Family Secrets

"Chuck vs. the Family Volkoff"


Mondays, NBC, 8/7c PM

Written by Amanda Kate Shuman & Nicholas Wooton
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeil

"Family and friends are everything. Money, greed, and power are a dance with Satan… and he looks like me." —Alexei Volkoff

Chuck used to be about Chuck and the Intersect in his head and the awkward humor of a geek out of water. I don't know what it's about now—dysfunctional family dynamics? Because almost every episode these days seems to be about Chuck's family, with side trips to Morgan's family or Casey's family. Now it's even about the families of Chuck's enemies, as Vivian Volkoff waltzes back into the story, accused of planting the bombs that killed two CIA trainees and trying to kill Chuck. I was hoping for a strong female villain to go up against Chuck, but of course the writers wimped out at the last minute. Rather than give us a woman with a grudge, they brought her daddy onstage to do her dirty work for her. This is disgusting.

"No matter how much you believe in this broad, remember she's still a Volkoff." —Casey

General Clueless tells the team that Vivian Volkoff has been targeted by the CIA for assassination, and then tells them to do nothing about it. Smart, General. Like Chuck is going to take that lying down. He begs for time to prove that she's not the baddie we all know she is. Soon we are dealing with mystery weapons, Somali pirates, and prison counselors. Beckman lets Alexei Volkoff out of jail long enough to assist the team in a global treasure hunt for pieces of a deadly yet highly unlikely weapon, and we get to see Volkoff double-cross his daughter and Vivian double-cross her dad. Since everyone saw that coming, it was hardly a surprise. Now Vivian is going after "Agent X", and we're supposed to be scared for whoever Agent X is and terrified by the juggernaut that is Vivian.

"Our family has relied on secrets and lies for way too long." —Mary Bartowski

Let's look at this a moment. We're being led to believe Agent X is, or soon will be, Ellie Woodcomb, Chuck's sister. Every week she unravels another line or two of code on her father's computer. This week, Linda Hamilton comes back pretty much for the sole purpose of trying to erase the computer. Chuck has already tried to get Awesome to swap out the hard drives. Why does it not occur to anyone to just drop the damned thing in a brimming bathtub and be done with it? Or tell Ellie the truth? Or steal it? It is wearisome to see everyone scurrying around trying to protect poor Ellie from the truth about Chuck. Protecting a grown woman from the nasty truth, a woman who is a mother, a wife, and a well-educated doctor, is an exercise in paternalism that does not sit well with this viewer.

"You got to be cool, Chuck." —Casey

There was no Buy More in this episode, and hardly any Morgan. That right there is a sign of trouble. I know the show has had to deal with some serious budget cuts, but cutting the little bearded man is just plain idiocy. His one scene, where he mirrors John Casey's every move, was hilarious, one of the few genuinely funny moments of this episode. The writers now and again remember that one can never go wrong with physical comedy, and the asides between Casey and his little buddy are some of the best this year. I could do with a lot less General Beckman and a lot more Morgan Grimes on this show.

"Can't trust a Limey with good teeth." —Casey

Father-daughter relationships took center stage in this episode. The biggest one was the Alexei/Vivian dynamic, but we knew that one was pretty much poisoned from the start. The lower-profile but more profound one is the Casey/Alex relationship—Alex is torn between the father she loves and the mother who does not know Casey is still alive. Both relationships are marked by lies, absent fathers, and abandonment issues. You'd think Chuck and Sarah, who have a few absent-father abandonment issues of their own, would at least notice the parallels, let alone feel a little sympathy. But not only are they oblivious to these deep psychological issues in themselves, they are blind to them in others. Which makes everyone involved look a little stupid. I cannot imagine this is deliberate on the part of the writers, so I have to wonder if the writers are a little blind as well.

"We see our end before the beginning." —Sarah

Our B-story was a fairly lame Obstacle to True Love Plot, in which Sarah asks Chuck to sign a pre-nuptial agreement. Chuck (and Casey) see this as a lack of trust; Morgan as usual is wise enough to counsel Chuck not to act rashly and reject it. Chuck assumes an air of nonchalance about it that bothers Sarah; she comes to realize that she has subjected Chuck to a test of faith to which she does not really want the answer. In the end, they both reject her pre-nup and sign Chuck's, which sounds very much like a marriage vow. Since the chances that Chuck would back out of the marriage were nil, and the chance that Sarah really distrusts Chuck this much are nil, why did we even get this plot? It felt very much like the filler it was.

"I feel like I'm about to have some fun." —Alexei Volkoff

The one shining figure in this episode was Volkoff, or more accurately, Timothy Dalton. He imbued Volkoff with a spirit of mischievous glee, from the opening scene in a prison therapy group to his final parting warning, in chains. He cackled, he leered, he teased. He menaced a pirate even as he apologized to him. He roused to his old wrath only when Vivian double-crossed him, but got all sentimental when his baby girl left him to die. I loved his critique of his own Bond-style security; when he has to win a game of chess against a computer in order to enter his own vault, he wryly comments to Chuck that maybe it's "overkill". Dalton might have pulled off the only coherent performance of the night, were it not for the bewildering script. At first, he's the repentant, changed man—or he pretends to be. Then he double-crosses Chuck and the team, revealing (with requisite snarl) that he was fooling them all along. Then when he rescues the team from death and is once again shackled, he goes back to playing changed man—and Chuck believes him. Oh, for crying out loud, how stupid does Bartowski have to be? Chuck was often awkward, inept, or clueless, but never before has he been downright dumb. The charm of Chuck's character is his intelligence and warm heart. There's nothing wrong with his heart in this episode, but he sure came off as a chucklehead.

This episode reached a series low of 3.9 million viewers, a 1.3 share. This is a 13% drop from the last episode three weeks ago. I don't know if it was the sub-par writing the last few weeks, or the long gap between episodes that kept the audience away. I do know that ratings like this pretty much guarantee cancellation on a major network. Chuck has slipped, badly, for the last half year; if it cannot return to the light-hearted, geek-culture loving, cheerful absurdity of yesteryear, I won't miss it.

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Copyright 2011 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.