In theory, tonight’s Chuck should have been a slam dunk. The return of Gary Cole as Sarah’s con man father inspired high hopes for fans of the show. Chuck does pretty well by its charismatic guest stars, with Cole, John Larroquette, and Fred Willard all excelling in previous episodes. However, tonight’s episode didn’t really take advantage of Jack Burton’s return to the show. Instead, it pushed him off to the sidelines to make room for a storyline that had no earthly business in this episode.
But before getting to that, let’s go back in time. The year? 1988. The place? McCall, Idaho, where the girl that grows up to Sarah Walker is running a cookie con with her father. The two make a good team, with Jack instilling in her a rule of thumb that dictates his daughter’s ethos in the years leading up to her time with Chuck: “Once you know all the cons, you can never be a sucker.” She dreams of a life full of adventures with her dad, a dream that gets deferred and ultimately transfers to a life full of “adventure” in the CIA.
That Sarah’s life serves as a rejection of her father’s constant betrayal isn’t exactly news. But I’m not sure the show has ever really driven home this directly just how her time in the CIA is merely an extension of the geographical wanderlust inspired by Jack. To move from mission to mission, essentially conning her way into dangerous situations in order to defuse them, is both a refutation as well as odd homage to her time with her father. Furthermore, it helps clarify both her previous attraction to Bryce Larkin (a younger, suaver version of her father), as well as her nearly terminal inability to settle down with Chuck.
Now that she has settled down and learned to trust a man in her life, she’s susceptible to con artists like Daphne Peralta, straight from the Real Housewives of Con Artists. It’s a bitter pill for Sarah to swallow, one that sends her to a badly CGI’d rendering of Miami in order to seek her father out. At this point, the show should have taken off on the wings of Cole’s effortless charisma, but oddly enough, the show almost seemed reticent to use him. Until the show’s final acts, he spent the majority of his time hanging out with Awesome, not his daughter. While his letter to Sarah at episode’s end was quite touching, I’m sure it was enough to wash away the fact that Chuck vastly underutilized a man that could have brought a lot to the table this week.
If the fourth season of Chuck can be summarized as a group of people putting the sins and secrets of the past behind them, then Jack’s reemergence could have led to a parallel payoff to this season’s Mary Bartowski storyline. At this point, Chuck has a healthy relationship with his mother and already made peace with his father before Stephen’s untimely death. But Sarah still suffers from an all-but-absent father and still-unknown mother, plot points the show has been teasing in the back half of this season. Maybe getting a single slow dance and a piggy-bank full of wedding money is as good as can be expected at this stage of the relationship, but it didn’t have a lot of catharsis behind it. If Jack returns for the wedding, then maybe the payoff will happen there, with this simply the first step toward that bigger end game. But it felt like the show crammed in a lot of (admittedly effective) schmaltz as the end to cover up the fact that it blew its opportunity to really delve into the Jack/Sarah dynamic.
Part of the reason the show couldn’t explore it further lies in the inexplicable way that it tried to shoehorn the Casey/Kathleen/Alex storyline into this hour. Had these two plotlines 1) been thematically related and 2) been given equal weight, then perhaps combining them could have been a masterstroke of plotting. But while both centered around estranged people reconnecting after a long while, there really wasn’t anything truly linking the two plots at all. It felt like the show didn’t feel the need to give this arc its own episode and tacked it onto this one instead of a Jeffster plotline.
That’s a shame. Chuck has produced strong episodes this season in which either Casey ("Chuck Versus The Couch Lock") or Sarah ("Chuck Versus Phase Three") is given the chance to shine. Tonight should have been a Sarah-centric hour, period. This not only would have given her story more time to breathe. It also would have allowed the show to give Casey the proper amount of time and focus for what should have been a seismic, life-changing moment for his character. Instead, it happened anticlimactically in the middle of Sarah’s plot, which devalued both sides of the story through the show’s muddy narrative mixing.
That muddy mix carried over into the spy work of the week, in which Sarah’s cartoonish use of CIA resources to track down Daphne led to three brothers playing a “shell game” with a device called the Zephyr. Even by Chuck standards, the spy stuff was pretty rote this week, with nary a mention of Volkoff, Agent X, or any of the other mythological elements introduced this season. Why three Hungarian brothers would carry Iran’s nuclear research at all times is a question the show would rather not ask. Instead, it wants us to giggle at Morgan spilling wine on one of them at a fake wedding reception so Sarah can knock him out with a cake stand.
I’m not sure there was even a need for ANY spy stuff this week, with “keeping Jack in the dark about the wedding” enough of a mission in and of itself during the attempt to reclaim the lost wedding deposit. There’s always been a strong correlation in the show between the secrets spies keep to keep the world safe and the lies that spies tell in order to keep those close to them safe. Had Sarah brought Jack in, only to have him placed into some sort of danger that would require his daughter to blow his cover, THEN the storyline with Casey would have worked in harmony. But the show tried to shove too much into one hour, which left no room for anything other than a few individual moments to really shine. Those moments were fun and occasionally honestly moving. But they didn’t add up to as satisfying an hour as Cole's presence should have produced.
- Jack and Sarah once lived in the governor’s mansion in Savannah, Georgia, for an entire month. Naturally.
- Yvonne Strahovski gives good flash face.
- Speaking of Strahovski, she did an excellent job of letting Daddy’s Little Girl effortlessly emerge from Sarah’s tough exterior. That final scene with the piggy bank alone raised my overall grade up, despite how manipulated I felt by it. Oh well. It worked for me. So it goes.
- I kept waiting for Jack to run a con using Claire as a tool in his deceptive arsenal.
- Anyone else get an Up vibe from Jack’s note about Sarah starting a different kind of adventure with Chuck?
- I kept waiting for the girl in the Super Shuttle to tell her friend Becky all about the enormous butt she was looking at. I mean, it’s just so… big. Like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
- Speaking of jams, Chuck has six “Chuck Loves Sarah” CD mixes, plus another epic disc entitled “Chuck & Sarah’s Road Trippin’.”
- “Do our wedding colors remind you of socialism?”
- “Of COURSE I mean us!”
- “Oh my God, he just exposed himself!”
- “Spy High Five!”