After a very strong season premiere, Chuck returned this week with an episode that, while not disappointing, gave me some concerns about where the show might be headed. More details after the jump.

One of Chuck’s problems is that is has a tendency to burn through story too quickly. Ideas that should take a while to be built up are often introduced, seen to their logical conclusions, and then dismissed within the span of an episode. As a result, those ideas are often addressed again later, which can seem like repetition, not revisitation.

Let’s give “Bearded Bandit” one thing: it wasn’t a repetition of the season premiere. If anything, it stubbornly refused to repeat a lot of the ideas presented last week. Whereas last week’s episode, “Chuck Versus the Zoom” dealt with Chuck trying to find his place now that he no longer has the Intersect in his brain, this week’s episode was about how the Intersect was affecting Morgan. This is something that the series needed to explore; we’ve seen that the Intersect affects its hosts – not just Chuck – in profound ways. No matter how well Ellie managed to correct its problems last season, it would still be too convenient to let Morgan be unaffected by it.

So, what started out like Morgan just being cocky and rash had an actual explanation: the Intersect was modifying his personality on a neurological level, leading him to pursue more reckless behaviour. However, there were two problems with this: 1) The revelation came way too late in the episode to invalidate the notion that Morgan was just being an idiot for half the episode. Moreover, revealing it via Morgan misunderstanding pop culture references was a little too frivolous for something so serious. 2) It seems as if the writers wanted Morgan’s personality shift to work on two levels: psychological and neurological. It’s one thing for Morgan to play hero because he HAS the Intersect, but it’s another for him to do so because OF the Intersect. I surmise that the show wants me to see the latter as a logical amplification of the former, but the way I see it, it’s as if the show is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Morgan acting out because he believed that he should be allowed to use the Intersect devalued the idea that the Intersect was directly affecting his brain, and vice versa.

That’s not to say that the two ideas are inherently incompatible. I can believe that having the Intersect in one’s brain merely amplifies the host’s desires and takes them to extremes. But that idea should have played out over a longer period of time, so that we could really see the Intersect going to Morgan’s head, both literally and figuratively. “Bearded Bandit” probably would have worked a lot better as a two-parter, which not only would have paced Morgan’s character arc more reasonably, but also would have given the rest of the episode more breathing room, because damn, there was a lot going on this week.

First off, the mission this week was flimsy, but fun. The episode didn’t spend enough time on it, but anything that features rock climbing and a severed finger gets a free pass from me. Plus, Justin Hartley was great as the episode’s villain, Wesley Sneijder. But the mission was mainly an excuse to introduce Carrie-Anne Moss as Gertrude Verbanski, CEO of Verbanski Corporation, a rival spy firm to Chuck’s Carmichael Industries, and I must say she fits into the Chuck universe quite nicely, relishing her role in the way that Chevy Chase and Mark Sheppard perfected on this show, but not chewing so much scenery that she ever transformed it into farce. I like the idea that she’s soft enough to be a love interest for Casey, but that she’s also clever and manipulative. That should provide for some interesting stories down the line.

This episode also brought us back to the Buy More, so empty this week that a tumbleweed was literally floating across it. I like the idea that Chuck and Morgan would have to drum up business there in order to keep the store afloat. Big Mike’s retro Buy More ad was great, as was Awesome’s new one. But while it makes sense that Morgan wouldn’t be the most competent Buy More manager without the help of Big Mike or the CIA, this happened in an episode where Morgan was being portrayed as having poor judgment in the spy world too, so it felt like the show was just piling on his character. Also, that the Buy More would go from having almost no customers to being packed on the strength of a single commercial spot felt too out-there and cartoonish, even for this show. Again, this is something that could have better played out over two episodes instead of just one.

Elsewhere, there were many other good ideas, but most of them feel underdeveloped at this stage. We saw Chuck wrestling with being both friend and handler to Morgan, Sarah and Casey demonstrating that they lack confidence in Morgan, and Morgan struggling to prove himself worthy of being a spy. I suppose that all those things together, coupled with how the Intersect was affecting his personality, are what got Morgan to turn traitor at the end of the episode. Again, this is something that happened way too quickly, and it makes the manner in which the Intersect was modifying Morgan’s personality seem like a narrative cheat to get the story where the writers want it to go as soon as possible. Of course, Morgan could be playing Gertrude (and Gertrude could be playing Morgan, but let’s not make our heads spin that much). He could be trying to gather intel about Verbanski Corporation, and the reason he didn’t tell the others was because he knew they’d disapprove. In that case, the show is engaging in dishonest storytelling, hiding information from the audience solely for the sake of a big “aha!” moment.

There was a lot of good stuff going on in “Bearded Bandit,” but much of it didn’t feel as if it had been realized to its full potential. In many ways, that’s a good thing. That means that things aren’t being tied up neatly with a nice little bow on top. There are actual consequences for what’s happening, and emotional arcs will carry over from one episode to the next. (Consider that an improvement over last season.) But it also means that “Bearded Bandit,” as fun as it was, with all the rock climbing, kung-fu, and ridiculous Buy More commercials, felt weirdly half-baked. While last week’s “Zoom” hinted towards a more mature, focused show, this week’s episode reverted Chuck back to its old, “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach. It’s fine to do so, but only if you’ve got more than an hour. The end result was that “Bearded Bandit,” while quite entertaining, felt a bit rushed. Before I really judge this episode, though, I’m going to need to see the next couple of ones. It’s possible that a lot of what felt rushed or underdeveloped this week will be resolved or addressed next week. And that’s fine. That’s the nature of serialized television: it can be a bit bumpy, and to be frank, I prefer bumps to ruts. Whatever is happening on Chuck right now might be inelegant, but at least it’s fun.

Other random thoughts:

  • Casey and Sarah actually make quite a fun pair. Sarah’s reaction to Casey asking her if she’d ever had sex with someone who had just tried to kill her was priceless.
  • The show really needs to get a stuntman who looks more like Josh Gomez, but at least they used more shots of the guy’s back this week.
  • Another episode that didn’t focus on Chuck and Sarah’s relationship. That’s probably a good thing, seeing as the episodes from last season that focused on other things tended to be the stronger ones.
  • It’s kind of funny that Gertrude Verbanski would personally come to rescue Chuck and Morgan. She must have really, really wanted to see Casey. Or maybe she just really, really wanted to stick it to Sarah.
  • This week in gratuitous references to the fact that Chuck and Sarah are married: “…Ms. Walker.” “Mrs. Walker.”
  • Visually, the show looks much nicer than it did last season, maybe even slightly better than it did in season 3. I’ll chalk it up to the fact that the show isn’t trying to recreate international sets via green screen every second week.

So anyway, this was a fun, if slightly flawed, episode of Chuck, and I’ll see where things pick up next week.