This may be one of the least controversial episodes to make the top ten. Like Honeymooners, it is an episode the vast majority of Chuck fans seem to love. For myself, I put it with Wedding Planner as the best of S4, and I completely agree with everyone who helped make this one of the top ten all time favorite episodes of our favorite show. But how does it hold up with S4 now complete and 10 months worth of hindsight? That will be part of how we look at this episode, after the jump.
The first thing that catches my attention with this episode is that its right in the middle of the largely unpopular “Intersectless arc.” I think that mainly means the episodes both before and after Phase 3 are far less popular. It’s also interesting to me that this episode of Chuck has our primary protagonist unconscious for a majority of it. This is completely a Sarah-driven Sarah-centric piece. While “Fear of Death” highlighted Chuck’s growth as a spy and without the Intersect; and ended with his declaration Sarah was more important to him than having the Intersect or being a spy; Phase 3 will be about Sarah’s growth. She will admit out loud that she loves Chuck for who he is and not the Intersect; next she will admit she’s different without Chuck (and she doesn’t like it!); and finally she will risk life and limb to rescue Chuck.
Now arguably none of this is new for either character. But we do get a tidy story arc here that enunciates Chuck and Sarah’s core values. And it does it for good; there will be no more backtracking or questions about what they mean to each other. To me this episode fills a gap. Sarah had to go to extreme lengths and take extraordinary measures to fight for Chuck. We know she had previously stepped from her comfort zone some for Chuck; everything from finally uttering “I love you” to unpacking her bags. But in Phase three she becomes the raging lioness that we were all waiting to see. I remember the anticipation for this episode. I don’t even know who started it, but it was clear so many of us were on the same page about what we wanted to see from Sarah.
Sarah’s story is center stage here, and Yvonne’s performance is dynamite. Right from when we first see tired stressed Sarah returning to Castle. A few stand out moments to me are Sarah’s first questioning of the Thai official (leading to Casey’s misplaced faith in her “Walker knows what lines not to cross”, very funny) and the tense Sarah/Casey/Morgan showdown after. Casey accuses Sarah of having been Graham’s “wild card enforcer.” Apparently she once had a fearsome reputation, and we’ll see in this episode she deserves it.
Which leads to the awesome home scene. Sarah as defeated as we’ve ever seen, sniffing Chuck’s shirt (women must be cats, I swear, I’ve seen my wife do such things, weird), and the discussion with Morgan. We’ve observed here a few times that Sarah/Morgan scenes are often wonderful, and this is one of the best. Sarah is apparently feeling guilty about not letting Chuck know that she loves him with or without the Intersect (I actually thought she was quite clear on that point back in Fear of Death), and Morgan is pouring gasoline on that fire.
The next situation would be Sarah locking Casey up to interrogate the prisoner again. The highlight for me is Sarah’s departing line “you’re right I’m different without Chuck, and I don’t like it.”
The trip to Thailand is the signature element of this episode. We first learn Thai is among Sarah’s known languages (I believe the correct answer to the question “How many languages does Sarah Walker speak” is “All of them”), and that in a crowded bar full of cut-throats and thugs Sarah is the most fearsome presence in room. The ensuing pit match, in keeping with Chuck tradition, is a great stunt sequence for television. Not only is Sarah more than a match for the best pit fighter around, but she learns her friends have her back even in Thailand, and apparently Casey is no stranger to this neck of the woods (errr, jungle). When the Belgian’s compound is located, the Bartowski rescue team charges in; Morgan working as the magnet (and comic relief) once again while Casey and Sarah do the heavy lifting.
Naturally its not quite clear if they will be in time…
I liked the visual representation of Chuck loosing his mind/personality. Although it was kind of abbreviated, likely for time and money reasons, we had a couple places and many of the personalities that are key in Chuck’s life being stripped away from him. The Buy More was kind of creepy/funny, which is entirely fitting for that setting. The courtyard had Ellie and Devon being deleted. Then home was interesting; we had previously seen dream Sarah “leave” Chuck (what did Chuck say? “please don’t leave, I know this isn’t real, I know you wouldn’t do this.” very sad). But she’s back in his sub-conscience again, probably because the real article is weeping over him at this very moment. The inter-cutting between real Sarah and dream Sarah is brilliant at this point; and what a performance. We see the same dialogue being delivered in broken desperation and calm affection. I really think this is one of the finest dramatic moments in the series. Sarah desperately trying to bring Chuck back to reality; and Chuck, who has seen through every bit of trickery and unreality figuring out that this Sarah is something different.
The “B” plot of this episode is very funny. Now I’d have to admit after 20 or so viewings its getting a little old, but it is a good use of the Buy Morons. Devon makes an excellent straight man, and the Buy Morons really are a bunch of disgusting cretins, but apparently they actually can fix a computer (even if they did still think it was a Roark 7).
Just a few thoughts in summation. This episode brings to an end a lot of the angst and relationship issues that have defined many earlier episodes. Chuck and Sarah both reach a level of peace with their priorities. Chuck will no longer be quite so insecure about who he is with or without the Intersect, who he is as a spy, or where he stands with Sarah. And Sarah is now completely ready for that next big step in the relationship; no more anxiety about marriage. She may yet have another freak out about kids, but she’s changed dramatically just since “Suitcase” or “Cubic Z” when everything seemed to moving too fast for her. Now Sarah will actually be helping Chuck along with taking the next step (well, apart from accidentally shooting him down at the start of “Balcony”!)
Many of us felt this was an Emmy worthy performance for Yvonne Strahovski. She really is a remarkable performer, and this may have been her best work to date (that’s actually not an easy call to make, there are several good choices for her). The folks who matter didn’t share our enthusiasm, but “Chuck vs Phase Three” will remain a great example of why this show is so special.