First off, good for "Chuck" delivering a 3.0 demo rating for Sunday night's two-hour premiere. By NBC standards, with five free hours of primetime opening up in a few weeks, that's verging on tremendous and it's the sort of success that could lead to an easy renewal if those numbers stay intact for Monday's (Jan. 11) show. 
 
So I hope people who tuned in on Sunday come back on Monday, because as much as I like Subway occasionally, I'd also enjoy a "Chuck" renewal that wasn't contingent on sandwich eating.
 
Anyway...
 
When I wrote my review of the third season of "Chuck," one of the things I mentioned was a growing maturity in the action-comedy's storytelling. One of the episodes I'd point to, illustrating that point, is "Chuck vs. The Angel de la Muerte," the kind of episode that a show can only do when it's reached a certain age and when it can count on its fans being willing to go along for the ride on new and unexpected territory.
 
"Chuck vs. The Angel de la Muerte"" was, oddly enough, a Devon/Casey episode, combining two pieces of the ensemble who rarely get to be narrative centerpieces. 
 
[More on "Angel de la Muerta" after the break...]
 
"Angel de la Muerte" was a bit like last season's Jeff-centric "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer," only that episode was very much in the "standard" "Chuck" format. It was quippy and buried under a sea of pop culture references and as great as the episode was, it took a hilarious character and made him hilariously tragic, which maybe only showcased a limited side of Jeff. [It's possible there aren't other sides of Jeff, though.]
 
In this instance, "Chuck" delivered what was close to a serious episode. Well, maybe not *that* close to serious. But this was a "Chuck" episode in which, as Sepinwall pointed out, made almost no meta-references or cheeky nods. For 44 minutes, we took both Devon Woodcomb and John Casey very seriously and, as a result, Ryan McPartlin and Adam Baldwin gave tremendous performance.
 
The theme of this episode was coping with your failures to be awesome. 
 
The adventure-of-the-week revolved around Armand Assante as the formerly Community Master of Parliament and Chief Military Officer of Costa Gravas (the episode's lone real reference, which only plays if you happen to be a "Z" or "Missing" fan). Years after taking power in a bloody revolution, Assante's Alejandro Goya was in town for talks to bring democratic elections to his country and to reestablish economic ties with the United States.
 
For Casey, so proud of his perfect record as an NSA hitman, this was galling because it let everybody know that he'd previously failed to take Goya out on multiple occasions, shooting him in the spleen once and, sadly, blowing up his dog Chewy. With somebody attempting to kill Goya and halt the progress of democracy in his country, Casey, Chuck and Sarah were tasked with keeping Goya alive. Casey? Not pleased.
 
Also displeased? Ellie and Captain Awesome. The episode opened with a flashback to their first day at medical school, with the two making out in a supply closet ("I hope they are gaining an appreciation of the human body," their instructor said). Flash to the present, nine years later, and Devon and Ellie are married the passion is temporarily gone. They're more invested in setting up their new flat-screen TV than intimacy.
 
"What happened to us?," Ellie asks, looking at their wedding album.
 
Devon responds, "We moved. We went back to work. Real life happened." 
 
While Ellie has always been prone to emotion and sentimentality, Devon's character is predicated on his ability to find everything awesome, but there was something rather beautifully sentimental about the way McPartlin played Devon's realization that sometimes "OK" is the new "Awesome."
 
Just because he's content to just be content doesn't mean that Devon has ceased to crave adrenaline, which he gets from helping to cure Goya and then from intentionally drawing himself into Chuck's spy world.
 
"Nothing against married life, but I could use some real excitement," Devon explains to his brother-in-law.
 
"Devon, you're an adventure sports cardiologist," Chuck replies.
 
To which Devon says, "Whatever, man. I can do that in my sleep. I need some real action, some real adrenaline."
 
Now Devon's answer has always been the show's M.O. "Chuck" fans love it when it's fast, exciting and sometimes a little glib. His arc in the episode was one that prioritized domestic stability over the thrills of espionage and I appreciated that "Chuck" decided to take an episode to go through that journey with a beloved character. So much of the show's buzz is about the possible heat of a Sarah and Chuck pairing, but there's also something sweet and romantic about a couple experiencing a nine-year bump and yet remaining totally in love.
 
Along the way, we also had Casey learning that sometimes just because you failed to kill somebody doesn't mean that you're a failure and that sometimes people can change. He also learned that sometimes there's an easier way to make the blood of American patriots flow throw a country than a hostile military takeover.
 
I find that with "Chuck" recaps, I do a better job just listing favorite moments as a way of showcasing highlights...
 
*** Monday (January 11) night's "Chuck" was directed with impressive confidence by Jeremiah Chechik. This somehow makes me laugh, because "Chuck" is a sort of absurdist 21st Century American spin on "The Avengers," while Chechik directed directed the truly awful big screen version of "The Avengers," which featured giant marauding teddy bears.
 
*** When I interviewed Josh Schwartz last week, he referred to how bring Devon into the spy fold let Chuck have an even less experienced spy on hand and forced him to interact with Devon as Sarah still interacts with him. And, indeed, it was great seeing Devon poking around the Castle and attempting to tackle a would-be assassin, even if it happened to be Casey. McPartlin's versatility and the "Chuck" team's attempts to play to his full range began happening in the second half of last season and this was a peak.
 
*** I've seen next week's episode, so I could tell you what Sarah tells Chuck at the end of the episode and what fate Captain Awesome has met. But that would be mean of me. Then again, I hear NBC's promo department spoiled a few things in the clips from next week's show? Oh well.
 
*** I loved Chuck's quickie summary of the standard "Chuck" mission: "Bad guy throws a fancy cocktail party. Another bad guy's trying to sell them a weapon. We bust both bad guys, blah blah blah." They really do spend an awful lot of time going to fancy cocktail parties, but I guess if your cast looks as good in cocktail gowns as Yvonne Strahovski and Sarah Lancaster looked tonight, that's what you do. And I suppose McPartlin and Zachary Levi do OK in tuxes. Also, if the sight of Adam Baldwin with a fake mustache ever ceases to be funny, just shoot me up with some ultra-powerful poison.
 
*** Speaking of costuming stars to the best advantage, "Angel de la Muerta" gave one set of fans several minutes of McPartlin topless and working out, while providing Sarah as a naughty nurse, kicking butt and then wielding a machine gun for a different set of fans. See what producers mean when they say that "Chuck" has something for everyone?
 
*** The exchange rate for Costa Gravas? Apparently 1000 pesos equals 15 cents, which is good to know. Maybe. 
 
*** People doing surgery and declaring that it's just like a game of Operation! is on the verge of becoming played out. "Miami Medical," CBS' new Bruckheimer Friday drama, makes the same joke in an early episode, but that won't play until April.
 
*** Tidbit of information on The Ring. Their assassin tells Casey, "I suppose I could explain our overarching goals, but this might tax the brains of an aging NSA agent. Let's just say The Ring wishes to maintain Costa Gravas status quo." What does that tell us about The Ring?
 
*** What do we think about the way a "Chuck" episode plays without any Buy More sequences at all? I did notice the absence of that regular comedic contrast, but I found that I didn't lament that absence. Am I blanking on other 100 percent Buy More-free episodes or was this the first? Maybe the Season One episode at Stanford? Hmmm...
 
*** What do we think of the episode's handling of the chill between Chuck and Sarah, building to the decision that their new cover will be "friends"?
 
*** Line of the episode: Devon closing the press conference on Goya's health by taking a question in Spanish, ending with "Es muy awesome." 
 

What were your thoughts on "Chuck vs. The Angel de la Muerte"?