"Sometimes, your dream job isn't always what you expect it to be." -ChuckAfter the romp that was last week's "Chuck vs. the Beard," the series is back in darker territory this week. And that seems appropriate, for our first real spotlight of the season on Colonel John Casey. Or should we call him Lieutenant Alexander Coburn? Or, since he ends the episode stripped of his rank and government job, just John Casey?
Whatever you call him, John Casey is both a stone killer and a man not comfortable dealing with his own feelings. So an episode in which he was forced to confront some old feelings for the woman he left behind to become that killer was a great showcase for both the character and Adam Baldwin. In many ways, in fact, I found "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac" even more satisfying than the hijinx and revelations of "Beard."
For one thing, we got our first really kick-ass action sequences of the season. It's not that the fights in past episodes (many of them involving Chuck rather than Sarah or Casey) have been bad, but they've lacked the spark that we saw in some of season two's best fights, like Sarah fighting Nicole Richie in the showers or Sarah in the car.
Here, we got a couple of cool action sequences: first Sarah dropping down from under Casey's car to whup some ass while Casey tossed Robert Patrick's Keller around (and snapped his neck one-handed), and then Chuck finally harnessing all the combat potential of the Chuck Fu, mastering several disciplines at once and even dodging bullets at close range like Chun in "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins."
But cool action alone does not a cool "Chuck" episode make. It needs comedy, and drama, and a focus on the characters, and "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac" had all of that.
We seem to get one Casey spotlight a season, with "Chuck vs. the Undercover Lover" in season one, "Chuck vs. the Sensei" last year. The previous two gave us small pieces of the puzzle that is John Casey, but "Tic Tac" gave us a very good view of the picture, as we learn that Sarah isn't the only member of Team Bartowski to be using a fake name, nor the only one who was forced to choose between love and country and chose country.
Seeing Casey hold a gun on Chuck in the middle of a mission is a darker place than the show usually goes, but Baldwin and Zachary Levi sold it, as did Yvonne Strahovski in the scene where Chuck (mistakenly believing the whole thing was another test) blurted out Casey's secret and Sarah realized she was going to have to place her partner under arrest (or worse).
And as often happens in some of the show's strongest episodes (see also "Chuck vs. the Colonel"), the members of Team Bartowski go off the reservation to help one another. Because of the iciness between Chuck and Sarah, the complications of the Intersect 2.0 and the presence of Shaw (conveniently absent this week, since his presence would probably have made it much harder for Sarah and Chuck to help Casey), our heroic trio haven't had quite the chemistry they had in previous seasons, so it was nice to see them all (eventually) working together towards a common purpose - even if the episode ends with Casey being removed from the team.
(And Casey as a reluctant civilian is an idea with a lot of potential, I think, whether or not he can work up the nerve to go see his fiance and the daughter he never knew he had and tell them who he really is.)
And while Casey's story was fairly dark, "Tic Tac" wisely got its comic relief by following up on Morgan's discovery of Chuck's secret identity - and then of Morgan and Awesome each realizing the other is now in the circle of trust. The degrees of involvement are slightly different - Devon's been on missions, while Morgan knows about the Intersect(*) - and Morgan is so far handling it much better than Devon, but each has plenty of potential to cause problems (and then solve some of them) for the real spies. Devon mistakenly tackled Casey during the Costa Gravas embassy party, and here Morgan helps out Casey on what he thinks is official business, but he also gives Chuck several crucial pieces of information (plus the pill itself).
(*) And I hope like heck that Chuck told Morgan this important distinction. Plenty of civilians and bad guys have learned about Chuck being Agent Charles Carmichael, but Morgan's the only outsider to know about the Intersect. Him slipping on that could be catastrophic.
There were a few eye-roller moments in this one, to be fair. All of Sarah's fear about what the emotion-dampening pill will do to Chuck never amounts to anything, as the thing's effects wear off before he can kill one of the bad guys, Casey-style(**). (And if the pill really is just temporary, it's therefore the kind of thing Chuck needs to keep a bottle of on his person at all times). Devon flip-flops on wanting to get the hell away from Chuck with no real chance for us to see him make that decision; I get that he loves Ellie, but his love (and fear) for her was one of the reasons he wanted to leave in the first place. And the moment in Castle where Sarah quickly changed the subject when Chuck tried to tell her about his feelings was a definite groaner (again, not because I need them to be together, but because moments like that, like certain moments on "Lost," just scream that the writers are stalling a bit because they need to).
(**) UPDATE: Several commenters have convincingly argued that it wasn't that the pill wore off so much as it was Chuck's love for Sarah pulling him back from the precipice. In which case, nice moment, show.
Overall, though, "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac" was another really strong episode of this post-Olympics run. Should there be a fourth season (and right now, the ratings have been steady enough, and NBC's problems elsewhere big enough, that I feel pretty good about that), I'd like to see Casey get more than his one token episode a year. Baldwin's too good, and the character's too rich, to just be the guy who grunts and says kiss-off lines as he beats people up.
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac":
• This week in "Chuck" music: "You Know You Want It" by Green Go (Chuck sees Casey steal the pill), The Maids of Honor's "Black and Blue" (Chuck takes the pill as Keller's agents pour into the house), and "Swim Until You Can't See Land" by "Chuck" favorite Frightened Rabbit (the final montage).
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: whether or not Chuck's bullet-dodging was a "Remo Williams" homage, I have to believe that ending an Adam Baldwin spotlight episode with Sarah taking a cab in Washington, DC was a reference to one of the stranger movies in the Baldwin filmography: "DC Cab" - the only film in which you can expect to find Mr. T, Irene Cara, Gary Busey and a young Bill Maher. Here's a clip. He looks so young and innocent, doesn't he?
• Does the timing of Alex Coburn becoming John Casey in 1989 contradict the bits of Casey backstory we got in "Chuck vs. the Angel De La Muerte"? Back then, I read the comments as Casey having tried to kill Goya throughout the '80s; could we read it as the Angel De La Muerte thing having originated in his Coburn days? Then again, the actor playing Coburn looked younger in '89 than even Baldwin looks in that "DC Cab" clip (from '83), so... ?
• Robert Patrick didn't get a ton to do as Keller, and with Casey wisely offing the guy, we're not going to see him again. But this is a good example of the show's guest star philosophy (adopted after Kevin Weisman played the poisoner in season one) in action: because it's Patrick, who can play this kind of role in his sleep (and who spent four years playing a version of it on "The Unit"), Keller didn't need much sketching in. You see Robert Patrick, you go, "Oh, got it," and the show moves on and spends more time on material with the long-term characters.
• Nice touch of making security designer Fitzroy a Charles Carmichael fanboy - and smart that they didn't push the joke too far. Too much meta humor can be a dangerous thing.
• This was the first episode written by new writing team additions Lauren LeFranc & Rafe Judkins (who, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, was both a "Survivor: Guatemala" contestant and the name inspiration for "Chuck vs. the Fake Name" assassin Rafe Gruber).
• After last week's episode had the full cast for the first time all season, we're back to a partial complement, with Big Mike, Jeff and Lester absent. Schwartz and Fedak said they tried to distribute the appearances so they'd have more people available later in the season. So I'm hopeful that we'll have the whole ensemble (or close to it) in most of the remaining episodes.
What did everybody else think?