Stepping into a series for a regular reviewer is not ideal in the best of circumstances, but it seems particularly concerning for the conclusion of what is ostensibly a two-parter. However, as Steve is off on a secret mission to far-flung locales, I’m here to judge how “Chuck Versus Phase Three” picks up the ball from the Summer Glau-aided, green screen quality deficient “Chuck Versus The Fear of Death.” When we last saw our heroes, the apparently helpless Chuck—armed with only his intellect—was being held hostage by Adelbert De Smet, who is aware that he is/was the Intersect.
Chuck’s performance anxiety bugged me last week primarily because the answer seemed so painfully obvious. While Ron Riggle’s character died trying to prove that Sarah was the mental block damaging the intersect, the show is largely done driving a wedge between them. Chuck’s problem is not Sarah in and of herself, but rather that he has always struggled to reconcile developments in his spy life with their relationship. And so now that they are generally steady, the idea of “losing” the Intersect throws the status quo into disarray, creating anxiety which makes the process of restoring the Intersect more challenging than pain or fear. In other words, perhaps the problem is less in Chuck’s brain and more in his heart.
This sounds really cheesy, but no more cheesy than that gondola sequence last week (yes, that’s two digs in three paragraphs—it was that visually unappealing), and no more cheesy than the opening dream sequence here, which equates flashing with sexual performance. Now that Chuck and Sarah are “together forever,” any real tension in last week’s cliffhanger is largely absent: We know that the show won’t be killing its eponymous protagonist, and so a situation like this one is more about fulfilling our desire to see Sarah fight to save her boyfriend’s life and to see Casey back in the field, than any sort of actual interest in the complexity of Chuck’s situation. The psychological reasons for Chuck’s inability to regain control of the Intersect, which could include a subconscious desire to go back to living a normal life, are going to be simplified in favor of a simple reconciliation of a man and woman who love one another amidst a tale of action and adventure.
This sounds highly cynical, perhaps because I have been sitting on the critical sidelines with Chuck this year and my frustration with much of the season has remained confined to the occasional Tweet. And yet not reviewing the show has ultimately been to its benefit: If I had stopped to really consider the ridiculousness of that proposal cliffhanger early in the season, for example, I might have considered not watching at all. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that this season was almost entirely devoid of depth warranting real “criticism” until we first met Timothy Dalton’s Volkoff, and even since that point, the stakes have seemed only incrementally raised.
This is simply a well that the show has gone to before, with Chuck in danger and his team needing to save him. While the show used to raise new stakes, now it seems to just pick up some used stakes from a nearby pile and hammer them back into the ground (I am aware this is a gross misuse of this idiom, but work with me here). “Chuck Versus Phase Three,” at the very least, gives them a new coat of paint by actually moving toward a new stage in their relationship, a romantic proposal which has become the new light at the end of the tunnel for the season. Yes, I am skeptical that Sarah would go rogue quite so quickly, but the emotional appeal the episode predicates itself on is unquestionably effective and largely explains Sarah’s behavior. It channels Sarah’s anger into a one-woman runaway train, the sort of ass-kicking action that the show loves to showcase for Yvonne Strahovski.
The story lacks subtlety of any sort: Chuck’s dreams too clearly outline that his anxiety is over losing Sarah after losing the Intersect, and Sarah’s march across Thailand kicking ass is pure adrenaline without much in terms of actual content or character. However, while Sarah’s knowledge of the proposal plan may be artificial it does raise the stakes, adding a new ingredient which adds substantial weight to her actions.
This doesn’t change the fact that I think the show needs more than strong fight choreography and heightened romantic elements to achieve true greatness. That the agency shifts to Sarah and not Chuck is valuable here, as the former was problematically sidelined in the third season, but I admit to being a little bit weirded out by the recurrence of the “giant blonde shemale” joke and its less than subtle commentary on questions of gender. While the character has always mixed femininity with the badass fight sequences we see here, creating the potential for this “joke” to be made, that apparent contradiction of gender roles has often been a point of nuance or character: here, it seems to have been largely essentialized for the sake of a cheap joke.
I am aware that this is not a problem for the majority of the show's audience, and in terms of “things that Yvonne Strahovski does well,” this is a standout episode: She kicks ass, she breaks down in tears, and then she kicks more ass before ending on more tears. There were also some nice moments of humor from Morgan in the episode, as he and Casey connect with Sarah and he gets to wield an enormous (bulletless) gun and serve as a convenient distraction. And while I have some issues with the blatant emotional exposition in Chuck’s dreams, they become more interesting as they became more stylized (perhaps justifying the cheap special effects in last week’s episode).
By the time the show got to its emotional conclusion, juxtaposing Sarah tearfully proclaiming her love to Chuck in reality while dream Sarah simply states the same love as truth in the dream, it all worked. On the back of Strahovski, the series delivered an episode which honestly raised the stakes, connecting on an emotional level that the show has only occasionally achieved in the past. In that moment it all seems worth it: We forget about the lack of subtlety, or even the bizarre shemale jokes, and we focus solely on the fact that it was all worth it in the end. By building on four seasons of romantic development and by deploying it in conjunction with some of the series’ stronger action beats in a while, Chuck offered everything that has made it a fan favorite.
And yet that it does so with shortcuts instead of nuance confirms that I do not have the interest in the series I once did. This episode plays to my emotional connection to the characters, but offers little in terms of critical appreciation. Enjoyment has become disconnected from actual quality, the series drumming to the beat of its own flawed drum. Upon closer critical examination, “Chuck Versus Phase Three” is a rushed and uneven hour; when we, as Steve suggested last week, turn off our brains and enjoy the ride, the episode is a season highlight.
That just doesn’t mean what it used to mean.
- I am aware that there are some inconsistencies between grades here, since I can't put myself in Steve's head, and I can't grade as he would grade, and the "shemale" thing drops this from A territory even when I factor in shifting expectations for the series' new ambition (or lack thereof).
- I have nothing to say about the “Awesome enlists the Buy More to try to get a computer to work” storyline: It was dumb that Ellie and Awesome didn’t find it in the car before this point, and pointless that we end on a meaningless cliffhanger. Filler and little more.
- An obvious but effective use of Wolfmother’s “Woman” during Sarah’s fight sequences.
- The episode’s pacing troubles were clear in the speed at which they kidnapped the Thai Ambassador to Italy who happened to be in Los Angeles: not the most natural start there.
- I know the show’s budget is low, so I understand, but that Thailand was pretty obviously the same location as Awesome and Ellie’s time in Africa was a bit distracting.
- I avoided going into a longer discussion above, but I dislike the notion that Sarah’s life can be divided into a lawless and reckless B.C. (Before Chuck) and a grounded and moral A.C. (After Chuck). It’s implied during Casey’s conversation with her early in the episode, and something about it rings false for me.
- “Can’t you take the new Sienna?” No, Awesome, I can’t.
- “He’s not talking, and he’s a smirker.”
- “You are not getting bullets for a long, long time.”