Meet Jenny Burton. She’s shy, awkward, and the target of every bully at James Buchanan High. Back in 1998, her father was sent to prison, leaving the orphaned girl with little more than a box full of stolen cash and the creepy mortician from Final Destination (2000) as a benefactor (okay, it was Director Graham). Ten years later, the ugly duckling has grown into an ass-kicking CIA swan by the name of Sarah Walker, but her voice still quavers the minute old classmates walk into the Orange Orange shop.
Beyond its comical impertinence and affinity for geek culture references, season two of Chuck seems dedicated to transitioning Sarah from mere love interest to full-fledged character. To that end, “Chuck versus the Cougars” (not the wild animals) sets the stage for a year-long subplot designed to fill our favourite CIA sex bomb’s backstory and provide her with a few humanising hang-ups to overcome. In television, that generally signifies daddy issues. I mean, multiple identities, a life spent on the run, an undisclosed CIA connection: “Mr Burton” has got a lot for which to answer!
Beyond these mysterious glimpses into the past lies a complex psychological makeup that, at last, puts Sarah in equal footing with our hero regarding their “will they, won’t they” romance. The revelation that little Jenny Burton was as big a dork as young Charles Bartowski suggests a lot about their relationship, or lack thereof. Agent Walker seems to have rejected her former self, whereas Chuck has become a worthy man by embracing his geeky roots. As such, their coupling depends in part on whether she can make peace with her inner child, not just whether he can earn her affections.
Beyond this major character development, “Chuck versus the Cougars” (not the horny housewives) is just plain funny. From our hero finally getting the upper hand on Sarah to the convoluted chain of events that prompts Mark to put his trust in “Special Agent Carmichael”, every single joke lands. That’s because the central conceit of a snotty cheerleader revealing herself to be a backstabbing terrorist speaks to an emotional truth as undeniable as Casey’s assertion that “love is for suckers.”
Casey versus the Character Inertia
Beyond his occasional pearls of wisdom, Casey is given little to do in “Chuck versus the Cougars” (not the failed NBC sitcom), yet he’s what glues the whole thing together for me. It’s hard to discuss Sarah’s tremendous growth as a character without noticing how much her NSA partner has been sidelined as a result. The fact that I couldn’t even conceive of an episode of Chuck without his perfectly timed grunts speaks volumes about the charm and charisma Adam Baldwin brings to the role. Here’s hoping the writers find him more to do sometime soon.
Lester versus the Character Progression
Beyond the spy adventure with Sarah and Casey, Chuck always serves up a Buy More B-plot, but few reflect the themes of the episode with as much irony as in “Chuck versus the Cougars” (not the Canadian hockey team). Lester’s arc echoes Sarah’s own in that both involve damaged souls learning to trust the world again. However, whereas Agent Walker’s journey remains in progress, Assistant Manager Patel’s comes to fruition with Morgan’s untypically insightful speech only for the character to cower at the last minute and reverse all of his development. It’s tragic really, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud. Then again, I feel I’ve done that for forty-five minutes straight.