A review of tonight's "Chuck" coming up just as soon as I record a message of love on an electronic bear...

"Chuck has a plan." -Sarah

I will never be one to complain about the existence of new episodes of "Chuck," and/or the existence of new episodes of anything I like this close to Christmas and New Year's, but I feel bad that "Chuck vs. the Santa Suit" had to air this late in the calendar year. This is the best episode of the new season by far, and one of my favorite episodes of the series, period, and I imagine the ratings are going to be significantly lower than even the lousy numbers the show's been pulling so far on Friday nights. This is one every "Chuck" fan has been waiting for in some way, and a lot of them may miss it or not get to it for a while on their DVRs.(*)

(*) Various people have asked me this season why NBC hasn't put this season on Hulu, iTunes, On Demand, etc. In this case, those decisions fall not to the network, but the studio, and Warner Bros. has historically taken a much harder line on alternate distribution rights than the other studios. "Big Bang Theory" wasn't available online for a long time, and there have been other periods in the past where you couldn't get "Chuck" on iTunes. It's unfortunate, and shuts out anyone who isn't watching TV on Friday night and doesn't have a DVR, but that's where we stand as of now, it seems.  

Daniel Shaw was a very unpopular figure during his tenure in season 3.0, in part because some fans didn't like yet another obstacle standing in between Chuck and Sarah, in part because Brandon Routh came off as fairly stiff in the role. But I thought the character and actor worked very well once Shaw made a full heel turn at the end of 3.0 through his appearances in season 3.1. The show spent half of last season trying to set up Vivien Volkoff as Chuck's arch-nemesis, but he already had one. Shaw has a messy, angry history with Chuck's wife, he killed Chuck and Ellie's father, he has the Intersect, and he has the spy skills and cockiness that Chuck didn't come with. He is the Sinestro to Chuck's Green Lantern, Professor Zoom to his Flash.

Given the history, and that he was the last man standing with an Intersect, Shaw had to come back sooner or later in this final season. And "Chuck vs. the Santa Suit" was more than worth the wait. It paid off the whole Decker arc by explaining it as Shaw's vendetta (who else in the government would care this much about hurting Chuck?). It gave Ellie a chance to get closure and a bit of justice for Stephen's death.

Most importantly, it established once and for all just what a bad-ass Chuck Bartowski is, Intersect or no Intersect.

After last week's unfortunate reversion to his bumbling early spy days for the sake of an uninteresting plot, Chuck was on top of every phase of his game tonight. We know he's a genius, so his ability to use the Omen virus to suck the Intersect out of Shaw(**) shouldn't be a surprise. Nor should his ability to confidently execute a plan at this stage, even if he sometimes fails to act like it. (Again, see last week.) What was a very pleasant, bordering-on-awesome, surprise was that after five years of working alongside Sarah Walker and John Casey - and after a fair bit of time without the Intersect - Chuck has finally learned how to fight a little. A long overdue development - the show got far more mileage than it should have out of pretending a guy built like Zachary Levi would be a complete physical pushover - and a tremendously satisfying one as it played out. (I especially enjoyed Chuck doing the high kick move Sarah used at the end of the big rope  fight scene in "Chuck vs. Phase Three.") This show has always been about Chuck's journey towards becoming a hero, and it's had to slow that journey down or reverse course at times due to outside events (these unexpected renewals, primarily), but this felt like the perfect culmination of everything. Chuck finally puts it all together - the mental with the physical, the spycraft (crashing the CIA party with Beckman) with the nerd stuff (recruiting Jeffster to crack The Omen) - and takes down the man who's caused him and his loved ones so much misery. Perfect.

(**) Ironically, he used the stunt Superman pulls on General Zod and friends at the end of "Superman II" on the guy who once played Superman.

Chuck wasn't the only one putting everything together this week. "Santa Suit" was a rare episode of the series to feature the entire ensemble (and give almost all of them something to do, with Awesome probably drawing the shortest straw after last week's spotlight), and Amanda Kate Shuman's script featured so many of the things I love about this show and will miss when it's gone. There was terrific drama and suspense (I caught my breath a few times waiting to see what would happen with Shaw and Chuck in the Buy More), good action, laugh-out-loud comedy (anything at the CIA Christmas party, anything to do with Jeffster), characters getting to be superhuman in various ways (a badly-wounded Casey using the teddy bear to bust out of the Castle cell to help Morgan rescue Sarah was especially cool) and warm family moments (everything at the Christmas party, but especially Casey nudging Alex back towards Morgan).

"Santa Suit" felt like such a culmination of both Chuck's journey and the series itself - including Beckman inviting everyone to rejoin the CIA - that it almost had the feel of one of the many faux-finales we've gotten in seasons past. We still have 6 hours of the series to go, though, and given that there won't be an extension on these 13 episodes, I have to assume Chris Fedak, like Chuck, has a master plan he's going to execute down the home stretch.

And if things don't work out for some reason, we can add "Chuck vs. the Santa Suit" to "Chuck vs. the Ring" (and "Ring Part II"), "Chuck vs. the Other Guy," "Chuck vs. the Push Mix" and "Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger" as episodes the series could have easily, happily ended on. "Chuck" the series doesn't always do everything well, but it tends to come through big-time in the climaxes - even if this particular climax came midway through the final season.

Some other thoughts:

* One of the downsides to Shaw-as-villain episodes is that Sarah inevitably winds up drugged, bound or both, and she once again spent most of this episode as his captive. That said, I'm glad she wasn't entirely the damsel in distress: that even after suffering hypothermia and the strain of being hung from her arms like that, she was able to free herself (because of course Sarah Walker keeps knives hidden in those ridiculous designer shoes) and try to fight back. And even when she was tied up, she resisted Shaw's greasy charms and had confidence that Chuck was going to swoop in and kick ass.

* One other Sarah note: Sarah takes a pretty savage beating from an Intersect'ed Shaw (the toss off the Castle balcony alone... oof) yet her face is remarkably unblemished, while Shaw gets punched and kicked by a non-Intersect'ed Chuck and has a face looking like hamburger when Sarah goes to see him in lock-up. The advantage of being the pretty woman on a TV show, I suppose. (Strahovski occasionally wears bruise makeup - the end of "Chuck vs. the Best Friend" comes to mind - but not often, despite how often Sarah gets into knock-down fights.)

* Oh, and one more: I will wait and see on this mysterious baby Shaw discussed. There certainly wasn't a period during the show's timeline where Sarah could have slipped off and had a baby without Chuck, Casey and company noticing, so either it's one she had before the pilot, or it's more complicated than that tease suggested.

* Morgan no longer has the Intersect, and our heroes might rejoin the CIA soon. That leaves two other bits of the new status quo still to deal with: 1)Will Chuck ever get the Intersect back? (My money's on yes, at some climactic moment of the series finale.) 2)With Decker dead and the government vendetta against Chuck over, will the last scraps of the Volkoff fortune be unfrozen so Chuck is again rich (if not as rich as he was before he bought all that gear the CIA used to provide)?

* It's kind of funny how the show has given General Beckman better stories these last few weeks while the team was still officially civilian than she often got while she was technically their boss. Beckman making out with Chuck - "Pucker up, Bartowski. You're about to become a man." - to maintain their cover is one of the biggest laughs I've gotten from the show in a long time. Good on Bonita Friedericy (and on  Shuman) for that.

* Legendary Marvel Comics writer (co-creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, most of the Avengers, etc.) Stan "The Man" Lee guest-starred in the past he was born to play, baby, but with a twist: in "Chuck" world, Stan Lee has secretly been a spy all along. A good joke, and the show didn't ask too much of The Man's range for the cameo. Even more fun was Mo Collins (probably best known around these parts as Joan Callamezzo on "Parks and Recreation") as the drunk, sloppy security officer Caroline.

* Again, this was not a Casey-centric episode, but Casey helping to save Sarah despite a bad wound and the teddy bear as his only tool was terrific, and also reminiscent of the "Firefly" episode "Out of Gas" (though that was an episode about Mal, not Jayne).

* I'm glad the show doesn't seem to be walking back the Smart Jeff thing, while still finding ways for the Jeffster duo to work together. Here, they got to put in the obligatory Subway plug, which was at least turned into a good joke as they got more and more wired on their bottomless cups of Subway coffee. It was also nice to see Jeffster play a role in saving the world - sort of like "Chuck" doing the same by playing Missile Command in "Chuck vs. Tom Sawyer" - even if they didn't realize it.

* This week in "Chuck" music: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee (Buy More customers are panicking about the Omen), "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" by The Platters (Chuck and Beckman arrive at the CIA Christmas party), "Silent Night" by the Washington National Cathedral Choir (Shaw loses the Intersect and fights Chuck), "White Nights" by The Golden Filter (Chuck and Ellie talk by the Christmas tree), "Love Can Drive Your Mind Wild" by The Kickdrums (Beckman tells Sarah that Shaw wants to see her).

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com