I didn’t really like “Chuck Versus the Curse,” and the more I thought about it, the more it bugged me. Having had more than a day to think about it, my opinion of it has dropped considerably. So I’m going to trash this episode. If that scares you, you don’t have to read on. If not, then follow me after the jump.
I haven’t read anyone else’s thoughts on “Curse” yet, but my guess is that a lot of criticism is going to centre around the so-called “idiot ball,” i.e. characters acting stupider than normal to get the plot to work. However, I have a problem with using tropes as criticism in general, and I don’t think that really gets to the heart of what was wrong with “Curse.” It’s fine for characters to make mistakes every once in a while; it’s human nature. Television would be really boring, in fact, if characters were always correct all the time. Characters need to screw up. They need to make mistakes, or there won’t be any drama or conflict. This season’s “Business Trip” handled that notion deftly, showing that Chuck and Sarah were letting their desire for a normal life cloud their judgment as spies.
So my most significant problem with “Curse” isn’t that everybody was acting like idiots; it’s that everybody needed to be acting like idiots in specific, contrived ways in order to get the plot to work, and they did so with little regard for their characters’ histories.
To see what I mean, let’s just recall the giant list of idiotic contrivances in this episode:
- The agents Beckman sent to pick up Ellie and Devon just said “Project Eagle is in effect,” with no explanation as to what “Project Eagle” was or that they were there to take the Woodcombs to a safe location.
- Ellie and Devon each believed that the other had set up a special Spy Night surprise, despite neither of them having discussed Spy Night before the dinner.
- Ellie and Devon believed Robin when she told them that she was there to take them some place safe, with no proof.
- Chuck specially assigned Morgan to retrieve his “P.A.N.T.S.” box, despite not needing said box the previous times he had to go on the run (“Colonel,” “Subway,” “Ring: Part II”). Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any way for Morgan to actually get the box to Chuck.
- Chuck ran off on his own to confront Robin without a plan or so much as a tranq gun, and then all but gave her the Omen virus.
1, 3, and 4 were are really silly, but I could envision myself letting them go under different circumstances. I don’t mean that condescendingly; I simply mean to say that I can imagine a pretty solid Chuck episode in which all of those things happened. 2 and 5, however, were galling. I just can’t imagine Devon wanting to pretend to be a spy. In fact, the majority of his character arc over the past two seasons has been based around not wanting anything to do with the spy life, but coming to terms with Chuck’s place in it. Such blatant disregard for character history really gets my goat.
5, however, was much worse. Chuck is supposed to be smart. I don’t mean that he can’t have lapses in judgment. If he never did, then Chuck would be an exceedingly boring show. But there’s an expectation that wherever possible, Chuck will at least attempt to use his wits to solve a problem.
So, it was both confusing and disheartening to see that Chuck had decided to confront Robin with no plan, and even more disheartening to see him actually give up the virus to the enemy. I’d be able to understand and even sympathize with his actions if he had exhausted all other options, like when he went to beg for Sarah’s life in last season’s finale. But I could not for the life of me comprehend why Chuck was so insistent that he had to bring the real Omen virus to the bad guys. Hasn’t Chuck been open to trickery and subterfuge in the past? It’s practically how he completes all his missions! And even if Robin would have killed Ellie and Devon if Chuck had brought them a fake, what’s to say that she wouldn’t have done the same thing if he had given them the real one? In fact, she was going to kill him anyway; if Ellie and Devon hadn’t escaped, they probably would have been on the chopping block too.
The episode attempted to provide an explanation for Chuck’s ridiculous behaviour via its titular curse: Chuck believed that he was cursed to have to leave his loved ones behind, just like his mother and father, and he kept believing this, despite his wife’s assurances to the contrary. Yet, he couldn’t even show enough trust in Sarah – his wife, who has been with him through thick and thin – to believe that she would help him devise a plan to rescue Ellie and Devon safely. It bothered me how much the episode insisting on bashing me over the head with the Chuck/Stephen parallel, as if I couldn’t deduce for myself that Chuck would make the connection when visiting his father’s cabin.
Let’s not forget that Chuck pretty much gave Robin the Omen virus, supposedly the most dangerous computer virus ever created. If this virus could wipe out databases all over the world, crippling the global information infrastructure, then risking its release would be a borderline unconscionable act.
So, at the end of this episode, Chuck came across as a terrible spy, a terrible husband, and a terrible person. Considering that he’s supposed to the hero of this show, that’s not a good thing.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have been so much of an issue if this episode had been a lot sillier or a lot darker on the whole. I could imagine Chuck’s irrational behaviour coming off as eccentric insecurity if “Curse” had been positioned as a lighthearted romp. Conversely, I could imagine Chuck’s behaviour as a sign of impending mental breakdown if “Curse” had been positioned as a far more serious outing. But Alex Katsnelson’s script and Michael Schultz’s directing seemed to be at cross-purposes. Katsnelson wrote a lighthearted romp, and Schultz tired to turn it into a sombre affair.
All throughout “Curse,” I could see bits of a funnier, goofier episode of Chuck, probably one that I would have enjoyed more. Schultz, though, seemed determined to take everything way too seriously, employing dark lighting wherever possible and playing up the drama in the cast’s performances when zaniness might have worked better.
A zanier episode, though, wouldn’t have been appropriate if it was supposed have real, legitimate consequences, and I’m guessing that unless the show is pulling another Roark OS – which it very well might be – the release of the Omen virus will cause problems down the road. So, I’m assuming that the virus had to be released by the end of this episode in order for the plot to go where it needs to go. That leads me to wonder: why did Chuck have to make such a giant screw-up in order for the virus to be released? Wouldn’t it have been simpler, plot-wise, for one of the baddies to simply steal it from Carmichael Industries? Actually, let’s apply that principle to this entire episode: wouldn’t it have been simpler, plot-wise, for Ellie and Devon to knowingly be escorted by Beckman’s men and then get kidnapped by Robin? Why did this episode need all the contrivances and instances of mistaken identity? Just terrible plotting all around.
And yet, I can’t bring myself to hate “Curse,” at least to the extent that good performances can save bad writing. Rebecca Romijn was absolutely fantastic as villainess Robin Cunnings, digging into the role with the kind of relish that the best Chuck baddies do. I’ve never been a huge fan of Mekenna Melvin’s performance or her character, but she delivered a standout performance last night, finally living up to the potential of the quiet little badass we saw back in “Subway.” And it goes without saying at this point that Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin, and Josh Gomez are excellent, but they were even better than usual in “Curse,” possibly because they were working doubly hard to reconcile Schultz’s direction with Katsnelson’s script.
Still, I can’t say that “Curse” was a good episode of Chuck, or even an okay one. It was just badly scripted from start to finish, and it made me dislike Devon and Chuck in ways that I don’t think were intended. It’s episodes like this that make me wish Chuck had ended after the Bartowski clan’s quiet funeral for Stephen Bartowski, because I’d rather remember the man for what he did on the show than for the influence he has had on Chuck’s actions afterward.