Mondays on NBC at 9/8
"Chuck vs. The Truth"
Written by Allison Adler
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
"Chuck vs. The Truth" is the episode where Chuck the Intersect's two lives finally intersect, as his spy life collides with his real life and puts the woman he really loves in the middle. In a plot straight out of the classic noir film, D.O.A., we meet Reardon Payne (Kevin Weisman, Moonlight) a mercenary who doses his victims with a truth serum which slowly poisons them, and promises them the antidote if they come up with valuable secrets. This time he targets a programmer who has stored nuclear access codes on a chip. Naturally, the programmer has hidden this vital information underneath a public postal service box. Immediately after he recovers it, but before he can pass it to the poisoner, he collapses outside the restaurant where Chuck and Sarah are double-dating with Ellie and Captain Awesome. Ellie supervises the dying man's transport to the hospital, and as he passes out he hides the chip in Ellie's sweater.
Okay, I'm not going to examine this whole premise all that closely. It would be like analyzing a chocolate cake. This particular confection was funny, smart, and well acted, and if the whole spy story is farcical, well, this is a farce with dramatic moments. It is what it is.
And what it is, is Chuck growing up. This story was all about honesty, the innate honesty that is the core of Chuck's character, and the lack of it that is the core of Sarah's character. It's about the lies that Casey and Sarah spin without even thinking, the honesty of speaking truth to loved ones, and the difference between a really honest connection between two people, and a dishonest one. It is, as Sarah tells Chuck, "an existential spy crisis of sorts." This character showed me a Chuck I can really like, the best version of this guy I've seen all year. Chuck is fed up with lying to people, so much so that he finally takes steps to wrest control of his life back into his own hands. Two things bring this crisis to a head: Ellie in danger and Lou the Sandwich Girl.
Ellie is targeted by the poisoner because Chuck stupidly called out her name as she was getting into the ambulance with the dying man. Posing as a cop, Payne doses her with the truth serum, too, hoping she will lead him to the chip. As the truth serum slowly works on her, we discover that deep down inside Ellie's sweet, loving exterior is… a sweet, loving interior. She's at once hilarious ("Chuck, you need a haircut; it's starting to make funny animal shapes.") and loving ("Chuck is all grown up now! He's a big boy!"). The worst thing she can accuse her boyfriend of is not buying her random presents. Captain Awesome continues to live up to his name—even in the middle of a "fight," he's sweet, loving, unselfish. When Ellie collapses and is taken to a hospital, Chuck goes into protective mode. He gets up in Casey's face with no hesitation whatsoever. He's resolute, determined, and smart. He plays to his geek strengths—technology and comic books—to track down the poisoner and thwart an attempt to poison himself, Casey, and Sarah. Hard to believe this was the same guy who was blubbering in fear on the floor of a computer lab last week. I love this Chuck.
And maybe someone else might love him too. Not Sarah. She's too cool for that. But this episode introduces a new love interest/obstacle, in the person of Lou (Rachel Bilson, The O.C.), a woman who owns a sandwich deli in the same mall as the Buy More. She meets Chuck as she is on the edge of a meltdown due to the malfunctioning of her Blackberry. When Chuck fixes it, she hugs him, gives him a sandwich, and tells him she's naming it after him. What could have come off as overly cute and contrived played out as naturally as sunlight between these two. There's far better chemistry onscreen between Bilson and Levi than there is between Levi and Strahovsky. Lou is not just attractive, she shares Chuck's core value: honesty. When he approaches her in a parking lot, she tells him forthrightly that she likes him, but that she hates cheaters. He agrees, stunned and intrigued by her openness.
Sarah, sensing that the wheels are falling off her "relationship" cover with Chuck, resorts to the blunt instrument of sex to hammer it back into place. She tells Chuck that they need to "sleep together" for the sake of their cover story—while reminding him that this is all for fake. Hopeful Chuck nonetheless makes sure there is music and candles for his visitor—only to have her mock his hopes when she arrives. As soon as she has reminded Chuck for something like the fiftieth time that this sleepover is just for show, she takes off her Spy Trench Coat™ to reveal a see-through nightie straight out of Victoria's Secret.
At which point I lost all sympathy whatsoever for Sarah Walker. After practically tattooing "Don't touch" all over Chuck, she taunts him like this? And when he calls her on it (yay for honesty), she says any girlfriend would wear a nightie like that? No, this is beyond teasing, it's downright cruel. Sarah is revealed not as a sophisticated, seductive Mata Hari, but as a spoiled princess with intimacy issues, a clumsy flirt who is old enough to know what she's doing to Chuck but apparently is callous enough not to care. Or else she's so disconnected from her true feelings that she is unaware of the mixed signals she's sending, in which case one must question her competency as an operative. Someone this blithely self-ignorant should not be licensed to kill.
Goaded into action, Chuck pulls a Jim Halpert moment after the poisoner is apprehended and the antidote obtained. Just before he and Sarah drink the antidote that will allow Sarah to lie to him again, he asks her, in an affecting, vulnerable moment, if "our thing, under the undercover thing" is ever "going anywhere." He asks this in the most sincere and frank way, holding nothing back. Levi barely moves during his speech: there's no sighing, no eye rolling, no big dramatic gesture, he lets those speaking eyes and the tears in his voice do it all and they do it wonderfully. Strahovsky, however, sighs, rolls her eyes, and shrugs before telling him "No." She's about half convincing, and I honestly (ahem) can't tell whether it's bad acting or an attempt to show Sarah ill at ease.
After that scene, the only thing honest Chuck can do is break up with Sarah. In a badly written, contrived sitcommy treatment, this would have had all the charm of a tax audit. After all, the Love Obstacle introduced just as two leads are getting close must date back to the dawn of drama. But this one was handled very well, with real sparks between Levi and Bilson, and real pathos between Levi and Strahovsky. I actually welcomed this breakup as an opportunity to let Sarah do a little growing up. Chuck's starting to mature into a really great guy; it's time to let Sarah catch up.
The writing for this episode was some of the best of the series—fast, bright, funny. The dialogue among Sarah, Chuck, and Casey under the influence of truth serum was some of the best of the season. Adam Baldwin absolutely shines as he channels Jayne Cobb (of Firefly) one moment in looming menace, and then slips into con man mode as he hoodwinks Harry Tang right out of the picture. The spy plot was actually quite good, despite the silly premise: the trap set by Casey and Sarah, the intersection of Chuck's spy life and real life, of Harry Tang's discovery of his spy life, and of course Casey's awesome conversion of a crutch into a javelin.
I've been surprised and gratified to see Chuck improving from week to week. Unfortunately, the ratings are still mediocre: this week's episode drew an 8 share, with 7.6 million viewers, making it third place on Monday night after ABC and CBS. With only a few more episodes to go before the writers' strike cuts the series short, and with no renewal announcements, Chuck may have an uncertain future. For now, though, I'm enjoying this show immensely, and hope to see it thrive.
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