The fact that last night’s episode was titled “Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner” should have been enough to send shivers up the spine of anyone who has been frustrated with this season’s overemphasis on Chuck and Sarah’s relationship issues. As someone who thought that the proposal plot line was just about the stupidest thing that this show has ever done,1 I was bracing myself for the worst. What a pleasant surprise it was to find out that this episode wasn’t about rehashed relationship issues or even Chuck and Sarah’s impending nuptials. Rather, it was this season’s most thoughtful examination of Sarah’s character.

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge Sarah Walker fan. Because her quest to find her humanity so closely mirrors Pinocchio’s journey to become a “real boy” or the Tin Man’s journey to find a heart, I find difficulty in taking it seriously. Moreover, her Temperance-Brennan-meets-Robin-Scherbatsky shtick has often fallen on the wrong side of the funny/not-funny equation. Most of her so-called character development has been directly tied to her relationship with Chuck, to the extent that she has often not seemed like an independent character.

But on a few occasions, Chuck has managed to delve into Sarah’s psyche in ways that really illustrate who she is as a person, and not as a handler, girlfriend, or fiancée, and it’s on occasions like those that I find her to be a compelling character. Last season’s “First Class” examined her personal code of ethics, and season 2’s “DeLorean” provided some interesting insights into what shaped Sarah’s views of family. “DeLorean” also introduced us to Jack Burton, Sarah’s father, played by Gary Cole.

Cole was back in last night’s “Wedding Planner,” and he was a large part of why the episode was so emotionally satisfying. For one thing, he’s a phenomenal actor,2 but his character also provided a way to examine Sarah’s character outside her relationship with Chuck. Through flashbacks,3 we learned that Sarah keeps things close to the vest not because she was hardened as a spy, but because of a mixture of fear and pride; as a former con artist, she doesn’t want to be conned.

Some might characterize the use of flashbacks as emotionally manipulative, and they sort of have a point. Flashbacks are an easy way to manufacture poignancy, and for some, they’re almost TV cliché. But to that I say, isn’t all television “emotionally manipulative?” Isn’t the point to make the audience feel something? Jack’s role in Sarah’s life is so entwined with her formative years that I don’t see any other practical way in which the show could have addressed the issues at hand. Furthermore, the flashbacks reinforced the idea that Jack really has been looking out for Sarah all these years, with the episode ending with the revelation that Jack had saved up enough cash to replace Chuck and Sarah’s stolen wedding money. Altogether, Jack and Sarah’s part of this episode was incredibly emotionally satisfying.

Casey’s storyline was also equally emotionally satisfying. Though I have some qualms about how easy it was for Kathleen to discover Casey’s true occupation, closure for Casey and Kathleen has been a long time coming. By the end of this episode, Kathleen understood Casey’s sacrifice and was able to respect it. That this plot line ended on a note of understanding leaves the door open for Kathleen to return to the show (and I hope she does), but it also leaves me satisfied in case Clare Carey can’t come back.

If I may open up a can of worms, this episode might reinforce the misconception that many reviewers (and some fans) have that the spy component of the show is largely secondary as long as the emotional beats work; the spy stuff is mainly window-dressing for a show about family and relationships. This episode won’t do much to disabuse them of that notion, especially since by seasons 1 and 2 standards, the spy plot of this episode was pretty flimsy, and by season 3 standards, the stakes were incredibly low. But I must point out that a thin spy plot can succeed if it’s still fun to watch. That’s where “Wedding Planner’s” con vibe helped out. It was a blast to watch Chuck, Sarah, Jack, and Morgan plan a fake wedding reception, and Sarah impersonating the wedding planner was a hoot.4 Though the resolution to the spy plot featured some heavy-handed speechmaking (and I’m almost never a fan of that), it happened amidst a tense, well-staged hostage scene, which is something the show hasn’t done in a while. Overall, this was a very fun spy plot that benefited from not having any needless globetrotting.

One last bit of praise before I move on to how this episode fits into the bigger picture: this episode was exceedingly well directed. Kudos to Anton Cropper, who also directed this season’s “Phase Three.” He has a real knack for nailing the tonal transitions and for picking the right shots to frame scenes. In fact, since Matt Shakman hasn’t directed an episode since “Subway,” can we just get Cropper to direct all future Chuck episodes? He should really replace Robert Duncan McNeill as the show’s go-to director, since McNeill seems to have grown complacent and is now phoning it in with increasingly shoddy directorial decisions.

So, overall, “Wedding Planner” was a pretty fantastic episode of Chuck: fun, exciting, touching, and emotionally satisfying. But I have one major complaint: this is just the wrong time in the season to be putting out such an episode. “Wedding Planner” should have happened about five or six episodes ago, before the whole Vivian arc. In the final four episodes of the season, the tension should be ramping up. It’s a shame because this back 11 set of episodes has suffered from having the right elements in the wrong order. I can only assume that this is due in some measure to guest star availability, so it’s unfair to blame the writers and producers entirely, but that doesn’t make the poor plotting any more palatable. Unfortunately, this means that rather than being a triumph, “Wedding Planner” just ends up as another chapter in this directionless, unfocused season.

While “Wedding Planner” was hindered by its awkward placement in the season, I don’t think it was sunk. As a standalone, mythology-light installment, it’s still one of the most charming, enjoyable episodes that Chuck has done in a long time. So, to sum up, score minus one for this season, but plus ten for this episode.

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1 Really, I can’t stress enough how stupid that whole plot line was. Pandering to fans can backfire.

2 It’s interesting to contrast this episode with the previous one, “Family Volkoff.” Gary Cole and Timothy Dalton both played characters who had the potential to be annoying, and only Cole succeeded in avoiding that trap. Dalton could really take some advice from Cole. With Alexei Volkoff, I feel energy, but no electricity. But with Jack Burton, I feel both. Cole has a commanding screen presence, but he wisely knows not to act everybody else off the screen.

3 I wish that they could have used the same child actress who played Young Sarah in “DeLorean,” because she was absolutely excellent. But I guess she’s too old for the part by now.

4 The talented Yvonne Strahovski adds yet another voice to her arsenal.

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