REVIEW: Chuck vs. the Tic-Tac (Episode 3.10) (SPOILERS)

Chuck vs. the Tic-Tac 3.10 ***¾

It’s amazing how a show can go from buoyant and bad-ass one week to brutal and bad-ass the next. It’s a testament to how much confidence the crew has with the show. Good or bad, brilliant or ill-conceived, you can’t fault a show that’s not afraid to approach a tone that it rarely goes towards. Only a cast and crew this talented and confident can pull off an episode like Tic-Tac.

It’s amazing how streamlined the episode really is. It was true for the previous episode, as well, but here the story just goes by lightning quick and the stakes increase so, so much by the end. It’s also interesting to see a Chuck character with such a tragic backstory in John Casey.

We learn that just as Sarah changed her name so did Casey, who used to be Private Alex Coburn. But unlike Sarah, who wanted to escape from her family’s criminal past, Casey must burn the bridge to his fiance if he is to be the soldier he wants to be. The one that her fiance would be proud of. The one that must sacrifice love for duty.

In Tic-Tac Casey’s past comes back to haunt him when he must perform a mission for his ex-CO, played by Robert Patrick, who is now an operative for the Ring. In one of those scenes you wish the creators would force-feed to the Emmy voters, Chuck mistakes Casey swiping a vial from CIA storage as part of another test and joshes Beckman Chuck-style, but then it quickly escalates to tension-o-rama when Sarah and Beckman both confront him about what he stole. Guns are considered, jaws are clenched, and pleading the fifth is exercised in devastating fashion.

Sarah and Chuck risk Leavenworth to clear Casey’s name after Chuck gets some recon intel from Morgan. I love how willing Morgan is to leap into the spy world feet first and Chuck has to hold back the reins. We may see Chuck in more of a mentorship role with Padawan Grimes in future episodes, more evidence of how much Morgan’s role has opened up.

I’m sure the Chuck/Sarah fans squealed when they saw the terrific twosome together again and it’s wonderful to see the joy evident in the characters as well. I love how aware that shows are about relationships and about how character behavior is dependent upon the company they keep. So for instance if Shaw was in on this mission, the dynamic would have changed drastically, been a bit more intense, and definitely more sobering. He also would have been adamant about letting Casey out to dry. And judging by fan reaction probably not gone over so well.

With Chuck, we see a playfulness and giddiness that wasn’t there before with Shaw. And it’s great that despite how dire Casey’s situation is, Sarah is pleased as punch to be partnered with Chuck. She makes sympathetic owie face when Chuck slams into a transparent slab and when she and Chuck are confronted by Stanley Fitzroy, head of CIA security (and son of the king) they riff a nice con on him effortlessly. Completely in sync, finishing each other’s sentences, the whole bit.

However, just when Team Bartowski appears to be rejuvenated and revived, Casey’s CO reappears to spring him from his cell. And just like that Anakin Casey follows Colonel Palpatine the Ringmaster.

Sarah and Chuck are captured before they abandon their failed rescue and get recruited by General Backman to find Casey and, if necessary, to terminate him with extreme…terminating-type tactics. In a bittersweet bit, Sarah and Chuck lament Casey’s turn to the dark side and Sarah admits that she thought Chuck has changed. She tells him that whatever happens in his journey towards becoming a spy to not lose what makes him Chuck. The essence of this sweet-natured guy that Sarah has come to love. Chuck promises that he’s still that guy.

Hello, foreshadowy goodness!

And along that vein, I feel I have to explain the rating a bit. The pace of this episode was so ratcheted and focused that as much as I enjoyed the Awesome, Ellie, and Morgan moments individually, I was impatient that it took me away from the main action. All that said, I am very glad that my painful prediction of Captain Awesome, super villain extraordinaire did not bear fruit. As a matter of fact, when push came to shove Awesome was there for his wife and her needs. He’d support her study of neurology, Africa (And safety) be damned. In this instance love came before livelihood.

And that turns out to be Casey’s rather predictable dilemma. The Ring will kill Casey’s ex-fiance if he doesn‘t deliver an experimental vial. One that suppresses fear.

We get another echo this episode as well. This time back to Sarah Walker attending her high school reunion and Chuck telling her that he doesn’t need to know who she used to be, all that matters is he wants to be with the woman he knows now. Again, same thing this time directed toward Casey in the literal sense, which adds even more depth considering he betrayed the United States. But also in the subtextual sense because of the fact that Chuck now knows Sarah’s real name, but Shaw was the one she revealed it to. And this is why when the good episodes come out they’re really good. Because in one way or another the story always comes back to Chuck and his relationships. With his team. With his family. And above all, with Sarah.

More mirrors abound, but first some vintage Team Bartowski improv. All members, all pieces working as one in their specific theaters. Sarah takes out the henchmen. Casey takes out his CO. And Chuck protects Casey’s ex-fiance.

But this show–even if it is guilty of the occasional plot contrivance, just like every other damn TV show—nails those critical juxtaposing beats when it has to. Casey strangles the life out of the Benedict Arnold and Sarah doesn’t even blink. For Chuck, Casey slips him the mickey (in Chuck’s pocket) and he becomes mighty scary bad-ass When he flashes, I could have sworn that the martial arts were of the lethal kind. Like a John Woo ballet, Chuck makes short, brutal work of all of them.

And with that he’s in the same position Casey found himself with hoisting up his enemy by his neck crushing the air out of his windpipe. Until Sarah comes and implores Chuck to stop it. Depending upon which one you prefer, the pill either wears off just as Sarah oh-so-conveniently shows up, or all it takes for Chuck to snap out of it is Sarah’s presence. I prefer the latter view myself. After the ordeal, Casey’s is just beginning. He finds out the hard way that he has a daughter and then finds gets dishonorably discharged from the NSA for his actions. He’s the worst thing he can possibly be in his mind: a civilian.

The good news though, as Chuck points out, is that now he has nothing holding him back from seeing his daughter. But that’s just it. He made his choice and it was the right one.

Or was it? We don’t get a definitive answer. But for one episode at least it looks like his choice cost him a whole heckuvalot. He’s now a man without duty or without love. And in a rare moment of vulnerability he advises Chuck to go after Sarah. “It’s not too late,” he says. For Chuck. Casey’s bed’s already been made to military standards. Even if it no longer makes any difference.

So Casey had love and duty torn from him. Sarah retreats from both when it comes to Chuck. And that’s why it matters how you infer scenes because if the pill just wore off for Chuck there’s no resonance here. She was there for Chuck before his transformation to perfect, cold, ruthless killer spy was complete and Chuck’s soul was forever tainted with taking a life. But what happens next time? What if she’s not enough to keep Chuck from the cold abyss? Can she live with the guilt? Would she want to?

Better not to find out. So she flees to DC. To Shaw, the easy choice. Heartbroken but strong. Sarah Walker through and through.

The plan to darken up Chuck’s world a bit was a huge gamble–perhaps a doomed one–but here we get that plan implemented to a T. That this was written by first-timers in Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc is even more impressive providing a wonderful acting showcase for Adam Baldwin, who makes John Casey as human and conflicted as we’ve ever seen him. Say this for Schwartz and Fedak and the cast. They don’t rest on their laurels. They have a story to tell. It’s an engaging story. And the engaging ones are rarely easy.

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