A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I spoil "The Hurt Locker" for you...

"You and Bartowski, you're still good agents." -Casey
"Well, we used to be the best." -Sarah


Because of the stutter-step way in which this season of "Chuck" was constructed, the writers had to race their way through various story ideas that they might have taken their time on had they known they'd ultimately have 24 hours to play with rather than 13. These extra 11 episodes don't allow the writing staff to go back and completely alter the past - "Chuck" will always get his powers back quicker and easier than anybody might have liked - but they do provide opportunity to pick up promising threads that had to be dropped in the rush to wrap up the Volkoff arc.

So with "Chuck vs. the A-Team," we get to return to the Gretas and learn that the idea was more than an excuse to place a bunch of attractive, recognizable guest stars into Buy More uniforms (or, at least, that it can be retconned into something more than that), and we get to see that there's more to the Orion laptop - and to Stephen's desire for Ellie to have it - than earlier episodes allowed for.

From the perspective of a continuity-obsessed fanboy, I appreciate the return of those old subplots. And it helped that they came in a strong overall episode, one that featured a good character arc for all three original members of Operation Bartowski - not to mention one that brought back the government's ongoing desire to have someone other than Chuck have an Intersect in his head.

This one was written by Phil Klemmer, an original member of the show's writing staff who left the show after last season(*) to work on "Undercovers." With that show's cancellation, he's back on staff, and it felt appropriately meta to have someone who was the core of the original "Chuck" A-Team writing an episode in which Chuck and Sarah cope with the fear of being replaced.

(*) There was actually a mass writer exodus after last season, with Ali Adler going to "No Ordinary Family" and Matt Miller and Zev Borow to "Human Target," on top of Scott Rosenbaum having left earlier in season three to take over "V." At the time, those departures made sense for everybody: most wound up in higher-ranking positions, all on high-profile shows that would seem to have better odds of being around for the 2011-12 TV season than "Chuck." Instead, "Undercovers" is long gone, "No Ordinary Family" almost certainly won't be back next year and the other two are, at best, on the renewal bubble with "Chuck" - and I'd put better odds on "Chuck" at this point. And who would have predicted that last spring? It's like William Goldman likes to say about showbiz: nobody knows anything.

Though Chuck has definitely grown as an agent, he still has a bunch of inherent limitations that still frustrate the likes of Casey and General Beckman. So it makes sense that once the government got a new Intersect team in place, they might decide to shelve Chuck and the once-brilliant agent he corrupted by making her fall in love with him. It was fun to see the two of them struggle with obsolescence(**), to see Casey suddenly act so paternal and kind towards them now that he no longer had to live with their screw-ups, and also, through the return of Isaiah Mustafa and Stacy Keibler as former Gretas Rick and Vicky, to see what the Intersect looks like in the hands of a natural spy.(***)

(**) This was one of those episodes where I wish Sarah still had a cover identity. The show has gotten good mileage in the past out of Casey having to spend too much time as a Buy More employee, and Chuck's board game collection wasn't quite as effective as showing Sarah stuck selling fro-yo or weiners or something might have been.

(***) Yes, Shaw had an Intersect at the end of last season, but it was a malfunctioning one. Also, he was Shaw. On this show, I'll take The Man Your Man Could Smell Like over Superman.

The episode's climax did something that the Intersect-less episodes from earlier this season really didn't: it showed why Chuck is special beyond the computer in his head. Chuck doesn't let the Intersect control him the way Vicki does, and he can think outside the box to defuse the nuke in a way that Rick can't. (Though as Chuck bomb disposal ideas go, the juice box is still a distant second to the porno virus from the series pilot.)

And I'm glad the Orion laptop is going to be used for something beyond rebooting Chuck - and that there's a specific reason Stephen wanted his civilian doctor daughter to have the thing, as opposed to his Intersect'ed spy son. The Ellie/Awesome subplot started off fairly silly (but amusing, as Sarah Lancaster really threw herself into Ellie's post-partum mania), but then went dark in that final scene. No good comes of Robin Givens stopping by your house, does it?

Good to have the show back after it took a week off for the return of "The Event." Even better to have it back with an episode like this one.

Some other thoughts:

• This week in "Chuck" music: "Murder Weapon" by Tricky (Chuck and Sarah interfere in Casey's undercover op), "You & Me" by Diamond Rings (Ellie can't stop telling Awesome about life with Clara), "No Man is an Island" by Losers (Chuck and Sarah watch Rick and Vicky kicking ass at the airport), and "Ticking Heart" by The One AM Radio (final montage).

• Boy, and I thought Awesome's rave review for his Sienna earlier this season was as blatant as the show could get in plugging a non-Subway sponsor. Then Chuck borrowed the mini-van and spent what felt like 18 hours extolling its many features. On the other hand, the Sepinwall family does need a new van, and that looked fancy, so...

• I liked seeing Jeff and Lester re-creating the ESP experiment from Bill Murray's opening scene in "Ghostbusters," and then discovering that Jeff really is psychic to a degree - not that Lester realized it.

• "Ech... sounds like a CBS show." Chuck not a fan of the Jerry Bruckheimer empire.

• I know the apple juice Chuck used to save LA wasn't sparkling, but dammit if that stupid "SNL" song isn't lodged back in my head.

What did everybody else think?