This week’s Chuck demonstrated that there’s a surefire way to surprise your audience: set up a guy as the season’s big bad, then kill him off before you even make it midway through. Now, Decker’s gone, Verbanski’s on the run, and Chuck is fighting off Lord knows what threat from Lord knows whom. We’ll take a closer look after the jump.

Let’s cut straight to the chase. It’s really weird to kill off a season’s ostensible big bad before season’s end. It raises the question, “Where the hell does the show go from here?” I’m not complaining, mind you. Decker never really worked as a character, mainly because Richard Burgi never really clicked in the role. If anything, killing him off helps explain some of motivations: he really was just a pawn in a larger game.

This raises a couple of concerns. The first is that this is all becoming too convoluted. To that, I have two responses. A) I’ll criticize this giant conspiracy plot if and when it collapses under its own weight; it’s fine to speculate, but one should be careful not to engage in pre-emptive criticism. B) I pretty much wrote off Chuck’s mythology when it stopped making sense in the back half of last season, so I’m not going to be super-disappointed if this all falls apart anyway. There’s a second concern, though, which is a little more worrisome, and it has to do with a feeling of being misled.

One of the most frustrating plot developments in Chuck’s history came at the end of season 2, when it was revealed that Bryce had been under Stephen’s thumb all along, trying to manipulate Chuck’s life according to Stephen’s wishes. That development tried to retroactively rewrite Bryce’s character motivations, and as a result, I felt duped. It’s easy to feel the same way about Decker being revealed as less than a big bad, since up until now, we’ve been led to believe that he was acting for his own gain. That being said, there’s a difference between being misled for 35 episodes and being misled for 6. The former is frustrating. The latter is…well…let’s just say it’s surprising.

However, what led up to those final few minutes of the episode wasn’t as surprising. It was pretty much run-of-the-mill Chuck, with some cool spy shenanigans and a dose of Buy More weirdness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t mean to imply that this show suffers from The Killing’s formula (Dramatic music + Episode-ending cliffhangers + Heavy downpour = Emmy bait). But it does mean that the thrills found in the first fifty minutes or so of “Hack Off” weren’t of the suspenseful kind.

With Casey stuck in prison, Chuck and Sarah took Verbanski’s help to carry out the mission: infiltrate a nudist cult, grab a chip containing a super-virus, and bring it back to Decker in exchange for Casey’s release. Weirdly enough, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. The nudist stuff lasted all of a minute before we were on to Phish-esque drum circles, Sarah in a kick-ass lady-fight (hell yeah!), and Chuck trying to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a programmer. That being said, the nudist stuff didn’t really work for me. Chuck has been able to do cringe comedy well on occasion, but this was mainly a lot of cringing. I’m inclined to chalk that up to Zachary Levi, who directed this week’s episode. While he has a very good handle on the characters, and he’s good at preventing the performances from going over the top – he even got Burgi to stop chewing so much scenery! – he uses a sort of amped-up visual style that the rest of the series doesn’t use. Blurred-out private parts don’t really belong on Chuck. They just don’t fit with the show; Chuck isn’t a mockumentary, nor is it shot handycam-style. I couldn’t help but think that the nudist scenes would have worked so much better if they had used strategically-placed foliage and tree branches instead.

I don’t want to complain too much about the directing, though, because it wasn’t at all awful, and the rest of the episode worked very well, both humour-wise and thematically. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for Chuck’s writers to remember that Jeff and Lester work just as well – if not better – apart than they do together. Lester as a terrified prisoner: hilarious. Lester as a devious mastermind who controls the prisoners’ multimedia access: genius. There was also a brief but very funny appearance by Community’s Danny Pudi, and although I rag on that show for its idiotic, self-absorbed writing, I have nothing but good things to say about its supporting cast. Pudi, in particular, has always been a standout, and he was a standout here too, nailing the idea of a better-Lester-than-Lester perfectly. The Yvette Nicole Brown cameo was a nice way to cap off his scene.

Thematically, the show focused this week on an important question: what point is there to being an independent spy if it means giving up your independence? True, Chuck and Sarah have debated leaving the spy life 74126 times. But now that they’ve cut their CIA affiliations, they realize that taking control of their lives isn’t as simple as they originally believed, that they can’t just say, “this is what I want” and then obtain it. That’s not as pessimistic a worldview as it might seem. It doesn’t mean that Chuck and Sarah are trapped forever, but it does mean that they’ll have to work hard for what they want, and no matter what they do, there will be consequences, both positive and negative.

Unfortunately, the way this was executed was a little too on-the-nose, à la Alphas. Chuck is a stronger show when it’s not spelling out its themes directly via dialogue. I don’t need it hammered home that Chuck is pondering life outside the spy game. Furthermore, while I appreciated how Verbanski’s fear of a “normal” life tied in thematically with Chuck considering a truly “normal” life, the scene at the Hack Off where she discussed her feelings with Sarah was just clunky.

Overall, though, despite having some clunky dialogue, “Hack Off” was a very solid episode of Chuck. It was especially notable for the way it managed to weave six subplots – the mission; Chuck and Sarah considering leaving the spy game; Lester in prison; Jeff trying to get Lester to promise not to poison him; Casey and Verbanski’s romance; and Morgan trying to atone for what he did to Casey and his daughter – into a seamless web. Chuck feels more like a story and less like a TV show when its subplots aren’t so clearly delineated, and that’s a good thing. Furthermore, while the first fifty minutes of “Hack Off” showed how to tell a good story, the last ten minutes showed how to throw in a weird twist, if only to shake things up and push the characters out of their comfort zones.

Other random thoughts:

  • I of course knew that Lester didn’t actually buy a “12-gauge” shotgun, but the idea that Lester was buying 12-gauge electrical wiring somehow didn’t cross my mind.
  • I did, however, manage to predict that Decker’s plan was a setup, not that it made any sense. But he’s dead now, so he doesn’t have to make sense anymore.
  • Potential plot hole alert: wouldn’t the authorities notice that Casey escaped from prison and send the Marshals after him? Fanwank: Now that Decker’s dead, nobody cares about the charges.
  • I liked it better when the Hinjews came from Saskatchewan. Still, Vali’s rendition of O Canada in French was spot-on.
  • This week in gratuitous references to the fact that Chuck and Sarah are married: Verbanski referred to them as “newlyweds.” Can you really call them “newlyweds” if they’ve been married for six months?
  • No Ellie or Awesome this week. Shame.
  • Still not really feeling the Casey/Verbanski romance. Sorry guys.
  • I’ve seen people wearing those “nudist cult robes” in real life. (With pants, of course.) Nobody said nudists couldn’t be fashionable!
  • Good to see that the show remembers Chuck is good with computers. It’s a much better way of showing off his intelligence than his ability to use fruit juice creatively.

We’ll be seeing how Chuck does without a big bad for a while, until three or four episodes from the end, I’m guessing. But if the show has more weird surprises on the level of killing Decker up its sleeve, then I’m intrigued to see where this is all going.