Circles. Lots of circles. From the ridiculous Buymoron (Las Vecas/Renéaux) circle to smaller S4 circles to big mythology circles, Agent X went round and round. As things come full circle, puzzle pieces begin to click into place. As some questions are answered, new ones arise … kind of like solving a Rubik’s Cube. One thing’s for sure, though, Agent X did its share to complete a few sides of the Bartowski Rubik’s Cube. Then there’s the fun. For all the work it does, Agent X keeps circling back to fun.
Dave Talks Fun.
The first part of this episode is just mostly silly fun. The Bachelor/Bachelorette parties are largely about showing some downtime for our favorite spy team. The Las Vegas/Las Vecas story-line is typical ridiculous Chuck. The improbable misunderstanding (okay, actually that’s “impossible misunderstanding” as no such park exists) is a great example of the sort of character humor Chuck does so well. Awesome is all energy and enthusiasm, and a little bit clueless. Chuck and Morgan are clearly disappointed; but perhaps we see a common trait of their friendship here, as they quickly determine to make the best of it and play along. Casey only cared about shooting ranges to begin with, so he can adapt with no problem. Lester and Big Mike are the most put out, a weekend in the woods is not on their agenda (Big Mike does NOT forage!). Jeff, oddly, is the least confused by the turn of events and is easily the comic highlight of this escapade. Magic Mushrooms and chasing marmot tail seem to be a pretty special weekend for him.
Ellie and Sarah’s weekend is unusual in its own way. Sarah is a good sport about whatever Ellie has planned, but I don’t think these two are on the same wavelength about fun. I’m not even sure what wavelength Ellie is on; after going ballistic over Devon’s bachelor party she apparently thinks nothing of lining up strippers for Sarah. And does Ellie know how close the strippers came to be being shot? Perhaps she should have tried a weekend of board games…
But of course spy life intrudes on both gatherings. Sarah simply needs to tell Ellie the news that someone may be looking for the Orion computer. Simple enough in it own right, but we are clearly being pushed one step closer to Ellie being fully aware of the spy world. True chaos breaks out in Vecas. When a team of mercenaries ambush the campsite, Casey only needs to distract Devon and Morgan so he can dispatch the baddies; oh and send Chuck to rescue Jeff from his sweet torture. While Devon and Morgan were quite funny here, Jeff continues to steal the scene; he must be a torturers worst nightmare!
Thinkling Talks in Circles.
Somerset Circle. Ellie ran a cyclomatic complexity (really?) on all her dad’s research, and an old house is the end of the loop … an old house in Somerset England.
All paths (more paths than we imagined) lead to that house, a house that closes a circle from Masquerade. It’s Vivian’s circle. If she wanted to know the truth about her father, or even find the elusive Agent X, she had only to walk a little ways from her MacArthur Manor to the Winterbottom family home in Somerset, England. Though Hartley seemed to have forgotten who he was, who he was worked its way back into his life in various ways: his grandmother’s necklace, horses, and the small spot on the planet where he grew up. Sad that Vivian’s grandmother lived a few foot paths away, and neither of them ever knew it.
Chuck and Vivian’s stories aren’t just similar, as we first observed. They circle back to the same ground zero. Were it not for the tragic malfunction of the Intersect, they might have grown up as friends, cousins in the way that children of best friends are. As it turned out, friends from two generations became nemeses.
Secret Circles. This is one circle that I’m glad to see closed. The small circle of Ellie’s secret finally gets absorbed in the big circle of Chuck’s secret, and the statute of limitations on secrets runs out. Hurray!
I loved the Ellie reveal. That Ellie figured it doesn’t surprise me, except that she should have figured it out sooner. That she accepted it so easily doesn’t bother me either. They paved the way for her acceptance (whenever it came) in Coup d’Etat and Seduction Impossible. She’s also walked in both of Chuck’s shoes by now, the thrill of their dad’s work and the desire to protect the other from all things spy. The scene in Castle was great, mostly for the family feel … all of TeamB enjoying the moment of Ellie’s learning how special her brother is. There’s pride and acceptance on Sarah’s face. This isn’t just a S4 circle, though. It goes all the way back to the Pilot when Chuck uploaded the 1.0 and suddenly had to keep his life a secret from his sister. Now she can know everything. I just wish we could be a fly on the wall as Ellie hears some of Chuck’s stories.
The 30 Year Bartowski Circle. As we come full circle, we see the gravity of the moment on the faces of the five people whose lives have been drawn into this Bartowski circle. The circle on the table in front of them holds the answers about Stephen’s obsession, Mary’s mission, and the whole reason that their family fell apart.
I guess it all begins with a scientist, whose code name was Orion, but his real name was Stephen Bartowski … That’s all we heard of Mary’s conversation with Ellie, back in First Fight. However, earlier in the same conversation, Mary talked about a burgundy Mustang with special-order blue leather seats … the Mustang that Stephen made sure Ellie found … the Mustang that had Orion’s laptop under the drivers seat … the laptop that had all the Agent X files encoded just for Ellie … the files that led them to Hartley and a house in Somerset … the house that held Hartley’s spy will … the spy will that led them to Volkoff … or rather Hartley Winterbottom who became Alexei Volkoff because of the Intersect implant created by his best friend … a scientist whose code name was Orion, but his real name was Stephen Bartowski.
Dave Reveals All.
The Hartley/Volkoff reveal would prove to be one of the more controversial twists of this season. A new dimension was added to Mary and Stephen’s mission that destroyed their family. No amount of exposition can make the way they abandoned their kids acceptable. But I can feel a little more empathy than I had before. Hartley downloaded the Volkoff Intersect in 1980, about a year before Chuck was born. Apparently the initial consequence was not catastrophic and Stephen and Mary continued their work and raising their family for the next decade. We know little about what happened in this time; we can imagine Stephen was trying to find a way to “uninstall” the Intersect program, and perhaps Mary was taking missions to contain or extract Volkoff whenever she could. Of course that is speculation, we don’t really know. But somehow, around 1990 Mary became trapped in the Volkoff mission. Perhaps Alexei’s strange obsession with her played into this; this might even carry over from Hartley, it’s not hard to imagine he might have been a bit smitten with his best friends super spy wife. But whenever it started Mary was truly trapped. She could no more escape the mission and lead Volkoff back to her children in 1990 than she could in 2010. Now I’d be the first to admit this makes Frost look a little stupid. She apparently embraced “distance” as a coping mechanism and lost sight of returning home as the goal. So the pure length of this mission remains a problem for me; but I can appreciate the conflict of having to stay away from one’s family to protect them, and not being willing to accept killing an old friend as an expedient solution.
The term retcon has been thrown around for this twist. For the record, this does not satisfy the most basic definition of a retroactive continuity per Wikipedia. That would be, a new piece of information that renders incorrect previously established facts. The Agent X reveal does not contradict anything we previously knew; it fills a gap, nothing more. Any viewer is naturally allowed not to like this twist, but let’s be fair, it does not qualify as a retcon under this definition.
There is a far looser definition of the term that refers to later information that causes us to have a new understanding of previously known information. But this is a very broad definition and cannot fairly be called a flaw or problem in story telling. Virtually any mystery or story with a twist at all could be put in this category. The entire series Star Trek: Enterprise becomes a retcon; the movie “The Sixth Sense” retconned itself by this definition; as does almost every episode of Castle. If this is truly how we want to define “retcon” the term has become useless.
Thinkling Puzzles Things Out.
You’re right, Dave. It’s not a retcon at all. In fact it’s how life works … finding out things you didn’t know that suddenly explain a bunch of stuff you did know. This is where some of the Rubik’s Cube begins to fall into place.
This bit of information certainly explains a lot. I love the twist. Like Dave I think it adds a layer of sympathy that I didn’t have before (kind of like Sarah’s aha moment of understanding Mary’s situation in Leftovers).
Hartley/Tuttle/Mary/Volkoff. Me too. I think this explains Volkoff’s unhinged affection for Mary … whether it was just a very close friendship among the three of them that took a different turn when Hartley became Volkoff or Hartley had a crush on Mary all along. (Had he been her MI6 handler at one point. Had they been an item, before she married Stephen?). Hartley wouldn’t be jealous of his best friend, but Volkoff would be seething with jealousy of Orion. A prior affection would also explain why ultimately Mary was the ideal person to gain his confidence and bring him down. She was the stabilizing element that kept the planet safe from the world’s most dangerous psychopath. Ah, and knowing about Hartley explains why Volkoff was such a believable Tuttle.
Ca-razy. The cover identity explains Volkoff’s criminal side. The properties of the Intersect that we already know about likely explain Alexei’s crazy side, while Hartley explains his affectionate side; and TD makes it work all the way through. Once Volkoff knew Chuck was Mary’s son, his attitude changed. A bizarre affection for Charles (and Sarah) coexisted with a psychotic willingness to kill them … with glee.
This explains why Mom and Dad didn’t want Chuck to be involved with the Intersect project … big time. Did you catch the look on Chuck’s face when Ellie said that the cover identity took over and Agent X became his cover identity? Yikes. It was an appropriately somber moment for Sarah and Casey as well.
Explanations and Speculations. Hartley went under cover in 1980, probably as part of the increased efforts to end the Cold War. Like Dave said, we don’t know what happened. He may have even disappeared. By the end of the cold war we know that he had become an out-of-control, well connected oligarch with a ton of weapons to sell (gee, wonder where he got those?). That’s when Mary went undercover to take him down.
But I have to wonder a few things. Casey said, “The CIA created one of the most murderous men in the history of the world. Some powerful people spent an enormous amount of energy covering that up. You know what happens if they find out we know?”
Was it an accident, or did someone sabotage the project to intentionally create Volkoff? Or did someone consider it a happy accident and like the idea of using Volkoff to control the flow of arms after the Cold War? Someone who couldn’t afford for anyone else to know about any of it. That would explain why Stephen was so paranoid, and why Mary said she couldn’t afford to let the CIA know she knew about Agent X. I think it’s possible that there were multiple factions in the CIA: one that wanted to take down Volkoff the weapons dealer, ignorant of his origin; another that wanted to kill him to cover up the embarrassment; and perhaps even a third that enjoyed using him. Stephen and Mary were caught up in the middle of it all, wanting to protect their family, keep Hartley from getting killed, while containing Volkoff, in the hopes of fixing their friend (something Chuck finished for his dad in Cliffhanger … saving Hartley).
If any of that is true, then Stephen and Mary and family were all in danger, not only from Volkoff, but also the CIA. Mary may have had to cut ties with the CIA to avoid being killed herself. Talk about being between the Devil and the Devil and the deep blue sea.
Another question, while I’m on a roll … how did Riley know about all of this? Was it a plot hole? Or … was he a plant to control Volkoff and the flow of arms? Or feather a powerful nest?
Well, some sides of the Rubik’s Cube slid into place. Other sides, that I thought were aligned, just got all messed up. I can’t wait to see what they do with the rest of the puzzle in S5.
Well for starters, I’m just thrilled Thinkling didn’t take my Hartley/Mary theory as proof that I’m bonkers. I think it adds a sad and tragic element to Hartley; like he stood aside to support his friends’ love, even if it kind of tore him up. But while Hartley was noble and self sacrificing, Volkoff was psychotic. He would take what he wanted and destroy all obstacles. I don’t think he “remembered” any of this, he seemed clueless about the whole Bartowski/Orion connection until it was revealed to him in Leftovers (4.10). But that was the exact connection Frost had tried to keep from him.
I also can’t help but think Frost was suffering from a bit of “Stockholm Syndrome” by the time we meet her. Although the safety of her family was non-negotiable; her own “rescue” that she set-up via Tuttle seems ill-advised. Surly an opportunity could have been created to capture Volkoff at this juncture instead of running off with him. So perhaps by this measure, Sarah’s mission to “join” Volkoff provided the reality check Mary needed to become an effective agent again. I will always agree with those who say Sarah’s character (intelligence and discernment in this case) was sacrificed to give Mary a big hero moment in Push Mix (4.13). Mary’s statement that Sarah was going home should have been a Sarah line. That was the crisis point Sarah was sent undercover to create, it still seems implausible to me that she didn’t recognize it. But I’ll break with many critics and say I believe that was the only misstep in the story telling in S4. It was the only moment all season long I felt one of the characters I love had been sacrificed to advance the plot. At least, it was the only such moment that bothered me past the end of the episode! That alone is a huge improvement over the previous season.
Riley is a little harder to explain. He seems to know a lot that Volkoff himself did not. Will we ever find out how he came by this knowledge? Was he perhaps a CIA agent gone rogue? Will his name ever even be mentioned again? My Costa Graven Pesos say we’ll never know. I’m not by nature a cynical viewer. But I believe the interest of the Chuck creative team is on creating new adventures and villains. I’m completely fine with that. If we get a throw away line about Riley selling information to both sides, or betraying The Company, or some such thing I will be tickled pink. But I don’t expect it.
There are many puzzles that may, or may not be solved in S5. It sounds like we may learn a little more about Orion and Frost. But Chuck being what it is I expect the focus to be on Decker, and whoever might be pulling his strings. Glimpses into the past are special but can’t be counted on. Like many viewers, I’m more interested in back-story for Sarah (Mom!) than I am for Chuck at this point. And that may be even more of a long-shot.
Agent X was one of those heavy-lifting episodes. It had work to do, but in typical Chuck fashion, it had fun doing it. I can’t sign out without highlighting my favorite fun of the episode.
The Somerset Surprise. TeamB is off to find Agent X, having no idea what awaits them. It could have been a fairly dry mission, but Chuck made it nine kinds of fun. Sarah gets to do another accent. Chuck gets to poke fun at Casey (the hitch-hiker) whom MamaW instantly takes a liking to. To everyone’s surprise, MamaW, the innocent old spinster, packs heat … a shot gun and a machine gun. And Casey is in love … with the mother he never had *sigh.* This time, Casey’s is the face to watch. We’ll have to scuttle the house … too funny! MamaW preparing to scuttle the house gives me one of my favorite visuals, so Chuck-like in its composition … danger juxtaposed to innocence, the spy world ready to go off and destroy the real world, and people who aren’t what they seem.
Well that’s it. Good night Dave. And good night, for Chuck This Blog.