Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chuck 3.07: "Chuck Versus the Mask"

“You tend to remember the guy who set your face on fire.”


So, yeah, I’ll admit it. I didn’t hate this episode. In fact, I actually kind of liked it. Let the howling in the comments begin. Or at least, it would begin if anybody actually read this blog! The reaction by a certain segment of the “Chuck” fandom to this episode has been rather explosive, to say the least. One of my favorite TV critics, Alan Sepinwall of the Star Ledger, certainly felt the heat on his blog. The backlash was so insane at one point that it was dubbed the “Chuckpocalypse.” Some especially misguided “fans” even threatened to boycott the show, hoping that driving the ratings down would somehow make NBC force the show’s producers to change things (like NBC really wouldn’t just cancel the show if it took a ratings nosedive…please). And what caused all the fuss? Yet another implementation of one of the oldest storytelling tropes, especially when it comes to serialized storytelling like TV: “will they, won’t they” and the obligatory romantic roadblocks.

The episode opened with a kind of fun Mission: Impossible spoof. Shaw is descending into a museum vault much like Tom Cruise does in the movie, and things go a little haywire. He drops a tool, and the vault’s security system goes off. This starts decompression, naturally, much like the vault in that recent episode of “White Collar.” In order to save Shaw, Casey and Sarah need Chuck’s skills. Not necessarily his Intersect skills, but his Nerd Herd skills. Chuck is actually at the Buy More doing his day job when this all goes down. Specifically, Hannah is still bugging him to provide her with more Nerd Herd learning opportunities. Chuck is interrupted by Sarah, who tells him he has to get to the museum. Hannah is naturally curious about Sarah, and she gets the low-down (or at least the official version) from Morgan. Chuck uses the excuse that he’s got a Nerd Herd call to get out of the Buy More, and unbeknownst to Chuck, Hannah follows him.

Despite being surprised, Chuck manages to make the best of Hannah’s presence at the museum. Together, they manage to get the vault back open, under the guise of fixing a problem with the computer that ran the security system. Shaw is saved just moments before Casey was getting ready to use C4 to blow open the vault’s hatch. The museum curator is so impressed with Chuck and Hannah’s work that he invites them to the gala opening of the new Mask of Alexander exhibit. The invite isn’t to enjoy the exhibit, though. It’s to make sure the vault doesn’t go haywire again. Chuck is a little skeptical, but the rest of the spy team tells him he should do it.

Because Chuck is going to be at the gala in his Nerd Herd capacity, Shaw takes over Chuck’s usual cover role as Sarah’s date. I thought the scene that contrasted Chuck and Hannah and Sarah and Shaw’s preparations for their respective “missions” was pretty clever. Shaw seems to have been hitting on Sarah, but Sarah seems to be trying to ignore it. Shaw brings her coffee in the morning. At the gala, Shaw nuzzles her neck as he tells her their plan. Hannah sees Sarah on the security monitor at the museum, and understandably, she’s not pleased. She thinks Sarah is a vindictive ex-girlfriend of Chuck’s after all. When she points out Sarah on the monitor, Chuck flashes on someone in the background. His name is Vasillis, and he’s a Ring operative (of course). Chuck rushes out of the computer room and towards the gala, to the chagrin of an exasperated Hannah.

He warns Sarah and Shaw about Vasillis just in time. Vasillis knows who Shaw is (Shaw burned Vasillis’ face way back when), and Shaw gets out of the gala just before everyone’s cover is blown. Chuck ends up having to take over the mission- to steal the Mask of Alexander. The theft is sort of complex, but it’s a lot of fun to watch play out. Casey and Shaw keep working to keep the vault closed from the gala attendees while Hannah is diligently doing her job trying to get it to open. It was pretty funny how the vault door kept opening and closing. The crowd would get all excited, then disappointed again.

I liked that Chuck got to sort of take over the mission when Shaw had to leave. I generally like it when Chuck gets to be competent instead of unsure, although I prefer that he retain a bit more of his core “Chuckness” than he did last week when he had to burn Manoosh, his asset. This week seemed to have a good balance of Chuck holding his own in spy world while still being a decent guy. Anyway, Chuck most definitely holds his own on this mission. He lowers Sarah down into the vault, but a Ring operative gets to him. He goes tumbling down into the vault while Sarah comes flying back up. Thankfully, Chuck doesn’t fall far enough to trigger the security system, and Sarah is eventually able to fight off the attackers. Chuck does one better than Shaw and successfully catches the fake Mask as Sarah throws it down to him.

The Ring is, understandably, not at all happy that the Mask was stolen out from under them. They’ve been using museum artifacts to smuggle weapons into the country, and the Mask is one such artifact. Vasillis looks at the security tape of the gala and notices Chuck kissing Hannah in the computer room before helping Sarah with the heist. He then easily forms a plan to get the mask back. Morgan and Hannah are at the Nerd Herd desk discussing what was, for Hannah, a very stressful evening considering her partner abandoned her to go talk to his ex-girlfriend, when the phone rings. Morgan picks it up, and he is duped by Vasillis into thinking that the museum needs Hannah to come back and do more work on the security system computer. Hannah happily obliges, but she soon finds herself locked in the vault, which is decompressing again, instead of doing any actual Nerd Herd work.

Things quickly go from bad to worse. Shaw and Sarah are investigating the Mask, trying to figure out just where the weapon is hidden, and they find out alright. A canister of very poisonous gas is released, and Castle is on lockdown. Chuck, who has by this time received a threatening phone call from Vasillis, has a tall task ahead of him. He’s got to figure out a way to both save Hannah from suffocation and get the antidote to the poison gas for Sarah and Shaw. He’s up to it, though, which was definitely one of this episode’s high points. He’s got a pretty great plan, actually. He wants to make Vasillis and his goons think that he’s setting off the poison gas in the hopes that Vasillis will then lead him to the antidote. Even Casey is pretty proud of Chuck for this one, stopping the car immediately and gleefully informing Chuck that he has some smoke grenades in the trunk that would be perfect for their purposes.

The plan overall goes as Chuck hoped, with an assist from Shaw who carries an almost passed out Sarah out of Castle (once the gas was contained) and to the museum. The antidote itself was hidden inside one of the museum’s vases, and Chuck managed to flash on the correct vase (it was known to have been stolen). He also got the vault back open just in time to save Hannah. He rushes to Hannah’s side as Shaw cradles Sarah following their taking the antidote. Vasillis looks on ominously, and he sees Shaw. He ends up reporting back to the Ring that Shaw is in play. The Ring shoots him in the head for failing at his mission, and they threaten to do the same to Shaw if they catch up to him.

By the end of the episode (and this is what threw the fandom into a bit of a tizzy, to say the least), romantic relationships are the focus. Chuck and Hannah sneak in a late night make-out session in the Buy More home theater room. Ellie and Morgan, who had been planning on staging an intervention about Chuck’s recent work habits, see what’s going on. Ellie is thrilled because it means Chuck isn’t moping about his break-up with Sarah. Morgan is feeling down because he was interested in Hannah himself. The one thing I didn’t really like about the Morgan/Ellie plot was that Jeff and Lester’s stalking of Chuck, which seemed like a legitimate threat to Chuck’s balance of spy and real world, was just written off with a line about how they weren’t really that good at stalking after all. I realize that this is because of the budget issues- not every character can be in every episode- but it was a shame to write off a potentially interesting plot so quickly.

Oh, and Shaw and Sarah have reached an understanding and seem to be on the road to hooking up. Sarah doesn’t seem as into Shaw as Chuck is into Hannah, though, so I honestly don’t see that one lasting especially long either. Overall, I feel like out of all the artificial road blocks the “Chuck” writers have introduced to complicate the potential Chuck/Sarah romance, Hannah and Shaw are the most interesting and likable. Because of that, I’m okay with a temporary delay, and I certainly don’t think that actions that could legitimately harm the future of this show are warranted.

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