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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chuck: “Chuck Versus The Zoom”

Illustration for article titled Chuck: “Chuck Versus The Zoom”
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Here we are, rather impossibly, at the start of the fifth season of Chuck. While it’s easy to mock NBC for its lack of hits over the years, that futility has also led the network to hang onto this little show longer than could possibly be expected. There have been so many near-cancellations of this show that you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a slight chance that the show might extend past the next thirteen episodes. But NBC promos have been dubbing this “the final season,” so let’s get past any latent denial and try to enjoy what little time we have left with these characters.

That all being said, the end of season four left me more confused than enthralled. While the Volkoff storyline ended up being stronger than it had any right to be, the notion of Morgan Grimes as The Intersect heading into the show’s final year seemed like an odd choice. While the show has done well in advancing its characters over the course of the show, it hasn’t always been as strong in developing the spy mythology that surrounded those people. I’d rather the show get Chuck Bartowski right as a character than construct airtight timelines around intersect technology. But a season without The Intersect at all seemed like a stronger way to go out than giving it to someone else. To what end could the show be giving its comic sidekick the power to kick ass?

Hopefully the series will address that question down the line, but for now, we have only the episode in front of us to analyze. And right now, what Chuck seems to want to be in its final season is Burn Notice with more laughs. A team working outside the government, yet tangentially related to it? Check. A case-of-the-week structure bookended by slight mythological advances? Check. Maybe the similarities have always been there, but they have been erased through thinking about past seasons as a whole instead of atomized episodes. But the USA-esque procedural technique really stood out in “Chuck Versus the Zoom,” an episode that had its titular character exclaim several times, “We’re still working out the kinks.”

There are lots of kinks in this final season première, but there’s a lot of fun, as well. Watching Chuck and the crew deal with their new world order gives the show a balance between “business as usual” and “trying something new” that shows like this need at this point in their life cycle. The smartest thing that Chuck did tonight was demonstrate just how much Volkoff’s assets wouldn’t be a deus ex machina that would provide them unlimited funds, access, and escape plans. Simply throwing money at each problem wouldn’t be satisfying, especially on a show with the limited budget this one has. Even before the end of the hour, we learned that Carmichael Industries had blown through a ton of Volkoff cash just to get off the ground, and all involved were worried about the venture’s long-term stability even before Decker managed to freeze their accounts.

And, yes, Decker is back. The heavy last seen at the end of season four figures to be this season’s Big Bad, or at least the enforcer for the Big Bad. There’s a certain symmetry to having the CIA itself be Chuck’s enemy in the final season, since so much of the intersect’s history deals with the moral and militaristic applications of its design. The show has demonstrated just how unique Chuck’s brain has been under the influence of the technology. Whereas people like Shaw and the Gretas either exploited the technology or fell under its spell, Chuck managed to maintain restraint, control, and autonomy while incorporating it into his brain. As Ellie notes to him inside Castle tonight, the intersect didn’t fundamentally change him, so much as give him the opportunity to become the man he always could be.

Having Chuck come out the other side of that and deal with being “ordinary” again forms the emotional spine of tonight’s hour, and potentially will inform the entire season. Not to get super douchey here, but I couldn’t help but think of the famous lines that end T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quarters” while watching tonight’s episode: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” In many ways, Chuck is literally in the same place he was at the show’s outset. Same apartment complex. Same best friend. Same Buy More. But obviously these comparisons are superficial, and reflect just how far he’s come. One need only look at the dork-tastic picture in Decker’s folder to recognize how far Chuck has come.

What will be fascinating in these final 13 episodes is seeing not how far Chuck has come, but how far Chuck as a show has come. Season four’s finale suggested everything that had come before was of a singular piece, a fully constructed tale that was about to begin its final act. Decker’s speech suggesting this was half true, half television bullshit. It reminded me of a similar trick in the fourth season of Angel, in which Skip the Demon tried to ret-con the entire show’s run as leading up to this one particular moment. These are the type of speeches that sound super-cool as they flow tripplingly from the monologist’s mouth, but don’t hold up under a lot of scrutiny. Given the troubled history of the Chuck, absolutely no one expects this season to be the planned culmination of a five-season story. Things don’t have to add up plot-wise as long as they add up emotionally.

All of this is a way to say that I don’t care if season five wraps up the mystery of the Intersect so much that it ties a bow around the Bartowski family and those they love. The Intersect is a McGuffin, in many ways. But it’s a McGuffin that lets Chuck piece together not only his place in the world, but his place within his family. His search for Sarah’s “perfect” dream home tonight reinforces that for all his successes, there are certain simple things he can’t quite grasp. He’s fine with them in theory, but still kinda sucks at them in practice. It makes sense that he doesn’t know Sarah’s true notion of a dream house, because while they have been through thick and thin together, they are still getting to know each other in a truly meaningful way. They understand that each has the other’s best interest at heart, but don’t always know the contents of that heart. And a lot of that stems from being so burned by their upbringings that it’s a freakin’ miracle they are relatively stable as a couple in the first place.

Let’s frame it another way. Having Chuck burst through a window onto the waiting van below? Cool. Having Chuck burst into a smile upon realizing he can still be a hero without the Intersect? Amazing. It’s not just that he can participate in missions going forth, which is certainly important given his line of work. But it’s that he recognizes he has worth as a human being without the Intersect that makes the moment sing. That’s why I have problems with Morgan possessing the Intersect, above and beyond the horrific stunt-double action on display tonight. The Intersect affects the user in a profound way. Why should we care about how it affects Morgan at this stage of the game? I’m not saying the show can’t make this work. But failing to see how at this point gives me pause, to say the least. If the show ties in Morgan’s new status with the final emotional arcs of the show, bravo. If they did it because they find it as amusing as a Jeffster prank, then God save us all in this final season.

In short: I don't care if the Intersect mythology wraps up in a neat little bow when the show ends. I do care if Chuck and Sarah open that red door together by that point. If the show does that, then this fifth season will have been worth it.

Random observations:

  • Awesome seeing Mark Hamill at the outset of the episode. He made more of an impact in his short time than Craig Kilborn did all episode as Ponzi schemer Roger Bale.
  • The fact that Chuck kept “Operation T.I.T.S.” from Sarah irked me for most of tonight’s episode. But if Chuck keeping secrets from her leads to Yvonne Strahovski showing up in gratuitous lingerie each week, well, I think I’ll just learn to deal.
  • Tonight’s title comes from Morgan’s new name for Chuck’s old “flashes.” Don’t worry: I’ll wager we’ll see more differences between how the two use the Intersect. For instance, anyone else think it curious how easily Morgan could access what he needed? Keep your eyes zoomed in on that in weeks to come.
  • No Awesome, Big Mike, or Beckman this week. But don’t worry: you’ll see them before long.
  • One part of me admires how stubbornly Chuck hangs onto the Buy More crew this far past their expiration date. But most of me just fast-forwards through their scenes upon repeated episode views.
  • Favorite small moment: Ellie in Castle. For four seasons, I banged my head against the wall as the show found increasingly weak reasons to keep her out of the loop. To see her casually inside the secret headquarters, helping Chuck analyze the glasses was incredible. Season one-level stuff there, in terms of their interactions.
  • Second favorite small moment: Morgan and Sarah doing a little finger dance after securing an invite to Bale’s party.
  • Least favorite moment: Anything involving Chuck as a masseuse. Ugh.
  • “You talk like an old married couple!”
  • “Do you actually play any non-video game sports?”
  • “Premature zoom? Really? Crap!”