There’s a particularly telling bit of dialogue in “Chuck Versus the Fear of Death”:

“Which one do you think is the psychotic one? Doesn’t matter.”
– Morgan

The idea here: Jeff and Lester are interchangeable. Lester’s skeeviness and Jeff’s oddity have merged into ill-defined creepiness, and the traits that made both of them unique are no longer on display. That’s a problem.

Jeff and Lester weren’t the only things to suffer from interchangeability in “Fear of Death.” Sarah’s reasons for trying to keep Chuck off the mission were interchangeable with her reasons in “First Class.” As a spy mentor, Agent Rye was interchangeable with Shaw. The spy plot of “Fear of Death” was interchangeable with that of “Beefcake.” This interchangeability created a sense of déjà vu, resulting in what was undoubtedly one of the weakest episodes of the series. More details (and a lot of complaints) after the jump.

Let’s get one thing straight: did I hate “Fear of Death?” No. Was it bland, boring, and uninspiring? Yes. Did I care about what was happening? Not really. Did I laugh? Not even once. I’ll get to the notion of interchangeability in a second, but first, let’s contextualize.

“Fear of Death” followed two of the show’s most mythology-heavy episodes. Derailing the mythology for a digression into the realm of flash impotence wasn’t exactly a great idea, but even worse was the complete unconcern for what happened at the end of last episode. There was no emotional fallout. Chuck and Sarah brushed it off with a ten-second conversation with Beckman. What does Chuck think about Mary exploding Orion’s base? What does Sarah think of Mary giving her a means of escape? The show’s unwillingness to answer these questions is indicative of good setup but poor follow-through.

Poor follow-through extended to Chuck’s flash impotence. So, Mary just suppressed the Intersect? What was the point of doing that? Why did Chuck’s father not want that to happen? It’s possible that there’s more to this suppression, but for the moment, things don’t make sense, and if the writers wanted to tell a story about flash impotence, then they could have brought it about in a different way instead of leaving a million questions open. Furthermore, the flash impotence story has been done before. In fact, it was done to death last season (and much better, I might add). The show didn’t even put a different spin on it this time. Instead of letting Chuck use his brains to solve problems, the characters simply bemoaned Chuck’s inability to use the Intersect. Sarah’s reactions to Chuck going on the mission mirrored hers from “First Class,” but here she was even more of a wet blanket. Last season, her opposition to Chuck becoming a spy wasn’t a problem because while it informed her demeanour, it didn’t have a large effect on the plot. But here, at every turn, Sarah expressed her disapproval. After a while, it became annoying.

This rehashing of past issues can be a delight to watch if done cleverly. Last season’s “Nacho Sampler” touched on a lot of ideas from season one – handling an asset, lying to loved ones, hiding one’s true intentions – but all from the perspective of Chuck as a spy, making him walk in Sarah’s shoes. Here, the idea that Sarah feared for Chuck’s physical safety was handled no differently than in “First Class.” The fact Sarah and Chuck are a couple now didn’t change the reasons for her actions. Yet again, her concern for Chuck’s safety outweighed her belief in his ability to handle himself.

But perhaps I should cut Sarah a little slack. After all, Chuck did end up in the enemy’s clutches at the end of the episode because it turned out that Agent Rye was totally wrong. In that regard, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Agent Shaw, who similarly told Chuck that his attachments to friends and family were holding him back (and who was played by an actor with a similar brand of stiffness). Here, Agent Rye was singularly concerned with Chuck’s relationship with Sarah, but the basic idea was the same: emotions make you a worse spy. However, there was an important difference between Shaw and Rye. Shaw was right about some things. Rye was right about nothing. Shaw was correct in noting that Chuck needed to learn how to pull the trigger. Chuck needed to learn to consult with his teammates and to handle himself in a solo situation. But in this episode, Rye kept telling Chuck that Sarah was the emotional rock who was holding him back. Didn’t we learn last season that Chuck draws strength from his emotional attachments?* Unless the show is going to contradict itself thematically, then Rye was just dead wrong, and he wasted an entire episode aping Shaw but in a quirkier way. (Also, just like Tuttle from the previous episode, he wasn’t funny enough to justify how much time he spent on screen.) Overall, Rye was a less interesting version of a not-so-interesting character, played by someone who wasn’t as talented as a not-so-talented actor. (In fact, quirky hardass is a role that has “Brandon Routh” written all over it. Routh would have made an excellent Rye. Rob Riggle was passable at best.)

In this episode, Rye and Chuck discovered that the Intersect’s identity was contained on microdots embedded in fake diamonds. (Why the Intersect’s identity is in constant danger of being revealed is beyond me, but plot logic has never been Chuck’s strong suit.) Chuck was later captured and threatened with torture. Sound familiar? The same thing happened in “Beefcake.” In fact, much of the first two seasons revolved around keeping Chuck’s identity as the Intersect a secret. Heck, Sarah killed Mauser, a Fulcrum agent, to protect Chuck’s identity in “Santa Claus.” The reasons for bringing back this plot are unclear to me. It’s nice that the show is willing to revisit old ideas, but revisitation must be done in a fresh way. Otherwise, the show is just retreading old ideas without bringing anything new to the table. Even worse, “Beefcake” was another episode in which Sarah didn’t have faith in Chuck’s abilities. Repeating those story ideas in “Fear of Death” was simply unimaginative.

There were also a few other problems with this episode. Firstly, it wasn’t very funny. The dialogue was lacking its usual sharpness. Summer Glau did a fine job as Greta, but she couldn’t save her plot line from mediocrity. Secondly, Casey’s reduced role pushed him out of the main plot and yet again into a silly B-plot. It’s fine to do so every once in a while, but after a while, his presence on missions with Chuck and Sarah is missed. Thirdly, the pacing was off. The episode started off slowly and spent too much time setting things up. Fourthly – and this is sort of a nitpick – if “Aisle of Terror” took place around Halloween, Chuck spending an entire month undergoing Intersect reactivation therapy messed up the show’s timeline.** It’s a case of sacrificing plot logic for a silly joke, and that’s just sloppy writing.

“Fear of Death” wasn’t all bad. It had some amusing moments, like Rye invading Chuck and Sarah’s bedroom. (Interrupted intimate moments will always be funny.) There was nothing about it that was offensively stupid. Its biggest crime was that it simply wasn’t interesting, and that was due mainly to different plot lines and characters becoming interchangeable. Repeating old ideas has worked for the show in the past, but when presented in such an uninteresting package that not only doesn’t answer lingering questions but also ignores them, this kind of repetition is too evident. Chuck can and should do better. If the show continues to be this uninspiring, it’ll be the death knell for what has thus far been Chuck’s worst season by a longshot. There is the potential for interesting stories to be told: the secrets and betrayals of Chuck and Ellie’s parents, the continuing investigation into Volkoff Industries, Sarah’s integration into Chuck’s family, Morgan’s blossoming relationship with Alex, and Ellie and Devon’s journey into parenthood. Chuck should be telling them.

 

* This is true with the caveat that Chuck must also be able to compartmentalize. However, that wasn’t the point of “Fear of Death.”

** If the rumours of an upcoming Thanksgiving episode are to be believed. But since I haven’t been reading spoilers, I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of such an episode.

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