I’m of two minds when it comes to “Chuck Versus Phase Three.” On the one hand, it was definitely one of the most solidly entertaining episodes of this season. On the other hand, it was a bit problematic from a character viewpoint. I’ll examine both perspectives after the jump.

What made this episode so entertaining? After a string of episodes in which the jokes just didn’t land, “Phase Three” put the show’s brand of oddball humour front and centre. The running joke about the Thais referring to Sarah a “she-male” didn’t exactly work (unless it was a subtle reference to Thai transvestites, highly regarded for being to fool others about their sex), but the running joke about Chuck’s wacky proposal ideas did. Lester appearing in bed next to Chuck and Sarah in Chuck’s dream was a great visual gag, as was the remote-controlled carpet used to roll up the Thai official. I also enjoyed Jeff thinking that he was trapped in the television screen in Chuck’s dream.

The subplot about Orion’s computer didn’t move along very much, but it did allow for the Nerd Herders to invade Ellie and Devon’s home in an attempt to fix the broken machine, and watching Devon trying to deal with Buy More staff is always comic gold. I especially appreciated the callback to “Chuck Versus the Predator” with Lester thinking that Orion’s computer was a Roark 7 laptop. The story about Young Ellie not understanding the Knock Knock joke was a cute way to cap off the subplot. I’m very curious about what Ellie and Devon saw on the computer screen, but my guess is that it’s not Intersect-related; even if Ellie does have the same capacity to upload the Intersect as her brother, if Devon sees those images, his brain will be fried. My guess: it’s a summary of Orion’s contacts and missions in the spy biz. I’m a little annoyed that Chuck not telling his sister that he’s back in the spy life is just a way for Ellie and Devon to keep Orion’s computer a secret from him, but I’m willing to let it slide if this is all leading somewhere interesting.

In contrast to the hilarious but relatively action-free subplot, the A-plot was all guns and fist fights. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Sarah and Casey running around and kicking ass together, so it was nice to see that make a comeback. However, most of the focus was on Sarah. The battle that she had against the Thai mob boss’s top fighter was one of the most intense fights of the series. Kudos to Yvonne Strahovski, the stunts department, and the guy who played the fighter – I’m too lazy to check IMDB at the moment – for pulling it off. It was fun to see Psycho Sarah emerge for an episode, but I don’t think that it’s a facet of her character that should be revisited in the future. It doesn’t really fit her character development (which I’ll get to shortly). In any case, Psycho Sarah or not, there was some great work from Strahovski here, and also from Adam Baldwin, who played Casey’s reactions to Sarah’s craziness perfectly.

Visually, this episode looked pretty nice. Though it was clearly filmed on the WB backlot, Thailand looked at least semi-believable (compared to last week’s utter failure at recreating Switzerland via green screen). I’d welcome Anton Cropper to direct future Chuck episodes; he navigated between the dream sequences, the action sequences, and the regular scenes with ease.

So, lots of action, great jokes, amazing fight sequences…what’s not to love? Not much, to be honest. On the level of pure entertainment, “Phase Three” worked, and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t bother nitpicking about the character problems in this episode, but the issues raised here could have larger implications down the road.

From season 3 onward, there has been an idea that without Chuck, Sarah is nothing but a spy. Until this episode, it has been pretty easy to argue that that wasn’t the case, and that any such idea simply stemmed from Sarah’s self-perception. However, in this episode, Casey confirmed that Sarah was basically an angry killer before she met Chuck. Aww…how romantic. Except for it isn’t true. At all. Sarah wasn’t initially presented as a coldhearted killer. She was ruthless for the sake of the job, but she had plenty of emotional moments that nothing to do with Chuck. (Most of them were Bryce-related). Heck, one of the final scenes of the pilot episode involved Sarah feeling hurt about Bryce’s betrayal, which isn’t how a coldhearted killer would react. (And don’t try to tell me that Chuck completely transformed Sarah over the course of one episode; that’s just ridiculous.) This new characterization of Sarah is troubling on a psychological level – it’s unhealthy for someone to derive her sense of self-worth through her relationship with someone else – but it also presents a challenge for the writers to develop meaningful relationships between Sarah and characters aside from Chuck. If Sarah is worthless without Chuck, then what worth does her partnership with Casey (or her budding friendship with Morgan) have?

For Chuck, this episode’s developments are equally troubling. He has now been useless for two episodes in a row. Having a suppressed Intersect and then being captured has unfortunately not given Chuck the opportunity to use the smarts that he used to display. Where’s the Chuck who alerted Casey and Sarah about where he was taken by pretending to trip over a computer in “Predator?” Where’s the Chuck who foiled Shaw’s plan by deciphering his expense reports in “Other Guy?” He seems to have been replaced by a stupider but equally neurotic version of season 1 Chuck. I’m having trouble reconciling the more mature Chuck we saw in the back half of season 3 with the whiny man-boy who thinks that Sarah loves him because of the Intersect. Didn’t she tell him that she “fell in love with a regular guy” in the season 3 finale? Again, on a psychological level, his determination of self-worth through his relationship with Sarah is troubling, but at least Chuck has also been defined by his relationships with his friends and family.

For now, these character arcs aren’t exactly working, but there are two ways that the writers can go with them. They can choose to keep Chuck and Sarah where they are, which would be undesirable for all the reasons that I outlined above, or they can choose an option that honours their prior character development. Chuck needs to recognize once again where he came from, that he is who he is because of the strengths of his family bonds and his friendships, and Sarah needs to recognize where she’s going, that she’s moving towards having honest, open relationships with the extended Bartowski clan.

Chuck is relatively entertaining for now, and “Phase Three” was a great episode in and of itself, but it’s time for the show to move out of Charah-Land and into more family-focused territory. “Phase Three” demonstrated that the series hasn’t lost its appeal, but exploiting the richness of the characters’ interpersonal relationships can catapult Chuck back into greatness.

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