"He's turning into a spy. That's a good thing." -Casey"Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler" is bookended by a flashback to Chuck and Sarah's first meeting (both the version we saw in the pilot, and then a new version from Sarah's perspective), and the main plot is very reminiscent of season one's "Chuck vs. the Sandworm," where Chuck also befriended an asset with a similar story to his own. But "Nacho Sampler" wasn't just a retread. Rather, it was a sign of how far Chuck and Sarah have come since those early days - and also of how much more confident the show has become over even a season one highlight like "Sandworm."
"Is it?" -Sarah
Back in the "Vicki Vale" scene from the pilot, Sarah was a shark and Chuck was chum. The roles haven't entirely reversed two-plus years later, but Chuck has gotten harder, and Sarah softer. The Chuck of season one would never have been able to go through with sending Manoosh into isolation for the rest of his life, and Sarah would have been annoyed with his refusal to accept the dirty parts of the job. Now, it's Chuck (who's slowly learning the emotional costs of his new career) swallowing his empathy to complete the mission, and it's Sarah (who has learned to let her guard down and value friendship and family) who's troubled to see nice guy Chuck - whom she fell in love with because he wasn't another Casey or Bryce Larkin - able to be as cold as she used to be.
At the same time, in learning how to cultivate and then burn an asset, Chuck starts to realize exactly how Sarah viewed him when they first met, and how their relationship might have gone if a few things had been different.
As I've said many times, the most frustrating part about shows that drag out Unresolved Sexual Tension between the leads is when artificial obstacles get thrown in the way, just because nobody wants the game to end yet. But even more than the introduction of Agent Shaw (who takes the week off) and Hannah (who's relegated to the Morgan B-story), I find it plausible that Chuck and Sarah are influencing the other to change so much that they're not meeting in the middle, but passing each other on the way to the other side. Even if it's, in fact, being done just because Fedak and Schwartz are reluctant to put the two together already, it feels like something that comes out of the paths these two characters have been on for the last 40 episodes, and it was very well-played (as usual) by Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski.
Outside of the Chuck/Sarah issues, the Manoosh story was also a good Chuck/Casey one. With Shaw absent(*), Casey is once again in the role of the Operation Bartowski member who represents the official, remorseless view of spy-dom. He mocks Chuck's initial stumbles, as always - and the two have a priceless bit of physical comedy when Chuck is trying to get the laser pen out of Casey's pocket while they're shackled in Dubai - but he's also the one who thinks Chuck can do it in the first place, and the one who suggests Chuck give Johnny Walker black a whirl to assuage his guilt (as I'm sure Casey has done a time or 50 over his career).
(*) With the budget so lean this year, I'm assuming the producers didn't want to waste Brandon Routh's fee on an episode that didn't really need him.
And we also see Chuck's web of deception not only hurt Manoosh and disturb Sarah, but start to create friction with the people from his "real" life (which, more and more, is becoming as fake as any of Sarah's aliases). Devon is still having trouble being awesome about Chuck's secret, and Ellie and Morgan are both alarmed to discover, independently, that Chuck went to Paris and didn't tell either of them about it. Perhaps worst of all, Morgan has now assigned Jeff and Lester to put their super-stalking powers on the case to find out what Chuck's hiding and why; those guys may be perverted idiots, but other than maybe "Missile Command," stalking is what Jeff does best, and they did manage to get their way into Casey's secret locker compartment at the Buy More, and to crash Castle's electrical grid. Could we be heading for a circumstance where suddenly everyone in Nerd World suddenly knows about Spy World? Or will Jeffster screw it up? (They did, after all, interpret all of Casey's gear to mean he was a fellow stalker.)
Ryan McPartlin continues to do well playing an out-of-his-element Captain Awesome, and Josh Gomez managed to turn Morgan's goofy attempt to seduce Hannah on a dime into an excuse for us to feel sorry for the guy, once again left out of the loop of his best friend's life. But until that moment, Hannah's first week at the Buy More provided some huge, uncomfortable laughs, be it Morgan clambering over the desk of his new "office," or Jeff angrily insisting, "It's my constitutional right to fornicate!"
I know many people automatically assume that anyone new in Chuck's life must be a spy, and it's entirely possible that Hannah will turn out to be exactly that. Right now, though, I buy her as another Lou - a woman drawn to Chuck, whose affections are then disrupted by his spy gig (here with him constantly disappearing for "Yogurt Time"), and she had an unsurprisingly easy time at seeming horrified by Jeff and Lester's leering.
We have only one more episode to go until the show takes a few weeks off for the Olympics. The season wasn't written with that break in mind (remember, it was originally going to premiere after the Olympics), but we seem to be building towards a crisis point in nearly all of Chuck's relationships. Two weeks ago, Agent Shaw watched, somewhat enviously, as Chuck basked in the company of his sister and brother-in-law, his best friend, and his two CIA partners. Tonight, we climax with Chuck drinking alone, Ellie and Morgan suspicious of him, and Sarah worrying that he's becoming something other than the man she fell for. And then, in the closing flashback, we're reminded again that the spy world Chuck is so eager to join is one not built on real relationships, but on deception and using other people for your own ends.
Not a happy place for Chuck, nor as jaunty and feel-good an episode as "Chuck vs. First Class," but "Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler" felt even more important to our hero's development, and the unfurling of this season's story arc, as seeing him fly (sort of) solo last week.
Some other thoughts:
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Chuck compares himself to celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna. Chuck impresses Manoosh with his reading choice of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's "Y: The Last Man." Sarah's "Frak Off" belly shirt is, of course, a "Battlestar Galactica" joke to play to Manoosh's pre-established "BSG" fixation. One of the items on sale at Weap-Con is the "EM-50 mobile interrogation unit," where in "Stripes," the EM-50 was a mobile assault vehicle disguised as an RV. Casey's line about Chuck bringing a knife to a gunfight is lifted from Sean Connery in "The Untouchables." The French film that Morgan and Hannah discuss, on the other hand, was invented for purposes of the show, and the art department put the name of several "Chuck" writers (including this episode's authors, Matt Miller and Scott Rosenbaum) and crew members on the credits if you look closely. Anything I missed?
• Songs this week include Datarock's "Amarillion" (Hannah enters in her Nerd Herd uniform), "Danny Trejo" by Plastillina Mosh (Chuck smoothing things over with Manoosh), Calvin Harris' "Merrymaking at My Place" (Sarah seducing Manoosh), The Clash's vintage "Rock the Casbah" (the team arrives in Dubai) and "40 Day Dream" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (the final montage).
• Two candidates for the still sponsor-less "Chuck" Plot Hole of the Week: 1)Since General Beckman found out that Devon knows Chuck's secret in "Operation Awesome" (if not before that) and is still letting him roam free, why is Chuck so terrified that if Ellie finds out, they go into witness protection? 2)Why would the buyers at Weap-Con be so willing to believe Manoosh's story about the sunglasses? Isn't it entirely possible that he's a martial arts master posing as a dweeb?
• Also, were you disappointed that we never got a Chuck/Manoosh fight scene? Or are you happy that Chuck's Intersect 2.0 skills have mostly turned out to be used for minor action beats (like Chuck using the nacho plate to save Sarah) rather than the new focus of the show?
• With so many funny people around her, Strahovski isn't usually called on to deliver jokes, but I laughed out loud at Sarah's smug, sing-song "Thank you!" after Casey acknowledged that Chuck was in over his head trying to secure an asset. (Though, frankly, that didn't make me laugh nearly as hard as the sight gag of Sarah in the "Frak Off" shirt.)
• After he watched the end of "Chuck vs. First Class," Fienberg complained to me that the Buy More's wind machine wasn't turned on when Hannah entered the store the way it usually is for Sarah, Carina, et al. Well, her entrance at the top of this episode belatedly solved that problem. I guess they were just waiting to get her into her Nerd Herd uniform (in a version that fell somewhere in between Sarah's stripper-iffic version from "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer" and the anime-influenced one that Anna Wu favored).
• Manoosh was played by Fahim Anwar, in real life an aerospace engineer by day, stand-up comic by night. He wrote a bit about the experience of filming this episode on his blog.
• Which is more impressive and/or funnier: Morgan's new Ass Man office in the custodial closet, or Jeff's men's room stall office (from "Chuck vs. the Predator")? And should we assume that Jeff's office was a casualty of Emmett Millbarge's reign of terror over Buy Moria?
• I loved "Chuck vs. First Class," but in retrospect I realize that Chuck did very little to ensure the success of his first solo mission (other than the fencing match with Stone Cold Steve Austin), and that most of the credit goes to Shaw, Sarah, and the magical Castle joystick. And, having recognized that, Chuck's attempt to get General Beckman to compliment him on his work went over as well with me as it did with Beckman.
• While most of the episode's jokes were landing beautifully, the running gag about the Weap-Con organizer trying to play off all of Operation Bartowski's shenanigans as weapons demonstrations never quite worked, and became a distraction in a few spots. It either needed more time to set up that guy, or else should have been ditched.
What did everybody else think?