Of course, I after I complained about Chuck earlier this month, it’s rattled off three straight high-quality episodes that almost require me to comment in some fashion. However, in many ways, that’s a good thing. I want to talk about Chuck. I don’t want to avoid it here on TVS because it’s one of my favorite series, so I’m glad that it has seemingly turned the corner in recent weeks.
With that being said, while not “the best episode in two years” EP Josh Schwartz referred to it by on Monday, “Chuck Versus The First Fight” is certainly the best episode of the so-far sluggish fourth season. If last week’s effort was the first step in the turning point, “First Fight” feels like the wheels are actually making said turn and the season is on to a more interesting place as this original 13-episode order finishes up.
I noted last week that Chuck tends to be firing on all cylinders when it’s able to put the characters in opposing positions without making it about good vs. evil and instead make the story focus on different perspectives on the same issue. In the spy world, it’s too difficult to really ever know when someone is telling the truth, so the series often tries to create conflict out of someone stupidly trusting another or whatever, I think you get the point.
And although that kind of approach often materializes in a way that creates an inordinate amount of twists, turns and then more twists like “First Fight” does, the series can usually figure out how to execute those multiple reveals in a convincing way so that it doesn’t seem completely redundant. This effort does just that.
After spending most of the first batch of episodes talking about her and then having her deliver loads of exposition last week, Linda Hamilton’s Mary Bartowski finally gets some real great material to work with. Last week she was watching Ellie, this week, she actually gets to have an in-depth conversation with her. Last week, Chuck and Sarah talked about how she could be evil or at least a turncoat, this week, we really get to see Mary in action, where she kind of confirms both Sarah and Chuck’s suppositions about her.
Most importantly, this episode gives some sense of urgency to the Mary Bartowski story because there’s at least some clarity to what the heck she’s up to and because the villain the shadows, Volkov, is finally shown himself. Timothy Dalton did a fantastic job as both the faux-handler Tuttle and quick turn he had to make when Tuttle revealed himself to actually be Volkov and now the series has a villain with a face that seems like a real challenge. That’s one thing that made sense about keeping Shaw around because going after faceless governmental groups like the Fulcrum or the Ring can only bring so much drama.
Now, we’ve seen Volkov operate in a cunning manner AND be witness to what kind of crazy stuff Mary Bartowski is up to, so it feels like there is both urgency and stakes to Chuck in a way that there hasn’t been since season two, so perhaps that’s where Schwartz is coming from.*
*Though I think he was probably just saying that because the general sentiment has been “meh” this year and he’s trying to drum up interest in his program, but whatever.
Additionally, I have to give it up to the episode for continuing to twist Chuck up in knots with his mother, because even moving forward, it’s not really clear what she’s up to. I think it’s obvious that she is at least partially evil and not especially interested in working with the CIA or American government, but she definitely doesn’t want to kill her children. There are a number of different ways the story can play out, and honestly, it feels nice to not know what the heck is going to happen next with this series, particularly after the lame first few episodes.
“First Fight” is titled as such because of the stress Mary brings onto the Chuck and Sarah pairing, and let me just take this moment to say this: THANK YOU. There’s a certain way to tell stories about relationship difficulties. The first 4-5 episodes? Not the right approach. What we see here, where Chuck and Sarah have legitimate issues that need to be address and also can be addressed in a humorous, but emotionally satisfying way, yeah, that works much, much better.
Finally, the intersect. It’s gone again. While I feel like the series has probably taken on this story too often in four years — especially when it’s been dialed back this year — I again like that there is some mystery to what the heck is happening. The watch regulator thing didn’t really play out as well as it could have last season, so I’m hoping this current shortage actually helps Chuck in a specific way. It would be super interesting to just not have the intersect at all anymore, but I know that won’t happen. But again, mystery! So glad it’s back on Chuck and in general, I’m glad to have this kind of Chuck back.