"So if I have to see you with someone else, it might as well be a hero." -Chuck"Chuck vs. the Mask" wasn't designed to be the last episode viewers would see for a few weeks (remember, the season was originally going to debut after the Olympics), and as such doesn't have the jaw-dropping quality you sometimes get from mid-season finales. We get our first glimpse of The Ring's headquarters(*) and learn (not surprisingly) that they want Shaw dead, and we close with Chuck and Sarah moving into new relationships with other people, but there's nothing seismic about what happens. It's just a solid episode of "Chuck."
"What can I say? I have a type." -Sarah
(*) Said HQ looking very much like the Fulcrum digs we saw back in last season's "Chuck vs. the Predator," no? I'd been assuming that the two groups are unconnected - that Fulcrum basically died with Ted Roark, and that The Ring has its own agenda and intel. Are we supposed to assume, based on the similar design, that Fulcrum is as much a Fulcrum splinter group as Fulcrum was a CIA splinter? Or just that the "Chuck" production design team really digs this look?
But while I enjoy a good cliffhanger as much as the next guy, the actual good ones have been in short supply around television as more and more shows have turned to them leading into long hiatuses. Too many shows do them just to do them, and they either screw up a good thing or get undone so quickly that there's very little point to them. What "Chuck" is doing is strong enough to keep me interested three weeks from now, even if this one didn't end with Shaw pulling off one of those "Mission: Impossible" masks and revealing himself to be Bryce Larkin's sister seeking revenge on the members of Operation Bartowski for her brother's death, or something equally surprising or weird.
And the way that "Chuck" works, odds are that one of Shaw or Hannah, if not both of them, will turn out to be too good to be true. Hannah could be another Lou from season one - the normal woman Chuck can't have because of his double life and his love for Sarah - or she could be another Jill. After last week's episode dealt with the rules for cultivating an asset, more than a few of you pointed out that Hannah's relationship with Chuck so far fits those rules to a T.
And Shaw could be another Bryce or Cole - the alpha male Chuck still can't quite be, but someone who's ultimately a good guy - or he could have a dark hidden agenda, including one where he's actually working for The Ring. On the one hand, the final scene of this episode suggests they want him dead; on the other, our first glimpse of Shaw (in "Chuck vs. the Three Words showed that General Beckman was very afraid for what he was going to do to Chuck, Sarah and Casey.
But here's the thing: as we get ready to play guessing games over the next three weeks, I have to say that I like these two relationships. And I say that as someone who thinks Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have absurd chemistry together, and who got very frustrated at some of the shenanigans used at the start of the season to keep Chuck and Sarah apart. (And also as someone who usually grinds his teeth at any hint of a love quadrangle, or rhombus, or trapezoid.) Brandon Routh and, especially, Kristin Kreuk have fit very well into the show's world and tones, have clicked nicely with their respective co-stars, and have created plausible, interesting reasons why our hero and heroine might let their eyes wander. If Sarah has a type (which Shaw most certainly matches), then so does Chuck (which Hannah does, as well). Since I'm assuming one or both will wind up as a betrayer, I'm assuming/hoping that the writers will finally ditch the stall tactics before the season's out (and preferably by the end of the originally-planned 13 episodes), but at the moment I'm enjoying what they're giving us.
And speaking of Sarah's "hero" type, Chuck ironically has rarely matched it more than he does in "Chuck vs. the Mask," where he plays a much more active, decisive role in ensuring the success of the mission than he did when allegedly flying solo in "Chuck vs. First Class." He steps in when Shaw's compromised at the museum gala (and turns out to be a better catcher of falling objects than Shaw), and he comes up with the plan to both save Hannah and get the antidote. Yes, Shaw throws Sarah over his shoulder and busts out of Castle to ensure they can take the antidote in time, but Chuck does the metaphorical heavy lifting in this one, which was just as satisfying a mark in his spy growth chart as his willingness to burn Manoosh at the end of last week's episode.
This was also a bit of an old-school episode, with the Intersect 2.0 skills taking a week off in favor of Chuck using his computer talents (and Hannah's) and some old-fashioned ingenuity (plus a more traditional Intersect flash to identify the vase) to save the day. I worried when they introduced the kung fu cliffhanger to season two that the show would lose its ability to have Chuck be a hero while still being fundamentally Chuck, and so far, season three has managed to balance things out nicely. The talk of Chuck getting to operate solo seems premature - and surely, Fedak, Schwartz and company would never be dumb enough to try and ditch Sarah and Casey - but he's definitely getting much better at this, whether he's flashing on new skills or using his old ones.
Looking forward to what comes next in March.
Some other thoughts:
• Last week's episode was the closest we've come all season to having the entire cast all present at once, with only Big Mike missing. Mike's still absent in this one, along with Awesome and Jeffster.
• Poor Morgan. He called dibs on Hannah with Jeff and Lester, but never even thought Chuck would be his competition - even though it was Chuck who asked Morgan to get her the job. He and Ellie no longer seem nearly as hot on Chuck's spy scent as they were last week - and with Jeffster absent, we learn that their stalking powers weren't mighty enough to dig up anything on Chuck - but we're definitely heading towards a place where Morgan will be moving himself away from Chuck.
• Still waiting for a truly kick-ass Sarah fight scene to rival some stuff from season two (fighting Michael Clarke Duncan, beating on Nicole Richie in the showers, going at it with Smooth Lau in the sports car), but the sequence with Sarah fighting one of the goons (and running off a wall) while Chuck hung from the rig and Shaw and Hannah tried to out-hack each other was at least in the ballpark.
• This week in "Chuck" music: "Let's All Die" by Jack Penate (playing for much of the pre-credits sequence at the museum), Franz Ferdinand's "Can't Stop Feeling" (Chuck and Hannah, and Sarah and Shaw, pack up for their "mission" at the museum), and Matt Costa's "Astair" (Morgan and Ellie see Chuck and Hannah making out in the AV room).
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: the wire rig that Shaw used in the opening scene, and the gag where he tries (and in this case fails) to catch a falling object before it can hit the floor, is from the first Tom Cruise "Mission: Impossible." Chuck trying to find the right vase reminded me of Indiana Jones trying to figure out which cup was the Holy Grail (and, in a way, it would have been cooler if Chuck had figured it out without the Intersect's help). Anything else?
• Couple of notable guest stars this week, with Jim Piddock (a regular in the Christopher Guest movies) as the Luddite museum curator, and Henri Lubatti from (the rapping Bosnian terrorist from Showtime's underrated "Sleeper Cell," but also a very funny guest star on the final season of "The O.C." as Taylor's smarmy French husband) as the burned bad guy.
• Of course Casey takes his coffee black and bitter. Of course he does. And he's especially bitter this week that he can never blow stuff up. (I almost went with a "just as soon as I blow the hatch" intro just because I felt bad for the guy.) Adam Baldwin also did one of his most expressive grunts of the series when Casey recognized what was going on with Shaw and Sarah at the end.
• Should we take Hannah's "You saved my life, Chuck!" reaction at the end - when she had no way of knowing this - as our (relatively minor) "Chuck" Plot Hole of the Week, or as yet another sign she might be a baddie? I like Kreuk enough that I want to take the character at face value, but when she said that - and when the show skipped past the inevitable moment where Hannah stood up and noticed Chuck's ex-girlfriend was conveniently also at the museum - my eyebrows raised.
Again, show's off air for the rest of the month, returning on March 1 with "Chuck vs. the Fake Name." Earlier today, NBC announced finale dates for a bunch of its series, and "Chuck" season three will close with a two-hour finale (combining episodes 18 & 19) on Monday, May 24 from 8-10 p.m. Assuming I've done the math right, that's 11 episodes (counting 18 & 19 as one) airing over 13 Mondays, so we'll get a couple of repeats at some point (likely in early April, after the show's had a chance to find its post-Olympics sea legs, and before May sweeps begin).
What did everybody else think?