Chuck: "Chuck Vs. The Final Exam"
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Chuck: "Chuck Vs. The Final Exam"

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Chuck

"Chuck Vs. The Final Exam"

Season 3, Episode 11

First off, hi. Keith Phipps here, filling in for Steve Heisler, who should resume service again next week. Second, I think I picked an interesting week to sub in. While I don’t think tonight’s episode was great—in fact, it felt like one of the weaker entries this all-in-all quite good season—I do think it was a key episode. This season has been all about Chuck wanting to become a spy and tonight’s episode offered the first look at how ugly that wish could be. Sure, he’d seen what the spy life had done to Casey and seen Sarah put a man down without blinking—a moment recalled tonight—but he still seemed to want it and the show never quite made it clear why. There’s the glamour and excitement of working for the C.I.A. (or at least the version of the C.I.A. seen here), of course. And it would probably mean a lot to Chuck’s pride not to serve as the junior auxiliary to Casey and Sarah’s Spy Squad. But this week the cards are on the table, as if they were ever in doubt: He wants it for love.

Specifically, he wants it because it would put him on the same level as Sarah without requiring her to throw it all away. Sarah’s been hesitant in encouraging this, however, and tonight we learn why: the Red Test. So there’s one answer to one of this season’s hovering puzzles. It’s just a strange answer. Chuck has never attempted to make its portrayal of spy life seem the least bit plausible, but are we really to believe that the ultimate test for joining the C.I.A. is the same test required to join the mafia? (J.F.K. conspiracy theorists need not answer that question.) And if that is the case, wouldn’t Sarah know from the start that Chuck’s bones-making moment would kill everything she loves about him? And what should we make of the weird moral double-standard that treats the idea of Chuck becoming a killer as a tragedy but treats Sarah and Casey’s kill-heavy careers as just part of the job? It also gives Chuck out after out if he had decided to pull the trigger. In the moments his rogue agent target —a man he’d seen kill in cold blood—wasn’t directly threatening his life, he was jeopardizing the lives of civilians at Union Station.

True, much of the tension of the show comes from what sets Chuck apart from his partners-in-espionage, particularly the innocence he brings to the table. Make him a killer and that innocence disappears. The show’s walking a fine line, and here it takes a Han-Solo-at-the-end-of-A-New-Hope-style appearance from Casey to do the killing to keep it on it.

As usual, the contrivances ended up serving a larger purpose. Casey might have shown up just because he thought—or, more accurately, knew—Chuck couldn’t get the job done, but I think he really showed up because he wanted to keep Chuck’s hands clean. And I ultimately care more about the characters than the show’s internal logic. Because, frankly, caring about the latter is pretty maddening whereas Chuck’s characters remain great company no matter how implausible their plots.

That’s true this week, too. While the Subway product placement got layered on a little thick this week—I almost fast-forwarded past the establishing shot for the big restaurant sitdown, thinking it was an ad—I enjoyed the B-plot’s Casey and “Big” Mike team-up. These are two men with different, but not necessarily incompatible, concepts of cool. I enjoyed the Casey vs. Jeff and Lester plot, too. Casey often doesn’t seem that connected to the rest of the Buy More staff. He presumably kept his distance by choice but now, living as an exile in electronicsville, he finds he can’t keep his military instincts down. Or at least not without a lesson in keeping it chill from “Big” Mike.

As for the A-plot, it coasted along pretty well. The fancy stakeout—a callback to the first season—with flare-ups of romance was a nice bit, as was the Eastern Promises-with-towels sauna fight. If I’m not sure this episode got to some of the emotions and moral quandaries beneath the surface of the series in the most graceful way, I still like they way it’s handling them and it feels like we’re gearing up for a roller coaster of a home stretch, just like last year’s season-ending episodes.

Stray observations:

• Was anyone else not completely grossed out by the “tunaroni”? It didn’t look appealing to me, but it didn’t exactly seem like the Subway equivalent of a handful of worms. (That said, my wife couldn’t watch that scene.)

• Ivan Drago may not be the subtlest code name.