Season Finale: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. The Ring: Part II”

“Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II”

May 24th, 2010

I don’t know if I have that much to say about the Chuck finale, primarily because it isn’t a finale to anything in particular. It’s intelligent for Schwartz and Fedak to draw from the series’ overall premise and mythology to drive this two-part finale, as “Chuck vs. the Subway” and “Chuck vs. the Ring: Part II” are both emotionally satisfying, intelligent hours of television, but it means that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s bringing anything to a close so much as it’s finally addressing long-standing issues.

The plot of the two episodes draws from elements earlier this season, like our discovery that John Casey has a daughter, the return of Brandon Routh’s Daniel Shaw, or the potential damage done by the Intersect for the human psyche, but it also makes the argument that fairly substantial chunks of the season (and, arguably, earlier seasons) were not what we thought they were. The conclusion to the episode, more than ever last year’s cliffhanger, introduces the idea that Chuck was destined to be this way, and that the circumstantial elements of the series have all been part of a broader function and purpose.

This makes this much more of a premiere than a finale, using what little momentum the pacing-challenged third season could muster in order to launch the series on a much more interesting trajectory. The result has me much more excited about a fourth season than I was when it was announced a few weeks ago, although no more appreciative of the third season’s narrative stumbling blocks – so long as next season lives up to the hype, though, I’m willing to forgive them for the year’s struggles.

The finale paid off the “Pilot” more than it paid off the past season: we saw the long-term ramifications of the intersect being placed into Chuck’s head, we learned more about Ellie and Chuck’s childhood and their father’s abandonment, the last remaining non-comic supporting character learned about Chuck’s real identity, and we even learned that Chuck might have been conditioned from a very young age to be a part of this type of project, implying that Bryce Larkin’s decision to send the intersect to Chuck was more purposeful than we’ve ever really realized. Using Stephen J. Bartowski’s death as its emotional pivot and bringing back a zombified, intersected Daniel Shaw as a villain, the series does some acceptable retconning in order to suggest that Chuck’s family has always been destined for great things, and that his mother was herself either a spy or something close to a spy.

It’s an intelligent story because it returns to the core of the series’ premise and finally unites the two pieces of Chuck’s life (or prepares to unite them): the episodes spend a lot of time focusing on Chuck’s attempts to keep his two lives separate, either at the behest of his father (who was scared of what would happen if Chuck got messed up in the family business) and his sister (who is in shock over this revelation and wants to ensure her brother’s safety as she’s been doing her entire life), but in the end it indicates that there’s no avoiding it. Rather than a decision that Chuck makes (like choosing to put the Intersect 2.0 into his head) this is a force that he won’t be able to avoid, just as he wasn’t able to avoid being “selected” while at Stanford, and there’s something about that which increases the stakes. So much of the past season was spent experimenting that tentatively testing the waters for both “Chuck as Spy” and “Chuck and Sarah as lovers” that it will be nice to put Chuck on something closer to a rollercoaster.

I don’t want to focus so much on the conclusion that I look past the various cool moments in the finale, like Morgan and Awesome unexpectedly (for Chuck, at least) saving the day to start the second hour, or the climactic fight sequence in the Buy More, or Morgan making the moves on Casey’s daughter. Similarly, I don’t want to make it seem like the emotional beats in the finale had no effect on me, as I thought the work done with Stephen’s death were predictable but well-played and Casey’s daughter is a strong introduction to the series that I hope continues into next season. The show managed to indulge in some of its more brash qualities (see: Jeffster) while maintaining an intense emotional connection with the material here, and that’s absolutely without question the show at its best. It managed to be an extremely fun finale while featuring some death and some pretty compelling “protagonist in peril” moments, and while I’m still frustrated with what they did with Daniel Shaw earlier in the season his return as a one-dimensional villain actually worked a lot better.

I think my reason for focusing quite so heavily on the conclusion is that it raises some interesting questions about the show’s future. Are we just replacing one secret with another, revealing Chuck’s CIA identity while now transitioning into something entirely new? The series already reads like Alias redux in a number of ways (see: missing spy mother), but the idea of introducing a new shadow agency which does CIA-like activities under another name seems like it’s just going to revert us back to where we were before, as Chuck (and eventually Sarah and Casey, and probably General Beckman as well) make a transition to a new organization and leave Ellie out of the loop once more. I’m excited to see what the show does with it, but there’s an element of uncertainty there which still has me a bit wary. At some point this season I stopped being a “fan” of Chuck the way I was a fan in earlier seasons, either because I was turned off by the intense fan response to the whole Hannah/Shaw debacle or just because the show wasn’t as good this season as last, and as fun as this episode was there’s enough of a degree of difficulty heading forward that I’m reserving judgment.

However, if they stick the landing, there’s some really interesting ideas to investigate here. There’s suddenly a return to large-scale mystery, and the chance to introduce a real villain and really keep things moving, while at the same time this last six-episode stretch has done a better job of having some fun with this concept rather than bogging it down in melodrama. I think it’s a key year for the show, as the third season contains a lot of lessons that I hope they learn from and, in this finale, some solid building blocks to utilize in the fall.

Cultural Observations

  • The series ended its season with series-low ratings in the key demographics, which isn’t a particularly good sign. The fact of the matter is that the show is going to have to pull in some new viewers in the fall, which is kind of tough for a show in its fourth season. By this point other slow-starting shows (like How I Met Your Mother, for example) had gotten a surge of support through stuntcasting or a stronger timeslot, but NBC is keeping the show at 8 and has nothing to really use to build it anyways.
  • I’m generally “over” Jeffster, but “Blaze of Glory” worked because it nicely mashed up with the fight sequence to bring the various parts of the show together – still, I think the show needs to hold back Jeffster for a while to keep them from becoming oversaturated.
  • The conclusion, with the Buy More’s destruction at the broken thumbed-hands of Morgan and the C4 of Daniel Shaw, leaves some open questions for next season in terms of how they work Jeff, Lester and Big Mike into the series, but I’m sure they’ll find a way to rebuild the Buy More or something similar.
  • Morgan was perhaps the most consistent parts of these episodes: his honest connection with Alex was a nice bit of levity (especially since Chuck and Sarah romance was secondary to Chuck’s flash dysfunction), and his decision to break his thumbs was heroic and humorous after the fire alarm rings without his intervention. The character’s been enlivened with his knowledge of Chuck’s plans, and he was a highlight in the Back 6.
  • For more on the season as a whole, and some brief non-spoiler tidbits on the show’s sense of direction, Alan Sepinwall has an interview with Chris Fedak.
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1 Comment

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One response to “Season Finale: Chuck – “Chuck vs. the Subway/Chuck vs. The Ring: Part II”

  1. Austin

    I finished watching this finale the exact same way I finished last season’s finale: blown away and completely unable to wait for next season. I also felt some of the doubt you expressed in your review about the writers being able to deliver on their direction for next season, however I have a lot of faith in the show and the writers to take it exactly where they are promising and delivering unto us a truly amazing fourth season. Some of this faith is really just hope that they can pull it off, but most of it stems from the fact that I was able to enjoy the good in season 3 and kind of let the not so great moments slide off me.

    I knew Hannah wasn’t staying around long (remember Lou?) and I had a very good understanding of what I thought they were trying to do with Sarah/Shaw. Sarah was trying to let Chuck decide for himself if he wanted to continue to pursue her, but not without a hefty piece of bitterness over what happened in Prauge. It’s not that she felt anything real with Shaw (at least not the connection she has with Chuck), it’s that she put herself totally out there for Chuck, got rejected and so almost completely reverted to what she was like before she met Chuck: cold and unfeeling, driven by her mission, and allowing herself to be wooed by other spies who knew the level of commitment she was able to give to the relationship, which is to say almost nothing beyond the physical. So, at least in the last few episodes, we almost a redo of what happened in Seasons 1-2, Chuck breaking down Sarah’s walls and winning her heart all over again.

    On that note, I know they won’t be able to resist for much longer, but I think the show’s writers deserve some credit for going six whole episodes without placing Sarah and Chuck’s relationship in any sort of real trouble, sure they did the whole ‘Chuck is lying because he doesn’t want to ruin things’, but I just thought that they did a very good job introducing different problems for each episode without having to resort to the old ‘new relationship, on the rocks.’ That will most likely be the subject of one of the first three episodes of the fourth season.

    I think they could have lots of success if they moved a little more toward the Alias style, where there is a bigger plot element that goes from episode to episode rather than just the character’s developments. I still think that the Chuck vs the Predator through the end of Season 2 was the strongest run of episodes the series has has so far, simply because there were bigger mysteries at play and there was more at stake from week to week rather than just new action plots and BuyMore antics.

    I hope they do something different from the BuyMore, although I think they need to keep that comedy core, lest they truly become Alias, just with more laughs and geek, excuse me, nerd references. Speaking of, Beckman telling Morgan “you are our last hope” was a classic… reference to a classic. I was also reminded how refreshing it was to see that the main ‘save the day’ plan was actually centered on Chuck’s nerd abilities and not his spy abilities, not to mention the shout out to Quantum of Solace.

    As far as Chuck continuing to live a secret life, I am of a divided opinion on the matter, I think that him living his double life has always been a core premise, but on the other hand I would like to see him maybe try to live a little more openly, share what his father revealed with Ellie, convince her that he is trying to help people, the way he convinced his father and Sarah and maybe even let her know that he doesn’t really need her to protect him as much anymore, he can take care of himself and he has Sarah now.

    Either way, I am not optimistic about Chuck surviving much longer and I hope that the writers can realize this too and give us a great season next year with good closure at the end.

    Wow, look at me, sorry I wrote my own review, I always enjoy your columns and really wanted to contribute my own thoughts on this past season.

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