By Ken Tucker
Updated March 23, 2010 at 02:19 PM EDT

You’ve got to admire everyone involved in Chuck: The show is still struggling in the ratings, butwhere other shows might be timid, Chuck is making bold changes without fear of alienating its crucial fan-base.

And so after last week’s Casey-goes-rogue episode, which put a major character in a new dark light — Casey busted to civilian status; we learned his romantic past and his real name — this week we got Chuck’s final “test” to become a full-fledged spy: a solo mission to locate and kill a designated target.

It’s clear by now that one key function Brandon Routh’s Shaw serves this season is to introduce serious plot elements that might have seemed awkward emanting from the rest of the often-comic cast. So his gravitas gave dramatic weight to Chuck’s assignment, which was to locate a U.S. mole working with foreign bad guys, and take the traitor out.

To be sure, there were a lot of nice light moments. The best of these was what might be called the Subway Summit: Big Mike asking Casey to meet with Jeff and Lester, to break bread over a meal at a Subway restaurant in an effort to prevent Jeffster from suing Casey and the Buy More. (Casey had knocked the boys around a little.) I wonder whether that long-time Chuck ally Subway will be introducing a new sandwich option, since we saw Jeff smoosh together tuna and pepperoni sandwiches to create the “tunaroni,” which Casey was then forced to eat?

As for Chuck’s “final exam” — well, to be honest, I had a couple of problems with it. The idea that Sarah had to be the one to give Chuck the kill order, because he wouldn’t have done it otherwise seemed silly even for Chuck. By now, Chuck has had enough training, been in enough dangerous situations, that he should be able to overcome his squeamishness about killing. And so should the show itself.

There seems to be an implicit understanding between the producers and the audience that having Chuck kill is a line that can’t be crossed, because… why? It would lessen our sympathy for Chuck? Come on: Last night it was well-established that, as far as Chuck knew, the guy he was being ordered to terminate, Hunter Perry, was a “traitor” who “puts civilians at risk.” The homicide would have been justified, on the show’s own terms. The fact that, at the last minute, Chuck and Chuck couldn’t pull the trigger — a hidden Casey delivered the kill-shot — made me think our hero still doesn’t quite deserve his shiny new badge and promotion.

Did this bother anyone else? And what did you think about that last-minute Sarah flashback, to her own first-kill assignment? It felt tacked-on, structurally (the episode was nearly over), yet I still found it interestingly framed and emotionally effective. That’s the thing about Chuck: It doesn’t do things the way other shows do.

Your thoughts, please.

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