybe this would have worked better as a two part episode, where even the audience begins to question Chuck's sanity.
Unknown said…
By and large, I agree. It seemed rushed, but I blame the network. Most (All?) of them seem to be against story arcs, and I suspect they've told the producers to keep to single-ep resolutions. Boring.

I don't think they glossed over Chuck's reaction to Sarah not returning his "I love you." The camera cut to his face, and he was clearly crestfallen. Personally, I was glad they didn't show him whinging or weeping. This seemed more like Chuck.

I can't express how much I enjoy Yvonne Strahovski's performances.
gretchen e. said…
It felt incredibly rushed and disjointed to me. I was glad to see Anna back, but she had little screen time and didn't provide much (especially knowing her potential). It seems as though she was brought back to show Morgan's change, but I felt they could have done much more with the little time she had.

I was hoping that the Shaw storyline was over. And maybe it is? How would Chuck know that he's alive/dead? Shaw's recent death wouldn't be in the Intersect. It could just be a regular ol' fear/dream.

Furthermore, I found it hard to believe that Ellie (of all characters) wouldn't confide in her family. And why would she believe someone she's been acquainted with for less than a week. I know Casey is "weird" to her, but she has an innate belief that everyone is good. Casey having guns is hardly reason to believe that he's an NSA agent (like Devon pointed out: weird? yes, illegal? no).

I think Ellie finding out about Chuck's secret is a really bad idea. Far too many people know at this point. I think, up to this point, different characters (Devon, Morgan, etc.) have been introduced pretty well to Chuck's secret, but I find it a stretch of the imagination that the gov't would be OK with half the cast being in-the-know.

Plus, I like Ellie's idealistic nature. I'd hate to see her knocked down a couple pegs in regards to her optimism/belief in humanity. (Being hurt from being lied to, being worried about her family's safety, being hurt by her pops, etc.)
Ella said…
I don´t think Shaw is alive. Chuck can assume things and Intersect can create a theory about it. This is Chuck we are talking about and Shaw being alive would be too obvious and predictable. I smell a twist, some very unexpected one.
CJ said…
I'll agree that the episode was kind of rushed, but I'll also excuse that because the writers have been forced to deal with such a condensed episode order. They really needed the last two episodes to show the progression of Chuck and Sarah's personal relationship, and they need the last few episodes to tackle Papa Bartowski and the Ring. So I'll allow them some leeway with the slightly rushed Africa storyline.

Outside of that, I thought the episode was very good. It had some really funny scenes throughout, from Casey tranquilizing Morgan with his own gun to Merlin and his band of misfits. Considering that episodes like this often feel pointless on their own because they're clearly setting up future episodes, I thought this one was pretty strong.

On a side note, I didn't feel like the first "I love you" scene was glossed over. Sarah has always been emotionally constipated, and clearly has trouble saying the words. Chuck obviously looks bummed about the lack of reciprocation, then he again mentions it in his session with the therapist (who I was really hoping would be named Doctor Brown). Then Sarah faces losing Chuck, which is what finally breaks down her final emotional barrier and gets her to say the three words.
Anonymous said…
Here we go again they did this on SMALLVILLE when we first saw John Jones (Manhunter from Mars)
Txtraveler said…
You've summed up my feelings pretty well too.

I hate the idea of Shaw coming back from the dead (I didn't like it when Bryce did it either), and after weeks of build up, having Ellie and Awesome arrive and depart Africa in a single episode is definitely rushed. Also, Ellie is WAY too trusting of Justin, seeing as how nothing she learned of him in the first week of knowing him turned out to be true. That she wouldn't tell Awesome or Chuck about him is another symptom of the show being rushed.

On the bright side, Morgan's slow-mo tuxedo entrance was an absolutely perfect counterpoint to Anna's entrance of just moments earlier. The development of Morgan's character into someone who could turn her down, act as bait for a Bengal tiger, and locate a hidden Chuck in Europe is a truly fresh approach on the "comic relief" role, and I'm enjoying it immensely.

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