I like Chuck now for entirely different reasons than I liked it before. Seasons two and three (and, to some extent, one) demonstrated the show's deftness with breezy comedy, mixing in a few gratuitous ass-kicking and lady-goods scenes to spice things up. But ever since the Buy More took a major back seat and Chuck found himself adept at the spy life, the show has been far more about the tension between Chuck's personal life and his public spy one. Comedy has all but fallen by the wayside.
It's a shame. I liked that the show recognized it was a comedy not just by the presence of jokes but by the way it didn't take itself too seriously. No life-ending plot was ever too heavy, and no diabolical villain was without his or her comical weakness. It wasn't a spy show as much as it was a comedy with spy elements. When everything is super important, nothing is super important.
We can all probably agree that the Volkoff reveal was a huge step forward in a season that was largely spent spinning its wheels. Myles pointed out last week that it was the point he started caring about this season. A-freakin'-men, my friend. Therefore, an episode centered around Volkoff should have been a slam dunk.
One of Chuck's major problems, though, is that it doesn't give focus well. This is and will always be Chuck's story. But if there was ever an episode that could have benefited from passing the baton, it's this one. Chuck can't help but make witty asides and comment on what's happening. It's fine if he's the one kicking major ass and moving the plot forward, but without an Intersect, he's just standing around, making witty asides and commenting on what's happening. The show's insistence on shoehorning him into every scene made "Chuck Versus The Leftovers" feel like an episode cobbled together from scenes that didn't have much of a home.
This needed to be Volkoff's story. We start in his office in Russia; he calls in Frost and tells her he's disappointed Charles Carmichael is not dead and can she please take care of that for him. She sends the be-eyepatched drones to take Chuck out but tails them, tranqs them (tagging it with the Terminator reference we were all waiting for), and heads to Castle for questioning from Sarah and Casey. Volkoff arrives shortly after, with a team of meanies set to bomb Castle and take back Frost by force. At first, it seems like the work of a madman who'll do whatever it takes to get back one of his top agents. Later it's discovered it's the work of an even madder man who'll do whatever it takes … for love.
Volkoff might be a psycho, but he's also a softie, and also a psycho. He'd rather kill Frost than force her to live without him. When Chuck and Sarah emerge to return Frost, Volkoff goes to kill Chuck when Frost reveals that it's, in fact, her son—just as Ellie calls and Volkoff learns Frost also has a daughter. Volkoff twists on a dime, now insisting he attend Ellie's Thanksgiving and be welcomed as a member of the family. He merely wants to get to know the people who were so important to Frost, and he's so out of the norm at this point, he's doing what he perceives people in his situation should do. Thus: Charades.
Volkoff's descent into a special kind of madness is fascinating. And I can't deny that whenever Timothy Dalton graced the screen, I wasn't sure what was about to happen. There's an unpredictability to his actions, be it how he holds his gun or how he admits defeat while it barely registers to his facial expression. When the drama is good, the drama is good; when it's schmaltzy, boy is it schmaltzy. We never get a real sense of stakes with any of the Buy More stuff. (Certainly, I could have done without yet another painful Subway plug.) Sure, Morgan's accidental rescue of Jeff, Lester, and later Casey was one long homage to Die Hard, but the sequence didn't land when the result was so ancillary to the story. (Maybe it's the Home Alone "creepin' around" violins the show insists on using as music?) I did appreciate how the show had Morgan fail where John McClane succeeded—specifically the reacharound to the gun—but Chuck has shown it can do references and make them central to the story, and this wasn't one.
Then, at the end of it all, Chuck redownloads the Intersect as a giant reset button. And it took three episodes of futzing around with a computer (or panning over it under the car) to get to this point. The last few episodes have done really well by moving the story forward in a big way. I'm losing my patience for things that are hinted at for a long time before finally dropping. We're going into an extended break now, with more than a month for the show to recalibrate itself. As long as it hits the ground running, the back half of this season should do just fine.
And if not, at least Chuck took that stripper dancing class.