Review: Chuck vs. The Nacho Sampler (Episode 3.6)

 It begins with an image familiar to many Chuck fans: the first meeting between Sarah Walker and Chuck Bartowski. It’s all there. Vicki Vale. The cell phone. The bumbling Nerd Herd nice guy.
It seems like a lifetime ago. After this episode that impression becomes painfully stronger.

Here is an episode that may prove to be a watermark for the season. One that marks a transition to deeper and darker areas not revealed through its innocuous title.

The pattern with some of the early episodes seem to be showing the upside and downside to changes in characters’  lives. Awesome found out the perks of knowing a real spy in one episode and how dangerous that knowledge is in the next episode. In First Class, Chuck successfully completed his first solo mission. Now he has to deal with the fallout. Friends and family who are growing suspicious about his mysterious “install trips.” It’s getting harder to tell for Chuck what his normal life even is. But most importantly, it’s getting harder for Chuck to retain the old, adorable demeanor he had before. In fact, he’s now turning it on and off with frightening ease.

This latest adventure has him having to gain the trust of an asset named Manoosh who seems to be on the run from the Ring. He’s Chuck’s doppelganger. Like Chuck he had a brilliant college career that fizzled. He’s a geek who’s partial to Battlestar Galactica and nacho samplers. But unlike Chuck he has no one. No friends. No family. No love interest.

Chuck finds out that Manoosh is more like him than he realizes. Turns out Manoosh has built a partial intersect into a pair of modified-to-the-nines sunglasses. And Manoosh is willing to sell himself to the highest bidder.

The plot is pretty cut and dried and, really, nothing special. In fact, I think the whole building an intersect out of Ray Bans totally devalues the whole mystique of the intersect and Chuck gifted with this huge responsibility. But I go for the Dollhouse argument, meaning that if the tech has been created then somehow, someway that tech can be replicated. And as Chuck pointed out, it was an imperfect intersect. It needed an external source to activate and while it gave Manoosh the physical abilities he still didn’t have the intel that needs to complete his missions. Dude’s gotta know who the good guys and bad guys are.

So the reason for the four stars comes down to the Ron Moore argument. If the show comes down to characters (stupid) then the character beats here left a lot of groundwork in place where you can go fucking nuts in storylines and character development. I love that. This episode left a lot of grist for the milling.

For instance, one of the chief complaints for fans here was how underutilized Hannah was after her big intro last episode. But I think that’s completely necessary because it shows how removed Chuck has become from his Buy More life–his family, extended and immediate.

Indeed, Chuck is starting to see the world through the eyes of a government operative. Family is distraction. Ellie’s suspicions are an obstacle an unwanted variable. Casey and Sarah are colleagues. The Buy More is a front not a life. He has no problem now lying to his loved ones with assured calm and pasted-on smile. Obstacles are what you maneuver around to attain a goal. If you can’t maneuver around it, go through it. Eliminate the obstacle.

Thankfully, he hasn’t gone that far.

But in his dealings with Manoosh–a guy only a hair’s breath away from who he used to be–he may be heading in that direction. And Sarah struggling with that is an understatement. To see Chuck Bartowski so willingly allow this cold lack of emotion is heartbreaking for her, made so palpable by Yvonne Strahovski’s effective performance.

We also see the inherent conflict for Chuck, especially with the final blow when he sends Manoosh underground. I would have preferred it if Zach Levi played this as full-on cross over to the dark side, but whether Chuck is conflicted is beside the point. He makes the hard call and ends Manoosh’s life a s a free man. All because of the way he wanted to make himself more than he was. Not that far removed from Chuck.

I’m making this sound like a serious downer of an episode, but Schwartz and Fedak are smarter than that. They know that the fans want to see some up-Chuck and the creators deliver in kind. On the Buy More front, we get Morgan trying to make a move on the neglected Hannah. Sarah seduces Manoosh as only she can: a Frak Off T-Shirt, toned midriff, and her own smoldering sensuality. Chuck and Casey get up close and personal when trying to escape from a Ring trap. Casey gets tranq happy with Manoosh. Awesome’s paranoia reaches comical extremes.

Yet, brilliantly, while we get the humorous release it leaves a melancholic aftertaste. Morgan’s machinations take an abrupt right hand turn when Hannah inadvertently reveals Chuck’s deception. Chuck has his own trick of the geek trade to get close to Manoosh with a copy of Y: The Last Man, but now he’s using a tome he held dear to his heart as merely a tool, something to allow personal connection to his asset. Chuck ends up using Casey’s little surprise in a surprisingly violent way atypical of the gentle Chuck. Chuck calls Casey Tranqenstein, yet he’s the one who ends up tranqing Manoosh at the end. All Awesome’s paranoia does is make Ellie more suspicious and in the end she teams with Morgan, Jeff, and Lester to investigate Chuck.

The Tranqenstein line gains even more meaning. The mentorship role that Casey has is becoming more pronounced while Sarah can only stand by and watch in sad disbelief as Chuck is gradually becoming a cold monster, the perfect unemotional spy. When Casey monitors Chuck’s deceptive interaction with Ellie he damns Sarah further, reminding her that she had her own hand in this creation. “You taught him well, Walker.”

This episode leaves so many tantalizing doors open, but one that especially pops out is the nacho sampler himself. The producers have a wealth of potential in this character, wonderfully realized by Fahim Anwar. It was the first acting gig for the stand-up comic and thankfully won’t be the last. Here we have a doppelganger of our hero sent underground. That can only lead to resentment, anger, madness, and finally a quest for vengeance. Heaven help Team Bartowski if he were to escape. I always wanted Chuck to get his very own arch-enemy. I might be getting my wish.

But this leaves Chuck in a bad place. Unbeknownst to our hero, the walls are starting to close in, the lies are starting to get picked apart, and inconsistencies abound. The milkshakes and mochas are being replaced with Johnny Walker whiskey. And all Sarah can do is watch heartbroken while her man is drowning.

At one point, Chuck assumes how easy it was for Sarah to use him as the asset, but Sarah disagrees. She liked him. She liked the sweet and innocent guy who created a mock recital for the ballerina girl whose dad forgot to record it for her bedridden mother. That disarmed her. That made it harder.

And it makes what’s happening to him now all the more harder.

We flashback again at the end, this time from Sarah’s perspective. She gets her info about the mark. Where he’s at. How he got there. She sees the picture. A nerd. Goofy smile. Easy as pie.

“Piece of cake,” Sarah smirks.

For Chuck and Sarah it’s never been a piece of cake. And it never will be.

Rating: * * * *



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