Chuck is a versatile show. During its three-and-a-half-season run, it has employed a wide variety of tones and narrative approaches. Understandably, not everyone likes every flavour of Chuck. I tend to prefer action-packed Chuck or emotional Chuck to romantic Chuck or goofy Chuck.1 Unfortunately, the first half of this season had a lot of the flavours of Chuck that I just didn’t like.

However, for what it’s worth, Chuck has been steadily improving since its messy midseason finale, “Push Mix.” That doesn’t mean that Chuck has reached or is ever again going to reach the dizzying heights of the best of the first 3 seasons. But I’m okay with that. Chuck is what it is now, and if “First Bank of Evil” is any indication of what the rest of the season is going to be like, then I’m very happy. I’ve decided that if Chuck isn’t going to raise the stakes by creating a sense of danger, I’d rather it build excitement through a sense of mystery instead of not attempting to build excitement at all. If Chuck isn’t going to pick a single narrative thread and focus on it, I’d rather it tackle multiple storylines at once instead of labelling one storyline as the most important and then addressing it only sporadically. And if Chuck isn’t going to create any significant interpersonal drama, I’d rather it craft clear arcs for each character instead of manufacturing drama through vaguely defined notions like motherhood.

This isn’t a case of picking the lesser of two evils. I actually like what Chuck is doing now, and I thoroughly enjoyed “First Bank of Evil.” The episode represented, in a certain sense, what I’d hoped Chuck would be in the post-Ring era. Sure, I have a few minor quibbles about the execution, but “First Bank of Evil” was probably the best episode since season 3.

Let’s jump straight to the most fun parts of the episode: everything that happened at the bank.2 There’s been a lot of talk about how the show has been nearly tension-free since Chuck mastered the Intersect 2.0, and while I’m not inclined to agree completely, I can see where that opinion comes from. In any case, the easiest way to create some tension is to craft a situation in which Chuck can’t rely on the Intersect 2.0 abilities, and that’s what the first visit to the bank did. Chuck and Vivian had to maintain their covers, something with which no amount of kung fu or acrobatics could help. It was interesting to see Vivian maintain her composure under pressure or to see Chuck pulling a nifty trick with the guard by letting himself get punched in the gut.

The second visit to the bank probably made less sense,3 but I’m always going to enjoy a scene where Chuck and Sarah pull some wicked Matrix-style moves. Having them alternately threaten people with guns and converse cutely about wedding plans was an amusing touch. The second bank visit also gave us the second appearance of Riley, played by Ray Wise. Now, let’s get one thing straight. Ray Freakin’ Wise can do no wrong, and I think he worked well in this role, but I’d like to see him be even slimier in subsequent appearances (assuming that he wasn’t a one-shot character).

“First Bank of Evil” featured a number of subplots, and I think all of them worked, but to varying degrees. The Jeff/Lester subplot, which tied into Morgan’s roommate search, was by far the funniest. For some reason that I can’t fathom, renaissance fairs are a frequent target of comedy. Nonetheless, I enjoyed seeing Morgan’s increasingly exasperated reactions to prospective roommates, and I appreciated that the renaissance enthusiasts actually enjoyed Jeff and Lester’s company; having them reject the terrible twosome would have been the easy way out. Also, it must be said: Big Mike’s sexual innuendos about Morgan’s mom will never not be funny.

I also enjoyed Sarah and Ellie’s little wedding subplot. I think that this is the first episode where Yvonne Strahovski had nothing but straight-up comedy to do. (Zachary Levi and Lauren Cohan carried most of this episode’s emotional weight, but more on that later.) Even if it wasn’t Strahovski’s usual material, she handled it well and managed to make it fit within Sarah’s established persona. Unfortunately, I think that the subplot might have been undone a little by the “punchline” scene between Sarah and Ellie at the end. It might have been just a tad over the top. That being said, I hope that the scene is just a punchline and isn’t hinting towards an idiotic Bridezilla plot line, because that is seriously the last thing the show needs right now. On the bright side, I’m happy that (for now, at least) the writers have recognized that the wedding stuff is B-plot or C-plot, not A-plot, material.

I have mixed feelings about Casey’s subplot. I appreciated how it cleverly tied into Morgan’s roommate search, but I think that Adam Baldwin was criminally underused in this episode. Moreover, if there’s going to be this level of secrecy around whatever Casey is doing, then the big reveal had better be freakin’ awesome.4 This little storyline isn’t annoying yet, but I think it might test my patience if the secrecy continues beyond the next couple of episodes.

The far more intriguing mystery in this episode was the ongoing question of what Alexei Volkoff’s intentions for his daughter might be. We know that Vivian is Alexei’s heir, but we don’t know much else at this point. The secrecy doesn’t bother me in this case because I feel as if the show is peeling back the layers surrounding this mystery, one by one.

Clearly, Chuck is attempting to juggle a lot of plot lines at once, and for the most part it’s succeeding. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the final five episodes of last season in that regard, and because portions of those episodes were criticized as being “rushed,”5 I think it will interesting to see how the plot plays out over 8 or 9 episodes, when there’s more breathing room. In any case, it’s working better than the narrative approach employed in the first half of this season, when the show couldn’t seem to decide how important the mother plot line was.

The show is also having better success at using its titular character in an interesting way (rather than as the passive acceptor of whatever the hell Sarah and Mary were doing). While the current storyline could arguably be called a rehash of last season’s “Nacho Sampler,” I think that it’s worthwhile to see that kind of story play out over several episodes. It’s also a nice reminder that Chuck does operate in a morally grey world and that the CIA can’t always be trusted. With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that Chuck didn’t inadvertently create his newest foe in Vivian. If Vivian has indeed decided to embrace the dark side, it’s entirely the CIA’s fault.6 I’m happy about this plot development. We already had a Dr.-Frankenstein-esque plot line between Chuck and Sarah last season, and I don’t think that repeating it here would have had much value. Even if the execution was a little clunky and Vivian trusted Riley way too quickly, I think that there’s an interesting lesson here for Chuck to learn: even best efforts and good intentions can sometimes result in failure.

Altogether, “First Bank of Evil” was a very strong installment of Chuck. It was the first time that I’ve laughed out loud at the show in a very long while, and I think that there are some very intriguing possible routes that the show could pursue from here. Just no Bridezilla crap, okay?

 

1 That’s not to say that I don’t ever enjoy those flavours of Chuck. I really enjoyed “Undercover Lover” and “Seduction,” for instance.

2 That looked like the same bank set from “First Fight,” just redecorated. However, I think that only die-hard fans would notice.

3 How was Chuck able to threaten people with tranq guns? Fanwank: the bank’s patrons and employees thought that they might be lethal darts.

4 Like Transformers or nuclear missiles.

5 That’s not a criticism that I agree with, however. Would you really have liked to see multiple episodes of Chuck stuck in the loony bin?

6 That being said, I don’t blame the CIA for not putting Vivian under constant surveillance. If she had been, she might have been a lot less compliant.

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