"My best friend is a spy? This is unbelievable. This is the best news I've ever heard!" -MorganI'm absolutely on-board with the darker direction "Chuck" has taken this season. If the characters don't grow and the stakes don't get raised, then we might as well be watching repeats from season two.
But for one week, "Chuck" was back to being 100% fun - even in the midst of an episode with a huge status quo change and a chilling cliffhanger - and it was a pleasure to watch.
Because Morgan is Chuck's best friend, he seemed like an obvious choice to be the first civilian to find out about Chuck's secret identity. Instead, the show zig-zagged and let Captain Awesome in on the truth, and got some very good comic and dramatic mileage out of Devon struggling to reclaim his awesomeness in the face of entering this dangerous new world. And once Awesome found out, it seemed like we had missed our window for the little bearded one to also join in.
Instead, Morgan Guillermo Grimes became an unofficial member of Operation Bartowski in the most raucous way possible, helping Chuck foil the siege of Castle and giving his best friend back his mojo by providing him a sympathetic ear to listen to. Awesome's no good because he's too busy freaking out, Casey's not exactly empathetic, and Sarah and Shaw are useless because they're causing so much of Chuck's emotional turmoil. So bringing Morgan into the circle of trust, and that in turn leading the Intersect 2.0 to come back on-line (and finally help Chuck use the bo staff that caused him so many difficulties back in "Chuck vs. the Three Words") felt perfect, as did Morgan's ecstatic reaction to greeting Sarah and company outside the Orange-Orange freezer. I had a smile roughly the size of Morgan's for the entire second half of "Beard," going back to when Morgan first followed the bad guys into the Castle tunnels.
And I loved how, even within the revelation, the show again zigged where I expected a zag. We were being set up for Morgan to feel hurt and betrayed at the news that Chuck kept this enormous secret from him, but instead was both relieved to get a good explanation for all of Chuck's shadiness, and happy for his friend that Chuck is doing something, well, awesome.
It's hard to remember now, but at the start of the series, Morgan was easily the least-popular regular character, always getting in the way of Chuck's missions and generally being mopey and weird. When the show came back for season 2, Schwartz, Fedak and company figured out that the character worked much better when he was supporting Chuck (even when he didn't realize he was). Letting him in on Chuck's secret, and making him excited about it - accepting that, while he's never destined for greatness, he can assist in Chuck's greatness - was a wonderful continuation of that trend, and an outstanding showcase for Josh Gomez.
I particularly liked that period in between when Morgan discovered Castle and when he learned about Charles Carmichael. It would have been really easy to play it as Morgan acting smug and superior to what he thought was his cowardly pal Chuck, but Gomez low-keyed it. You can't say he reacted the way a real person would in that situation, because "Chuck" is frankly so ridiculous - and the Buy More corner of "Chuck" even more ridiculous - that reality doesn't really figure into it, but within the show's universe, I believed that this is how Morgan would react, and that he'd try to help Chuck get through this ordeal while he played hero.
"Beard" was the last "Chuck" episode written by Scott Rosenbaum (who's now hopefully salvaging "V"), and very much in the vein of the Rosenbaum-scripted "Chuck vs. the Santa Claus" from season two, with bad guys again infiltrating the Buy More because it's so obvious there's a spy base of some kind hidden there(*).
(*) Which brings us to our "Chuck" Plot Hole of the Week, if not of the series: now that two different evil spy organizations have twigged to the place's existence, what exactly is the point of Chuck still working there as a cover identity? Other than, of course, nobody on the show rightly wanting to say goodbye to Morgan, Big Mike and Jeffster?
It was also the first episode of anything directed by Zachary Levi. That's a big risk to hand such a crucial, mythology-altering episode to a rookie, but I thought Levi acquitted himself really well, even if there were some inevitable growing pains from a first-timer. The scene where Casey throws the flash-bang grenade into the Ring agent's hotel room was shot in an impressionistic, Hey, look at how much I'm directing! style, and the montage of Buy More employees cocking their toy guns in the midst of their revolt also called attention to itself. But I thought Levi nailed most of the humor (loved the way the camera initially drifted past Jeff shoving the apple into his mouth, as if this lunacy is so typical of the Buy More that it's not worth dwelling on) as well as the more human stuff involving Chuck and Morgan. Give him another turn or three behind the camera and I suspect the self-consciously showy stuff will go away and Levi will give us an episode that feels entirely on-format. And I can never complain about a Jeffster! performance being filmed like a rock concert, now can I?
And in the meantime, Morgan knowing Chuck's secret opens up a world of fun possibilities for the show, just as the cliffhanger with Casey getting a call on the Ring communicator opens up a host of scary ones.
Terrific episode (and next week's is even better).
Some other thoughts:
• Fienberg was much less happy with the episode than I was, taking more of an issue with the direction and tone than I did. He does raise one point with which I wholly agree, and that's that it felt redundant to have two episodes in a row climax with Chuck realizing he still loves Sarah. That's why I feel like "Chuck vs. the Fake Name" would have been better off playing up the Peter Parker/Mary Jane scenario with Chuck's reasons for dumping Hannah, and/or why I think this episode's climax could have worked just as well if Chuck got his mojo back simply from being able to unburden himself to Morgan, having already recognized his Sarah-love.
• Interesting that Casey and company are all so convinced that Awesome can handle Chuck's secret better than Morgan, when so far all the evidence points to the contrary. Looks can be deceiving. I'm still as confused about what The Ring does and doesn't know about Awesome, Chuck, etc. as I was back in "Chuck vs. Operation Awesome", though.
• This week in "Chuck" music: Jesus Alejandro El Nino's "Bululu" (Chuck calls Awesome during his vacation), the Billy Idol & Generation X version of "Dancing with Myself" (Chuck bored in Castle), Dawes' "Bedside Manner" (the final montage), Martin Padilla's "Arroz Con Pollo" (Shaw and Sarah locked out of Castle), and, of course, Jeffster! covering Credence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son."
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: pick an iconic revolutionary or counter-culture movie moment, and the Buy More revolution had it, but most notably Big Mike paraphrasing the "they will never take... our FREEDOM!" speech from "Braveheart." The Buy More staffers all take a blood oath, which itself is an idea from countless movies and shows, but which I always attach to this scene from "The Untouchables." The staff also raises a Buy Moria flag like the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, and two Buy More staffers recreate the iconic Times Square kiss from the end of World War II.
• Between the Buy Moria flag and the mace collection, it's nice to see that Millbarge is dead but not forgotten at the Buy More.
• The revolution was fairly silly, but at least it gave us Casey convincingly talking his way into it by telling Big Mike and company, "The only thing I hate more than hippy, neo-liberal fascist anarchists are the hypocrite fat cat suits they eventually grow up to become."
• With Hannah having quit (not surprising, since she only took the job to be around Chuck) and Anna Wu still in Hawaii with Morgan's Benihana rival, the Buy More could use a little estrogen. If there's a fourth season, and if Chuck is somehow still working there, I'd love to see even a recurring female Nerd Herd'er - or, failing that, to have General Beckman decide to have Sarah and Casey swap jobs. (That's a win-win, come to think of it: Casey would grunt even more about having to push yogurt instead of Beastmasters, and Sarah would get to dust off her old Nerd Herd uniform from "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer.")
• I remember Brandon Routh having a few funny moments in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," but it was still a little startling to see Shaw being so goofy while posing as the Buy More CEO to calm down Big Mike's revolutionaries.
• Has someone been keeping a running tally of the number of times characters have had to don or remove rings this season? Here, it's Shaw and Sarah briefly posing as newlyweds while off on the decoy mission.
• Another, more minor plot hole about the Castle siege: how did the bad guys not find the hatch in the floor of the Buy More's AV room? That's way more obvious than the secret passage behind Casey's locker.
• First Subway product integration of the season, with Chuck and Morgan scarfing down meatball marinara subs while playing a little Duck Hunt. Mmm... meatball marinara...
Finally, I want to thank everybody for, as of this writing, keeping such a clear head in the discussion of "Chuck vs. the Fake Name." Some liked it more than others, but everyone was able to disagree without attacking each other or going crazy, and that's much appreciated.
Given the Casey cliffhanger, let me remind you of another of the commenting rules: the No Spoiler policy, which extends to discussing the previews for upcoming episodes. Please refrain, and don't even allude to the contents of it, okay?
What did everybody else think?