"What are you even doing here?" -Sarah"Chuck vs. the American Hero" was designed to be the penultimate episode of "Chuck" season three, before NBC ordered six more episodes. And as such, comparisons will be inevitable to season two's next-to-last installment, "Chuck vs. the Colonel." "American Hero" actually holds up better to the comparison than I would have thought - it's one of the strongest episodes of this season, up there with "Chuck vs. the Beard" and "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac" - but it does illustrate some of the larger flaws that have kept season three as a whole a notch or two below last year.
"I'm here for you." -Chuck
Some of the problems couldn't be helped, like the reduced budget. It's kept the supporting characters shuttling in and out (which becomes particularly noticeable in contrast to an episode like this that features everyone but Big Mike and uses all the characters well), and it's reduced both the scope of the story and the coolness of some of the action. "Colonel" climaxed with a bunch of planes bombing the hell out of Ted Roark's would-be Intersect army at the drive-in; here, we get a lone stealth bomber dropping a single bomb on a small warehouse, creating an explosion so small that Sarah, Chuck and Shaw are unharmed standing only a few feet away.(*) Meanwhile, Chuck's commando assault on the Ring base went fairly quick and easy (even if it was supposed to be a temporary place set up to mess with Shaw, you still would have seen more bad guys and/or a longer fight scene a year ago). I appreciate that they don't have the money to work with that they had last season, but it's been unfortunate and noticeable.
(*) That lack of scale, coupled with the fact that until this week the group never seemed to do anything but try to kill Shaw, has led to The Ring thus far seeming less imposing than Fulcrum, even though we keep being told it's the much bigger, more dangerous threat.
But I also think there have been a few miscalculations on the part of Schwartz, Fedak and company. Shaw has been a misfire, less because he's been an obstacle to Chuck and Sarah getting together than that he's been an obstacle to Team Bartowski working well together. It's not a coincidence that two of the season's stronger outings ("Nacho Sampler" and "Tic Tac") both had Shaw absent so we could watch our three leads interact. Even if they weren't all getting along splendidly (Sarah didn't approve of Chuck's handling of Manoosh in "Nacho Sampler," and Casey was rogue for much of "Tic Tac") the three actors/characters have such chemistry and such history together that Shaw often seemed like a buzzkill.
I had begun to hope, like some of you, that Shaw was going to be revealed as a Ring mole, and/or that Sarah - whose character arc this season has at times been compelling, and at others felt like it was serving the whims of the plot - was playing him to find out. Instead, it turns out that what we saw with Shaw was what we got, but also that Shaw's obsession with avenging his wife's death was so great that he's now looking to do something very bad to Sarah, who doesn't realize that Shaw's wife was the victim in her own "red test."
But if the way things ultimately played out don't give Sarah back some of the agency her character has lost this season, it at least sets us up for what I hope will be a very strong close to Season 3.0, with Chuck having to save Sarah from Shaw - and, maybe, get his first kill for real in the process?
What was so satisfying about "American Hero," though, is that Chuck has already defeated Shaw in one way: he got Sarah back.
Sure, there's still the matter of rescuing her from Shaw's insane clutches, blah blah blah, but the woman made her choice. She was packing a bag, and I feel confident her destination was going to be Union Station even before Casey stopped by to confess to killing Hunter. Chuck (sometimes with the aid of the Bizarro Team Bartowski of Casey, Morgan and Awesome, sometimes by himself) put on such a charm offensive with Sarah and got to be a more overt hero in carrying Shaw out of the exploding building (remember, Sarah has a type) and laid his heart bare for her about the train station(**) and their future together that she had to have thrown in her lot with our man. The smile on Yvonne Strahovski's face when Casey told Sarah the truth didn't so much read as "Yay, now I get to change my mind," but "Yay, I made the right call."
(**) In a bit of symmetry from the season premiere conversation in Castle about meeting at a train station.
So, in effect, Chuck and Sarah have finally chosen each other at the same time, and all that's holding it up is a temporary plot complication (Shaw's desire to kill Sarah) rather than a character one. Whatever missteps the creative team may have made, they're not stupid enough to end what was supposed to be the whole season with Chuck and Sarah still not together. I don't know everything in life, but I feel very confident in this.
And we can argue not only about whether this took too long, but about whether the characterizations were consistent (I, frankly, would have liked some clarification on whether Sarah was simply turned off by Chuck-as-killer, or if she felt guilty that she had helped make him into one), about whether there's been too much focus on the relationship, not enough, whether the darker tone worked, whether the government would really risk the Intersect as a run-of-the-mill spy, etc., etc., etc.
But here's the thing: when "Chuck" is good - and budget issues aside, "Chuck vs. the American Hero" was very good - all the questions and complaints have a way of not mattering as much. I don't mind the plot holes (though I will still list some of them below), nor the idea that certain character or story arcs haven't played out as smoothly as anyone might have liked. When I watch a sequence like Chuck making his move at the restaurant while Bizarro Team Bartowski attempts to back his play from the van - with Morgan and Awesome(***) both accidentally saving Shaw from being kidnapped - or when I watch Jeff and Lester prove their epic stalking powers to Chuck, or when Chuck keeps saying "I love you" to Sarah just because it feels nice to say, everything else goes out the window. This is the show I fought to save last spring, and even if parts of this season have been bumpy, I can deal with those bumps when we get to moments like the ones that we got in abundance in "American Hero."
(***) I thought it was a very nice touch to have Devon once again mistakenly tackle the good guy, just like he did to Casey in "Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte" - only for it to mostly work out here.
One episode to go of this original batch of 13, then two weeks off for repeats (which should coincide with some time off I'm supposed to take in early April), then Season 3.1 starts. I'm assuming next week's semi-finale will clear the decks of a lot of elements from 3.0, and I can't wait to see what the team has in store for the final push. And I'll sweat renewal later.
Some other thoughts:
• I always enjoy those rare instances of General Beckman interacting with Chuck one-on-one, in person, because she has much less patience for his "process" than Casey or Sarah do. I still have a hard time believing that, even with the Intersect 2.0, anyone considers Chuck qualified to be a spy, but it was at least smart to suggest he'd have his own team around him (even if said team almost certainly wouldn't include either Morgan or Casey).
• Also, I kind of wish that Morgan didn't have a selfish reason for wanting to help Chuck. I know it created a thematic symmetry with Casey and Awesome, and I also get that Morgan's life would be extremely empty without Chuck in it, but at the same time, I like those moments where Morgan just has Chuck's back because that's what best friends do.
• This week in "Chuck" plot holes: a bunch to choose from, but primarily that Beckman would be willing to send a bomber into a civilian neighborhood with no more intel than that Shaw's tracker had stopped moving for a while and gone underground. That's more a hole in Shaw's plan than in Beckman's reasoning, I suppose, but either way, the idea seemed awfully thin. Anything could have been happening at that bunker. (And what, for that matter, would have happened if Chuck hadn't picked up the tracker and it had remained under the overpass? Would the military have blown up a bridge by mistake?) Also, what happened to the fellowship Ellie got that was going to force Devon to abandon his Doctors Without Borders scheme? And while I understand Devon spending the night in jail, what exactly were Morgan and Casey charged with? And why does the Castle electrical grid somehow affect one of the displays at the Buy More? And how does Casey get back into Castle so easily, when presumably the access codes got changed after Beckman gave him his burn notice? And if Shaw's wife was killed five years ago, are we supposed to believe Sarah had only been an agent for two years when she met Chuck?
• This week in "Chuck" music: only one song (bizarre for a Josh Schwartz show, I know), with The Temper Trap's "Down River" playing both as Chuck invites Sarah to meet him at Union Station, and again as Casey tells Sarah the truth about who really shot Hunter.
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Morgan's "Love is a battlefield" line is, of course, a reference to the iconic early '80s Pat Benatar song and video, and the "Dr. Jibb" soda machine as entrance to the Ring underground HQ could be read as yet another "Spies Like Us" homage, as the military guys accessed their own base via the Pepsi machine at an abandoned drive-in.
• This week in recognizable "Chuck" guest stars: sci-fi/action-caper show Hey It's That Guy! Mark Sheppard played the mysterious Ring director, while Roger Cross (one of Jack Bauer's longer-serving sidekicks on "24") was Sheppard's henchman.
• Ellie hasn't been a particularly well-serviced character this year, and at times comes across as way too controlling about Chuck's life, but her speech to Chuck about getting Sarah back - "You're a Bartowski, Chuck. Start acting like one." - was a very nice moment for Sarah Lancaster.
• Ultimately, Casey's refusal to let Chuck tell Sarah what happened at the train station wasn't that satisfyingly resolved. They needed to show some kind of Chuck/Casey interaction later in the episode where we saw Casey change his mind, and/or his conversation with Sarah needed to come across like a much bigger gamble than it ultimately became. Casey knows Sarah well enough to know she would never tell anybody else, so his earlier reluctance just became another plot device - albeit one that put Casey in a van with Devon and Morgan, so I'm okay with it.
• My head scratched when I saw the subtitle pointing out "DNI" headquarters, until I noticed a comment in last week's discussion that referred to Beckman working for the "Department of National Intelligence." Have we ever heard this name/acronym before? When the series started, Casey and Beckman were NSA, Sarah and Graham (Tony Todd) were CIA, and Operation Bartowski was a joint agency task force. Did I miss some administrative change after Graham blew up in the season 2 premiere?
• I pointed to the flash-grenade scene from "Chuck vs. the Beard" as an example of rookie director Zachary Levi showing off a bit too much, but veteran director Jeremiah Chechik largely went with the same style for the flash-grenade scene here, so either that was something other forces (maybe the DP?) cooked up in "Beard," or else Chechik liked it enough to make it part of the series' house style.
• Interesting: Chuck can shoot someone (with a tranq gun) without having to flash. Is the "Duck Hunt" really paying off, or are some of the Intersect skills starting to become part of Chuck's muscle memory?
• If Jeff is, indeed, the Picasso of creepiness, and this is his blue period, would you pay to own any of his work?
Finally, everybody did a great job of staying civil and rational in discussing the episodes after the Chuck-pocalypse that was "Chuck vs. the Mask," but last week we got into the crazy/obnoxious territory again, and I had to delete some comments. Let me remind you one more time of the single most important part of the commenting rules: Be nice. TALK ABOUT THE SHOW, NOT EACH OTHER. If you can't find a way to disagree without attacking the people who disagree with you, DO NOT COMMENT.
This shouldn't be hard, and I appreciate that for most of you, it's not. But for the small handful of you who are having trouble here, please relax, or else find some other place to discuss the show.
What did everybody else think?