A review of the two-hour, two-part "Chuck" season finale (and, once again, how nice is it to be able to say definitively that it's just a season and not series finale?) coming up just as soon as I thank your very convincing facial hair...

"Saved the best for last." -Chuck

What he said.

In my review of "Chuck vs. the Other Guy," I not only said that Fedak(*) and Schwartz had atoned for some of the creative missteps from earlier in the season, but that they had crafted a stealth series finale, one that provided enough closure for the show's big four that I'd be able to deal if season 3.1 ended on some insane cliffhanger and then the show didn't come back. This two-parter topped "Other Guy" - more fully embracing the possibilities of Shaw as a villain, and providing some great emotional moments on every front, and not just Chuck/Sarah - and it ended on a cliffhanger, but not one that would have been agitating had NBC not renewed the show. Like the introduction of Chuck-Fu last spring(**), the idea of Chuck quitting the CIA to become a freelance spy or vigilante or whatever Orion was up to is a promising beginning to a new phase of the show, but we're not going to be left over the summer (or, had renewal not come, forever) with Chuck and Sarah at ground zero of an H-bomb detonation, Chuck bleeding out from a bullet wound beside the Nerd Herd desk, or what have you. Season 3.0 had a story, 3.1 had one that was mostly connected, they were told, and now we have set up for something new.

(*) You can read my interview with Fedak here, and I particularly liked his reassurances about Chuck/Sarah angst and about the show never wanting to move far from Team Bartowski, no matter Chuck's employment status.

(**) And I have to say that, whatever flaws season three might have had, the Intersect 2.0 was never one of them. Chuck getting kung fu powers didn't fundamentally change the show, and the show never turned it into a crutch where episode after episode climaxed with Chuck saving the day through some new Intersect-generated skill.

But we have all summer to ponder a world without a Buy More (and whether, much as we love them, the show still has a place for Big Mike and Jeffster!), whether Morgan gets to keep his spy job if he's not being used as "the Intersect of Chuck," who will find out about the Orion files, who should play Mama Bartowski, etc. Right now I want to focus on "Subway" and "Ring: Part II," which felt very much like worthy successors to the original "Chuck vs. the Ring" (and to "Chuck vs. the Colonel" before it).

After seeming directionless and/or bumbling for much of the season, the Ring gets its act together and uses Shaw to pull off a silent coup of the American intelligence community. (Don't ask how they do it; it's "Chuck," and the details aren't important.) That leaves Team Bartowski as the nation's only possible saviors, only Chuck is on the fritz, Casey is exposed because he needs to protect his daughter, and Sarah is too busy worrying about Chuck to either run or fight. And that then leaves it to the Team Bartowski B-squad of Morgan, Awesome and, now, Ellie, to ride to our heroes' rescues.

And it's wonderful, not just for the usual comic possibilities of Devon and Morgan trying to play spy (loved them bickering over who had to use the gun, with Morgan claiming to be a "lapsed vegetarian"), but for the use of Ellie.

Ellie Bartowski has been the most problematic character on the show, since her tendency to worry about Chuck often comes across as her being too controlling. But Sarah Lancaster and the creative team - Allison Adler and Phil Klemmer writing "Subway," Fedak and Schwartz writing "Ring: Part II" (Schwartz's first "Chuck" script since the season two premiere), and Matt Shakman and Robert Duncan McNeill directing - found a way past the idea of Ellie-as-nag here, and instead gave us Ellie-as-fierce-protector, and it really worked.

The scene with Ellie in the car at the end of "Subway," telling Devon that they're saving her brother no matter what was one of several outstanding Bartowski family moments in these two hours, with another being Chuck getting Stephen to turn the car around to save the day. (That was a kind of perfect synthesis of the dramatic side of "Chuck," with Zachary Levi and Scott Bakula nailing the complicated emotions and then Band of Horses' "Neighbor" amplifying them.) We've known for a while that Stephen (RIP) has been involved in the spy game, and here we learn that the family has been wrapped up in this stuff since Chuck and Ellie were kids, and Chuck downloaded what's the first of so far four different Intersects he's had in his head, and Mary Elizabeth Bartowski had to leave due to whatever was threatening Stephen-as-Orion. And while I'm sure some will lament the transition from Chuck as an ordinary guy who just happened to get the Intersect to a special individual who was always destined for it, I think Levi still plays Chuck as Chuck, and the backstory adds greater weight to the brother-sister relationship going forward, even if Chuck has to go back to keeping Ellie in the dark. (Assuming that's what happens.)

So a lot of powerful emotional stuff on the family side, both before and after Shaw guns down Stephen, and then some fun spy stuff with Team Bartowski out-maneuvering Shaw and capturing the Five Elders of the Ring (and giving Chuck enough plausible leverage with Beckman to be allowed to retire without a bullet between the eyes), and then that very special "Chuck" mix of action and comedy and drama and the music of Jeffster!, with Chuck and Shaw throwing down in the evacuated Buy More while a handcuffed Sarah watches and Jeff and Lester's video (which they spent "two weekends" on) playing on all the TV's.

The mix of combat and Jeffster! didn't have the novelty of "Mr. Roboto" at the wedding last year, and the Intersect v. Intersect combat wasn't quite as bad-ass as I might have hoped. (I don't know if this was a scheduling problem, since finales are always filmed in a mad rush, or if this was just the show pushing against the upper limits of Levi's ability to convincingly fight like Bruce Lee.) But what it lacked in surprise and/or great fight choreography, it made up for it with the complete hatred Chuck and Shaw felt for each other - Brandon Routh has been much better-used since Shaw had his heel turn - and then the nice moment where Chuck realizes he can control the Intersect even without his dad's watch if he has to, rises up and resumes kicking ass, a very iconic pop culture-y moment that owes to everything from "The Matrix" to "The Last Dragon."

The Buy More blows up (and if scapegoats Jeff and Lester do return next year, I look forward to how the cope with the fugitive lifestyle), Chuck retires with absolutely zero angst (yay lack of angst!), Casey gets his daughter back, Morgan wins Casey's respect (for that great gag of Morgan being hardcore enough to break his thumbs, only for it to prove unnecessary), etc. And while Chuck's decision to not kill Shaw a second time does feel like the series backing away from the idea that Chuck can kill and still be Chuck, I like the idea that Shaw could escape and wreak more havoc. Every superhero (which is what Chuck is) needs an arch-nemesis; why not a guy with the exact same powers, and played by Superman himself?

The subplot about the Buy More being closed was an obvious hat-tip to everyone's fear of cancellation. This time, though, the fears were unncessary, as the show got renewed without even needing a fancy fan campaign. And these two wonderful episodes were potent reminders of why "Chuck" deserves to live on, in whatever form Chuck's spy career takes next fall.

Some other thoughts:

  • This week in "Chuck" pop culture references (and I'm sure I'm missing many): There's a reference to Chuck getting a burn notice if he goes on the run. A pair of "Star Wars" references, one blatant (Beckman's flickering image telling Morgan, "You are our only hope"), the other more questionable ("Alex, I'm your father."). The company that manufactured the electronics at the Ring base is named for "Die Hard" director John McTiernan. Shaw waking up from the explosion and running towards the Crown Vic looked very much like something out of "Terminator" (or, really, out of the T-1000 playbook from "Terminator 2"). Chuck again mentions playing Perchik in "Fiddler on the Roof." Morgan quotes Sylvester Stallone's catchphrase from "Cobra" ("You're the disease, and I'm the cure"). And Chuck leaping away from the exploding Buy More comes from a million action movies (and was recently paid homage to in the epic "Community" paintball episode).
  • This week in "Chuck" music: after some episodes earlier in the season that featured only one or two songs, it was clear that Schwartz was saving up the music budget for last night, which included three new Band of Horses tracks ("Neighbor," "On My Way Back Home" and "Blue Beard"), as well as MGMT's "Congratulations," Menew's "Don't Give Up On Us Now," Roger Miller's "England Swings," Timmy T's "One More Try," Nico Stai's "One October Song," Broken Bells' "The High Road," Wolfmother's "Sundial," Bishop Allen's "Don't Hide Away" and, of course, Jeffster! singing "Blaze of Glory" (from the "Young Guns 2" soundtrack).
  • Lot of strong little moments for Adam Baldwin in this one: Casey telling Alex his real name, Casey using Sarah's first name in saying goodbye to her, Casey being pleased for Sarah that Chuck turned out to be a good spy (and Yvonne Strahovski showing Sarah's delight at this, which was a nice counterpoint to her fear in earlier episodes about Chuck being a spy), Casey's surprised grunt at realizing Devon and Morgan rescued them and, especially, the awkward and yet poignant Casey/Alex hug at the end.
  • I feel reassured by Fedak that Morgan will continue to play a role in spy world, and there were abundant reminders why here. I already mentioned the thumbs, and of course there was Casey being mad that Morgan and Alex are flirting, but my favorite may have been in the scene where Morgan is briefing Ellie and Awesome on Chuck's career, and he matter-of-factly refers to the Ring as "A nefarious criminal organization hellbent on world domination." Josh Gomez's delivery was perfect, and it showed you why fanboy Morgan's presence on the spy side has been so comedically valuable.
  • While Bakula was terrific throughout this return stint (and the new set-up seems to provide plenty of room for him to appear in flashbacks to Orion's earlier years), the only way Stephen's goodbye to Ellie could have more obviously pointed to his impending death was if he had added that he just bought a boat called "Live 4Ever."
  • Suggestions for casting Mama Bartowski? Fienberg suggested Mary McDonnell. I love her, but she seems a bit tiny to be the mother of Levi and Lancaster, no?
  • When I saw the title "Chuck vs. the Subway," I assumed that was going to be another episode of the show unapologetically pimping for the sandwich chain that helped save it, but instead we got that moment in "Ring: Part II," with heavenly music playing as Big Mike extolled the virtues of his egg white sandwich.
  • I was skeptical that you could actually work an iPhone with your nose, but I tried it after seeing Morgan do it, and dammit if the buttons didn't respond to the ol' Sepinwall schnozola.
  • There was some very cool use of light in both episodes, with Stephen using the lights in the CIA HQ to point the way for Chuck's escape, and then with Chuck, Shaw and Sarah alone in the Buy More with the flashing emergency lights.

What did everybody else think?