Reviewing shows on a weekly basis can be a tricky thing. On one hand, any episode should ideally stand on its own as a piece of entertainment, while also fitting into a greater structure that consists of a season/series. That doesn’t apply to every television program, of course: Almost exclusively standalone shows like those in the CSI/Law & Order world have little connective tissue between installments save for familiar faces populating each case. But with shows such as Chuck, there’s the conundrum of analyzing an episode that might pay off down the line but really didn’t work in the present.
It’s not fun piling on Chuck this late in the game. The ratings for last week’s episode were abominable, and the state of the show right now is not unlike the state of Carmichael Industries: scrappy, but undervalued and generally mocked in the larger field. But “Chuck Versus The Bearded Bandit” waded in everything the show doesn’t do well while simultaneously burying its own strengths. Of the million ways in which the show could have gone after giving Morgan Grimes the Intersect, I’m not sure “dark and emo” was the best choice. It’s ironic that Morgan invokes Spider-Man as a model for his own ability to harness the power of the Intersect in tonight’s episode. After all, he seems to be starting down the path of Peter Parker in the horrific third installment of the Sam Raimi film franchise.
Last season’s Vivian Volkoff storyline never truly worked. But at least the parallels set up between her and Chuck were nominally interesting: how would a child react to learning the secrets about one’s parents? That question was placed within a larger sci-fi spy world, but the question in and of itself was one to which any person watching could relate. The “mythology,” as it were, of Chuck derives strength from calling upon decades of friendly and familial relationships, not in tracing the antecedents that led to the Intersect currently turning Morgan Grimes into a complete douchebag. Having the Intersect is not something to which everyone can relate. And yet that seems to be the focus of these early episodes.
Backtracking a bit: the hour starts out by introducing a potentially key component into the world of the show: Verbanski Corp. It’s led by Gertrude Verbanski, played by Carrie-Anne Moss of Memento and The Matrix. Her organization is well-funded, well-staffed, and honed to militaristic perfection. In short, it’s everything that Carmichael Industries is not. Moss is a great addition to the cast, and her steely exterior coupled with Verbanski’s past with John Casey should lead to some fun stuff down the line. Her presence also gives Sarah Walker another strong female presence to play against, with the two going toe-to-toe in several scenes that denote grudging respect as well as mutual animosity.
However, she’s primarily introduced tonight to provide an out for Morgan and his increasing ego. And that downward spiral sits at the root of tonight’s problems. What worried me the most about giving Morgan the Intersect this late in the show’s run was that it would take the focus off the titular character and put Grimes front and center. Giving Morgan something to do is something I support, but not if it takes away from Chuck’s story in the final season. The show is getting it right with Casey’s arc this year: it’s enmeshed in the overall story, but sits well to the side of the main thrust. With Chuck and Sarah largely solving their issues last season, the time has come for Casey and Morgan to become as well-rounded as their counterparts in Carmichael Industries. But their arcs should complement the central pair, not overwhelm them.
It’s especially disappointing to see the melodrama at the center of this current split, as well. On one hand, we should be glad the show didn’t stretch out Morgan’s apparent betrayal to the season’s sixth or seventh episode. On the other hand, man did things get real whiny, real fast. If you played a drinking game in which you took a sip each time Morgan expressed a desire to use the Intersect (or hell, even told anyone who would listen that he had the damn thing), well, you’re not reading this review. Because you’re in a coma. With Carmichael Industries on the ropes, they take a job from blood-diamond magnate Karl Sneijder (Jeff Fahey) to locate his brother Wesley (Smallville’s Justin Hartley). But the mission of the week is just another excuse to
- show how easily fooled Chuck and Company are without CIA resources, and
- have Morgan complain at every possible second that he’s not being used correctly.
We’re two episodes into Morgan Grimes’ time with the Intersect, and I’m already over Intersect Angst. As annoying as Morgan was in season one, the show has somehow topped itself in season five. Chuck’s issues surrounding the Intersect were always couched in personal, relatable terms: he wanted to be a hero in the eyes of his family/friends, and being able to conjure up kung-fu skills was an added bonus. Morgan works the opposite way, soaking in his new skills and rapidly becoming annoyed with anyone that won’t let him unlock the mother of all cheat codes currently occupying his brain. But he doesn’t earn the right to complain this much, this soon. That’s probably the point, but also means we missed out on a series of missions in which Morgan’s skills actually saved the day. That would have provided a series of potentially fun missions and actually earned his arrogance. Instead, we skipped past all that and entered Emo Town instantly.
No matter how fast Chuck deployed this storyline, it still leaves us with a showdown that will probably not justify its overall existence. At some point, Morgan will have to face off with Chuck in a meaningful manner. Does anyone think this will be a vicious, Buffy/Faith-esque throwdown? Will one of these characters have to die that the other may live? Chuck isn’t that brutal a show. It’s willing to kill off plenty of secondary and tertiary players, but it’s not going to end its run without happy endings for its major characters. That’s not a bad thing, mind you… except when it tries to pretend like this isn’t an inevitability. Thus, having Morgan go “bad” just seems like a waste with so few episodes remaining. It’s paint-by-numbers storytelling at the precise moment the show should be going for broke.
I put “bad” in quotes up there, because by episode’s end, it’s clear that Morgan isn’t just an arrogant prick now because power has gone to his head. The Intersect apparently now comes with a “nerd eliminator,” wiping out knowledge of Star Wars, Die Hard, and everything else that once bonded Morgan and Chuck together. The reasons for this will clearly define the short-term storytelling of the show, and could potentially contextualize this episode in terms of the end game of the series. So, again, we return to the central problem outlined at the outset: If all this ends well, do we retroactively reevaluate this hour? Perhaps, but there’s still value in analyzing it in the present. Even if we realize in one, two, or five weeks that Morgan had to get to Verbanski Corp. in order to allow for Event X to happen, that still doesn’t mean the way in which Morgan got there was particularly elegant. The ends may justify the means, but they don’t excuse them, either.
- No mention of the Buy More above, because like Big Mike and even Lester, I am over the “Jeffster” stuff. Have been for a while. Let’s see if the show actually takes this to heart and gives the Buy More something substantial in the final season.
- Introducing Casey’s ex last season, only to basically dismiss that storyline in a huff, was a travesty. Hopefully the Verbanski storyline will succeed where last season failed.
- Nice to know Big Mike has the money for four weeks of sexual experimentation and snorkeling in Hawaii.
- As annoying as Morgan was tonight, I did like his voice as The Bearded Bandit. He may no longer remember who Luke Skywalker is, but apparently he still remembers The Dark Knight.
- Equal Opportunity Wind Machine Alert: last week, Sarah got it; this week, Awesome gets it.
- Carmichael Industries has comment cards. I really hope NBC puts one up on its website for the show.
- I would very much like to see how Verbanski disarmed Casey in Minsk back in 1995.
- “She left a nasty scar over one of my favorite scars!”
- “It’s like his eyes follow everyone in the store!”