Series finale review: ‘Chuck’ – ‘Chuck vs. Sarah/Chuck vs. the Goodbye’

Well, we’re all done with “Chuck.” I already published my 5-part retrospective interview with Schwartz and Fedak (and I interviewed Fedak again about the series finale) and my list of great moments in “Chuck” history. All that’s left is to review the final two episodes, and that’s coming up just as soon as I’m wooed by Midwesterners…

“I love Chuck Bartowski, and I don’t know what to do about it.” -Sarah

“You’re not the person you were. You are so much more.” -Ellie

“She may be the best spy in the world, but I’m Chuck Bartowski. It’s not like she’s out of my league.” -Chuck

“Chuck? Kiss me.” -Sarah

Tonight gave us two last episodes of “Chuck,” but they essentially functioned as one (to save time, the second hour didn’t even bother with the opening credits sequence), telling the story of Chuck’s most important mission of all: to get Sarah to fall back in love with him. And over the course of those two hours, we got the story of the series, in ways big and small, and reminders all over the place of why we loved this show, why we bought sandwiches for it, why some of us got so mad when certain parts of it weren’t to our liking, and why it feels so gratifying to get one last ending(*) – and why, even though I recognize that this feels like the right time to end for real, I’m sad that I’m never going to see a new “Chuck” episode again.(**)

(*) I liked Morgan’s joke in “Chuck vs. Sarah” about how they were now on their third “last” mission with Carmichael Industries. Felt very much like a comment on how many times this show has tried to say goodbye in the past, only to be brought back for more and more and more. 

(**) Unless, of course, Schwartz and Fedak dust off “Chuck vs. the Million Dollar Bill” as a bonus feature for the complete series DVD.

These two hours were on one level a literal trip down memory lane, revisiting past moments, locations and characters to remind us of all that Chuck and Sarah had been through, and all that Sarah had forgotten.

In the first hour, we got more time in Sarah’s original apartment, got to see her pay homage to Bryce Larkin’s theft of the Intersect with the way she assaulted the D.A.R.P.A. lab (including leaping through the top window), got mentions of Bryce and Director Graham and paid a visit to Chuck and Sarah’s dream house. And through Sarah’s videotaped mission logs (one of many lovely moments for Yvonne Strahovski), we got to hear about Sarah’s perspective on many past adventures, and to see her slowly falling in love with the dork who was singing about Vicki Vale when they met. 

The second was even more of a greatest hits, with references to Ted Roark, Fulcrum and the Ring, and with visits to another version of the Mexican restaurant where Chuck and Sarah had their first “date,” to a Wienerlicious franchise in Berlin and a Russian consulate, all signposts in Chuck and Sarah’s journey from cover relationship to real one. Jeffster! got to perform one last time (and save the day far more completely than they did in “Chuck vs. the Ring”), Mary Bartowski came back to help, Chuck again chose taking on the responsibility of the Intersect over what was more convenient for him, Chuck again disarmed a bomb by using the Irene Demova computer virus from the pilot, and in the beautiful final montage, we got glimpses of most of Chuck and Sarah’s biggest moments as he told her the story of the great romance she had mostly forgotten.

But these two hours were more than just a Greatest Hits compilation of past moments. It wasn’t just a summary of what we watched, but why we watched it. It was funny (Chuck accidentally shooting Casey out of the sky with Casey’s own gun was hilarious). It was thrilling (as I’ll talk about more below, Sarah kicked even more ass in these two episodes than she did in the two previous where she had the Intersect). It was touching. It was, in everyone’s quest to convince Sarah that she really does love Chuck, incredibly romantic. (And I would argue that the romantic flavor of “Chuck” was its most important, much as I loved Jeffster!, Morgan, Casey’s grunts and the cool action sequences. Zachary Levi could do a lot of things well, which is what made the show work, but the romance was always where he shone brightest, and Chuck’s love and heartache for Sarah really drove these two hours.)

Most of all, though? It was, in spite of the potential for great heartbreak given the Sarah situation, happy. And if there is one emotion I associate with “Chuck” above all others, it is joy.

“Chuck” was a show with a lot of moving parts, mixing a lot of tones and styles and genres into a blender. Some weeks, everything worked. Some weeks, only some parts worked. Some weeks, we basically had to wrestle our brains to the ground to accept that the plot could actually work the way it did. But “Chuck” was a show where we forgave a lot because the joy of the show – both of the people making it and that we could feel watching it – was always so palpable. These people loved making this ridiculous show, and we loved them for it. And though the show went dark at times, often very effectively (Stephen’s death, Sarah executing Mauser and then lying to Chuck about it), but ultimately it was an upbeat show that took its cues from its happy-go-lucky main character. When Chuck, Sarah and Casey teamed up, all three of them were forever changed, but the two veteran spies became a lot more like Chuck then he became like them.

So even as all hope seemed lost for recovering Sarah’s memories, her character growth and her feelings for Chuck, “Chuck vs. the Goodbye” radiated joy, and that happiness let me know that things would work out okay. Because for all of Chuck’s concern, these were two pretty fantastic hours of “Chuck,” and if there’s been one constant in the 57 previous “Chuck” Series Finales That Weren’t, it’s that this is a show that believes things should work out in the end for the people we love.

“Chuck vs. Sarah” was the darker of the two hours, dominated by Chuck’s pain over what Quinn did to Sarah. But even it had some lighter moments, like the brainwashed Sarah mistaking Chuck’s clumsy schmoopiness for a plot to kill her, or Casey cleaning up Morgan’s mess while wearing a World’s Greatest Dad apron.

“Chuck vs. the Goodbye,” meanwhile, restored Sarah to the side of the angels, even if she couldn’t reconnect with her feelings for Chuck, but her switch of allegiances opened things up for even more comedy and nostalgia and romance, and eventually led us to that great final sequence on the beach.

When the amnesia storyline kicked in last week, some of you expressed concern that five seasons of character growth for Sarah were being thrown out the window. I don’t think that’s what happened (nor does Fedak, as you can see in our interview). Whether or not Chuck’s kiss performs the Disney princess trick and breaks the evil spell all at once or not, it’s clear Sarah is coming back. She remembers how to stock the Wienerlicious counter. She remembers Irene Demova. She remembers them carving their names into the frame of their dream house. And as Chuck tells her the story of their great romance, you can see her slowly beginning to connect with the rest. If she’s not all the way back now, she will be eventually. He’s her Chuck, she’s his Sarah, and they get to fall in love all over again, and that’s pretty damn sweet.  We may not know exactly what the future holds for those two (Fedak also talks about that a bit), but we know that they’ll be together, and all the rest is details. Once upon a time, Sarah was Chuck’s guide into a strange new world, and now he gets to return the favor.

Beyond that, everyone else comes out of the final finale with the happiest of endings. (Even Big Mike has never wanted more than to work at that store, and now the Subway counter will be even closer.) Ellie and Awesome get cushy Chicago jobs and the ability to buy a home for baby Clara to run around in, and it sounds like they’ll have Frost around to help quite a bit. Morgan and Alex move in together, and if Chuck does succeed in turning Carmichael Industries into a computer security firm, Morgan can help out there. Casey – after marvelously wrapping Chuck up in a Russian-style hug (a great payoff to Chuck’s awkward attempt to hug him back in “Chuck vs. the Ring”) – heads off in search of Verbanski, and that seems an ideal future for the man John Casey has become: he can travel the world and have adventures (the computer security job would’ve bored him after a while) with his special lady friend, without being tied down by government missions and secrets that would prevent him from being around Alex whenever he wants to.

And Jeffster!… well, Jeffster! finally become the rock stars we know they deserve to be… in Germany… to be adored by, as Jeff puts it, “women… and men?”

Of course we couldn’t get through this finale without one last, surpremely awesome Jeffster! performance, this time with Vik Sahay going to town on a symphony-backed performance of A-Ha’s “Take on Me” (for you youngsters in the audience, here’s the then-groundbreaking video that wowed us back in the ’80s) to keep the bomb from going off. This one didn’t have a line quite as good as Awesome Sr.’s “Sam Kinison and an Indian lesbian” dig from “Mr. Roboto,” but General Beckman’s horror(***) at seeing these two in action almost made up for that.

(***) Very good Beckman episode, between her reactions at the symphony and then the incredible warmth with which she tells the former members of Operation Bartowski that they know where to find her. She’s learned to love these knuckleheads and their absurd ways of doing business, no? And why shouldn’t she?

So all’s well that ends well, and the episodes even before that extended “Return of the King”-style coda were terrific in their own right.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I would have been disappointed had the show ended with “Chuck vs. the Ring,” but I also would have been happy that it went out on such an incredibly high note, and I would have been satisfied with any or every one of the other faux-finales had it been the end for real.

But this was better than those. This was closure all the way around, and adventure, and comedy, and heart and heartache and all the other things that made me write that open letter, that made you guys buy sandwiches, that kept us watching all these years.

That was the ending that “Chuck” deserved.

So thank you, Schwartz and Fedak. Thank you, Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin and Joshua Gomez. Thank you, Sarah Lancaster and Ryan McPartlin. Thank you, Scott Krinsky, Vik Sahay, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Bonita Friedericy, Julia Ling and Tony Hale. Thank you, Scott Bakula, Timothy Dalton, Carrie-Anne Moss and the rest of a legion of great guest stars. Thank you, Robert Duncan McNeill and the rest of the directors who made this look like a spy show on a mico-budget. Thank you, all you writers past and present who made this ridiculous, wonderful concoction of silly and serious, love and action, nerd references and soap devices.

Thank you, “Chuck.” It’s been five years of fun when we might have only gotten one or two. I will miss you.

Some other thoughts:

* This week in “Chuck” music: “Your Hands” by Ghost Society (Sarah watches the video mission logs), “Goshen” by Beirut (Chuck feels miserable with Sarah gone), “Gold on the Ceiling” by The Black Keys (Sarah parachutes to safety), A-Ha’s “Take on Me” by Jeffster! (Beckman is saved), “Cruel and Beautiful World” by Grouplove (Casey leaves the apartment to Morgan and Alex, Ellie and Awesome pack for their move, and Morgan tells Chuck he knows where Sarah is), and, finally, the very last song featured on “Chuck,” and one I’ve been singing to myself for the last couple of days, “Rivers and Roads” by The Head & The Heart (Chuck tells Sarah the story of their romance).

* Even without the Intersect, Sarah is super-mega-badass in both of these episodes, whether she’s parkouring her way up to the balcony of the Woodcomb apartment (and barefoot in sleepwear, at that), borrowing the Bryce Larkin moves at the D.A.R.P.A. facility, or the entirety of the airplane/skydiving sequence from the start of the second hour. In the interview, Fedak talked about how hard they had to work to make Intersect’ed Sarah seem extra-super, and moments like the ones tonight were reminders of why, because she’s so capable even without technological help.

* Was anyone else surprised/disappointed that the invisibility cloak Morgan fooled around with at the D.A.R.P.A. facility didn’t figure into the plot later on? Like Chekhov once said, if you put an invisibility cloak onstage in the first act…

* I’m glad the two episodes aired back-to-back, so I only had to spend a few moments being annoyed that Chuck didn’t simply insist on going with her at the end of “Sarah,” rather than sitting on the couch being miserable until the pep talk from Morgan, Ellie and Awesome. 

* Lester’s decision to “unleash the perverts” finally gives most of the shows frequent background extras – including Fernando, the pasty red-headed guy who’s always fascinated me for some reason – a chance to speak.

* “Chuck” is too sexual and/or violent to qualify as an all-ages kind of show, but it still startled me a bit to hear Quinn describe Chuck as “one of the world’s greatest – what’s the word? – pussies.” Scott Bakula would not have been allowed to say that on “Quantum Leap,” is all I’m saying. UPDATE: A commenter reminded me that the very same word got Millbarge killed back in the season 3 premiere. Another callback!

* Morgan’s speech to Casey about how he’s at his best with them, not solo, was a very nice piece of writing, and delivered well by Joshua Gomez.

* Glad to see Linda Hamilton back one more time, and gladder that her appearance set up maybe my biggest laugh of the finale: Devon covering Clara’s eyes at the sight of Grandma with a gun.

* Also glad that Ellie got to play an active role in saving herself, and Sarah, by crashing the car. Fedak has said that the one major aspect of the show he’d like a mulligan on is waiting so long to let Ellie into Spy World, and moments like that, or Ellie proposing the plan to use the Intersect to restore Sarah’s mind, were reminders of the value to the character and the show created by letting her in on the secret.

* In the Fedak interview, he clarifies exactly what’s going on with Subway buying the Buy More, and also acknowledges that it’s an idea they had talked about ever since the Subway fan campaign helped keep the show on the air after season 2.

* Fienberg and I are going to devote a good amount of time to discussing both the finale and “Chuck” as a whole on Monday’s podcast. If you have any specific questions you’d like us to ponder (akin to all the great ones we got on our farewell to “Friday Night Lights” podcast last year), please click on this link to send us an e-mail.

For the last time on “Chuck,” what did everybody else think?