A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I workshop a tough guy voice...

"You might find yourself becoming someone you no longer recognize." -Mary

In our semi-audible podcast interview with Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak, Fienberg asked about the pros and cons of learning the show's future one small piece at a time. (The first 13 episodes of this season, for instance, were written as if they would be it not only for the season, but possibly for the series.) The plus side, the guys noted, was that they don't have to waste much time: Linda Hamilton appeared in the premiere and frequently throughout this first half of the year, Timothy Dalton appeared fairly early on, etc.

The flip side of that, of course, is that there are times when they have to rush in a way they wouldn't had they gone into the year knowing they had 24 episodes to fill. (For instance, they said Chuck might not have gotten the Intersect restored quite so quickly/easily.) And while there were a lot of good things in "Chuck vs. the Gobbler," overall the episode felt like it was racing to get all the pieces into place for next week's episode, which was written as a potential series finale and will now turn out to be what the guys joked would be the greatest mid-season episode ever.

The point of "Chuck vs. the Gobbler" is to get Chuck to question whether Sarah has gone over to the dark side, but the set up of that feels rushed. Sarah only went undercover as a rogue spy at the end of last week's episode, and in the interim has had time to fake a prison break, go on a bunch of fake missions, etc., all off-camera. I wouldn't necessarily want to see episode after episode of Chuck and Sarah apart, but if they'd devoted even one episode to the stuff that Casey and Morgan discuss in the opening scene, then kicked off the next one with Sarah pretending to team up with Volkoff, the sense of anxiety both Chuck and Sarah were feeling over their separation would have felt more authentic. As it is, when they have their big reunion at Castle, it feels like Sarah's barely been gone at all.

Beyond that, we know Sarah hasn't turned. And while I appreciate the show not thinking it can trick us on this front by presenting the whole episode from Chuck's POV, it means the stakes of those final scenes are more on the level of a simple misunderstanding than the shattering emotional moment it's supposed to be for Chuck. In particular, once the writers bothered to give Sarah a means of communicating with Chuck while undercover, it felt really contrived to have her decide that this particular moment in time - when she believes that Casey (the only person who knows she wasn't trying to kill him) is either dead or unable to communicate, and when it's more important than ever for her to let Chuck and the rest of Operation Bartowski know that she's still on the side of the angels - to decide that Mary's advice about distance is a good one to follow.

It just felt like the episode was reverse-engineered: that everybody knew where they wanted Chuck and Sarah to be emotionally at the start of the finale to this arc, and that they were going to use this episode to get them there by any means necessary.

But even though I felt frustrated/manipulated by parts of the episode, other parts worked quite well. Turning Sarah into a cross between Emma Peel and Dark Phoenix was a fun idea, and Yvonne Strahovski was given ample opportunity to offer a kind of flip side to the Sarah of "Chuck vs. Phase Three" - unstoppably bad-ass, but absolutely cool and calm about it. I liked the various scenes relating to Morgan, Alex and Casey(*), and Casey and Morgan's discussion of expressing love had a good payoff with Alex in Casey's hospital room. (And from now on, I will demonstrate my love to my children by sneaking into their rooms and building them shelves. I like the way Casey thinks.) And I continue to be happy with every single second of screentime that Timothy Dalton has been given. I'm not expecting him to be around past next week's episode, unfortunately, but one of the other interesting parts of the podcast discussion is when Schwartz and Fedak said that Dalton's presence has inspired them to want future big bads to have more personality, whereas Fulcrum and The Ring were both mostly faceless, colorless evil organizations. I don't know how you can match getting a former James Bond who's talented and versatile enough to match the unique tones of this show, but I look forward to seeing them try.  

(*) Chuck being the first to recognize the danger of Alex wearing the rare "Back to the Future" t-shirt was the first time in a while he's felt really like the geek we used to know.

And regardless of my reservations about this one, I'm really looking forward to seeing if the conclusion to next week's episode lives up to Schwartz's "best 10 minutes in the show's history" boasting from that same podcast.

Some other thoughts:

• Glad though I am whenever an episode is able to feature the entire cast, we could have pretty easily done without the subplot about Ellie tricking Awesome into picking a baby name. There's a bit of thematic parallel with the main story - like Sarah, Ellie seems to be doing something crazy when she's really doing something to help herself and her man - but given all the plot and character stuff that the rest of the episode had to deal with, I'd have been fine not seeing the Buy More gang for a week.

• "Chuck" doesn't usually dabble much in graphic imagery (unless it involves Jeff), so I was a bit surprised by the scene of Volkoff scooping out Yuri's eyeball, even though it was shot in a way where you really didn't see any of what he was doing.

• The Chuck Fu continues to seem unchanged from before Mary used the suppression device on Chuck, which in this case leads to another instance of Chuck struggling against a really large, well-trained opponent. I like that; it's no fun if the Intersect makes Chuck essentially unbeatable.

• I think we can write off the entire jailbreak scheme, by the way, as the Chuck Plot Hole of the Week, as I understood very little of why Sarah thought it would be a good idea to use her old team, how she actually got Yuri out of the prison, etc. Or even why a bunch of hardened prison men would run away from the attractive woman in the black catsuit.

• This week in "Chuck" music: "AM/FM Sound" by Matt & Kim (Chuck is feeling upbeat about Sarah's mission), "Midnite Runaround" by Pop Levi (Chuck fights the Gobbler), "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" by The National (Chuck and Sarah both hope for the same thing) and "Silvia" by Miike Snow (Chuck, Morgan and Alex in Casey's hospital room).

What did everybody else think?