The final season of Chuck is attempting to draw its five seasons into a master arc, one that actually started decades in the past with Stephen Bartowski’s original work on the Intersect. It’s a bold move, and one that has yet to prove either a masterstroke or an overly ambitious effort to create continuity. Its ultimate success will be decided at some point in the future. For now, we look to the present to get a sore spot from the show’s past: namely, the absence of Chuck’s parents from his life. “Chuck Versus the Curse” references that absence through some mistaken identity in modern day. But it’s really hard to get invested at this point when it’s clear the show has no interest in actually creating meaningful stakes.
And perhaps that’s my problem. Maybe I’m just putting a layer onto this show that doesn’t exist, and shouldn’t get mad when the show doesn’t live up to elements it never intended to have in the first place. We’ve had back-to-back episodes in which some seriously dangerous and potentially meaningful things happen….only to have them sidestepped or completely erased by the following episode’s end. Casey and Verbanski both took out their fair share of government officers over the last two weeks, which I assumed would provoke the team to scatter to the winds in order to survive. But no: we saw our heroes in the normal environments, doing pretty much the same thing they always did, and by hour’s end, every danger hanging over them had been erased. Well, the internet itself got erased as well, but we’ll get to that eventually.
Backtracking a bit here, what went down tonight was a combination of Chuck’s residual daddy issues coupled with a remake of the movie Date Night starring Ellie and Awesome. Could I see every beat of the latter story? You betcha! But it wasn’t about the show surprising us as the couple surprising themselves. On their first date since the birth of their child, the pair decide to pretend they are leading the lives the perceive Chuck and Sarah are living on a daily basis. That means code names, safe words, physical signals, and other elements that anyone roleplaying as spies might employ in order to spice things up. (Phil and Claire Dunphy from Modern Family could learn a thing or three from these two. Could you see Awesome ever wearing a turtleneck? Exactly.)
If their plot was familiar, it was also a ton of fun. Calling something a “ton of fun” isn’t exactly astute television criticism, but here’s a case in which having them both aware of everything going on in Chuck’s life aids the show tremendously. I’m a fan of dramatic irony as much as anyone, but all those years of Ellie being in the dark nearly drove me to drink. So watching her in action, using her experience in Season 3’s “Chuck Versus The Tooth” to identify Robin Cummings’ nefarious nature to help spring them from a near-certain death was extremely gratifying. In fact, the pair working in concert with one another was a pleasure from start to finish. They got to play the childish thrill, the sexual excitement, and also the high-pressure improvisational planning that comes from being spies. If this was the final big episode for Ellie and Awesome as the show heads into the back end of its final season, then the show did right by this couple.
If only the same could be said for Chuck and Sarah. Their story also played out in a familiar, but more depressing, way. Having Chuck betray Sarah’s trust in leaving her, Casey, and Beckman alone in order to bring Robin the Omen was something that a non-married Chuck would have done on a weekly basis. That he values family over everything else makes him a good person. That he left Sarah behind has nothing to do with love of family and everything to do with trust of spouse. For Sarah to ultimately forgive him by episode’s end feels like more of a contrivance than the team being off the CIA watch list and Casey freed from jail. This episode could have made a strong statement about the two of them by contrasting their attitudes during the mission versus the attitudes of Awesome/Ellie. The latter could have served as a model for the former, a way to reconnect with the “old times” Beckman referred to near the end of the hour. But again, that’s assuming Chuck is the type of show that actually wants to make those connections, or a show that wants to make its characters hurt. I don’t think that’s this show, and I think it’s my fault for assuming that it was in the first place.
That doesn’t make Chuck a bad show. It just means that its strengths lie in coming up with ideas such as the P.A.N.T.S (Private Artifacts Never To Share) boxes rather than putting Chuck and Sarah through the type of marital strife seen on The Sopranos. It loves its central characters deeply, but loves them so much that it’s afraid of ever coming close to hurting them in an acute way. The use of “The Toy” tonight is a great example of the show giving a nominal threat, only refusing to actually use it. Joss Whedon would have turned Chuck and Awesome into disfigured, blubbering meatsacks at the hands of guest star Rebecca Romijn. That doesn’t mean that Joss Whedon is right and Chuck Executive Producer Chris Fedak is wrong. But it does mean that when The Omen unleashes a virus that seemingly cripples every electronic database in the world, you don’t exactly worry about societies collapsing as riots engulf the world. Over on Dollhouse, technology was a means to an apocalyptic end. On Chuck, it’s a cliffhanger that will be resolved before we heard Cake’s instrumental version of “Short Skirt, Long Jacket.”
How all of this plays out resides in how the show answers the questions: “Who is targeting Chuck, and why?” There’s plenty of ways in which that answer can emotionally satisfy, and that’s the best we can hope for. In no way will the show be able to tie together decades of Intersect-related mythology into a seamless, airtight tale. Expecting anything like that would be silly. (Also, the Intersect is not currently part of the show. Which I quite enjoy.) It would be like expecting Lost to explain the chemical composition of the water inside a certain important geographical landmark on The Island. I’m not looking for answers, here. I’m looking for resolution. There’s still plenty of time for that. But in the meantime, I won’t be worrying if our heroes will make it through to the final hour, or if they’ll turn into leaves on the wind. We will watch these people soar. It’s just a matter if those flights will feel earned.
- The NBC promo department seems dead set against keeping the person released from the maximum-security prison via The Omen a secret, but I only review what’s in the episodes, not the promos. Feel free to discuss that person’s identity in the comments, but try and put “SPOILER” around that discussion.
- I didn’t mention Morgan and Alex in the review, since their screen time was so limited. But both the show and Joshua Gomez did a nice job bringing out Morgan’s humanity tonight without it feeling overly mawkish. Yes, getting these two together after what went down with an Intersected Morgan is another instance of the show shying away from its darker elements as quickly as possible. But one could see why Alex would be won back after tonight’s episode.
- I originally had this as a "B", but after thinking about the episode another hour, the Chuck stuff really didn't sit well with me. So now it's a "B-". All three of you who care now know why.
- “She’s not dead, neither am I.” — John Casey, telling it like it is.
- “Did you just compliment me…AND insult me?”
- “SHE KNOWS HOW I LOVE THE POINTS!”
- “Rescuing Bartowkis is our business!”