Good Lord, Four More Chucks.
Sometimes it seems TPTB, or more particularly Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak and the rest of the Chuck crew treat Chuck as their personal sandbox, where they can play out their adolescent games and nerd fantasies. It seems that way because it’s true. Chuck Versus The Muuurder is one of those episodes where they take the opportunity to play in their sandbox and make a murder mystery, just because they can. Then there’s the potty humor. Just because they can (or they want to see what they can get past the “standards” people). Given all that they still manage to toss in some of the best Buy More hi-jinks this season and service the ongoing Orion’s legacy plot. They also toss in some interesting observations about our characters and their fates, both directly and by proxy. Overall though, in your humble reviewer’s opinion, this episode was just plain fun from start to finnish. Join Faith and me for a bit of sleuthing and deduction after the jump.
Another week of Chuck, another bottle episode.
There’s been a muurder in Castle! But wait you say, there’s a murder on Castle at the start of the show every week, then Beckett and Castle go to solve it flirting and bantering their way through the inevitable red herrings and McGuffins till the murder is solved and … Wait, different Castle. And we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Unlike Ernie I don’t watch Castle (for those that don’t know I have an ABC boycott, so no ABC shows :D) but I am aware that re-using classic story lines and incorporating them into new shows is a time-honored tradition. A Christmas Carol, Whodunit, Murder in the Orient Express–the latter gave us one of the best episodes of Chuck in Honeymooners so it’s no surprise that Chuck would tackle a murder mystery. Personally I’m looking forward to A Christmas Carol, anything to have another (final) Christmas gold but that’s another topic.
What a difference a week makes. Ellie has finally found something to occupy her maternity leave. We know she’s Mrs. Awesome, and always has been based on raising Chuck, taking over the family finances at 12, getting herself through school with both an MD and PhD., but like Devon, she can do that in her sleep, she needs something to challenge her, and plotting Clara’s sleep cycles aren’t doing the trick. Dad’s computer apparently is. Here we see a bit of the father reflected in the daughter. Engrossed to the point of forgetting she has a child next to her, Ellie is making more progress than the CIA or Bentley ever did. But hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Aside from a CIA spy stealing the work and using it for nefarious purposes…
If there was one negative for me in this episode it’s that Ellie’s role and this intriguing storyline was largely glossed over. Although I found Muuurder a barrel of fun, it almost felt out of place what with the importance of Ellie’s personal mission. I don’t begrudge the time-honored tradition as mentioned, nor the need for bottle episodes and levity but still… Here’s a woman that’s following in the footsteps of her dearly departed father, an honorable personal and professional cause and it was (treated) secondary. A shame.
Back on point, Ellie has found her calling. We’re reminded once more of the “special”-ness of this family, Ellie included. Abandoned by her father at a young age she never really got to know him as a child would and working on the intersect she’s getting to know him. During Subway Ellie remarked, “I need to hear you say it, I need to know the reason why you left us.” Well now Ellie is discovering that reason, that “long story” that PapaB was unable to tell her before saying goodbye.
What a difference a week makes. From the B-team, on the ropes and on the bench, to not just the A-team, but in charge of the entire intersect project. And all it took was defusing an undefusable nuclear weapon. With fruit juice. The scientist in me really wants to point out that seawater contains about 30-40 grams of salt per liter, and apple juice, about 0.5, giving it a salinity comperable to fresh water. But to complain about the salinity of seawater versus apple juice and it’s efficacy in defusing nuclear bombs is a bit … crazy? This is Chuck after all… Ok, so back to the episode.
Nerd! Had to say that, couldn’t resist! 😀
Chuck is in charge in the wake of Casey and Bentley’s Greta debacle. He seems uniquely able to handle the intersect, so they decide they need more Chucks. In his usual joking semi-self-deprecating way Chuck manages to slip in what Sarah apparently considers a profound truth (look at the look on her face when he says it): they kind of broke the mold when they made him. This may be true, but for now Team B is looking for reflections, if not copies. And in that usual Chuck way the writers manage to make it work on several levels. Casey, Sarah, and Morgan all reflect portions of Chuck’s personality. Casey shares his dedication and courage, Sarah his intuition and emotions, and Morgan his still vibrant inner child and geek. In the same way we are treated to an AU Team B where each of the candidates also shares a trait with Chuck, and hence a member of Team B, making them the perfect reflection of Team B.
Plus there’s a musical montage.
So we meet Lewis, the magnet, with all of Chuck’s nerdy hacker comic book (sorry graphic novel, look in his left hand as he enters) loving geekery. Then there is Josie, who like Chuck, gets and reads people. Damien is a bit more of a stretch, but like Chuck he’s been doing his duty for his country, but because of his special gifts (in Damien’s case his appearance) he’s been put in a situation he’s desperate to get out of. Then last, but certainly not least, is Brody. Sarah’s reaction speaks volumes. This is the kind of guy she finds attractive now. The Bryces and Coles and Shaws of the world need not apply anymore. Sarah seems a bit surprised at her reaction. Oddly nobody else does. She’s finally realized she’s been Chucked.
Did I mention there’s a musical montage?
But this is a montage with a purpose. We establish the links the new team has not just with Chuck, but with their reflection on the real Team B by initially pairing them off with their alter-egos. We’ve already seen part of Damien’s link to Casey in that he’s former military and a sharpshooter, now we see that he may have some anger issues too. Well it seems all the AU Team B have anger issues, except for Brody. Next Sarah faces off against her bizarro self to find that Josie not only still relies on manipulation to do the job, she’s practically proud of it. Lewis is of course dead serious about the importance of Morgan’s query, considering Rush’s best album as just as important as his weapon of choice (another nerdy side of Chuck reference by the way). And so we’re introduced to our spies and their place in the AU Team B in addition to their Chuck-ness. Well we already knew which one was the most Chuck-like, but Chuck’s hesitancy to choose the new intersect and leave the others out shows that he’s starting to understand why Team B works. Oh if they only managed to put this team together before it was, as we’ll come to find out, too late. Chuck has made his choice, the one everyone knew he’d make, and it turns out somebody isn’t very happy with that choice.
On rewatch, it occurred to me that these four were supposed to be Chucks. I’ve long since believed them to be AU!TeamB and am now quite confused on how we were supposed to believe they were Chucks when they aren’t, they’re Team B. But you’re absolutely correct Ernie, in some ways Chuck is like Casey and Sarah. The characteristics that make them great spies, are also the characteristics that complement them.
What is most interesting about the parallel isn’t just that it’s plain entertaining but rather the social commentary on the roles, personalities and growth of our heroes. It was a deft move by Borov and Newman to juxtapose two similar entities that dissent in form and existence through fate, circumstance and free will. It’s not hard to imagine Sarah finding herself in a similar situation (not having someone real in her life and living with the consequences of manipulation)¹, nor is it hard to imagine Casey be a hired gun, Morgan to be phony and Chuck to be…dead. But our guys, our heroes became who they are because they met Chuck, because they cared, because they made a different choice. They distinguished themselves from bizarro Team B and in doing so they became something better. As Chuck so aptly put it, [they] “…would never kill anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
More importantly the growth of our heroes were clear. They were a team, and Chuck was a leader.
Seems it’s a big BM day at the BuyMore, and while it’s not everyone’s taste, I’ll concede, the #1 and #2 jokes will continue unabated for the rest of the BuyMore plot. And I have to say this was probably my favorite use of the BuyMorons this season. The plot was funny, complete with Godfather references and flying pigs, Jeff and Lester were appropriately insubordinate without excessive creepiness, Big Mike’s confinement via Subway sandwiches was entirely plausible, and his pitch appropriate and brief. And so I’ll keep my comments on the Big BM day at the BuyMore the same.
If I may, Kevin Bacon was comedy gold. That is all.
Meanwhile Chuck and his nemesis exchange a few choice words. Seems Bentley looks at Chuck and just doesn’t see either a leader or spy, and Chuck’s family is once again being drawn into the spy life unwittingly and unwillingly. Before Chuck and Bentley can have a coffee and talk it out however the murder most foul is discovered, complete with guy with an English accent shouting “There’s been a muurder!”
Though it may seem as if Bentley had an unfulfilled, somewhat unimportant role in the end, she conveyed perhaps one of the most important things Chuck needed to learn as a leader: that you can’t always be liked. Chuck’s a good guy, he’s likable, funny, charming but leadership dictates conflict and bad blood and that’s a lesson that Chuck needed to learn. Although the importance of this lesson did not materialize in the subsequent arcs (apart from Vivian becoming his “nemesis” but that’s another can of worms), it was still an important lesson for Chuck to learn and Bentley was useful for that reason.
The next plot requirement for any decent murder mystery is for the lights to go off due to the storm that cuts the group off from outside help or escape. Trapped, with a killer among them! Before we get to that however Chuck’s first step is to lock down the scene of the crime and disarm the suspects. But Bentley isn’t going to make it easy for him. Josie isn’t the only one trained in psyops as Bentley makes sure to sow distention. Why does Team B get to keep their weapons. It is, when it comes down to it, a silly question. Because they’ve worked together for years and none of them has a motive to kill Brody. No, the killer is among the new “team”. But it is funny to see Josie’s reaction to finding out Chuck and Sarah are engaged, and Sarah’s reaction to Josie’s taunts. Yes, there was a time when Sarah would try to manipulate Chuck into doing what she wanted…It was a few weeks ago as a matter of fact, and clearly Sarah bristles at the suggestion that it is the basis of their relationship, rather than an unfortunate tic of Sarah’s that occasionally surfaces.
Oh, yeah, lights out, cut off from civilization and escape. The swarthy bearded guy takes offense to the pointed looks and tries to leave, leaving us with our murder mystery setup complete.
The completion of the setup however leaves Chuck a little shellshocked from his trial by fire as a leader. Team B’s faith in Chuck is unshaken. He’s in charge for a reason, and he always comes through. Chuck however is taking it hard. One KIA, one wounded, and a killer still on the loose among them. A little pep-talk from the other members of Team B and Chuck sets about solving the murder.
First, search and interrogate the suspects. I find the interrogation room scenes a wonderful reflection of the strengths of Team B. Chuck takes the lead, Sarah provides backup and a credible bad cop to Chuck’s tough(-ish) cop, plus someone to provide the reality check Chuck occasionally needs (there are bad and manipulative people Chuck, we’re looking for a killer after all). And oh yeah, Casey waits till he gets to shoot someone offscreen. Sadly once again our killer is one step ahead, and another bomb provides the distraction for his escape.
The interrogations were inspired. I would have loved to know how Bentley would have used the lash curler as a weapon! In all seriousness though it’s great to see Team B, be a unit. They were confident (with some whining exceptions, understandable in context and I quite liked Sarah encouraging Chuck like she used to), they were a force to be reckoned with and for once they brought enough ammo.
So Lewis is on the loose. Really? Morgan as the bad guy? Doesn’t seem to fit, but hey, the evidence is pretty compelling, even if it is sort of reddish and smells a little fishy…
Still, Chuck is in charge, and despite Bentley’s taunts he knows what he is doing. His orders are clear, the goal well defined, find Lewis. But I can’t help asking myself, if everyone was above suspicion, and Lewis was the guilty party, why did Chuck choose to accompany Bentley and have Sarah search with Josie? Is that a breadcrumb (so to speak)? Is Chuck still a little suspicious, and unwilling to let Bentley and/or Josie wander Castle unobserved?
One could say it is merely a plot point to allow the interaction that follows, Bentley’s leadership rules and Josie’s relationship malfunctions… But that just might be an opportunistic bit of exposition. We’re about to find out a bit of what motivates both Bentley and Josie, and a few key facts filling in help that.
Bentley has one idea about leadership, as we’ll see, and Josie seems to have some dysfunctional relationship issues. Both tell us something about our main pair of heroes.
First Josie. “How did you get the intersect to commit?” After 6 years Josie is still relying on manipulation. Sarah found out that it didn’t work after about 2. But Josie never had the benefit of a Chuck, and now she finds herself pregnant (a final attempt at manipulation?) and alone, while Sarah, having learned to commit herself eventually found that that was the only thing holding her or Chuck back.
Bentley. Let’s talk about leadership. And red herrings. Both Chuck and Bentley misidentify their difference in style as being about being liked. It isn’t. It’s about being who you are. Bentley’s problem is that she decided what made a good intersect was, and programmed it so the point that her Gretas became robots incapable of rational thought. Chuck, while he doesn’t like to be disliked has another and more subtle aspect to his leadership style. His team feels free to be who they are, and who they are contributes what is best to the team, while being the best version of themselves. Chuck leads not by deciding who people need to be, but by seeing the best in people, and allowing them to contribute that part of themselves, while subtly restraining the other less positive parts (Casey don’t shoot anyone, Sarah you stand over here).
Going back to growth once more, we know that Chuck has always had these characteristics within. Remember “WWCD” (what would Chuck do?)? Chuck is and always was a natural leader so it’s great to see Chuck’s inner gifts shine as well as evolve. Chuck truly does recognize strengths and weaknesses within his team and he has a unique way to foster that growth while minimizing weaknesses. After Jeff and Lester, Casey, Sarah and Morgan are a cinch!
In the end, it’s Bentley’s refusal to follow that precipitates the crisis. Chuck, as he always does, had the solution. He knew what Damien wanted time and a way out. Despite his appearance he wasn’t a suicide bomber, and wouldn’t kill himself. He was just a lost burnout, desperately looking for an escape. It was Bentley’s dysfunctional leadership style, remove options so people will do what you want, that precipitated the crisis. Her only redeeming quality as a leader is that she seemed ready to face the consequences of her failure. A failure that perfectly mirrors that of her custom designed spies.
Here’s a question: is Chuck capable of making the ultimate sacrifice? Though the “Chuck” solution, namely that “there’s always a [better/safer/less deadly/imaginative] choice” is admirable, I don’t think Chuck could make the ultimate sacrifice. Here’s Bentley, a villain-lite showing capabilities of it, could Chuck do the same?
Chuck would never believe that the decision boils down to one life for many. Whenever he chooses his family (Santa Claus), whenever he chooses Sarah, or Casey or anyone close to him, he shows himself incapable of that. Not that choosing his love ones is a bad thing, if anything it’s among the most distinctive and lovable things about Chuck (both the character and show) but one does wonder, or digress, or both.
To get back on point though, our heroes saved the day and no animals were harmed. The “Chuck solution” continues on and Chuck’s better for it. Though it’s not apple juice defusing bombs, solving a murder mystery seems apropos.
Yes, Chuck, being Chuck, proves the pocket protector mightier than the boombox. The mystery is solved, castle is saved, and a few flying pigs aside, the natural order is restored. But the question of Chuck’s Kobiashi Maru remains. We know Chuck would sacrafice himself, but even as a leader could he ask it of another? This episode showed he accepted it as a consequence of the world and life he’s chosen. Both Brody and Lewis were his people killed on his watch. But even that clearly rattled him. Could Chuck allow someone to make that sacrafice for a mission, or for more lives than the one to be saved? It’s a questionable moral calculus, and a slipery slope that I think is best left unresolved, and for the most part unexplored in the same way the logical implications of seduction missions are hinted at, but not fully explored. In the end, we have Chuck’s red tests as a sort of answer. Chuck could take a life in the most extreme circumstance, but not for himself.
While Bentley never quite worked for me, it was a pretty inventive bit of plot and a decent arc to show the strength of Chuck and the team, and the intersect through the Gretas and their AU selves and their less warm and fuzzy Beckman. It plays to the strengths of the Chuck team, character, story, and when they are at their best, plot and drama.
Oh, and it ended with a musical montage. Did I mention that?