~ Joe Starts…
Chuck vs. The Family Volkoff is not one of those episodes that springs to mind when I construct my “Best Of” lists. Of course, with the way I feel about most all Chuck episodes, that’s not exactly fair, right? Still, I had a hard time remembering exactly what was in this episode.
Hoo-Boy. That was a mistake. More than many of episodes we’ve had the pleasure to review, Chuck vs. The Family Volkoff had a job to do. Several, actually. Ernie noted that the creative talent had a chance to explore something fun and different in Chuck vs. The Muuurder, and now it was time to return to – not one, but two – major story lines. They are, of course, Alexei Volkoff, master insaniac, and the wedding. The question is, can they do that pedestrian work and still be entertaining? Let me catch you up.
When we last saw Alexei, he had been safely tucked away in a CIA stronghold. That was in episode 4.13, Push Mix. We last saw Sarah Lisa Walker, bridezilla, shortly after that, in episode 4.17, First Bank of Evil. Here we have Sarah handing Chuck that most dark of lawyerly documents, the dreaded pre-nup. And because of the appearance, thanks to Vivian McArthur-Volkoff, of an unknown type of weapon called “The Norseman”, Chuck has to negotiate with the most dangerous man in the world! Oh no! Panic! How the heck is our girlish-screaming, Halo-playing nerd of a hero going to handle all that???
Well, very coolly, thank you very much. Doesn’t phase him in the least.
Sarah: Don’t let him get to you. He’s just being Casey.
Chuck: Sure. Naw, it’s – cool.
Sarah: Look, I know I sprung those papers on you this morning. So, uh, I assume you want to talk about it?
Chuck: No. … Prenup! Signed, sealed, delivered. So, we better gear up, huh?
Sarah: A prenup doesn’t mean the end of our marriage…
Chuck: Well, look. You’re a spy, ‘n spies have secrets they need to protect. That’s cool.
Sarah: You know, I – I don’t keep secrets from you. It’s just – uh – family stuff.
Chuck: Got it! Done.
Sarah: Yeah. Cool.
So what’s up with this? That’s exactly the question Sarah starts to ask herself.
General Beckman has no idea how to get the intel on that weird and incomplete new weapon that Vivian handed the agents as a sign of good will. Chuck does.
Chuck: There’s only one man who can tell us. Unfortunately, he’s also the most dangerous man in the world.
Volkoff: It’s true. I cut in front of William in the cafeteria line. I admit, I – have entitlement issues. I owe an amend. My apologies.
Say what? Was that Alexei Volkoff, “The world’s biggest bad-ass, killer of men! Conqueror of nations!”? Um, yes. Looks like he changed a bit. Chuck himself seems changed, too. Our one-time nervous nebish of lanky build faces down Alexei with all the cynical skepticism of a seasoned agent.
Chuck: First off, we don’t trust you.
Volkoff: I understand. I’m ashamed of myself.
Sarah: There is an assassination order out on your daughter Vivian. You can help remove it.
Volkoff: It’s all my fault. Absentee parent.
Chuck: What’s with this good-guy act, huh?
Volkoff: Charles, Sarah, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my life. I’m not interested in how the world can serve me anymore. I’m interested in how I can serve my fellow man.
Chuck: Sure. Awesome. Well, if that’s the case, if we can identify this weapon, we can help rescind your daughter’s kill order.
Volkoff: That’s the Norseman. It’s a DNA tracker. A tiny sample, and a target or a family of targets can be picked out of a crowd to be killed instantly. There are two other components.
Sarah: Where are they?
Volkoff: That’s valuable information.
Chuck: Now there’s the conniving, manipulative Volkoff I know.
Perhaps you can tell. When I find myself pulling extensive quotes from an episode, it means I’m enjoying myself. The dialog throughout is witty and snappy, and I’m having a good time watching Sarah’s confusion grow over Chuck’s new-found coolness. Her confusion mirrors my own.
But before I get ahead of myself, I like to point out that Chuck and Alexei aren’t the only ones who undergo a metamorphosis here. Ellie’s back to being engrossed in her dad’s computer. She finds it more than fascinating. She’s obsessed with understanding her dad’s work until she discovers that some files are missing.
Well, Ellie is no dope. In fact, she seems even brighter than Chuck, of whom Stephen once said “Oh, he’s smarter than me. He’s a genius, that one.” She wants to get to the bottom of this – who took the files. No, wait. She knows who took the files. It’s mom. And she knows the files themselves are backed up. They’re safe. To find out what her mom is up to, it’s time for Ellie to become a spy.
Devon: Target’s on the move, Hot-Momma!
Ellie: Copy that, Six-pack. I got the baby, you get the car.
Okay, that was just fun!
Finally, there’s Casey. His daughter Alex is graduating, and Morgan gets an invite that should have been sent to the Buy More. Casey didn’t get one. He understands, of course. Kathleen doesn’t know that he’s even alive, and bringing Alex Coburn back into her life would be – awkward. Upsetting.
Casey’s about to undergo, quietly, a bit of a change too.
~ Dave Continues…
Like so much of this season we have an episode than can be enjoyed purely for fun, even though there are interesting character and story issues going on too. I agree entirely with Joe that at first take, this doesn’t seem to be one of the best or strongest of the season. But I still can’t help but have a good time, and get a few belly laughs here anyway. The first story that gets rolling is the pre-nup. My first reaction would be “oh, cheezy sit-com plot, got it”. But we get so much nuance in the performance, and our history with these characters really sells it. Chuck tries so hard to “be cool”, and he almost pulls it off. We can see it seething just below the surface, but he’s determined not to let on that this bothers him. Sarah for her part, seems to want to be called on this. Another really outstanding performance by Yvonne here, there is clearly something brewing just below the surface. I’m not sure if she’s ready to just fold if challenged at all, or if she’s girding herself for battle; but either way she is baffled by Chuck’s cool ploy. My suspicion is she didn’t have much determination to go through with it anyhow. I would love to know the story on how this came about; perhaps its some old promise she made to her dad, or to herself, about protecting him? But it doesn’t seem to fit with the new and improved Sarah Walker.
And of course I love the unstated revelation that Chuck fans everywhere picked up on; Sarah Lisa Walker is her legal name. How long has that been so? Perhaps since Graham gave her the identity at 18; or maybe she made it legal herself after getting involved with Chuck and wanting distance from that other name. For a sub-plot I didn’t like much at first glance, there did end up being some merit to this one.
Joe kind of skipped over the first encounter with Vivian. What looked to be an unfortunate event that damaged Vivian’s already shaky trust in Chuck turned out to be quite the elaborate set-up. We won’t see Riley in this episode, but Vivian seems quite the scoundrel all by herself. The ambush seems to have killed some of her men, and she’ll do worse before this episode is over. I still have some issues with her weak motivation here, and Miss Volkoff is capable of some pretty evil stuff.
When we do get to Alexei, we get a dynamite, and over-the-top performance by Timothy Dalton. The psycho, trying to rehabilitate, is fun from beginning to end. We just know he can’t play nice, right? We know a few things in hindsight we didn’t know on first viewing. For starters, Volkoff was apparently, just trying to “play” nice; he really was up to no good from the start. But we also know it may not be all his fault, apparently he was fighting the program!
The scene Joe already described is so much fun. It leads to one of my favorite moments of pure absurdity this season. The high stakes Uno match. So we get a tough arrogant pirate playing a family/kids game for a terror weapon. I’m just uncool enough that Uno is a regular favorite of mine, and a can’t imagine a game more ill-suited to a high stakes match. I mean, it is so luck dependent there is hardly any strategy at all! It makes Backgammon look like a strategy game! Perhaps the strategy was just to catch the pirate cheating. Very funny scene.
And let’s not forget how this scene ends either as a still psycho Volkoff tries to make amends with another rival. The farther we get into this the more I’m liking this episode.
~ Joe Again
Oh yeah! Fun is right, Dave. But what’s with Sarah and the pre-nup anyway? A document like that is hard to see as anything but bad news. It bespeaks of mistrust, of self-protection and as Ellie so elegantly once put it, of having only one foot in the game.
The world is never simple for our heroes, especially Sarah Lisa Walker. If there’s anyone in the world who needs their privacy it’s her, the world’s most reticent person. (And isn’t that one on the reasons Sarah is such a good spy? She keeps secrets!) Of course, it’s not that she wants to keep secrets from Chuck. In fact, she doesn’t want to do that. It’s just that she needs to take it slow, choose her own timing and be judicious when she speaks, for the sake of others. And then again, old habits are just hard to break! Chuck knows that she’ll tell him when she’s ready.
Somehow, that doesn’t stop Sarah from being concerned and a little confused.
Casey: Yeah, I know you don’t like Bartowski’s groovy attitude. God knows where he gets these ideas.
Sarah: Well, it kind of threw me when he just signed that pre-nup.
Casey: It’s what you would have done.
Sarah: Exactly. But now I see Chuck’s side of it would have been like, flipping out about our relationship being boiled down to the contents of an envelope. Seeing the end before we before we’ve even started.
Casey: So, why the pre-nup?
Indeed. Chuck, the guy who can’t stop talking about his emotions is actually being cool, and the strong, silent partner, Sarah, is being exceptionally empathetic. You know, I always did wish Chuck and Sarah would meet in the middle.
Oh, this is not some sort or weird or major role reversal. Sarah has her reasons for wanting the pre-nup, and they’re – well, they’re just not that big a deal. As she explains to Casey:
Sarah: I have some money socked away in case my dad gets arrested again.
Casey: Well, I’m sure Bartowski can handle it. Any excuse to weep and hug…
Sarah: Yeah… it’s more about what it dredges up for me. My relationship with my family is having to take sides.
Casey: Caught between your parents, huh? Tough place to be.
Sarah: Hardest place for a kid is right in the middle.
Casey: [Whispering] Roger that.
Sarah’s explanation is that pedestrian work I mentioned earlier. We don’t know it yet, but those few sentences are the opening to The Wedding Planner and the re-introduction of Jack Burton. For now, they’re also a way to know that Sarah is not so cold hearted as a pre-nup might indicate. They’re also a spur for Casey.
For his part, Chuck is definitely not becoming James Carmichael Bond, the man with whom Sarah most emphatically did not fall in love. He’s still her Chuck.
Sarah: [Tearing up the pre-nup] Done!
Chuck: You don’t have to do that.
Sarah: Please forget that it ever existed. Okay? And, can you please stop being so cool? [Chuck takes out a new pre-nup from the seat behind him] That is soooo not cool.
Chuck: Just read it.
Sarah: “I, Sarah Walker, promise to (long sigh) always love Chuck Bartowski. In return, he will always love me.” Heh! I can’t read this fine print.
Chuck: The fine print says “I promise Chuck that I will not even contemplate the word divorce, and I will never use my pre-nup.” I already signed it. [Sarah signs it happily.]
That meeting in the middle isn’t a bad thing. It’s a sign of growth, in fact. Alexei does the same when he sincerely takes the blame for Vivian’s treachery and when he apologizes to Frost, but not after taking on the dread pirate Abshire and the computer in a deadly game of chess. He’s still a Conqueror of Nations!, even if he’s learned to temper his strength with a little humanity.
Casey has learned to see things from Alex’s eyes too. For his daughter’s sake, it’s time to reveal to Kathleen he’s still alive. To overstate the obvious here, very nearly the same thing is true for Alexei and Vivian, too. Only the incredible performance of Timothy Dalton allows him to hide that under layers of subtly as surely as a magician doing slight of hand. It makes me go “Ah!”
Everyone involved is trying to find a new position in their relationship, and for the most part, it works out. Chuck and Sarah, Casey and Alex, even Diane and Mary. Out of the blue we learn that they are not exactly boss and subordinate. That couldn’t be the case when first names, explanations and apologies are used.
Mary: General, I’d like the second file from Orion’s computer to be the last that I acquire. It’s not going to be easy to keep secrets from my daughter much longer.
Beckman: Cards on the table? Washington is hungry to extend the Intersect program, and Ellie has a lot of material our best technicians couldn’t get near. We never even heard of “Agent-X”.
Mary: Well, neither have I. But that does not mean it’s related to the Intersect.
Beckman: Still, it seems like Ellie has exclusive access – The Director wants her to keep working.
Mary: Diane, She’s not a spy. She’s my daughter.
Beckman: Mary, I’m sorry. But it comes from the top.
On re-watch, Chuck vs. The Family Volkoff was more than it first appeared. It was hilarious and as heartwarming an episode as you’ll ever hope to see, outside of those season-ending highlights we all love so much. By design, we didn’t see any Agent Walker kickbutt-ery, or Chuck-like second guessing about the romance. We didn’t need to because the couple is doing more than seeing the world through each others’ eyes. They both accepting that world.
Chuck, Sarah, Casey and Alexei escaped the trap set by the once innocent Vivian. She’s changed, but so is Alexei.
Lest you think that the show is getting treacly and saccharine on us, have no fear about that, because not everyone is being so accepting of the changes, like Vivian. Not even all of the “good guys.”
Chuck: El, I need to talk to you about dad’s computer?
Ellie: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I thought that I uncovered some secret files. Turned out to be cheats on some video game he was developing.
Chuck: Oh yeah?
Ellie: Yeah – gibberish, really. Listen. That Chicken à la king’s not going to cook itself. So I’m gonna get in there.
Chuck: [To Sarah] My sister just lied to me. She’s never lied to me. Not cool.
~ Dave Again
Not much good cop/bad cop about this one, Joe and I seem to see things mostly the same. The pre-nup sub-plot wraps up with one of those warm and fuzzy moments Chuck has long been great at. Chuck’s version is worded perfectly, and Sarah’s eagerness to embrace it is wonderful to see.
Volkoff, after a full episode of deception, has a moment of self-realization at the end that is both sad and scary. He sees that his daughter is just like him, and there is no one else to blame for it. But its hard to be too sad for him, he seems to embrace his tragedy with gusto as he’s carted away.
I think this episode is let down by a few minor issues. The Ellie/Mary story doesn’t do much for me. For some reason, Mary and Chuck scenes play better. The Casey/Alex story is also sort of a non-starter; it just isn’t very interesting.
The major stories are wonderful: the pre-nup, which sounded weak at the start was a lot of fun to watch. And almost everything involving Timothy Dalton was wonderful. I say almost only because I find the chess scene tedious; but every other Alexie scene is a blast.
We started this post with the observation it won’t make many top ten lists, so I’d like to end with a few top ten lists it will make:
1. Top Ten episodes with the name Volkoff in the title.
2. Top ten of the last ten episodes of S4.
3. Top ten episodes with a high stakes Uno match.
4. Top ten episodes in which Chuck keeps his cool.
5. Top ten episodes in which Sarah wants to talk.
Now if I can just get Ernie to set up those polls…
– joe and ATCDave