Spoilers for the last "Chuck" of 2008 coming up just as soon as I ask Walter Sobchek to get Casey a toe...
"What do you do when you see your girlfriend do something so horrific it gets permanently burned into your brain?" -Morgan
I still think NBC is being short-sighted in its decision to bench "Chuck" for the next six weeks (it returns the night after the Super Bowl with a 3-D episode), given how the ratings suffered after its last (albeit much longer) hiatus, but if they have to go away for a while, at least they're leaving us with one of the series' best episodes to date.
"Chuck vs. Santa Claus" was moving along amusingly enough when it still seemed like Ned Rhyerson was just a hapless criminal with the bad luck to crash into a store built above a top-secret government intelligence facility, but the surprising left turn it took when Chuck flashed on Lt. Mauser took things to another level.
On a lot of other shows, I would have out-guessed that particular twist, especially since Michael Rooker is usually cast as the heavy, but "Chuck" is exactly the kind of show that would have devoted its entire Christmas episode to a light-hearted "Dog Day Afternoon" parody (with a liberal sprinkling of "Die Hard") where nothing's at stake but Casey's dignity. Plus, Rooker has done at least one other comedy set in a mall. So I was floored when the danger turned out to be very real.
Because Zachary Levi is so good at navigating the show's odd mix of tones, I immediately bought the shift from goofy to deadly serious, that Ned with a jacket was a bumbler who didn't know how to work a gun but that Ned without his jacket was a guy who knew exactly what he was doing when he shot Casey's toe off and sent Casey and Sarah to safety. And because Levi and Yvonne Strahovski are both so good at wearing their characters' hearts on their sleeves, I was just as shaken as Chuck when I saw Sarah kill Lt. Mauser in cold blood to protect Chuck's secret. (She was also protecting, of course, his ability to live a normal life instead of being locked away forever in a CIA safehouse). We know why Sarah did it, but I take it from the way the scene was shot -- and the way the situation was paralleled with Morgan's, where he saw Lester kiss Anna but not the immediate aftermath -- that Chuck didn't hear what they were saying. And even if he had, I still suspect he would be wrecked by what he saw -- maybe even moreso. Chuck's gotten much better at living in spy world, but he doesn't want to be there, doesn't want to face the deadly stakes and moral complications that Sarah and Casey grapple with daily. Knowing that the woman he loves -- and the two actors made it clear in this episode that neither Chuck nor Sarah are in denial about their feelings, not deep down -- murdered a man, even a very bad man who threatened Ellie's life and was prepared to lock Chuck away forever, all for Chuck's sake...
...well, that would mess me up if I was Chuck, especially after Sarah smiled so sweetly and lied so easily to me about it. Even more than the "our relationship is jeopardizing both our lives" argument from "Chuck vs. the Break-Up," this is the kind of romantic complication that doesn't feel the least bit contrived, that could plausibly postpone the inevitable for a long time and not get old.
Chuck witnessing a side of Sarah he usually tries to forget the existence of was the emotional heart of "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus," but this one was clicking just as well on the comedy and action fronts -- the action in particular because, like the centrifuge chase in "Chuck vs. the Gravitron," it didn't skimp on the comedy. Yes, Morgan gets his big "John McClane pulls the gun off his back" moment when he helps take out Ned, but he's dressed as the world's hairiest elf, and he's blasting the bad guy with fake snow.
And speaking of the world's most bad-ass barefoot supercop, the episode made its inspirations plain with the casting of Reginald VelJohnson in his old "Die Hard" role as Sgt. Al Powell, who turns out to be cousin to the similarly round, jolly and snacktastic Big Mike. I would've liked to hear VelJohnson utter one of his lines from the movie (maybe asking Lt. Mauser if he wanted a breath mint), but it was all worth it for the edit from Powell scarfing down a Twinkie to Big Mike doing same, and for the shot of the cousins running to embrace each other to the strains of "Ode to Joy."
(And here are two links for anyone who wants to keep that wonderful Yippee-Ki-Yay feeling going: a minute-by-minute analysis of the first film -- including the first time I've ever heard it suggested that McClane isn't the one shooting at Al's car -- as well as the original version of Guyz Nite's "Die Hard" rock anthem.)
In addition to throwing a huge monkey wrench into the show's central relationship, "Santa Claus" also creates a whole lot of story possibilities for the back half of season two. You knew it was only a matter of time before Fulcrum or some other evil spy organization noticed how much action was going down in this one Burbank mall, and from there it was only a hop, skip and a jump to realizing that one of this mall's employees used to room with Bryce Larkin. Mauser's dead, but Ned's only locked up, and even if Fulcrum never gets to him, they have to realize they struck a nerve with their plan and will redouble their efforts to infiltrate this wacky electronics store. The only reason Chuck still has to work there is because the CIA feels it's a good cover, because who would think to look for the world's greatest intelligence asset at a Buy More? What happens now that the bad guys knew to look, and will probably know to keep looking?
How soon until February 2nd, anyway?
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. Santa Claus":
• I'm thinking I need to turn the "Chuck" Plot Hole Of The Week into a more prominent recurring segment, maybe with a sponsor and a theme song (preferably one whose lyrics explain that, while I like to point out these plot holes, the show's too good overall for them to bother me). Any potential advertisers, please get in touch. This week's candidate: when you assume Ned is just a bumbler, it makes sense that he would allow the hostages to roam free through the store, but once he reveals himself to be Fulcrum (to us, if not to the hostages), why would he keep letting them wander around to plot the exact kind of uprising that Awesome led?
• In addition to the triumphant return of Al Powell (last seen cameoing in "Die Hard 2"), our other two guest stars were well-cast and named. Jed Rees, whom I like to think of as one of the aliens from "Galaxy Quest," played a character named after (with a slight change in spelling) the funniest part of "Groundhog Day." Meanwhile, you really have to hand it to the writers' obscure '80s fetish for naming Lt. Mauser after the villain from the second and third "Police Academy" movies, whom nobody remembers because G.W. Bailey came back starting with the fourth one. (Yes, I've seen at least six "Police Academy" movies. I had HBO in the 1980s. What do you expect?)
• I think we're starting to take for granted just how good Strahovski is at the emotional scenes, but take another look at her during the sequence where everyone at the Buy More is calling their loved ones and Sarah realizes she's got nobody to call. Man. And Chuck's attempt to get her into the holiday spirit -- which we know Josh Schwartz has no shortage of -- felt very similar to Seth Cohen trying to get Ryan into the Chrismukkah spirit. Chuck is obviously Seth, which I guess makes Sarah into a very femme Ryan.
• The song playing over the final sequence is "Christmas and Me Are Through" by Your Vegas.
• I think the writers are still struggling to nail Millbarge; he was very funny bonding with Big Mike over the price-gouging early on, but his attempt to promote the store after being released fell flat
• On the other hand, General Beckman is starting to get a personality. I liked her giving Casey grief for getting paper cuts at the gift-wrapping station: "It's an electronics store, Major, not Basra. Get it together." That also nicely foreshadowed that Casey would suffer the first permanent injury in his career later in the episode.
• This week's Disturbing Jeff Fact (also a potential destination for some lucky sponsor!): he only has eight toes. I don't even want to think about what happened to the other two.
• During the phone call montage, we find out that Casey's close enough to his mom that he lets her call him "Johnny Boy," and that Jeff's mother is Prisoner 27318 at Lompoc.
• We all know about the brilliance of the picket fence when played in Indiana high school basketball, but is there really a football version of the play? Or was Captain Awesome's play-diagramming just shameless pandering to me and Bill Simmons?
• One missed opportunity: given that Chuck had already begged Devin to not be awesome (i.e., don't try to jump Ned), and given that Mauser and Ned were watching him closely to make sure he didn't warn his friends, it would have been much cooler if he had told Devin that now was exactly the time to be awesome.
What did everybody else think?