Today, principle filming on Chuck ended once and for all. Everyone thinking that this show might get extended past its final 13-episode run were probably crushed to read the cast and crew extending their farewells in 140-character bite-sized bits this afternoon. But while Chuck may have finished filming its fifth season today, onscreen it finally got started with tonight’s episode. The first four hours of this fifth season felt like the show trying to throw off the self-imposed narrative shackles from the end of last year. Getting through the Morgan-as-Intersect stuff felt like a chore, a chore not even the show seemed to enjoy. Luckily, the groundwork interspersed with Morgan’s frosted tips finally paid off tonight, as “Chuck Versus The Hack Off” felt fresh, fun, and full of momentum.
Given the show’s propensity to build up serious stakes, only to sidestep them as quickly as possible, it was refreshing to see Casey’s prison sentence be the driving force for all actions tonight. Decker had Chuck and Sarah in the palm of his hands, suggesting that Casey would be released if they performed a job for him. Decker tasked them to steal The Omen, a computer virus that could empty the world’s databases in mere seconds. What Decker didn’t count on was Gertrude Verbanski’s feelings for Casey. After a little prison tryst between the pair, he asked Gertrude to help his partners out. This led her to take Casey’s normal place on a mission to infiltrate, of all things, an evil nudist camp. Not that nudity in and of itself is evil, mind you, no matter how many blurry lines NBC put onscreen to cover up the campers. Rather, the camp was a front for The Collective, another abstractly named organization that Chuck had to take down. Chuck LOVES its abstractly named evil empires, y’all.
The hacker in question, Colin Davis, was played by Eric Lange. You might know him by many roles. Me? I know him as Radzinsky from Lost, which meant I spent a better part of his scenes looking for any sign of The Numbers, smoke monsters, and/or fans complaining about that show’s series finale. Rather than destroy The Omen once he realized its destructive force, Colin hung onto it, unable to part with what he felt was his best creation. Colin was just one of many parallel characters in tonight’s episode, serving to reflect the push/pull of the spy business for Chuck himself. Chuck spends a lot of tonight’s episode re-awakening his computer skills, breaking out “The Routine” from his college days in order to initially locate Davis and eventually breaching the security of The Collective’s central hacking hub. However, the very skills that Chuck employs tonight led to his initial encounter with The Intersect, which led him inexorably to his life at Carmichael Industries. It’s a life he loves, but it’s not one with a long life expectancy, either.
Indeed, as light on its feet as this episode was, the theme of mortality ran through it. Nearly every character in tonight’s hour, from Chuck all the way down to Lester, had to confront just how they wanted to live out what was suddenly an unsure future, both in terms of its length but also its composition. Chuck is probably a much better technician than spy, when it comes down to it. But turning Carmichael Industries into the next Roark Industries would leave his wife Sarah adrift. Gertrude sees that pair interact as a functioning spy couple, and simultaneously wants that for herself and Casey while being terrified to leave the spy life she knows. Jeff and Lester have been dragging each other down for so long that to actually positively influence each other seems somehow dangerous to each. These are all people confronting the next stage of life at the point Chuck as a show is winding down its own life.
Still, this wasn’t a mopey, emo episode like some we’ve seen thus far this season. Chuck’s “routine” of drinking chardonnay while talking smack showed him more in his own element than we’ve seen in ages. This isn’t Chuck putting on the guise of Charles Carmichael in order to seem suave in the field. Here’s a dude with his favorite headphones having the time of his life. Carrie-Anne Moss was a truly inspired choice to play Casey’s romantic and professional foil, serving up both grunts and impromptu, unexpected moments of emotional vulnerability in the heat of a mission. Watching Sarah bring Gertrude begrudgingly out of her shell throughout “Hack Off” was fun. But watching Verbanski just blurt out her feelings at a moment in which Sarah’s focused on staying alive was as strong a comedic character moment as we’ve seen in a while.
Of course, all of this set up yet another crazy cliffhanger, one that portends some fairly fundamental shifts in the show’s dynamics for the near future. Decker ends up double-crossing Chuck and Sarah upon obtaining The Omen, telling the two that his superiors have ordered them to be blamed for its inevitable release. They back down, but Gertrude manages to switch the virus with a freaking bomb, blowing up Decker and several other federal agents in the process. She and Morgan then help break Casey out of jail, meaning our three protagonists are on the run from the government. Now, I don’t mistake Chuck for 24 for a millisecond. But there’s something great about losing Castle as a home base and forcing these three, for at least part of this final season, to be a team against the world. “We’ve gotta be the best spies we’ve ever been,” Chuck tells Sarah as they drive off into the night, destination unknown.
How this all pays off ties into the central mystery of the season: why does Decker’s boss have such raging hatred towards Chuck? Why try to poison his mind with a fake intersect? Why brandish him a domestic cyber terrorist? Chuck is potentially trying to explain every single thing in its history as stemming from a single, central point in time from which everything else stemmed. That would be truly something if actually achieved, but it certainly seems like a giant risk at this point. The show can quickly turn a character like Gertrude Verbanski into a sympathetic, romantic, comic creation in its sleep. But it has a harder time nailing long-form mythological storytelling. If the journey towards finding out the answers forces these characters to think long and hard about the people they want to become, then the ultimate answers don’t really mean that much. The mystery will serve as a means to an end. It’s like John Lennon always said: “Life is what happens when you’re busy trying to find out the origin of the Intersect.” At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.
- I didn’t have room above to mention the cameos from both Danny Pudi and Yvette Nicole Brown, but both were lots of fun. Having Danny be an actor hired from an Indian modeling company to make Lester jealous? Fantastic. (I had worried he would be a Greta or something along those lines.) And while I had heard about his appearance tonight, Brown’s was a complete and total surprise. If Chuck can’t get decent ratings from both Community AND nudity being involved, I’m not sure it ever will at this point.
- How great was it that Lester gathered up power in jail by hooking everyone up with cable and internet? You are NOT gonna mess with the guy who allows you to stream Netflix in your cell.
- Yvonne Strahovski needs something to do this season, and needs it quick. Lots of characters have gotten juicy, or at least prominent, plots thus far. She's mostly served as sidekick thus far.
- Post-coitus Casey is the best kind of Casey. Lord, the chemistry between Adam Baldwin and Moss has been great all season, and I really hope these two crazy, gun-toting kids find happiness by the series’ end. They will dance, give each other guns as birthday presents, make fun of hippies…it will be a beautiful life for them both.
- Apparently, the lead character in Swordfish was based on one Chuck Bartowski. Now I need to rewatch that movie for any signs of Missile Command and/or Rush.
- “Church of the Eternal Wind” sounds like another name for Taco Bell, no?
- “I don’t run from the law. I AM the law.”
- “Imagine David Beckham. Lester is a shorter, more feminine version of his wife.”
- “Wrap up the Phish concert and make a move.”
- “Ok, fine, I love Casey! Stop grilling me!”