‘Chuck’ – ‘Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger’: Saving Sarah

“Chuck” just aired its season – but thankfully not series – finale. I just published my interview with Chris Fedak about the ramifications of the finale, and I have a review of said episode coming up just as soon as I sweep the leg…

“That guy may think he’s a hardass, but I’m the Intersect.” -Chuck

Well, not so much anymore. And I’m okay with that.

In the last few weeks of this season, I had made peace with the idea that this would be the final season of “Chuck.” The ratings had taken two significant dips (the first right before “Chuck vs. the Push Mix” aired, the second after the show came back from a few weeks of repeats), and I was in full rationalization mode: We got four seasons when few of us ever imagined we’d get more than two! We’ve had so many would-be series finales already that saying goodbye to “Chuck” is already imprinted on my DNA! Jeffster! performing Mr. Roboto is only a YouTube click away!

The renewal news came in late last week, and I watched “Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger” on Saturday. And as Chuck began laying out his plan to be freelance spies, and as Morgan took out the Intersect sunglasses General Beckman had so thoughtfully hidden in Chuck’s going-away box, all I could feel was gratitude: I’m so glad NBC ordered one more season, because that is a show I want to see!

Let’s start at the end and work backwards. Josh Gomez has been the show’s not-so-secret weapon for most of the last two seasons. This season in particular saw him stepping into the emotional and comedic space that Chuck himself occupied at the start of the series. As Chuck grew up, and got better and better with all the Intersect skills, the show needed a bumbling geek who had no business hanging out in spy world, and Morgan Guillermo Grimes splendidly fit the bill.

“Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger” in many ways feels like it could have been the end of Chuck’s story. He goes all out to save the woman he loves (it’s Chuck’s version of “Chuck vs. Phase Three,” minus all the shemale jokes), and in so doing finally embraces his own awesomeness. There’s that line I quoted above, and the way Chuck doesn’t hesitate before coming up with the plan to use the Nighthawk super-bike, but even after Decker pulls the Intersect out of Chuck’s head, both Chuck and the show seem aware that after four years of working alongside Casey and Sarah, Chuck kinda knows what he’s doing. Casey says – as a motivational tool, but also because he means it – that Chuck is the second-best spy he’s ever worked with, and even after Hartley Winterbottom briefly runs away from Volkoff HQ, Chuck’s not afraid. He can do this, and make it work, and he does that in part not by being Charles Carmichael, super spy, but by being Chuck Bartowski, super guy. He lays his heart out for Vivian to see, and though it’s ultimately Hartley’s entrance that pushes her back over to the good guy side, Chuck is the one who primes the pump and also the one who gives up his own escape route to let Hartley and Vivian have the life together that Stephen’s experiment denied them.

I was so gratified to see Chuck have this huge growth moment, but at the same time I wondered where the show could take him from here. I assumed he’d wind up getting re-Intersected at some point, but a Chuck who’s an unapologetic, supercompetent badass – while fun and gratifying in an episode that (yet again) might have been the series finale – isn’t one the show can do much with and still stay our wacky, weird mix of comedy and action and heart and fun.

On the other hand, a Morgan with all the Intersect powers? That’s in some ways even more ridiculous and amusing than when Chuck learned kung fu at the end of season two, because where Chuck has to straddle both the comic and dramatic sides of the show, Morgan’s been pretty much pure comedy from the start, and played so well by Gomez, and I can see the show just going to town at the idea of the little bearded one becoming the world’s greatest fighting machine. And at the same time, I can see a lot of potential in the idea of Chuck trying to go on all the kinds of missions he used to participate in without any sort of special skills in his head. He’ll be what Morgan’s been this last season and a half, only with more experience and confidence, and I think it’s a way to take the character back to his roots a bit without undoing any of the growth of these past four seasons.

We’ll see how much the whole “freelance spies” idea changes things, though having Chuck as the acknowledged boss sounds promising, and taking the CIA/NSA/etc. out of the command structure probably eliminates six plot holes every week. But I love the idea of the Intersect switcheroo. As with the end of “Chuck vs. the Ring” – which this one quoted – it’s the good kind of cliffhanger. It doesn’t end the season (and what could have been the series) with someone we love in danger, and us spending three months either worrying or just wondering, “What lame excuse are they going to use to get out of this?” It ends the season (and what could have been the series) raising all kinds of possibilities for fun new adventures.

And the episode leading up to that scene – co-written by Fedak and Nicholas Wootton, and directed by Robert Duncan McNeill – was pretty darned terrific, too.

Again, there was all the stuff with Chuck finally accepting his own bonafides, both with and without the Intersect. It was all so gratifying, and such a good showcase for Zachary Levi, and such a great tying together of everything the character and the show have been about. (Chuck foiling Decker by using The Magnet was a particularly nice touch.)

And Timothy Dalton was just as terrific as he’s been all season. In our interview, Fedak talks about how the Hartley Winterbottom idea came out of the writers’ love of the way Dalton played Volkoff’s Gregory Tuttle persona way back in “Chuck vs. the First Fight.” Dalton clearly had a great time playing that version of the character – it was much more of a departure from what he usually does, and took greater advantage of his ample comic gifts – and so it was great to see some Tuttle-ish mannerisms as Decker erased Alexi Volkoff and released Hartley back into the world.(*)

(*) I don’t know why Decker would want to give Hartley his self-awareness back if the CIA was determined to cover this up, but that’s the thing about “Chuck”: when the overall storytelling is as fun and confident as it was throughout this episode, you just shrug off the plot logic questions. It’s “Chuck” – we only expect it to make a certain amount of sense at this point.

It wasn’t a completely comic performance, of course. I’ve talked about how Vivian Volkoff has been kind of a mess, but while Lauren Cohan has never managed to make a cohesive and interesting character out of a bunch of jarring personality shifts, Dalton has made Tuttle/Volkoff/Hartley into a man who’s all of a piece. I don’t feel empathy for Vivian, but I did care about Hartley getting a second chance with the daughter he never met because of the 30 years of his life the Intersect wiped away.(**)

(**) Think about that for a second. Hartley Winterbottom wakes up as an old man from an experiment that was only supposed to last a few months, and learns that while he was sleeping, he both fathered a daughter and became one of the most evil men on the planet. On some other show, that would be an incredibly dark, tragic storyline. On “Chuck” with most actors, it would have sucked every last bit of joy out of the episode. But Dalton made it work, in a way where we felt for Hartley but where his emotions didn’t overwhelm everyone and everything else. Neat trick, good acting is.

And in addition to providing something of a graduation ceremony for Chuck Bartowski, spy-in-training, “Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger” also gave Chuck and Sarah one heck of a happy ending. Of course, first we had to get a couple of fake-outs, with Chuck and Ellie seeming to despair as the show went into a commercial break, then with that diabolical (but brief and ultimately funny) gag about the sign at the church. The flashback device not only provided a means to make Sarah present and active in earlier parts of the episode when she was hovering near death, but also reminded viewers exactly what Chuck was fighting for and gave each characters’ vows added weight by putting hers early in the episode and his (improvised in response to hers) at the end. Plus, anyone who didn’t either laugh, say “Awww…” or both at Morgan fighting through tears as he talked about “the power vested in me by the Intergalactic Federation of Planets” has a heart of stone and/or geek credentials that are in need of being re-evalutated.

Chuck and Sarah’s walk to the limo is the most overtly “We think this is the end of the series, for real this time” moment the show’s ever had in any of these would-be finales, with all the clips of their budding romance, going all the way back to their chat on the beach in the pilot. But it also felt appropriate for any kind of Chuck/Sarah wedding episode. Those characters, and their fans, deserved a sequence like that, just as they deserved Sarah and Chuck each making the other swoon with the perfect wedding vows, and even if there’s no significant relationship milestone to clear in the final 13 episodes(***), I like those two crazy kids together, and I do think the new working arrangement will provide plenty of mileage for stories about them, and Casey, and Morgan, etc.

(***) I could see them either revealing Sarah to be pregnant in the real finale, or maybe even let her be pregnant in the latter half of the season, possibly with Strahovski wearing a padded belly for a cool/funny fight scene right near the end, but I don’t know that I’d want to see a whole pregnancy arc with the birth and whatnot next season, and not just because we just got one with Ellie and Awesome in season 4.0.

They done good, these “Chuck” folk. There were definitely some uneven patches of this fourth season, but Fedak and company really pulled it together in these last two weeks, presenting two episodes that would fit very comfortably in with the rightfully-celebrated second season, and that also did a great job of setting us up for the extended farewell celebration we’ll get in the fall.

Aces, “Chuck” people. Aces.

Some other thoughts:

• This week in “Chuck” music: “Here With Me” by Battleme (Chuck and Sarah have wedding jitters), “Conscience Killer” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Chuck shows off his motorcycle skills), “Firewood” by Typhoon (Chuck and Sarah rehearse their vows), “I’m a Pilot” by Fanfarlo (Chuck parachutes in with the Russians, Chuck races in to save Sarah), “Sinking Friendships” by Jónsi (the wedding).

• Fedak and I clearly grew up watching the same bad but, from a kid’s perspective, awesome ’80s shows about square-jawed stiffs with super vehicles (“Knight Rider,” “Airwolf,” etc.), because everything about the Nighthawk sequence – down to the bike’s name – screamed “Street Hawk.”

• Loved Morgan doing an “As you wish” bit from “Princess Bride” while driving Chuck and Sarah’s limo.

• Adam Baldwin did one of his best grunts ever as Casey grunted his approval at Chuck’s plan to bust Volkoff out of prison. Also liked his delivery of “This is the guy they send to kill that guy” by way of warning us about Decker. (And good casting of Richard Burgi as Decker; he fits right in on this kind of show.) And, of course, “Russians. So many Russians” was fantastic.

• Is this the first episode ever to not feature the full credits sequence? I’m happy to get extra story when absolutely necessary, but bopping around to the instrumental version of Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” is part of my ritual for watching this show, and also a throwback to the ’80s kinds of shows it’s modeled on. (See again the “Street Hawk” intro.)

• “Nobody names a person that!” Makes me wonder whether the person in the writers room who first suggested the name got heckled.

• I think in a less crowded episode there might have been room for a scene where Chuck and Hartley really do have to fake their Intersect’ed personas, but that kind of gag probably would have gotten in the way here.

• Awesome usually winds up being less than useful at spy stuff, but I think it’s okay if on occasion he turns out to be better at beating people up that Morgan – especially since Morgan is about to be a whole lot better at it than Awesome.

• The Buy More gang survives! I’m still not entirely sure what role they play on the show, other than being funny, but I admit that it wouldn’t quite feel like “Chuck” without them.

And speaking of which, go read the Fedak interview for some of his thoughts on how this went down, and where season 5 will be going, and then tell me, what did everybody else think?