“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.
- 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.