“Chuck vs. the Other Guy”
April 5th, 2010
I’ve taken to referring to “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” as the “FormerFinale,” if only because I want to bring as much attention as possible to the fact that this week’s episode was written as the final episode of the show’s third season. The thirteen-episode order has been the cause of most of the show’s problems: the limited characterization of Daniel Shaw, the sporadic motivations of Sarah Walker, the forced characterization of the “changes” in Chuck’s personality, and the disappearing and reappearing cast members have all been a result of the original episode order and the budget cuts that came with it.
None of these problems, individually, have taken this season down, or fundamentally ruined the show’s premise or anything of that nature – I’m not the person who threw a stink when Chuck/Sarah weren’t immediately brought together, or someone who has been entirely against the character of Daniel Shaw (or Brandon Routh’s work in the role). However, collectively they have formed a sort of distance between the show and I, both as a critic (where certain episodes have struggled to pull things together) and as a fan (where the “fun” of the show has sort of disappeared in the rush to advance the show’s plots).
And so the “FormerFinale” was always going to be a turning point: before it was the point where the show would enter into the limbo of whether or not it would get an unlikely fourth season, and now it’s the point from which the final six episodes of the season will depart from. And for the first time all season, “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” lives up to every possible point of evaluation: as a “FormerFinale,” as a launching pad for the rest of the season and as an episode of the show overall, it delivered enough to turn a somewhat shaky start into an extremely promising future.
But it wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t enough to make me forget some of the missteps earlier this year.
There are two kinds of finales: those which make you excited for what’s about to happen and those which make you admire what’s already taken place. There is no question in my mind that “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” would have fallen into the former category if this were, in fact, the finale: not only do you have Chuck and Sarah finally, “4 Realz,” starting a relationship, but you have Casey being reinstated, Morgan being made an official part of Team Bartowski, and a general sense that the show is about to move above and beyond the season’s concerns about Intersect 2.0 and Chuck changing as a person.
As for the season as a whole, there’s a certain element of dismissal in terms of what Daniel Shaw and the season’s story as a whole represents. If Chuck finally proves that he didn’t actually change at all, and if Sarah finally realizes that she should have never doubted, then what did the season do but postpone the inevitable for thirteen episodes? I’m not suggesting the season was worthless or anything, but there wasn’t any sort of real revelation that the characters came to, but rather the deconstruction of barriers that the show created at the start of the season in order to keep them apart. The characters spent a season trying to be someone else and in the end realized that they are the same people they were before, and while there’s some poetry in that conclusion I don’t necessarily think it was something that we needed to see 13 episodes of.
Of course, at the same time, I’d argue that 13 episodes wasn’t enough to get into the nuance necessary to sell that particular story point. Daniel Shaw was never a compelling enough character on his own to really carry the story on his own accord, and the sort of blank slate mystery combined with the clichéd “Dead Wife” story did Brandon Routh no favours when it came to playing the character. But while Chuck had clear reasons for being torn between two worlds, the Intersect 2.0 promising great potential that he wants to see realized (since his life had been, up to that point, a series of bumbling failures dating back to Stanford), Sarah’s reasons for being so reactionary to Chuck’s new behaviour seemed like it never really developed. While Casey certainly got his own “episode” this year, Sarah never received the same treatment nor did Shaw, and I felt like both needed to be sold as individual characters with their own motivations as opposed to simply based on their relationship with Chuck.
It’s important because all of that really mattered in “Chuck vs. the Other Guy,” as we spent the first half hour getting teased by Chris Fedak about whether or not Shaw had actually forgiven Sarah and whether the sort of romantic “Chuck saves the day and Sarah falls into his arms” narrative was really going to play out. However, I didn’t feel like there was really any tension in that idea: there weren’t enough layers to Shaw’s character for him to sit anywhere between hero and villain, and there was no chance that the finale didn’t end with Chuck and Sarah together, so the complete turn was really the only option they had. And that’s part of the problem with an episode like this: while they smartly toyed around with the idea in order to make us think they weren’t giving into the easy option, in the end the easy option was the most logical considered how limited the characterization has been all year, so any suspense derived from that was more or less just playing with the audience as opposed to really tapping into their fears or feelings surrounding the stories at hand.
But if this was what they were forced to do to pull the season’s stories together, I thought there were some nice moments that made me wish similar moments were more common earlier in the season. Take, for example, Casey’s speech to Chuck on the plane that boiled down to “Forget about the Intersect, forget about the CIA; before the Intersect, you were a smart guy.” It’s a simple message, but it’s what Sarah should have been smart enough to realize all along, and what the show sometimes takes for granted. And when Chuck eventually does become the romantic hero, rescuing the maiden from the fallen hero desperate for smoldering, straight-faced revenge, I bought it: sure, Routh wasn’t given much to play and I thought the staging (Sarah, seated listening to Shaw and the Ring Director calmly discussing the situation) was flat out ridiculous, but the sentiment was right on the money, and that Chuck kills Shaw in order to save Sarah is (as noted above) poetic enough for me to look past the logistics and focus on the romantic and emotional payoff that is Chuck and Sarah turning around the laptop in order to enjoy their time in Paris. Throw in Chuck finally getting to see the Eiffel Tower, and there’s more than enough “Awww” to overwhelm the “Aww, come on!”
However, all of that is analysis of how “Chuck vs. the Other Guy” works as a cap-off to the first thirteen episodes. If we turn this around to judge it as an introduction to a whole new set of episodes (which is more how the episode was designed, in my opinion), the potential for the Back 6 is sort of astronomical. I thought Morgan was used pretty inconsistently all season, but the idea of him being a full-fledged member of Team Bartowski and General Beckman’s reluctance to give into Casey’s wish is more than enough to make me look past Chuck’s idiocy of inviting him into Castle earlier in the episode. And while I thought Casey just accepting his job at the Buy More was a little bit too convenient for the sake of the story, the idea of Casey requesting a new Crown Victoria as part of his return into the fold was just too much fun for me to really think too much about it. And while things might have been a tad bit romanticized for Chuck and Sarah, the idea of them fighting crime together, while together, seems like it will finally be getting the show past the drama and back into the fun action comedy with dramatic weight that it was in the second season. It seemed like the show was shrugging off its problems, the weight lifted off the characters’ shoulders to the point where the final six episodes are almost guaranteed to be better than what came before.
I’m fine with the show being more dramatic, and I certainly think that the show has space to do love triangles and those kinds of conflicts within its dynamic. But while the second season never felt burdened by that drama, Season Three felt almost exclusively defined by the tension within Team Bartowski, and it (and the torrid pacing required by the 13-episode order) kept the show from kicking back and just having some fun. The start of the season was spent with Chuck learning the ropes of the new Intersect, the end of the season was spent with Sarah coming to terms with the “new” Chuck that wasn’t that new at all, but the rest of the season could just be about a guy with a computer in his head who isn’t quite ready to be a spy but with the help of his badass girlfriend, his trigger-happy muscle, and his tech savvy (but socially inept) best friend can still put a dent in the evildoings of threats to global security. I might be someone who wants to see character development, and I certainly believe strongly in a sense of continuity within even action comedy series, but the show desperately needs to loosen up, and all signs point to such initiatives in the show’s future based on the ending of its initial 13-episode order.
“Chuck vs. the Other Guy,” eventually, made me very happy, and has me very excited for the six episodes that start up again in three weeks’ time. No, it wasn’t able to make up for what was a poorly designed and rushed “season” which never quite came together or had the desired impact, but I never expected it to be able to live up to that impact. In some ways, it’s not dissimilar to the Veronica Mars Season Three finale which ended up being its final episode: it wasn’t enough to make up for an uneven season, but it was strong enough that you wanted to see where the show was planning to go next. I guess we should be glad, then, that NBC gave them another six episodes, and that we’ll get a chance to see things continue on for a little bit longer.
- One thing that I don’t quite understand is why Shaw’s “ruggedness” was such a threat on the show. While Morgan makes the point that 9 times out of 10 guys like Shaw get the girl, we don’t view Shaw as a threat since this is a very geeky show and this would always be the exception to that kind of rule. I know the show’s characters don’t know that, but we clearly do, so where’s the threat?
- I was so relieved to learn, mid-episode, that Shaw’s fight scene with the Ring was supposed to look horrible, since I knew that Chuck’s fight coordinators were better than that. I don’t know if my excitement that that being on purpose made up for the fact that there was no logical reason for Shaw to record and upload that feed to the Castle computers other than for Morgan to notice it, but it came pretty darn close.
- I think that Chuck’s comment that Shaw is emotionally “swiss cheese” was meant to say damaged, but I read it as “has plenty of holes.”
- The speed with which Chuck was able to get a tactical team was another pretty big plot hole, but the need for Beckman to avoid sending him to Rome was, I guess, necessary for story purposes?