“Chuck vs. Phase Three”
Mondays, NBC, 8/7c PM
Written by Kristin Newman
Directed by Anton Cropper
“This is your chance. Don’t be Sarah Walker the spy. Be Sarah Walker the girlfriend.” — Morgan
I knew the funny was back when, during the opening scenes of this episode, Dream!Chuck found himself lying in bed between Sarah and Lester. If discovering Lester in your bed isn’t terrifying enough to make you flash, nothing is. Chuck is in the hands of The Belgian (the criminally under-used Richard Chamberlain), who is intent on getting Chuck to flash on the Intersect. But Mama Bartowski has so effectively crippled it that even the fear of death can’t force his mind to trigger the computer in his head. As Chuck’s tormenters come up with ever more convoluted dream sequences to trick his mind into doing what they want, Sarah Walker leads the hunt for Chuck. And boy, don’t get in her way.
“Forget about secrets! This is about Chuck!” — Sarah
Casey and Sarah have searched five continents for Chuck, with no success. General Beckman is not much help, getting bogged down in red tape. Morgan comes to the rescue, as always, with a link to The Belgian: an attaché at the Thai Embassy. Next thing we know, the team is going for Thai takeout with the help of a rug. (Someday someone is going to write a dissertation on the role of rolled up carpets in international diplomacy, starting with Cleopatra.) Sarah’s interrogation technique is so rough it alarms even Casey, and she has to cage him while she discovers where The Belgian is. Refusing to involve Casey, she takes off without him, and it’s left to Morgan to free Casey and team up to go after her. When we next see Sarah, she’s dressed like Lara Croft, striding into a bar in the boondocks of Thailand and spoiling for a fight.
“Anybody else want to be my boyfriend?” – Sarah
We’ve seen Yvonne Strahovski pull off some mighty fight sequences before, but the ones in this episode top anything she’s shown us before. It’s not just the physical kicking and kung-fu-ing. It’s the attitude; Sarah’s got a game face that would scare Dick Butkus. She can also exhibit less subtle violence, as when she taunts a hostage reluctant to give up information, carefully and coldly placing the instruments of torture in his line of sight (I think the Inquisition started this practice, but it could have been the Romans). Her description of death by ammonia injection was positively hair-raising. Her furious and frustrated glare easily equals Casey on his worst day. And she does all of this while still looking fabulous. I hate her. (Not really.)
“You’re right. I’m different about Chuck. And I don’t like it.” — Sarah
As if this bravura performance were not enough, Strahovski also brings the shy and tender side of Sarah. When Morgan tells her of Chuck’s “proposal plan”, involving a DeLorean and a wild stallion (thereby referencing the two most famous time travel movies of the last couple of decades), she melts. She misses Chuck so much she almost weeps when she sniffs his work shirt. When she finally finds Chuck, he is comatose, being lobotomized. She comes unglued, passionately weeping and begging him to come back, confessing that she loves him with or without the Intersect (don’t we all?). And of course, in classic fairy tale fashion, the hero wakes her love with a kiss. This is Sleeping Beauty with a 21st century twist—the dragons our role-reversing heroine slays are tattooed on a Thai fighter, the dwarf is a helpful little bearded man named Morgan, and the wicked witch used to play Doctor Kildare. Throughout, Strahovski gives us a performance which never cracks, completely convinces, and entertains like gangbusters. The dream sequences allow her further range: she is by turns sexy, playful, cold and remote with Chuck, all changes rung on the basis she has laid down over three years. It’s an impressive performance. Congratulations to Yvonne Strahovski for a fine, fine piece of work.
Sarah: But that’s not the reason why I love Chuck! I do want to spend the rest of my life with Chuck! With or without the Intersect.
Morgan: That’s fantastic! That’s great! And he knows that, right? Because you told him that.
One of the things driving Sarah is guilt. Last week she denied to Chuck’s face that he was a spy. Now Morgan shocks her when he tells her that Chuck may not feel worthy of her, that he may be clinging to the Intersect, trying to get it back, only because he fears losing her. Morgan knows what he’s talking about, because of the fifty or so interminable dream sequences The Belgian puts Chuck through, most of them involve Sarah leaving him because he no longer has a working Intersect. This is a brilliant twist on the does-she-love-me-for-myself anxiety many new lovers wrestle with, and is one of the few plausible reasons Chuck or Sarah might doubt their love. I don’t generally like artificial obstacles being placed in front of the path of true love (like the suitcase fetish a few weeks back), but this one felt very natural.
“It’s a good thing you lost the Intersect, ’cause now you know that girl loves you!” – Morgan
Zach Levi had the easiest job on this episode: lying in a comfy chair with his eyes closed. Chuck’s reaction to every scenario presented to him is pretty much the same: panic. This is a throwback to Chuck 1.0, when the Intersect was first in his head and he was still not used to working with it. It is as if not just the Intersect, but the last three years have been erased. Nor is this just a paranoid dream: The Belgian instructs his assistant to do an Eternal Sunshine treatment on Chuck. “Phase Three” is apparently a full lobotomy that will leave Chuck with no memories, so that only the Intersect is left. I won’t examine too closely the difficulties inherent in treating a metaphor like a physical reality (where, exactly, is “mind” located in the brain?), as this is merely a dramatic device I doubt anyone in the audience believed. Certainly, it looked like a Plot Device ™ to me, one that would pay off in later episodes as Chuck tries to piece together a shattered memory. For now, however, it appears to have failed, as Sarah finds her Prince and applies the obligatory kiss of wakening. We end with Chuck apparently restored to normalcy, still minus the Intersect, and the General promising to find him some make-work job in the CIA to keep him on salary. I’d have something to say about wasting the government’s money, if I wasn’t sure that before New Year’s Chuck will have his Intersect back. He loses and finds this Intersect like a kid loses a latchkey. I can’t wait for Chuck to get his groove back, and I grudge any delay; bring back my Super Nerd!
“Let me look at this computer while Jeff takes off his pants.” – Lester
The Buy More plot was superb this time out. Ellie finds the laptop Dad left in her Mustang weeks back (wow, where do I get that battery?) but she and Awesome can’t power it up. Finally Devon does the smart thing and calls the Nerd Herd for help. Lester and Jeff are ready to help—for a price. Over the next hour, Devon’s house is turned into an impromptu medical clinic, where he is forced to treat Big Mike’s hemorrhoids, Jeff’s unnamable abscess, and assorted icky ailments of the rest of the Buy More crew. When the computer is finally powered on, it asks for a password—and Ellie figures it out. She and Devon stare in awe at the laptop screen we can’t see—is that the blue light of an Intersect download flickering across their faces? What a stunning plot twist that would be—Captain Awesome with an Intersect in his head. Or Doctor Ellie as a spy. Most of the time I am sanguine about next week’s episode, but this time I can’t wait. In any case, this B-plot was in the best traditions of Chuck, balancing out the tension of the main storyline and actually adding something to it.
Casey: Walker, what are you doing here all alone? These are nothing but scoundrels, assassins and warlords! The scum of the earth!
Waitress: Ah, Mr. Casey! Your usual?
Writer Kristin Newman really brought the funny back with this episode. Casey telling Morgan, “You’re not getting bullets for a long, long time”, the urban legend of the giant blonde she-male stalking Thailand, Awesome using his stethoscope on the laptop, Morgan squeezed between Casey and Sarah – all were giggle points on a long arc of funny. Newman really knows how to sprinkle the comic-relief Buy More plot into the darker mix of the kidnapped-Chuck plot. And it’s all served up with real human warmth; as in all the best Chuck episodes, it’s not so much about the Intersect or the spy game or the Buy More, it’s about the love story. NBC may call this an action comedy, but at heart it’s all about Chuck and Sarah. This episode gave us a long-overdue Sarah-focused story, and Strahovski came through with flying colors, followed by an excellent performance by the ensemble. This is one of those really good episodes we’ll remember after the series ends.
“What do you think it feels like to watch your life disappear?” – The Belgian
It probably feels a lot like watching the ratings for Chuck. This episode drew in fewer than 2 million viewers. This was a season and series low for Chuck, which makes the network’s decision to order more episodes downright baffling. I can only conclude that someone at 30 Rock has developed some taste, or that the network despairs of doing better in that time slot with some other show. I’ll take what I can get, especially if the writers keep cranking out episodes of this caliber.
Some may think the producers are “rushing” the Chuck/Sarah romance; if so, NBC only has itself to blame. Their first order for the 2010 fall season was only 13 episodes, so it is likely that the producers wrote a story arc that ends with a wedding that could serve as a series finale. But then a couple of weeks ago NBC ordered 11 more episodes, and now the writers, according to producer Chris Fedak (interview here), must figure out how to extend the story lines. This is no way to run a railroad, much less tell a story, but it’s the structure we’re stuck with. It may be part of the reason Chuck is garnering such dismal ratings: Next week James Bond and Sarah Connor—excuse me, Volkoff (Timothy Dalton) and Mama Bartowski (Linda Hamilton) come to Thanksgiving dinner, and maybe we find out what was on that laptop. Save me some pie.