Cubic Z is the next of Season Four’s Romance arc episodes. Perhaps too loosely connected to be a true arc, but along with Suitcase and Coup d’Etat we have three episodes that seem to mainly serve to establish Chuck and Sarah in a good place for the rest of the season.
Cubic Z is the first true bottle episode for the series. It won’t be the last. The idea here is to create an episode cheaply, using mostly core cast, existing sets, and limited guest stars. Bottle episodes get a bad rap from many fans, but I like them. We get more attention focused on our core characters than is normal. And for a show where those core characters are the main draw, that’s a good thing. There will be no great moments in Cubic Z, but we do get a nice snapshot of where Chuck and Sarah are, at this point in time.
We’ll discuss it more, after the jump.
The story is simple enough as well. We get two villains from past seasons returned to do battle with each other, and force Sarah to face some of her own demons. And I don’t really mean Heather. The main driving force of this episode is how Sarah has changed; or perhaps most importantly, how her self image has changed. Heather Chandler mercilessly needles her with the idea that they are both just alike, and Sarah can’t possibly be really happy with Chuck. That Sarah will grow bored and abandon Chuck, after flirting with the idea of finding meaning in life, in a fairly short time.
Now I have to insert my own meta observation here; I’m not buying any of it. And for once I don’t mean that as a criticism of the writing, but rather that there’s a lot of nuance here. First of all; remember Cougars? No way Heather believes she and Sarah are a lot alike. This is playing head games pure and simple. She thinks she found something she can needle Sarah with, something that will infuriate her. And for what its worth, she’s right. This plays exactly into Sarah’s own worst nightmares of herself.
But again, I don’t buy that either. Sarah was never like Heather. Or maybe, she was like her in just enough superficial ways to really worry her. Like maybe she was a bit of an adrenaline junkie; and she was so focused on success she was denying herself the things that truly add value to life. Perhaps she lacked a moral center for many years too; certainly her dad never helped her find one. But somehow, even before Chuck, Sarah had already risen above her basest fears. She had a moral center. At least enough that when Chuck told Carina that Sarah was different from most spies way back in S1, Carina ceded the point. She was different enough before Chuck that she went against protocol, and at great personal cost, delivered a child from the clutches of a killer.
I think Chuck is a tangible anchor for Sarah. He helps bring out her best, and helps her see her own value. So yes, Sarah needs Chuck and is made better by him. But not like Heather charges. Heather pokes at a fragile conscience. But she mostly misses the mark.
Still, it makes for a fascinating exchange. Heather accuses, challenges and provokes; while Sarah stews and broods. Chuck, the observer, knows better. And it is refreshing to see him respond. He knows Heather is off base, but can’t quite grasp why she is getting to Sarah anyway. When we arrive at the final discussion, Sarah finally speaks her mind. She thinks that she was a lot like Heather before Chuck. As I said, maybe in some superficial ways she was. But the bigger point is, she recognizes that she is not currently like that at all. That is really awesome growth. It is wonderful and heartwarming to see.
And wow, that was a lot of hot air. More than anything, Chuck is a fun show. And even a pretty low intensity, bare bones episode like Cubic Z has a lot of fun material. Starting with the Casey/Sarah sparing match. The previously mentioned needling from Heather provokes great reactions and dialogue from Chuck and Sarah. Right from learning about inappropriate misuse of a government supply closet. I love the initial interrogation scene too. Chuck and Sarah are both a hoot; especially Sarah being totally unsettled by Heather, and lecturing Chuck on keeping his cool. This is maybe a little more involved than most humor on Chuck, and its fitting that it comes from a character who is not normally used for comedy at all. Just a perfectly executed scene.
As the “A” plot unfolds, we get sort of the Chuck signature mix of humor and action. I think there’s another level of meta humor here too; it turns out Nicole Richie is such a dreadful actress she is barely even convincing when she gets to play herself. Okay, to be fair, she might be a very nice lady, I don’t know her. But she plays on her own public persona with stiff delivery, no emotion, and apparently little comprehension of her own lines. Its a joke within a joke. Very funny. Stone Cold Steve Austin seems to be a much better actor. At least he can deliver his own public persona in a convincing manner!
I don’t mean any of the above to be seriously critical. This plot is played for fun, and Zac and Yvonne easily, effortlessly, carry the load. It is completely satisfying to see Chuck and Sarah work as partners, and more, throughout.
I think the Buy More story was less satisfying in this episode. I like Morgan and Big Mike’s sub-story; but the game release added little. At this point that doesn’t really bother me much; I expect little from Buy More, except the occasional chuckle when its funny. But on initial viewing I felt some real disappointment. I was excited with the initial set up of the episode. I quickly formed expectations of the “Spy Attack” game launch getting massively, and chaotically intertwined with the actual spy business taking place below (I said to my wife, “oh this should get really interesting”). But apart from a riot at the very end, my eager expectations failed to be satisfied. And yes, that was my own expectations that let me down. But I was let down by immediately imagining more than was delivered.
Do I need to say anything about the titled ring? It was a funny tease. I appreciate it more in hindsight than I did when it was new. I’m glad they didn’t do an accidental engagement story; not that it couldn’t have been fun too, but I like much of what actually lies ahead. And next week, is another really good one!
The Herder vs. The Porsche
Man, Dave. You took the words right out of my mouth. I feel little need to add anything to what you just said.
But you know me. I can’t resist sticking in my $0.02. Let me point first to one small area of disagreement. Without implying it was the best ever C plot in the series, I thought the Buy More sub-story in Chuck vs. The Cubic-Z was actually sort of clever. It brought Big Mike (and his impending marriage to Morgan’s mother!) back into the story rather nicely. It also gave Vik a chance to do a comedic bit that we hadn’t seen before and didn’t see after, when Lester provides vocal back-up to Big Mike’s speech to the rioting crowd. Not bad.
I do wish we had seen more of Stacy Keibler. The actress was kind enough to let us interview her later that season, so I have a soft spot for her. But much like Bronson Pinchot and Isaiah Mustafah in The Suitcase, her appearance in this episode seemed a little pointless. Twist my arm and I’ll say that Mustafah and Keibler’s GRETA mega-cameos could have been intentional teases, though, meant as lead-ins to their bigger roles in The A-Team, where they actually had names. With Nicole Richie and Steve Austin already heading up the guest star list, it would seem odd to have another star with a large role in one episode.
As for Austin, I liked his appearance in this episode much more than I did in First Class. Perhaps it’s because he actually showed Panzer had half a brain dealing with Castle’s computers, even while Casey was getting frustrated with an early version of Seri (heh!).
I’ve heard criticisms of Nicole Richie’s acting too, ever since the days she pal’d around with Paris Hilton. However, I can’t help but think that she consistently punches above her weight as Heather Chandler. They say there’s no life after high school, so I find her preying on Sarah’s soft psychological underbelly to be a bit clever too.
In fact, there’s a whole lot of cleverness that operates on several levels. I like the way they worked in the story line from Cougars, using the Russian baddies who were after her then-husband and his F-22 plans as a link to Heather’s association to Volkoff and Frost. My poor memory vaguely associated them with Fulcrum back then; a clear mistake, if an understandable one, in the context of Season 1.
Then there’s Heather’s needling of Sarah, claiming that she would become bored with a nerd like Chuck after about 10 minutes, just like she did with Mark. [To which, I join Lester in providing the vocal back-up to Dave’s write-up above, because he captured everything I was thinking about. I’m just saying it in different words!] Ooohhhh that’s good stuff. It’s a gem! I too couldn’t quite buy it, especially at first. Jenny was portrayed, after all, as a bit of an ugly duckling in Cougars, tormented by the cheerleader-types and quarterback-types. It was easy to see the young girl as the opposite of Heather, in fact.
Despite all that high school baggage, Jenny grew up (seemingly overnight) to became Agent Sarah Walker with all that implies. Thanks to Bryce, Carina and Cole Barker, it implies a glamorous, adrenaline fueled, jet setting life-style too, which actually seems a little more in line with what Heather was thinking. The question is: Why would Sarah give all that up for a dork? Does she really want to give up the Porsche for a Herder? It makes her question her own motives. Or maybe Sarah expects Chuck to wonder – and worry.
But he doesn’t. Not for a minute. Just when Sarah is experiencing a bit a self-doubt, just when she needs a rock and an anchor if only to steady herself, nerdy, awkward Chuck proves he is exactly the right man for the job.
Chuck: Hey, hey, hey. Heather, guess what. You talk too much.
Well said, Chuck. Well said. I was surprised, first time around, that the Intersect 2.0 wasn’t exactly able to best Hugo Panzer in the one fight scene Chuck had. But that’s okay; the real conflict wasn’t a physical fight. It was always about getting Sarah to accept that her world was changing and that Chuck was the absolute best guide she could ever have.
Sarah: For a long time, I was exactly like her. And it took me a night in the guts of the building to realize I’m not anymore. At all. And I don’t wanna be.
But I do need to take things slow.
Chuck: I’m not ready for parenthood either. One day hopefully. But not now. Not yet, anyway.
Who are we kidding? I’m barely on solid food myself, so…
You have to wonder what scares Sarah Walker so much. I think I know now. It’s not the bullets and fists and constant danger of being a spy, of course. Sarah is able to take care of herself. She’s been taught well from the very beginning to survive and be self-sufficient and I don’t think that it’s the idea of having babies either. Instead, I think that Sarah has no idea what it means to need someone else and has no idea how to deal with that.
And I’m sitting in the valley alone
Walking to the valley alone
Wanders in the valley alone
Miss you in the valley alone
And I wander in this land
And I want to make you understand
If Chuck was to be Sarah’s guide through strange land of home and family, his guidance was flawless in Cubic-Z; no awkward clumsiness here and no girlish screams. Chuck was fast becoming a mature and capable spy, which left only one item on his plate, one large bit of unfinished business in his five year plan.
But even if the fans were agitating and clamoring for the next step in Chuck and Sarah’s romance – and we were that fall – it was still early in the season. The fake-diamond ring Chuck accidentally presented on one knee may have been meant as a tease from the very beginning, but the scene was also given to the fans as something meaningful for them to latch onto. TPTB needed to delay the inevitable a bit longer, after all. Regardless, there’s just no denying that Chuck’s proposal was inevitable by the end of the episode, and that would be enough for the moment.
What about Sarah’s acceptance? Was that inevitable too? We were to find out soon enough.