"Chuck Versus The Family Volkoff" S4 / E20
- B Community Grade
Certain things go together. Chocolate and peanut butter. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Snooki and VD. Add to that list Timothy Dalton and Chuck, a combination that’s provided most of the highs of this uneven though often pleasurable fourth season. It’s tough for a show like this to keep improvising long narrative arcs when it’s perpetually on the brink of cancellation, but the Vivian Volkoff storyline tonight picked up the threads of previously abandoned plotlines and managed to assemble them into a Nerd Herd-flavored stew. Whether this was always the point is irrelevant: As we learned tonight, even the best-laid plans can backfire anyway.
The direct parallels between Chuck and Vivian haven’t really panned out in the way the show initially envisioned it. Let’s face it: These two aren’t exactly Buffy and Faith in terms of being foils for one another. The show’s never painted Chuck as ever potentially going to the dark side. It’s used Casey and occasionally Sarah to serve that function at times, but never Chuck. At this point, he’s as set in his moral code as possible. Had the Vivian storyline happened at the outset of his Intersect 2.0 days, perhaps the taste of power could have gone to his head, with Vivian as an example of the road not taken. As such, Vivian’s existence largely serves to connect her to the larger spy world of the show, not draw a direct parallel to the support system that helped Chuck overcome any potential temptations.
Having her be a Volkoff did allow the potential for Alexei’s return, which the show luckily exploited in tonight’s hour. The notion that Volkoff the Elder started to atone for his sins while in prison was both rote and largely one-note, but good God, it’s fun to watch Timothy Dalton chew the scenery in this show. You can sometimes watch Chuck sweat in trying to bring a balance of light-hearted romance, geek-flavored comedy, and believable spy missions into each episode, but Dalton somehow waltzes through it all. The various tonal shifts in the show all work when Volkoff is on screen, because he’s SUPPOSED to be simultaneously charming, witty, and lethal at once. Also, he’s played by Timothy Freakin’ Dalton. Which, you know, helps.
Similarly, the twist in the plot to obtain The Norseman weapon was as transparent as possible, but it still allowed the audience the joy of watching this master manipulator play Team Bartowski like pawns on a chessboard. (Yes, Chuck, I saw what you did there.) Making our heroes seem like fools isn’t something I should be rooting for, but in the world of the show, Volkoff’s the type of person who should be able to use his mind to cripple his opponents. What was almost as predictable, but still great to see, was that Volkoff is just like Team Bartowski in one crucial way: He has a blind spot when it comes to his family.
That the show only works occasionally (and I’m being generous here) as a spy show is beside the point, if it was ever the point at all. From the pilot episode in which Chuck used an adult website to disarm a bomb to a recent episode in which he used a juice box to do the very same thing, the show has used the spy world as a hook but never the primary reason for its existence. At its heart, it’s a fairly simple tale about the value of family and friends. When THOSE elements are working, then the spy world and geekish references to direwolves simply become icing on the cake.
Vivian’s deception of Alexei mirrored Ellie’s deception of Chuck, moves that have implications for potentially serious, world-altering consequences. But these deceptions hurt both men on a personal level first and a espionage level second. Here’s the thing, though: Both men profess to love those that deceive them this hour, but neither has really let the deceivers into the inner sanctum of their lives, either. One could easily argue that Volkoff had this coming, because he’s the Big Bad and it’s both fun and correct to do so. What’s interesting is that Chuck himself could be accused of the same thing, and that the secrets started long ago by Stephen and Mary Bartowski could ultimately put Ellie in severe danger. Then again, I could be simply trying to justify that the show managed to avoid Chuck telling Ellie his true nature for what feels like the 500th time in the show’s run.
Ellie has been at sea for quite a while on the show, so connecting her back to the main narrative via Stephen’s old computer has been a way to earn her few minutes of screen time in a way that feels organic to the story and not simply a way to honor Sarah Lancaster’s contract with the show. Chuck tried to do this back during The Ring arc, but that didn’t integrate her into the plot so much as just make her look really dumb. Recent developments not only tie into the government’s ongoing attempts to clone the success of Chuck’s Intersect but also serve as Ellie’s middle finger to a family that’s kept her in the dark all these years. She spies on her mother and lies to her brother, but this is nothing if not a quid pro quo situation where she’s simply returning the favor.
Moreover, somehow, the show has connected Ellie’s plot with the Vivian storyline via Agent X, a secret project that not even Mary was aware of until this week. Theory time: Agent X is the sum total of the two Bartowski kids, fully activated. Having it be simply one person seems too obvious, and having it be a pair of siblings fits in with the show’s ethos that family works strongest when working together. Think of them as The Wonder Twins, but with fewer forms of water and more forms of kicking ass by unlocking the power of their minds. A long shot of a theory? Sure, but it’s the one I’m working off right now. Option B? CTHULHU, baby!
Speaking of the power of a functioning familial unit, both Sarah and Casey had small plots surrounding their own fractured clans as well tonight. Sarah asks Chuck early on for a prenup, a move that had me groaning (especially when they talked about it ad naseum mid-mission, my least favorite Chuck trope ever) until we learn she simply has a stash set aside for bail money for her con-man father. That doesn’t exactly make the prenup make any sense, but Sarah’s a little loony about her old man, so the lack of sense… actually makes sense. If that makes sense. In Casey world, Alex’s impending graduation has both thinking that maybe it’s time that Kathleen learn that her ex-fiancée isn’t exactly six feet under. Both plots were setting up action down the line, but both fit into the overall episode’s thematic content just fine.
- If Chuck gets cancelled, I hereby demand a reboot of The Odd Couple starring Morgan Grimes and John Casey.
- Between the direwolf joke and a weapon called “The Norseman,” it seems Chuck switched up Subway product placement and instead inserted promos for Game of Thrones and Thor into its script this week.
- Example #19,112 of Why Chuck Can’t Write Compelling Spy Missions: Chuck has to fight for his life inside the camp of evil weapons dealer Ellyas Abshir via a game of UNO.
- Loved Chuck’s black turtleneck, only because it lets me imagine that he and Sterling Archer go to the same tailor.
- Ellie and Awesome have appropriate spy handles: “Hot Mama” and “Six Pack.”
- No Nerd Herders this week. Fine by me. Plenty of stuff going on without Jeffster needing to enter the fray.
- I know we all freaked out when the computer Watson beat humans in Jeopardy!, but at least it didn’t operate turrets to intimidate the other players during a Daily Double.
- Funniest moment of the night, hands down: Volkoff using the tiny little waste bin inside his secret cave lair to deposit a used cotton swab. Brilliant.
- I griped a lot here about little things, but c’mon: the only way a Timothy Dalton ep of Chuck gets below a B+ is if the show features Yvonne Strahovski in the bathroom for the entire hour, suffering from a horrible case of diarrhea.
- “Don’t henpeck!”
- “I’m just gonna get out of here before I’m scarred for life!”
- “It’s true. I cut in front of William in the cafeteria line. I admit I have entitlement issues.”
- “Sad, isn’t it? Why do I always choose fear over love?”
- “Everyone hates me. I accept that.”
- “I am still a work in progress.”
- “Right. Old thinking. It creeps back!”