While still mostly a “stand alone” episode, Chuck vs The Alma Mater will explore a lot of back story. This is the episode where we will finally learn more about what happened to Chuck at Stanford, what Chuck and Bryce’s friendship looked like, and why Bryce betrayed Chuck and got him kicked out of school.
So let’s get right into this mid-S1 mythology heavy episode after the jump.
Alma Mater is an episode I’ve watched many times. I think of it as completing the introduction to the show. The next four episodes will be the show’s first real arc, while these first seven have established Chuck’s world and situation. Here we learn that Chuck really is special, and was nearly on the CIA’s radar back in college. Bryce’s image may be partially restored; he got Chuck expelled from Stanford to protect him from a life that he knew Chuck wasn’t cut out for. Whether taking such unilateral action was actually fair to Chuck or not is another issue. And we still don’t know why he stole/destroyed the Intersect and sent it to Chuck.
Several things stand out as particularly good about this episode. I think the biggest is just what Chuck learns about his end at Stanford, and that it does bring him some measure of peace. Sarah being with Chuck at the end is a beautiful scene; I love how it reflects well on both Chuck and Bryce. Chuck inspires loyalty even from Bryce, and Bryce’s actions are partially redeemed in Sarah’s eyes. When Bryce’s death turns out to be somewhat exaggerated this redemption will cause some grief. But for now we can call it a good thing.
I also like the Buy More sub-plot more than I often do here. Particularly the first break room scene and Anna offering to have Harry killed (okay, I’m sick. But it sure makes me laugh every time!); the Lord of the Rings symbolism; and Morgan’s victory over Harry with the remote [although, I owned a Logitech Harmony 880 for many years (the remote being used) and the “code” Chuck provides is utter non-sense and has nothing to do with how a Harmony remote works! Don’t worry, I’m not terribly concerned about it. It actually makes the scene that much funnier for me].
I don’t have much to complain about with this episode. Minor beefs; Casey and Sarah have too much difficulty with too small a group of baddies. And I would have liked to see them be more effective in reducing their numbers before the “cavalry” arrives. Perhaps budget was an issue even in S1?! And Chuck takes a little too long to “man up” and go along with this mission; although his hesitation doesn’t seem to cause Casey or Sarah too much concern. I don’t think Casey expects eager participation from Chuck yet, and Sarah is just as happy to have him stay out of trouble. There also may be a minor inconsistency on the meeting Jill story; what we saw at the end seems slightly different from what we heard in the Pilot (where it sounded more like a random encounter). But to be clear, I’m not crying “retcon” here. This can be made to work, just because Bryce facilitated the meeting doesn’t mean they didn’t accidentally bump heads!
A word about “average”
In a way, I consider Alma Mater another “average” episode. But just to avoid confusion this time, where Chuck is concerned, average is very good. But I say average to seperate it from the episodes I think excell (the first three and last two), and from those I think are weaker (Wookie and the four S1 arc episodes). That gives me five strong episodes, five weaker ones, and three in the middle (“average”). But the context on all things Chuck, is that I like even the weaker episodes; and average episodes were still the highlight of my television week when they first ran. I mostly liked every single S1 episode; in fact, S2, which I generally consider even stronger than S1, generated two episodes (Ex, Beefcake) that I like less than any S1 episode. But even then, only S3 generated any Chuck episodes that I actually dislike (seven of them). And for the record; S4 generated two (Anniversary, Gobbler) and S5 generated one episode (Curse) that I consider “weak”.
These are all just my opinions. They will color my comments on each episode at the appropriate time. Obviously no one ever has to share my opinions, but I make no effort to hide them either.
Joe’s Take – Soft. Like Pudding!
I’d say this is a different kind of episode, Dave. There’s something about those first eight bars of the first song we hear that’s full of energy. You remember; that’s the scene where Devon and his “frat bros.” are tossing a football around the apartment’s fountain, and again on the Stanford campus. I can’t hear those notes without smiling!
And that energy continues in a most unusual way – it’s in Anna’s eye when she suggests that she knows someone who’ll take care of Morgan’s problem – “He’s very reasonable – I’m just sayin'”. This is just fun! Oh yeah, the comedy third of this episode, the Despotic Rule of Harry Tang!, is operating on all cylinders. Hossahs to C.S. Lee for that! “One Remote To Rule Them All!” is still a wonderful reference to LOTR, one that never fails to make me grin.
The adventure part is pretty good too. Chuck is stalked by an Icelandic assassin named Magnus (heh!) who is a terror with a crossbow. That’s not bad!
But I’ll tell you where I really love this episode. It’s in the part where Chuck and Sarah are walking to the library, discussing Bryce and how he betrayed a lot of people. Chuck’s not concerned with Sarah at that moment, with his fake-boyfriend status or with the mission. Right then, he’s really more concerned with his own mission – finding out why he’s in the Intersect. What I see is that this is precisely when Sarah starts to drop her cover.
Sarah: What is it?
Chuck: I don’t know. I mean, I figured this would be tough, but this place… it’s just a lot to take in. You know? I used to have so much fun here, and then …
Sarah: And then?
Chuck: It was the worst day of my life, getting kicked out of here. – having to hear Ellie’s voice when I told her I was coming home, packing up all my stuff, and leaving as Bryce just stood there… said I brought it on myself.
Sarah: Why do you think that Bryce betrayed you?
Chuck: I don’t know. He’s had four years to call and set the record straight, and now that he’s gone… You know what? Forget it. Bryce has betrayed a lot of people. Hasn’t he?
Casey: Hum. Roger that.
That’s not a spy on a mission, but a girlfriend. We’ll see that look again, of course, but when Chuck is giving her “The Bartowski Tour” around campus, it reminds me of nothing so much as the kitchen scene in Suburbs. Sarah is real.
Something important happens when Casey and Sarah are trapped in the lecture hall by Magnus’ men, too. Sarah lies to Casey about the amount of ammo she has left. Why would she do that?
I decided there’s only one reason. She was not going to surrender and she was not going to let Casey surrender until there was no hope left. It wasn’t going to succeed, and she knew that – it was only to buy some time for Chuck. Was this the first time Sarah was ready to sacrifice her life for him? I think so. This comes exactly at the time when Chuck is least concerned with his future with Sarah and most concerned with his own mission, finding out what was on Professor Fleming’s disk.
We’ll see that again, too, especially in S2 at the end of Lethal Weapon.
It’s a swirl of emotions, captured perfectly in the last scene when Chuck and Sarah discover that Bryce didn’t exactly betray him. No, Bryce tried to save him. That doesn’t explain why he later sent Chuck the Intersect and it doesn’t explain (to Sarah) Bryce’s actions in going against his CIA-superior’s orders, but it calls into question everything we thought we knew about Bryce, Sarah and Omaha.
Sarah’s near tears at the revelation for a good reason. Chuck, Sarah and the viewers all found out together that there was something deeper going on, and that Bryce wasn’t one of the bad guys. Sarah has discovered that Chuck was thrown into an impossible situation by something way out of his control. “Unfair!”, she’s saying to herself. I remember the first time I saw that – my jaw dropped.
Finally, I’d like to point out just one more thing. Last week, when I wrote about Chuck vs. The Sandworm, I mentioned that it was the first time Chuck actively sought out and solicited a mission. This time, Beckman comes to Chuck and asks him to be part of this mission, specifically because of his history with Prof. Fleming.
Chuck’s growing as a spy, one step at a time.
I agree with all of that Joe. I think there’s a strong “realness” of Sarah in this episode. It’s not often we see her so unguarded for so long. I think that’s part of why the emotional hook was so effective on this show; Sarah unguarded is a wonderful thing, and yet we only see it in glimpses until late S3. We spent most of 2 2/3s seasons waiting for those defenses to come crashing down and it rarely happened. We always saw just enough to know, that when she finally confessed to falling for Chuck in the first 48 hours she knew him that it was true. But it took a long time for Chuck to be sure. I think this also plays into why Chuck can later tell her that she isn’t a very good liar. In spite of her schemes and scams and manipulations, her honest emotions do often leak through. And for someone who’s actually paying close attention to her, like say, Chuck (!), her lies can be seen through.