‘Chuck’ – ‘Chuck vs. the Living Dead’: The family that lies together

Senior Television Writer
05.17.10 99 Comments

Chris Haston/NBC

A review of tonight’s “Chuck” coming up just as soon as I review pictures of people I’ve killed…

“This is a bad business. I don’t want my family in any part of it.” -Stephen Bartowski

Like “Chuck vs. the Dream Job,” the episode that introduced Scott Bakula as Papa Bartowski, “Chuck vs. the Living Dead” got off to a slow start before kicking into high gear by the end, setting things up nicely for next week’s two-hour season(*) finale.

(*) Season, not series. In case you missed the news by now, NBC has ordered a fourth season of “Chuck,” and it will be back in the fall in the same ol’ Monday at 8 timeslot.

Basically, the first half of the episode leaned too heavily on one of my least favorite kinds of plots, wherein bad things happen to the good guys almost entirely because they won’t tell the truth to one another – and won’t do it for silly reasons.

Given that Chuck has never had that great a relationship with his father, and given that just last week he was warned that the Intersect might one day rot his brain, I just don’t buy that he would put “I don’t want to disappoint the old man” above “I need the guy who invented the Intersect to spare me from getting permanent brain damage.”

The Ellie storyline was less bothersome from a character perspective, in that Ellie has been kept so in the dark – basically, the only other relevant people in Chuck’s life who don’t know that he’s a spy are Jeffster! and their new manager. But it’s often frustrating when we see a character who knows much less than we do endangering other characters through their ignorance, even if their intentions are as good as Ellie’s are here.

The first half of “Living Dead” certainly had its charms – Jeffster! aside (we’ll get to them in a bit), we got Sarah interrogating Morgan (followed by Casey interrogating her at much more exhausting length) – but it wasn’t until Stephen rescued Chuck from the edge of the building, and the truth came out and father and son Bartowski began meditating on all the dangers of the spy business that the episode really began to click.

For starters, Bakula has really mastered the behavioral shifts of this character. He can play Stephen as a disturbingly absent-minded professor, then turn things so that it becomes clear that the craziness is an act – but only a little(**). I really liked Stephen’s pained exit after Chuck told him he and Ellie had gotten used to a life without him, and Stephen’s decision to fix the Intersect and help his son fulfill his heroic dreams as a very nice family moment.

(**) And this is the second episode in a row that has me wondering if Papa’s mental health issues are caused by an Intersect prototype in his head.

Though the lighter tone of some of the early season 3.1 episodes was welcome, it feels right for the show to acknowledge now and then that Chuck’s new career isn’t all fun and excitement and leggy valkyries who have an aversion to clothing. Sarah spent a lot of season 3.0 angsting about what becoming a spy was doing to Chuck’s personality, and even though we’re past that, there’s still the very fair larger issue that she’s likely drastically shortened the life expectancy of the man she loves. Lot of good beats for Levi and Strahovski throughout.

Top that off with a good Chuck-fu sequence with Chuck using the armrests strapped to his wrists as clubs, and then a cliffhanger in which the very not-dead Shaw turns himself into another Intersect – making himself the Venom to Chuck’s Spider-Man, or the Iron Monger to Chuck’s Iron Man – and you have an emotional, exciting 2episode that sets things up nicely for the finale.

And as the cherry on the sundae, we got a Jeffster! subplot that was hilarious from start to finish, with Lester warning Jeff of the dangers of selling out (“Art, good! Commercialism, bad! Evil! Weird! Chubby!”), Lester declaring himself “The ‘ster that stirs the drink,” Jeff trying to continue the band on his own (now as Jeff-?), awesomely improvising lyrics and singing with a vocoder, and then Big Mike revealing his own brief history with Earth, Wind and Fire (and Rain!) in convincing Lester to return to the fold.

Just as all the stuff with the clan Bartowski and the dueling Intersects is building to something big, I hope that the reunited Jeffster! and their new manager are also heading for bigger things as the season closes out. And, if not, we know they’ll be back next season, and in the meantime we at least got another joke about Lester having the body of a little girl.

Some other thoughts:

  • Once again, it really feels like Fedak, Schwartz and company have made a concerted effort in the mini-season to return Sarah to her assertive, ass-kicking ways, which here included her scaring the hell out of Morgan, and later perfectly throwing a hatchet at a knife to save Chuck.
  • This week in “Chuck” pop culture references: as always, I can never name them all, but among the ones that immediately jumped out at me were Shaw living in the Hoth building (Hoth being the ice planet from “Empire Strikes Back”), the suction cup climb being reminiscent of many cat burglar films and also a scene in “Superman: The Movie,” “the ‘ster that stirs the drink” being an homage to a line uttered by Yankees Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and the rooftop chase looking very much like a similar sequence in “In the Line of Fire.”
  • This week in “Chuck” music: Jeffster! sing the Nazareth version of “Love Hurts,” we hear a snippet of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” as Big Mike tells his sad story, and The Bravery’s “I Am Your Skin” plays as Chuck begins to write his spy will.
  • Yeesh: even Shaw’s non-Paris apartment has a (photographic) view of the Eiffel Tower.
  • Nice throwaway joke with Chuck using the fancy X-ray glasses to look through Sarah’s clothes.
  • Casey volunteering to watch over Ellie was another reminder of how far Chuck and Casey’s friendship has come, whereas the Morgan/Ellie stuff was a reminder of how far the bearded one hasn’t come when it comes to Chuck’s sister. (“If I had the height or the willpower, I would slap you across the face right now.”) Josh Gomez and Ryan McPartlin had a lot of fun in the sequence where Morgan falls in love with Devon as Awesome describes a typical day in his married life. (“Once we’re in bed, post-lavender bath, I spend 20 minutes just watching her sleep…”)

Okay, so for the first time in “Chuck” history, we go into a finale with no uncertainty about the show’s future. Feels kinda nice, no?

What did everybody else think?

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