CHUCK: 'Chuck Versus Agent X'
Chuck may not be hitting the same heights as during its second season, but when on form it is still one of the warmest and most charming programmes on television. Like the man who lends the series his name, it's flawed and prone to going off on tangents, but never for a moment feels insincere. It's a textbook example of how much strong characters and intelligent casting can offer. Even when having to sit through the drudgery of the Shaw season, it was Chuck, Casey, Sarah and Morgan who keep the fans faithful. (And when those fans stage the mass buying of sandwiches from sponsor Subway to save the programme from cancellation, you know you're onto something special). So though I may not look forward to Chuck as much as I used to, if these final episodes of season four are the last we see of Chuck and his Castle cohorts, I'd like to be there to see them off.
Despite the the pre-season budget cuts leading to no shortage of questionable CGI work, this fourth season of Chuck has pulled off enough high points that it won't feel like the programme has gone out under a shadow, should the predicted cancellation come to pass. Timothy Dalton was a casting coup and has been nothing less than magnificent in his every appearance, giving a masterclass in scenery-chewing hilarity. The buildup to Chuck proposing to Sarah might have brought out the same tiresome neuroses from our hero that should have been left behind long ago, but since then the relationship has stabilised and the chemistry between Zachary Levi and the radiant Yvonne Strahovski (who has finally been given opportunities to show off her terrific skills as a comic) is back to its best. The latest episode, 'Chuck Versus Agent X', also had good form in one area that the series usually struggles with: the storytelling.
It's a shame that the writers have taken such a long time to find anything productive to do with Ellie, who has been kept on the periphery since her wedding in the series' finest hour, the season two finale 'Chuck vs The Ring'. 'Agent X' hints at what could have been, and there's loads of promise for something special to develop should Chuck again make a miraculous return. (And you wouldn't rule anything out, giving how the writers have more or less had to write two grand finales every season). The subplot about her trying to decode the files in her father's computer has given her more involvement with the central story arc than usual - moreso than the ever-ignored baby Clara, that's for sure - but it was a slow build that 'Agent X' finally paid off.
There was a lot of retconning going on in this episode, the most effective of which was in bringing out the analytical, puzzle-solving skills which Ellie can offer in complement to her brother's natural ingenuity. Given how long she has been established as a neurologist and how much she and her brother rely on each other for support, it beggars belief that no-one on the Chuck staff thought until now that their skills may also work well together in the spy world. The reversal at the end of last season, where Ellie discovered that Chuck was a spy but was then quickly pushed back out of that side of his life, feels like a worse decision now than ever. But the main point is that it seems they're finally in the loop together now, and that is (to borrow a phrase) awesome.
Less effective was the decision to retrofit the cracks in the Bartowski family history to originating from Stephen/Orion's search for the mysterious Agent X. The writers seem obsessed with making their villains run parallel to Chuck, be it Shaw as his opposite (the Super-spy and then evil Intersect, as Chuck struggled to control his newfound skills), Vivian Volkoff (an everywoman dragged into the spy world by her heritage) and now Hartley Winterbottom, aka Alexei Volkoff (aka more Timothy Dalton, hooray!), who is groaningly described as "not liking guns" - with Chuck having earlier made the point that he doesn't carry a weapon, just in case we'd forgotten - before being turned to the dark side by a glitch in the first Intersect. Let's also not forget the similar father-child dynamic which Alexei and Vivian now share with Stephen and Chuck. Nevertheless, though it was fairly obvious after the information on Stephen's laptop sent Chuck and his team to England on the hunt for Agent X's identity, the reveal with the photograph was an effective one, doing what a good cliffhanger should by changing the stakes of the mission ahead - are you watching, Steven Moffat?
While the central storyline hit all the right cues, the bachelor party camping trip felt like a diversion. Having the threat of cancellation hanging over its head for most of its life has had the effect of dividing each of Chuck's seasons in half, leading to episodes where each hour was crammed with too many ideas to give each one space to breathe. That was the case with the trip to Las Vecas (a lazy gag the first time, let alone the second), which felt like more like an excuse to give Jeffster and Big Mike some screentime than a necessary stepping stone for the plot. Much as I'd miss Big Mike and his relationship with Morgan ("That's the greatest thing a white person has ever done for me!"), I can't help but think the show would work a lot better if it abandoned the Buy More for good, especially now that Ellie is in the fold and Chuck has no need to maintain a cover story. Those characters can be a lot of fun, but their segments feel increasingly like filler material. Difficult though it is to say, the Buy More feels like it is holding the show back: the setting is a part of who Chuck was, but not who he is now. But at least we now know who shot Bin Laden.
The excursion to 'England' (heh) was more fun, not least for giving us a machine gun-toting granny, who Casey came to love as the mother he never had (though it was Adam Baldwin's look of disgust when she first called him a 'handsome young man' that gave the episode its biggest laugh), and some amusingly wobbly English accents. Funny how they got India de Beaufort, as the sexy bad girl of the week, to play American though, considering she's a native of these shores. The shoot-out in the cottage wasn't great, shot entirely in close-up and with a flimsy-looking polystyrene 'stone' wall, but did feature an hilarious use of a knitting needle and thread to wrap everything up. No idea why Ray Wise was brought back though: he's great to have around, but on a show with such a tight budget, it would surely make sense to have him do something useful. His character is supposed to be a lawyer, so there wasn't any reason for him to be leading a pack of hired goons. (I hope you read that last part in a Homer Simpson voice.)
Nevertheless, 'Chuck Versus Agent X' had the considerable positives of pulling off a twist that adds some tension and focus to the final episodes of the season - although we can imagine it will end at Chuck and Sarah's wedding, it wasn't as though we've had any inkling of what Vivian Volkoff's plan is - and brought Ellie into the spy world for good this time (surely?), allowing her a newfound sense of purpose and reigniting the Bartowski kinship. For a programme sustained by its characters, it's a good thing to see that they'll all be working together at the end.
Best Moment: Agent X's identity is revealed.
Best Moment: Agent X's identity is revealed.
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