By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall
Mondays on NBC at 9/8
“Chuck vs. Santa Claus”
Written by Scott Rosenbaum
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
Talk about a fulcrum (turning point). The sweet, funny comedy that was Chuck turned dark and angsty in the last five minutes of this end-of-the-year episode. How very typical of this show that an episode full of elves, shiny presents, and Santa comes down to a moment of true grief for Charles Bartowski and his little friend Morgan. The ending of this episode could have permanently harshed the mellow for Chuck, but the show’s consistently light-hearted approach (or maybe that should be “heartwarming” approach) spared us the kind of letdown that would turn me away. Instead, we are left wanting the next episode now, to find out whether Chuck can get past what he thinks of as a vast betrayal.
The episode takes place entirely within the Buy More, and this time we have the whole gang in attendance: Ellie and Awesome show up before opening time to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, as Chuck, the Nerd Herd, and the BuyMorians are preparing for a horde of crazed shoppers. Even Anna is back, midriff-baring elf suit and all. But before the store can even open, the entire store is taken hostage a la Die Hard. Ned Ryerson (cute call back to Groundhog Day) is a frightened little nebbish of a guy, recently laid off, who only wants to buy some Christmas gifts for his children. Played by Jed Rees (Galaxy Quest), he’s a quiet and almost self-effacing villain. Chuck, eager to avoid bloodshed, locks the store and tries to bond with the gunman. Meanwhile, Casey and Sarah find out about the hostage situation, and enter from the Castle, determined to spirit Chuck away to safety and then extract the rest of the hostages. Chuck, however, adamantly refuses to leave his sister and friends; in the ensuing argument, Ned’s gun fires and takes out one of Casey’s toes. Ouch.
The most interesting thing about this first half of the episode is how Chuck handles the crisis. He shows a little nervousness–understandable in the circumstances–but generally behaves with cool restraint. Brother-in-law-to-be Devin wants to take down the gunman. Chuck, who actually has experience of life threatening situations, talks him out of it. Ned allows everyone to “telephone their loved ones”. Though played for laughs, this scene was creepily reminiscent of the desperate last phone calls from the 911 victims to loved ones. Ned calls his wife, Lester dials a phone sex line, Jeff calls his mother in prison, and Big Mike calls his cousin Al. Al turns out to be Sergeant Al Powell–the very same Al Powell who was a character in Die Hard, and played by the very same Reginald Veljohnson. Linking Big Mike to Al Powell was a stroke of pure genius that paid off several times in the episode.
Alas, poor Sarah has no one to call. As she tells Chuck in the opening, she doesn’t “do” Christmas, because in the Burton household, Christmas just meant “the annual Salvation Army con job”. Chuck meets Sarah in a quiet corner for some reassurance, and an early Christmas present–Chuck gives Sarah his mother’s charm bracelet. It’s not an engagement ring, but it’s proof of love. And charming (ahem) proof at that. This tender moment is broken up by the arrival of hostage negotiator Frank Mauser (Michael Rooker, Tombstone).
And at this turning point, surprises start popping up. No sooner does the negotiator walk into the Buy More, than Chuck flashes on him: Mauser is a Fulcrum agent. He’s not shy about it, either; he freely tells Chuck that he, Chuck, is the only reason this hostage situation is happening. It’s a ploy by Fulcrum to smoke out Bryce Larkin and the Intersect (Fulcrum still believes that Larkin has the stolen database). While I was not entirely surprised to find that Mauser was a Fulcrum mole, I was completely floored when Ned turned out to be a Fulcrum agent. Kudos to Rees for completely convincing me of Ned’s mousiness. To save his sister from being killed by Ned, Chuck confesses quietly to Mauser that he has the Intersect in his head.
This is dangerous ground for Chuck. Mauser tells him he can save his friends and family only by going with Fulcrum. Chuck asks to say goodbye to his sister, whom he will never see again. Chuck knows Fulcrum will leave no witnesses behind. so he hints to Awesome that this time, violence is an option. Devin rounds up his troops, strategizes a game plan to take out Ned, and deploys them as Mauser is taking Chuck out of the store. Morgan rises like Rambo from a pile of fake snow to take out Ned with a snow-blower. Meanwhile, Sarah and Casey foil Mauser’s attempt to abduct Chuck, and chase Mauser into a Christmas tree lot. With sweet Christmas carols playing in the background, Sarah Walker stalks the Fulcrum agent. When she finds him, he nearly knocks her out, but she finally gets the upper hand and holds a gun on him. Mauser mocks her, telling her that Chuck’s secret is out and Fulcrum will pursue him to the ends of the earth. I sat there wondering if this guy wanted Sarah to shoot him; sure enough, she does–just in time for Chuck to arrive and witness what looks like cold-blooded murder to him.
And this is another fulcrum, if you will, a turning point not just for the tone of the episode, but for Chuck himself. Unaware that Chuck has seen her shoot Mauser, Sarah brightly reassures him that he has been arrested and taken away. For Chuck, this is much worse than seeing Sarah shoot someone–she has lied to him. Despite his complete trust in her, despite giving her an heirloom bracelet from his mother, despite his love for her, Sarah Walker lies to him. There’s really no reason for her to conceal from Chuck the realities of the situation, but she does it as routinely as breathing. Honesty is the bedrock of Chuck’s character, something he values more highly than Sarah, apparently, can understand. Con artist, murderer, and now liar–the shine is off Sarah Walker for Chuck. Sitting disconsolately next to Morgan (whose own world is shattered when he sees Anna kissing Lester), he ends the 2008 season staring unhappily at his future, looking as lonely as a boy who has lost his dog. This was a surprisingly adult, bittersweet ending for the episode, deftly blending comedy and pathos.
I would call this easily one of the best episodes of Chuck so far. Well written, with direction (especially in the second half) that takes advantage of the pitch-perfect comedic timing of the cast, it has laughs enough, in-jokes enough, and physical comedy enough to entertain on a completely superficial level. At the same time, it deepens and complicates the emotional story of Chuck, his family, his friends, and Sarah Walker. It does so, however, at the risk of treading on soap opera territory. The “drama” of soap opera rests on people not telling one another things that they normally would; I will definitely need to see a good reason why Sarah felt she had to lie to Chuck. Otherwise, it becomes a mere plot device to keep them apart. And frankly, that train is leaving the station. The writers need to get over their prejudices and get Sarah and Chuck together and move on with this storyline. Endless frustration is not funny.
“Chuck vs. Santa Claus” also leaves some loose ends. “Ned” is still alive, and he knows Chuck is the Intersect. What if he gets free? Will there be a moment when Chuck realizes that everything would have worked out fine if he’d only done what Sarah told him to do? Will he blame himself for the death of Lt. Mauser? I look for this loose thread to be knitted up sometime in February (yes, February), when Chuck returns.
This episode was an early Christmas gift for NBC, rounding up 7.6 million viewers, an increase of more than half a million over last week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to put NBC higher than second place for the night; sitcoms with laugh tracks still rule the airwaves. Still, even runner-up status beats the abysmal numbers Chuck has been struggling with all year. Here’s hoping a seven-week hiatus doesn’t result in slippage. See you next year.