Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Ex”

Butterfly Awakens

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Ex”

Written by  Zev Borow

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar

Aww. They’re so cute when they finally grow up. Chuck has finally grown up; the butterfly emerges completely tonight in” Chuck vs. The Ex”. Chuck Bartowski has finally and fully accepted his role as a sort of amateur secret agent, and proves much better at it than his handlers expected. A routine tech support call at a biotech conference brings Chuck face to face with his old girlfriend, Jill (Jordana Brewster, Fast and the Furious), and at the same time introduces her boss. Chuck flashes on the boss man, who seems to be working on a deadly form of influenza, lethal enough to kill inside of an hour. Is Jill his innocent dupe, or is she part of the program? To find out, General Beckman naturally assigns to Chuck the one thing he really, really does not want to do–re-connect with his ex-girlfriend.

Since this is the new, improved, grown-up version of Chuck, however, we are spared last year’s timidity and goofy adolescent angst. Chuck is naturally reluctant, as any man would be, to confront the woman who left him for his best frenemy, Bryce Larkin. But he mans up, does the best he can, and the CIA/NSA duo of Sarah and Casey promise to help. And this time, it’s the CIA and the NSA who screw the op. They dress Chuck to the nines, fill a restaurant with CIA agents to visibly ogle the dashing Mr. Bartowski, and otherwise do everything possible to make Chuck look like a Big Shot, assuming this will impress Jill. But it only takes one drive-by greeting from the Nerd Herd to clue her in to Chuck’s real life; stung at being deceived, she leaves in a huff. For the next thirty minutes or so, Chuck tries various ruses to get close to her. He finally uses the one sure way to a woman’s heart–he tells her the truth. He’s never really gotten over her. Jill finds this as irresistible to her vanity as any woman would, and Casey wins a twenty dollar bet with Sarah that she would really have preferred to lose. Jill’s trust of Chuck comes in handy shortly afterwards, when Casey is trapped in a conference room with a group of scientists who have been exposed to the lethal virus. To get Jill’s help, Chuck tells her more truth: he tells her he’s a spy. And then takes charge of the rescue op like an old hand. Surging into the deployment area, he snaps a walkie-talkie out of the supervisor’s hand and cracks out orders like an experienced hazmat worker. He overrules the local safety officer to keep Jill from being exposed to the virus, and takes the crucial equipment into the contaminated area himself. But just as he has proven himself as a hot-shot spy/emergency supervisor/biowarrior, he goofs up. He drops the crucial equipment. Worse, he rationalizes that he has developed an antibody to the virus in his blood, which can be transferred via saliva. Even Casey doesn’t buy this, and pleads in vain for Chuck not to kiss him:

Casey: I’ve served my country with honor! Let me die with dignity!

I found this bit to be slightly amusing, highly cringe-worthy, and very fanfic-y. The slash writers probably loved it, however. At the last moment, Jill saves Chuck, Casey and the scientists, and plants a big smooch on Chuck. Sarah watches morosely from the sidelines.

And she is right to be morose. General Beckman notes that the Bad Guy (whom Sarah shot) was a Fulcrum agent, that Jill might be in danger, and therefore Chuck needs to continue connecting with her in order to ensure her safety. That plot point was as obvious as a cockroach on a wedding cake, but I suppose it was inevitable. The  beauty of the writing for this show is that it can take plots right out of high school teen novels/fan fic and make them plausible somehow.

The real joy of watching this plot was in the character development. Chuck is amazing: he can be boyish now without being immature, he is brave and grownup and capable one moment, and trembling with need and anxiety the next. And to seal the deal, Chuck now has someone outside the CIA/NSA to whom he can really talk: Jill. I love it that they chose to have Chuck reveal his true self and life to Jill. Chuck could have played that revelation as an in-your-face “gotcha” moment, where he overturns all her perceptions about his dead-end job at the Buy More and his loser life. But instead, he simply states it, passes on to the more important issues of trust, courage and memory.  It at once confirms his basic honesty to us and Jill, and allows him to talk to someone about the stresses and dangers of his life, without endangering the primary relationship in his life, his sister Ellie. Whether Jill will be happy as the recipient of these confidences remains to be seen, but for now, she’s a happy and welcome addition to the cast. In any case, we have a much more adult, human, approachable and lovable Chuck in the mix.

The Buy More, however, is becoming an ongoing problem for the writers, I think. On the one hand, they have a stellar cast with top notch comedy chops. But on the other hand, Chuck’s life as a secret agent increasingly has nothing to do with the Buy More. At least that point was addressed this week, as the new Assistant Manager began to question Chuck’s frequent absences from the workplace. I could see the writers gradually moving Chuck (and Chuck) out of the electronics store–but then we would lose priceless moments like the one where Jeff and Lester figure out how to cheat on a CPR exam. I would never want to lose sight of this gang of idiots savants, but how can the storylines always tie in? I’m glad I’m not juggling these chainsaws.

All in all, last night’s episode was one of the most tightly written, engagingly performed, and delightfully entertaining of the series, let alone the season. It shows that the writers, the cast and the storylines have all matured, that whatever re-tooling the producers had in mind for Chuck has succeeded, and that this show has the legs to continue ad infinitum. The writers have consistently married drama, action and comedy in a mad mix that never fails to keep me laughing.

Or not. Chuck continues to improve even as its ratings fall. Pulling only a 3.9/6 for Monday night, it beat only TerminatorThe Sarah Connor Chronicles. In one week, it lost nearly half a million viewers. It’s fairly easy for  a lay person to see why. The network consistently pits Chuck against the very shows that Chuck and his fans would watch, thereby fracturing the audience. On any other night, I suspect Chuck would be a ratings star, but then, network programming has always been a black art beyond the reach even of Lord Voldemort.