Season Finale: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Ring”

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“Chuck vs. the Ring”

April 27th, 2009

“Go with your heart, buddy – our brains only screw things up.”

Wow.

In considering “Chuck vs. the Ring,” a title with two very different meanings, I think it’s important that we acknowledge just how amazing the accomplishment of the Chuck staff is when it comes to pulling off some of the most expansive material for a dramedy of this nature.

The first half of this episode is more or less an episode in its own right, one laden with numerous jokes, an amazing appearance by Jeffster, and what feels like a climax in and of itself. What is interesting is that, by the end of the episode, that storyline felt miles away, overshadowed by an amazingly epic conclusion that potentially changed everything. However, simultaneously, it was highly memorable and containing some of the best jokes in the episode. But when those elements would have felt overbearing, such as during that epic conclusion, they faded effortlessly into the background, never feeling separate but also never feeling like they were fighting in the same space.

It’s such an amazing balancing act, and when everyone in the cast is on fire, and when the writing is off the charts, and when Jeffster soundtracks an entire sequence with “Mr. Roboto,” it’s an example of how Chuck may not aim as high as some of the stronger dramas on television, or embrace absurdity as much as some of the biggest comedies, but in doing what it does I don’t feel there is a single other show that is this capable of executing this level of brilliance.

Forget about save Chuck – let’s praise Chuck for a while, and think with our hearts instead of our brains.

I admittedly am fairly exhausted right now, but I want to focus on some of the major storyline ramifications since I don’t know if I have the energy to properly delve into the episode’s overall awesomeness: I’ll make sure to have plenty of bullet points at the end. For the most part, though, this episode comes down to that final scene.

This is, of course, the scene wherein we learn that Chuck has gained super powers of a kung fu nature as a result of his decision to upload the intersect before destroying it, cursing himself to a continued existence as part of the government but this time by his own choosing. Chuck had the chance to simply destroy it, to keep it from falling into the hands of this evil third party (that seems to be part of The Ring, of which Fulcrum is but a bit part), but he knew that he could do good with it, that he has been doing good with it, and that all this talk about Chuck being a hero was beginning to get to him.

Like all good Chuck revelations, this works on two levels: first and foremost, it provides a rather powerful moment for Chuck, who after Bryce’s death is more aware than ever of both the dangers of the threats against national security and the responsibility he ultimately feels as someone who has always been a part of this whether he wanted to be or not. Bryce had protected him when they were at Stanford, as part of a favour to Orion, but he had always been underestimated. Now, realizing that he had a chance to make a difference, he stands up for himself and does something that rewrites the whole life change he tried to create, and undoes any chance of he and Sarah truly being together.

This last point worries me, to be entirely honest with you: their relationship definitely took a backseat in this episode, for good reason, but one has to be concerned that they’re going to be right back to the “Will they, won’t they” when the show returns for a third season (optimism, not confirmation). That was the one part of Chuck’s second season that honestly started getting to me, and the one part of the show that has always felt the least unique. It’s not that I dislike them as a pairing, as I feel they have a lot of chemistry and their brief scenes together in this episode rode that fine line between sappy sweet and dramatic pathos; however, the show is going to have to be careful, with the dynamic returning to something approaching the status quo, to keep their unrequited love from dominating the landscape.

But the bigger impact of this is that Chuck, as a character, is now a variant of his former self: whereas he was once someone who struggled to do just about anything, bumbling his way through mission after mission based on some tangential skills and sheer ingenuity, now we have a whole new angle. Chuck is capable of just about anything, including the rather spectacular kung fu demonstration he used to take out the bad guys, but he isn’t capable of knowing why he can do it, or how he’s really able to trigger it. At a certain point in the episode, it felt like they were going halfway by making Chuck the new Orion, giving him the crazy armband and the ability to analyze situations with close accuracy. That could have been engaging, Chuck still being as entertaining as he is, but this is a whole new level of awkward, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the show deals with the new dynamic.

That end storyline really hit home, and emphasized that this was really Chuck’s episode: because the relationship drama, and even Casey’s group dynamic drama, all played out in the fantastic “Chuck vs. the Colonel,” it left this episode for Zachary Levi to just kind of let go. While there’s likely not any chance of him breaking into the Emmys this year based on the show’s lack of industry credentials, Levi was a veritable tour de force in this episode: we never got a true Chuck “panic attack,” only paralyzed for fear once when he saw Ellie and Awesome’s wedding being ruined around them during the gun fight. Instead, he was worried for the right reasons, caring about Ellie, planning for his future, trying to find hope in his relationship with Sarah, and eventually choosing a life of complication in favour of a life knowing that he could have done more to stop the Ring in its efforts.

The finale is not without fault: it was clear the moment he was introduced that the Ring agent was up to something considering how he was the only one of Casey’s men to be given a storyline, and it felt like the character was underdeveloped (he and Casey have a history, which was never used as anything but an excuse to keep Casey alive). But what worked so well for the episode was that everything was operating at a breakneck pace: because it never had time to slow down it had to use some shortcuts to get people into certain situations, and I’m supportive of this when the revelations work as well as they did here. On a more serious note, though, I’m always wary of the reveal that what we thought was a huge conspiracy was really just one cog in the machine: it kind of de-fangs Fulcrum, which has been built up quite successfully by this point and which can’t be undersold too quickly or the show will risk its villains losing their leigitimacy.

But all of these are problems the episode never lets settle: from moment to moment, this was not quite as jam-packed as “Chuck vs. the Colonel” but was perhaps better structured, allowing for great moments like Jeffster’s epic Styx performance (or, as Awesome’s father put it, “Sam Kinison and the Indian Lesbian”) to brilliantly soundtrack the huge fight scene, and the quiet happiness of the makeup wedding on the beach contrasted with Casey being stalked by one of his own men back at Castle. There was something that, even though there was only one really large set piece, just felt bigger in both scale and suspense this time around. And if that’s not the definition of what makes a good finale, I don’t know what is.

That the show might not get a third season feels pretty unfathomable: Chuck with super powers is a whole new area of comic investigation, the show demonstrated the power of its dramatic storyline with some strong and not cliched drama surrounding Ellie and Awesome’s wedding, and they have put themselves in a position where they have shuffled the status quo without fundamentally changing the dynamics, an ideal growth point for a series entering its third year. Thinking in this point only of the show itself, I don’t feel as if there is a single element which could be marked as a potential setback.

And if they decide to find one? Well, Chuck them.

Cultural Observations

  • I really like Matthew Bomer, and have liked pretty much every Bryce story they’ve done: I find the character really interesting, and felt that in an episode that had to do so much with Chuck as a character Bryce’s death was a really great launching point, well played by Bomer. It’s hard not to respect Bryce here, and I almost feel they overdid it: he’s understanding that Sarah isn’t in love with him, isn’t willing to force her to leave Chuck, doesn’t want Chuck to have to take on the intersect again, and it’s revealed he was protecting Chuck on Orion’s orders and not just out of selfish or narcissistic delusions. Considering all of that, he was bound to die.
  • What I love about the Jeffster performances is that they’re actually kind of awesome: a guy walked into the common area where I was watching the episode and noted that they were “killing it!” He meant it in the best way possible, I assure you: Jeffster 1, Styx 0.
  • Casey as wedding planner was one of those hilarious moments that goes by so quickly, and were just packed into this episode: and for the record, Begonias is how you spell, well, begonias.
  • I was sad to see Chevy Chase’s Ted Roark die – he was a fun character, if perhaps a little bit marginalized in this episode thanks to how much they needed to accomplish, and to see him just shot at point blank range was kind of a waste. That being said, it was an honest surprise to me: all signs pointed to the Ring agent simply letting Roark lose, so killing him was a nice small shock at that point in the episode.
  • Yvonne Stahovski tried to make it a contest when she pulled off a good 1/3 of her bridesmaid dress, but there’s no contest: Sarah Lancaster, in a wedding dress, sprawled in a bathtub with a bottle of champagne? Definitely the most stunning female in the episode.
  • We only got the one Jeffster scene, so the Buy More was pretty well left out of this one, but I enjoy Morgan as someone who is facing dilemma’s similar to Chuck’s just on a totally different (read: smaller) scale, and I thought that Big Mike’s “This wedding just got interesting” was one of the most laugh out loud moments in the entire episode.
  • I enjoyed Sarah going through all of the wedding gifts in search of an adequate weapon: I kind of wish she had stopped at the George Foreman-like grill, to be honest.
  • “Guys, I know Kung Fu,” sounds like a boast out of context, but the way Levi said it was just terrified enough: any bets on what we get in the season three premiere? My bet is “And it’s awesome!” followed by some major boasting – would be a great twist of tone, I’d love the hell out of it.
  • Alan Sepinwall and Daniel Fienberg both have some epic reviews of the episode up, and Alan also has an interview with Chris Fedak that I will read in the morning once I’m conscious.
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2 Comments

Filed under Chuck

2 responses to “Season Finale: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Ring”

  1. Pingback: Chuck vs. The Twist vs. Season 3 Renewal « Cultural Learnings

  2. Amy

    I suppose you know this by now, but “I know Kung Fu” is a direct quote out of The Matrix; my husband actually called it before Chuck said it. Not sure if that changes how you read it.

    On of the things I love about Chuck is how they throw in these little references for us nerds; I melted when they had Scott Bakula’s Steve Bartowski say “Oh boy”, just like in Quantum Leap.

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