A review of tonight's "Chuck" - the strongest episode of season four - coming up just as soon as I parachute out of a plane on a wild horse...
"Frost here is a master of deception." -Volkoff
So why was "Chuck vs. the First Fight" the best episode of the season so far? Let's run it down:
Timothy Dalton. We're starting here, and we could just as easily end here. Getting Dalton to guest star on this show was a coup, both because he's a great actor, and because he was James freakin' Bond. (And a much better Bond than he gets credit for, since the two movies he was in were awful.)
For a while, it seemed like Dalton was just there for an elaborate in-joke: a former 007 plays a cowardly handler who knows nothing about field work, loves to watch "Alias" and folds at the slightest hint of torture. ("I had my first sexual experience watching 'Lawrence of Arabia'!") And that would have been fine, because Dalton was really funny doing it, embracing the gag beyond the meta level, so that it would be amusing whether or not the man had "The Living Daylights" and "Licence to Kill" on his resume.
(In contrast, all due respect to Brandon Routh, but there were definitely times last season where Shaw scenes were only interesting if you viewed them through the prism of Superman stealing Chuck's special lady friend.)
But in the end, Gregory Tuttle turns out to be Alexei Volkoff. It's one of those twists that you can't really call shocking - I would have understood if Dalton was just there for a one-off gag appearance, but it's also not the least bit surprising that the "Chuck" producers would want their biggest guest star get ever to be this season's big bad - but it was still effectively played by Dalton, and by the stunned Zachary Levi, and I look forward to seeing more Dalton/Volkoff as the season goes along.
Good action. The Chuck-Fu hasn't been very useful to Chuck this season, but that's led to some more interesting fight scenes. "Chuck" fights are usually best when there's a mix of action and comedy, and I enjoyed Chuck and the Ana Gasteyer character having a tweezers vs. dental mirror tiny weapon standoff for a few moments, and then Chuck and Sarah bickering throughout their fight with Gasteyer and her goons at the bank. And speaking of which...
Good comedy. I started off worrying about the whole "first fight" aspect of the title, since not only was Chuck coming off a real emotional roller coaster from last week, but it seemed like it was going to be another one of those storylines where Sarah's being a professional during a mission while Chuck acts like a nincompoop. But then Sarah let herself get agitated by Chuck to the point where she was being just as ridiculous, and the fight at the bank really clicked. The writers have also gotten much better over the years at finding funny Sarah moments, whether it's pairing her with Morgan ("Morgan, please don't touch my chest") or playing off of how out of touch she is with popular culture ("You might as well have posted about our fight on Friendster!").
And, as mentioned above, Timothy Dalton was damn funny.
Real emotional stakes. The "Alias" joke does underline just how much the "Is Chuck's mom a hero or a traitor?" thing evokes the Irina Derevko story, and my patience with all the reversals is definitely growing thin. But at the same time, the Ellie/Mary scene just killed. So well played by Sarah Lancaster and Linda Hamilton, and you understand in that scene - and then again as Chuck is preparing to die in his father's secret basement - how much the Bartowski sibs need for their mom to be a secret good guy whose behavior for the past 20 years has a good explanation. (Because being undercover in an evil organization for 20 years without accomplishing much suggests Frost isn't a very good spy.)
The final moments in the Orion room offers more ambiguity. Mary gives Sarah a tool to cut herself and Chuck free, but she also zaps Chuck with some kind of PSP-sized Intersect that, for now at least, seems to have taken away his ability to flash. He could just be in shock, or need of a reboot, or she could be trying to do what Steven did at the end of season two, and forcing her son out of the spy game before he gets hurt - or before he stops her and Volkoff, because she really is evil (but not a bad mom). I hope we don't get seven more flip-flops between now and the end of the arc, but I do like seeing how much this is hurting Chuck and Ellie, and look forward to seeing what comes next.
Some other thoughts:
• This week in "Chuck" music: "Snake" by Frightened Rabbit (Chuck practices what he's going to say to Sarah, "Ghosts N Stuff" by Deadmau5 (Chuck wakes up on the plane with Tuttle), "We Don't Eat" by James Vince McMorrow (Mary and Ellie talk), "One October Song" by Nico Stai (Volkoff blows up Orion's lab) and Florence and the Machine's "Kiss with a Fist" over the fight at the bank. (Though I should say that while it's an awesome song, and perfect for this kind of fight scene, but "Community" beat them to it by almost a year.)
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: beyond the "Alias" hat-tip, there were a whole bunch of little James Bond references. My two favorites were Ana Gasteyer basically playing Rosa Klebb from "From Russia, with Love," and the gag about a plane only having one parachute (which comes up in "Moonraker," among other 007 places).
• I hope that they chose to play music over the Mary/Ellie conversation because Mary was only telling her things that we in the audience already knew and/or weren't important to the larger arc, and not so they could withhold info from us that Ellie and Sarah would now have. "Chuck" isn't that kind of show, nor should it be.
• As mentioned above, Sarah/Morgan pairings are almost always funny, and the Casey/Morgan fight worked as an amusing funhouse mirror to the Chuck/Sarah argument. One question, though: what exactly took Casey and Morgan so long to get into the bank?
• Good to hear Scott Bakula's voice again, and hopefully that pimped-out Mustang will have some kind of awesome Volkoff-stopping power.
What did everybody else think?
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