Last spring, when "Chuck" had no reasonable assurance of a future on NBC, Chris Fedak and Allison Adler wrote a season finale that turned the show upside down. "Chuck vs. the Ring" was a great episode and a terrific season finale, but had it been a series finale? Oh, there would have been grumbling.
Last winter, with no reasonable assurance of any more than 13 episodes for the show's third season, Fedak wrote "Chuck vs. the Other Guy," with some expectation that it would be the season finale and some strong possibility it might be the series finale.
With Monday's (April 5) episode, "Chuck" delivered a near-perfect finale. Leaving aside your feelings on the mechanics which got us to Monday's episode, the 44 minutes that aired on NBC wrapped up the 13-episode semi-season perfectly, delivering both laughs aplenty, but also action, romance and drama. You can look at nearly everything that happened in "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" and see how it flowed organically from the things that happened since the premiere. It wrapped up most major arcs, but also set the ball gently rolling for plenty of adventures to come. But it wasn't a cliffhanger finale or a "gamechanger" finale or any of the things we've come to expect from bubble shows looking to force a network hand.
"Chuck vs. the Other Guy" would probably have served as the kind of series finale most shows only dream about. It didn't complete the journey that the main characters were going on, but it set them down, however temporarily, at a pausing point along that road. If "Chuck" didn't come back, after seeing "Other Guy," you'd have felt as if the mission instigated in the pilot had been fairly executed (with one exception) and that the characters were going to go forth in their adventures on their own.
Of course, a funny thing happened on the way to "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" being either a series or a season finale. That funny thing was NBC's utter disaster of a fall, which somehow added six episodes to the third season. But "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" is such a satisfying ending that it'll be plenty tempting to call the next six episodes the start Season Four ("Look Ma, 'Chuck' got a Fourth Season... kinda!") or the launch of a bridging micro-season (like the "Saved by the Bell" beach season).
[Let's talk a little more about "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" (with spoilers, of course), after the break...]
I'm not exactly sure how to approach this recap linearly and I'm not sure how much desire I have to do that with an episode I enjoyed so very much.
You're almost trapped into a conversation which begins with: So, was that worth the wait?
For all of the fans who spent so much of the season so upset that Chuck and Sarah seemed to be moving further apart, rather than closer together, was that worth it for us to reach an episode where Chuck and Sarah kissed and ducked under the covers of a Paris hotel room with an imaginary view of the Eiffel Tower?
I would say, "Oh my yes."
When Sarah said, "You saved me," yeah, I got a little emotional and not just because Yvonne Strahovski played the line beautifully. It just felt like a sweet relief after everything that happened in the first 13 episodes of this season.
Even in this episode, nothing came easily for Chuck and Sarah, beginning with last week's cliffhanger, which left us wondering at Shaw's motives in driving Sarah off into the sunset after learning that she had killed his wife in her Red Test years earlier. I'm still not quite sure what Shaw's agenda in this not-quite-kidnapping was. Was it to set up Chuck crying wolf to General Beckman or was it just to prove that, given the chance, he can put together an impressive audio-visual pop art installation featuring videos of his death wife in an old warehouse? Or was it just to gain Sarah's trust, as if saying, "I have a good reason for flipping sides and taking you off to a remote location before killing you, but instead I'm going to pout for a few minutes and make you think that I'm a hero before I eventually expose that I'm flipping sides and taking you off to a remote location before killing you."
Know what I mean?
Or was it just to set up Sarah's first, less genuine, "Thank you for saving me," to Chuck, a hollow expression of gratitude followed by "I appreciated the tank." [Strahovski has great comic timing, but we don't often see it. The "I appreciated the tank" was a flawless delivery.] Probably Shaw would not have been able to anticipate that narrative purpose, though Chuck bringing in a tank he couldn't or didn't use would prove to be important (or symbolic).
Shaw also may have had troubles extrapolating that, as a result of his temporary shanghaiing of Sarah, General Beckman would lose confidence in Chuck and maroon him in Burbank, while following through on relocating Shaw and Sarah to Washington, setting off a whiskey/"Guitar Hero"/ice cream/"Pretty in Pink" binge for Chuck. Because if Shaw had imagined that consequence, he might also have imagined the consequence of Sarah coming over.
"Just once, for the record Sarah, do you love me?" Chuck asked drunkenly, as female fans around the nation swooned.
"Yes," Sarah replied, as more than a couple fans around the nation whooped and applauded.
And they kissed.
It's not like Sarah and Chuck haven't kissed before. Multiple times. But didn't this feel *better* than those times?
You could have ended the episode there except that, ya know, you couldn't. Because we needed a mission into the heart of Ring country. We needed Shaw kicking butt and seeming even more like a hero. We needed the Mexican Standoff with Mark Sheppard's Ring Leader and his mockery of Chuck's tranq gun. We needed Shaw, again showing the physical force and the nads to shoot up an elevator of bad guys. And we needed the reveal of Shaw's deal with the Ring. We needed Morgan's lifelong obsession with martial arts to pay off in recognizing a pulled punch and a missed roundhouse kick. We needed The Ring to be trying to make an Intersect and for it to be produced in Paris. We needed Shaw's explanation that the CIA thought that Eve Shaw had been turned and thus ordered her killed, something we know the CIA does because they did it to Hunter Perry two weeks ago. We needed Sarah to be incapacitated and for Chuck to fail to pull the trigger on Shaw and then for his flashing to fall flat due to excessive emotion.
And then... Then we needed Chuck to stare down Shaw on the bridge in Fake Paris and we needed Chuck to PULL THE TRIGGER.
Now here, I need to step back, because this is the one serious place where I'm relieved that "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" wasn't a *series* finale. I can tolerate Chuck killing Shaw as the culmination of this season, for many of the reasons I've mentioned before, as well as the events in "Chuck vs. the Final Exam." The arc of this season was very much about reaching the point of Chuck pulling the trigger. The best thing Fedak did was putting the "Do you love me?" scene and the kiss earlier in the episode. As a result, we knew that Chuck already *had* the girl, so you couldn't say either that Chuck found love after learning how to kill or that Sarah learned to find a way to love Killer Chuck. The show's progression has been about a boy becoming a man and a man becoming a spy, but if we ended the show now, it would climax with our hero becoming a killer, as if that were the logical, inevitable final step in his transformation. Fortunately, things will progress from here and it will no longer seem as if Chuck grabbing his gun and Chuck sleeping with Sarah were the intended climaxes of the series.
A more important climax in Chuck's spy life and the episode's ultimate callback was to something that the show has, in weaker episodes, occasionally forgotten: When we met Chuck, he was a guy who was able to disarm a bomb by figuring out how to upload a porn virus into a computer. He had all of this new information in his head, but he was still the guy who was only a few credits shy of graduating from Stanford. Along the way, Chuck got even more stuff pumped into his head and flashing became a crutch, either for the character or for the writers. Need to get Chuck out of a situation? The answer is in the Intersect. But it used to be that the answer was often in Chuck's actual brain, So when Chuck struggled with figuring out how to find Sarah and Shaw, it was a huge relief and moment of happiness when Casey told him, "Forget about the Intersect and being a spy. Before that, you were smart. That wasn't quite a "cheer out loud" moment, but it was an "underline that dialogue twice in your notebook" moment. It was a reminder of this core thing about Chuck: *He* is the hero of the show, not the information uploaded into his brain. And that goes back to the show's need for ReChuckification and to Sarah's concerns that New Chuck is still the man she fell in love with.
So if you take Chuck remembering how to use his non-Intersect brain as the episode's spy climax, that makes me feel much more comfortable about both his ability to kill Shaw and his having earned that tumble between the sheets with Sarah.
And none of that gets into Casey joining Chuck on the Paris mission and capturing The Ring Leader and then using his leverage to get his job back, a new Crown Victoria and... an official position for Morgan on Team Bartowski. That should be fun. Good thing this wasn't a finale, because I'm ready for next episode.
OK. This could ramble on forever...
Instead? Other thoughts on this week's "Chuck"...
*** The alterna-romance between Chuck and Hannah was cute and charming. If we hadn't known that Sarah was Chuck's lobster, one or two of us might have started to root for Chuck and Hannah to make a long-term go of it. Zachary Levi and Kristin Kreuk had chemistry and the writers enjoyed crafting scenes for them. Mostly by virtue of the fact that the show is called "Chuck" rather than "Sarah," the alterna-relationship between Sarah and Shaw failed in all of those respects. I doubt there was a single person in America who thought, "You know, Sarah and Shaw aren't a bad couple." Yvonne Strahovski and Brandon Routh had no chemistry and the writers had no interest in developing Sarah-Shaw scenes. So although Sarah choosing Chuck was clearly satisfying, it was a bit like the way I'm going to choose to eat a pizza tomorrow night, rather than continuing to eat matzah even once Passover ends. That's why there wasn't a scene where Sarah told Shaw that they couldn't date anymore, because dramatically there didn't need to be one. But even if the absence was clearly justified by what came before, that doesn't mean that there wasn't something the tiniest bit hollow. Chuck made a true romantic sacrifice for Sarah. He passed up a relationship which would have been perfectly acceptable and possibly even desirable, because his passion was so hot. And in passing up that former relationship, he ran the risk of looking horrible for a full 30 seconds at the end of an episode. Sarah just left a mannequin behind.
*** Speaking of that mannequin, Routh was never a good romantic foil, but I though he did a good job of making me believe this final version of Shaw. He was good in tonight's episode. I require no more than that.
*** The answer is, "Because it's Morgan, silly." But that doesn't mean I can't ask the question: Morgan now knows that Chuck has spent three years as a spy, while holding down a cover as a Buy More employee. What indication did Chuck give Morgan that being his valet, his personal assistant, his Q, his Alfred, would be a full-time gig with no need for a cover? Or did Morgan only quit his job and then get his job back because Big Mike was contractually available for this episode and therefore deserved a scene or two? Then again, this was also an episode that Jeff and Lester were both on-set for, but they were barely used at all.
*** And yet I still like that Jeff is capable of recognizing the difference between happy tears and sad tears from a distance. I'm not sure how Fedak was able to resist a "Freaks"-style "One of us... One of us..." when Jeff and Lester told Casey that with Morgan out of the Buy More picture, he could join their crew.
*** In terms of relationships that haven't been sufficiently exploited and will now hopefully become core parts of the show, Morgan & Casey feels like a great one. Yes, they've had dealings in the past, but other than the Chuck-Sarah scenes, nothing in "Other Guy" got to me like the conversation between Morgan and Casey that ended with "Enjoy my old life," "You too." And then Morgan goading Casey into recovering his mojo -- or urge to kill -- was predictably awesome. Really, this was a much better episode for Josh Gomez than "Chuck vs. the Beard," which everybody loved earlier this season. In that episode, I thought Morgan was too much of a clown, but in tonight's episode, he felt like a full-grown sidekick and, at times, even an asset.
*** I'm not sure anybody ever talks about what Bonita Friedericy does on "Chuck" as a "performer" per se, but tonight was one of her very best episodes.
*** No Awesome and Ellie this episode and I only barely remember where we left them last week. If the show had rode off into the sunset, what would we have assumed happened to Ryan McPartlin and Sarah Lancaster's characters? Would the assumption just have been that they spent the remainder of their days in Africa fighting disease and that Captain Awesome flinched a little every time he heard a gunshot from a hunting safari? I think Ellie had completed her most valuable duties in this 13-episode semi-season, but it wouldn't have sat well if Awesome's payoff were only being usurped as Chuck's buddy-in-arms.
*** It's a little thing to mention, but I loved the composition of the one or two early shots with Sarah and Shaw and then Chuck and his tactical team outside of the white-tiled Ring installation. That's just somebody -- either the director or the cinematographer or even just the location scout -- having a tremendous eye.
*** Even without its director, presumably The Ring has not ceased to be a factor and yes, I'll acknowledge that as adversaries go, The Ring never fully came together. So their big secret was that they were developing an Intersect of their own all along? Well get in line! Freakin' Boris and Natasha probably are developing an Intersect at this point.
Seriously. This recap has to stop. I'm just very happy with tonight's episode, which was the show's best since the last two episodes of Season Two. What'd you think of the episode? And are you looking forward to the six-episode micro-season?