Chuck has become a very inward-looking show this season. Its characters’ concerns have shifted increasingly towards the personal. Whereas an episode from the first three seasons would have featured a mission that mirrored or influenced a character’s personal life, season 4 has taken the reverse tack by allowing personal issues to drive plots.

Perhaps drawing such a sharp contrast is both unfair and inaccurate. The reality is more subtle, and there were certainly plot lines in the first three seasons that were driven by personal issues. (“Colonel” and “Honeymooners” come to mind.) But it’s hard to argue that season 4 hasn’t had more such plot lines.

And that brings us to “Seduction Impossible,” an episode designed to kick off the second half of this season, and very much in the season 4 mold of personal issues driving plots. It was mercifully devoid of the mawkish sentimentality that plagued the preceding episode, but it did illustrate both the advantages and pitfalls of that mold.

The mission in this episode involved rescuing Roan Montgomery (remember that guy?) from ostensible captivity in Morocco. Of course, this is Chuck, and things aren’t always what they seem, so it turned out that Roan was trying to infiltrate a counterfeiting ring.  It also turned out that Beckman sent her team over there because she was personally concerned for Roan. Beckman being more of a comedic/expository character allowed this plot line to straddle the line between silly and serious quite nicely. It was silly enough that we could get an hilarious 80’s flashback with Beckman as a dirty blonde. (“It was the 80’s. Everything was dirty blonde.”) But it was also serious enough that I actually cared about Beckman and Roan.

On the flipside, we got Chuck and Sarah’s relationship issues driving another plot line. Sarah wanted to elope, while Chuck wanted a regular wedding. On its surface, it seemed like a silly plot line, even by this show’s standards. It fell into the same pattern as earlier “relationship” episodes: Chuck and Sarah have a difference of opinion; Chuck goes to Morgan for advice; Morgan’s advice is terrible; the misunderstanding leads to a tiny squabble; and by the end of the episode, Sarah relents and adopts Chuck’s position. It’s a pattern that the show needs to abandon; it’s already stale. It also unfortunately yielded Chuck acting like an idiot on a mission, unable to hold in a sneeze. What justified the use of that pattern here, though, was that there was more to the plot line than what was on the surface. Apparently, Sarah holds some deep-seated fears about her own family. There are legitimate issues here, unlike in earlier episodes this season where Sarah’s character was regressed (“Suitcase”), her past characterization was rewritten (“Cubic Z” and “Phase Three”), or she arbitrarily changed her attitude towards her relationship with Chuck (“Coup d’Etat”). I just wish that we hadn’t by now reached a point at which Chuck/Sarah-relationship plots seem overused.

In essence, that’s the peril of dipping into the “personal” well. Doing it too often makes everything personal, and when everything is personal, then things lose their weight. That’s what I felt here. I want to care about Sarah reconnecting with her family, but I don’t because I feel like I’ve seen a few too many personal plot lines over the course of this season.

On the personal front at home, Mary took care of Clara, trying hard to be the kind of mother that she could never be to her own children. Ellie realized that she couldn’t keep Mary away from her job, so she asked Mary to go back to being a spy. I fear that Ellie has been written into a corner here. She has become accepting of the spy life, but she has been kept in the dark about Chuck returning to the spy life for far too long. On the one hand, she can’t be angry because she has accepted that her family is/was involved in the spy game.* On the other hand, she has to be angry because everyone – including her own husband, since “Leftovers” – has been keeping it a secret from her. But I’ll admit that I appreciate Ellie warming up to the idea of the spy life; she can’t be a wet blanket forever.

The other “emotional” plot line in this episode was Alex wanting Casey out of her mother’s life. Of course, it unfolded exactly as one would expect, with Casey finding out that there’s a new man in Kathleen’s life, but Adam Baldwin played it perfectly. No complaints there.

So, what we got in this episode, instead of setting up spy mythology, was a setup of emotional story arcs: Ellie facing parenthood; Mary being a grandmother; Sarah reconnecting with her family leading up to her wedding; and Casey coming to terms with the fact that there’s a new man in his ex-fiancée’s life. For the most part, despite a weird tonal shift towards seriousness at the end of the episode, it was well-done. But there’s a problem.

Where the hell is Chuck in all of this?

Chuck, as the titular character of the show, needs a character journey too. If Chuck isn’t going anywhere, the show can’t go anywhere either, and it’s a major reason why the first half of this season ran around in circles chasing its own tail.

“Seduction Impossible” neatly sidestepped some of the problems that have faced the show earlier. Though it was initially presented in a sitcommy** framework, Sarah’s relationship issues in this episode actually have wider implications down the road. It also featured Chuck, Sarah, and Casey on a mission together, a dynamic that I’ve missed this season as Morgan and Casey have been paired off together more and more often. But “Seduction Impossible” also fell into some of this season’s traps. Chuck continued to be incompetent, and Sarah’s issues were still emphasized over Chuck’s. Some of the humour in this episode also felt a little forced, to be honest.

Overall, “Seduction Impossible” was a decent episode, and it was mainly enjoyable. But perhaps I would have enjoyed it even more taken out of context. It’s a shame that by the time Chuck figured out how to use some of its tools, they already felt worn out.

 

* Why she hasn’t yet clued in to Chuck’s continued absences is beyond me. It bothers me, especially because Chuck going to Paris and not telling Ellie about it drove a major plot last season.

** I’ve seen every episode of How I Met Your Mother, and I’ve seen almost every episode of Friends. That might explain why I have an aversion to seeing the same ideas presented on those shows repeated on Chuck.

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