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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chuck: "Chuck Versus The Cliffhanger"

Illustration for article titled Chuck: "Chuck Versus The Cliffhanger"
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If you’re reading this, then chances are that you’re very happy this was a season, not series, finale for Chuck. For one thing, it means that you get more episodes of a show that you enjoy enough to read about here on the Interwebs. For a second thing, you probably don’t want the show to end the way it did in that final moment. It’s a moment that was spoiled to me by a lovely individual on Twitter today, although I had a hard time believing it was actually true. That Chuck gets 13 more episodes to wrap up its story is great. That it’s going to do it with Morgan Grimes as the latest Intersect gives me slight pause.

Before looking to the future, let’s take one final look back. Tonight’s finale sought to finalize the Volkoff arc, even as it contextualized it as one piece of a much larger puzzle. The easiest pop culture comparison I can make is to another fourth season in recent television history. In that same year of its own run, Angel used the Jasmine storyline as an attempted culmination of everything that had happened on the show until that point. I’m not sure I ever bought that it was a master plan of the show from Day One, but it certainly sounded plausible enough. I’ll pretty much side with execution over intention any day when it comes to these things.

When it comes to Chuck, I’ll withhold actual judgment until next season when the Big Master Plan comes to light. It’s possible there’s a throughline between the Intersect, Fulcrum, The Ring, Volkoff Industries, the lovers, the dreamers, and me. That I can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist: It just currently sounds like another Hail Mary thrown by the writers of the show, rather than a carefully deployed reveal of a long-held mythological secret. That Clyde Decker, a figure we never met until tonight, coyingly teased both Chuck and the audience with this master plan only served to reinforce how last minute this all seemed.

Plot has always been subservient to character in Chuck. Usually, this can work to the show’s advantage: It’s easy to forgive its often sloppy mechanics when they are fronted by such beloved figures. But an episode like tonight, while grounded in believable character motivation, still had to plod through a lot of the show’s weaker story mechanics to get from beginning to end. (The Norseman is better seen and not explained, people.) Let’s put it this way. Watching Chuck strip away all aspects of his life for the sole purpose of saving Sarah’s life? Fantastic. Watching Chuck and a reformed Hartley Winterbottom talk for 10 minutes in the main hallway of Volkoff Industries without anyone noticing who they were? Semi-excruciating.

If you’re still watching the show, chances are this stuff doesn’t really bother you. Either you gave up on such contrivances long ago and jumped ship, or you just currently roll through these plotholes like the protagonist in Portal. But season five appears to be a 13-episode rogue investigation into the CIA’s master plan for The Intersect. That turns the show’s series-long inability to craft consistently compelling spy drama into a liability instead of simply an easy-to-ignore aspect. If the show showed the capacity over the years of treating its missions with the care that it treated its characters, then watching the Fab Four work outside the system could be a treat. It would turn season five into a culmination of all their work together, showing them now unshackled by bureaucracy and fueled by revenge. Instead, it makes me wonder if the show just shot itself in the foot.

I feel weird talking negatively about Morgan-as-Intersect, as only last week I bemoaned the fact that the show wasn’t giving him anything substantial to do this year. And while having a nerd-as-unlikely-spy feels like a thematic return to season one, I’d like to think the characters have evolved so far from that season that there’s a potential that this isn’t a return so much as a regression. On paper, such a move makes sense: You establish a new way in which Chuck and Company will operate, reinforce Chuck’s spy ability sans Intersect, and give all major players a fresh dynamic in which to operate.


On the other hand, the name of this show isn’t Morgan. While it’s absolutely possible that giving Morgan the Intersect will reveal new things about both the device and the Big Master Plan that created it, it’s also possible that the primary protagonist of the show could get lost in the shuffle in its final hours. Long-running television shows are often strongest when they shift emphasis, often for long periods, from one character to another. Taking advantage of an extremely long narrative structure allows shows to periodically change focus in order to provide thematic illumination. Jimmy McNulty is barely in the fourth season of The Wire, yet that felt right: His “story” for that year directly informed his absence. Similarly, a show like How I Met Your Mother might have benefited into turning this past year into How I Met Your Uncles, de-emphasizing Ted and focusing more on Marshall and Barney.

The point is this: The time for emphasizing Morgan has probably passed. The time to focus on secondary/tertiary characters isn’t in the final lap of the race. (Buffy The Vampire Slayer made this mistake in season seven with the roughly 785 Potentials that it introduced.) It’s perfectly plausible to assume that Morgan’s new condition will add a new flavor to the show that we’ve all watched for the past four seasons, instead of completely changing the recipe. That’s my sincere hope, and I look forward to seeing if it comes true. But it would be naïve to assume this is the ONLY possible outcome of tonight’s twist. A season of Chuck playing Watchtower to Morgan’s Superboy, supported in-field by Sarah and Casey, isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.


All that being said, getting the Intersect permanently out of Chuck’s head is actually a pretty smart move. Not only is it consistent with his relationship with Sarah (the show carefully put in a flashback in which she said she didn’t fall in love with James Bond), but it offers up a possibility that I do hope gets explored next year: Chuck’s eventual phase-out of spy work altogether. Establishing an outside-the-government agency to reset the scales that were tipped when he was a child seems like a good narrative for the fifth and final season. I would have liked to see the show have the balls to move past the Intersect altogether, but if the Buy More is staying, then I guess everything is staying.

That he got into it at all seems part and parcel of a larger plan orchestrated by a yet unknown marionette. That he learned to excel at it is a happy byproduct but still one produced by a lack of free will. He’s upgraded from a pawn to a king, but his final move still has to be walking away from the board altogether. He can, and should, leave behind a structure/system that will have positive lasting impact in the spy world. I’m just not sure the final moments of Chuck will feature either Mr. Sarah Walker or Mrs. Chuck Bartowski in it.


That there’s even a fifth season is a miracle. Far be it from me to harsh the buzz of anyone excited about another 13 hours of this show. I’m excited as well. But the show’s swan song hinges on two big “if”s. If the show can temper Morgan’s newfound abilities and IF the show can tie the past four seasons into one elegant(ish) bow, then it will be worth this final leg of the journey. The key will be exploring the new dynamics established in tonight’s hour without losing the people we’ve grown to care about. Evolution, not reinvention, will be the key to ending this show strongly.

Random observations:

  • See how I didn’t mention Vivian Volkoff once up there? Not an oversight! It was an overt omission. Not even Timothy Dalton could save that scene inside his old office. We as the audience paid for every moment she was onscreen, but at least Chuck and Sarah got one helluva wedding present out of it.
  • Sarah’s vows to Chuck were close to perfection. That’s the kind of moment that’s kept me watching for four years and will keep me glued for the fifth.
  • Watching Casey go pale inside Winterbottom’s empty cell reminded me a lot of Baldwin going pale whenever the Reavers were nearby on Firefly. Anything that makes him scared makes for a great adversary.
  • I imagine Beckman will turn into a mole of sorts next season. Works for me. Anytime she can interact personally with the crew is a positive in my books.
  • Ellie and Awesome didn’t get a lot of screentime, but their role in keeping Sarah alive was understated, mature, and fully enmeshed with the main storyline. More of this next year, please. The whole gang’s onboard now. Use ‘em. (I don’t count Jeffster and Big Mike as part of the gang, in case you’re wondering. I consider them a live-action adult swim show that randomly wanders into Chuck.)
  • “Chuck Versus The Cat Squad” might have been one of my least favorite episodes of the year, but I did enjoy their brief return tonight. It was a small touch that helped the show’s world feel much larger than it often does deep in the bowels of the Buy More.
  • One thing that will be interesting next year: how a show with the microbudget of Chuck convincingly shows an agency operating with a roughly $1 billion nest egg. The Nighthawk motorcycle gives me hope, however. I look forward to Chuck and Morgan trying to create a replica of the Bat Cave in season five.
  • “You look worried.”
  • “That guy might think he’s a hard-ass, but I’m the Intersect.”
  • “Have you ever ridden a motorcycle? And I hope to God the answer is no!”
  • “Nobody names a person that!”
  • “Is he still in charge?”
  • “Talky?” “Perfect.”
  • “You’re Chuck Bartowski. You’re the second best spy I’ve ever worked with. Now you’re gonna go save the best one.”
  • “That’s smart. Real smart. Reagan smart.”
  • “And what is this in regards to?” “She wants to kill me.”
  • “Russians. So many Russians.”
  • “I quit. Now get out of my way.”
  • “I’ve always been the driver, Chuck.”