It’s not much fun thinking that tonight’s episode of Chuck may not have just been the penultimate episode of the season, but also the penultimate episode of the series. (How unfun? It’s as unfun as typing the word “penultimate” IS fun. So, quite.) We’re so hyper aware of the realities surrounding the ratings of our favorite television shows that it’s often times difficult to check that real-world info at the door once an episode starts. With Chuck, it’s actually slightly easier: after all, the show’s been on the brink for so long that I’ve gotten oddly used to the fact that I might not see much more of it. But with Jeff’s (!!!) touching video tribute to Chuck/Sarah, things definitely felt like they were winding down on this show for good.
But we’re not quite there yet, nor will we get to that surrounded scene until much later in this review. The last act was fairly phenomenal, but we had to get through a lot of troubling material in order to achieve true liftoff on the hour. With so many loose ends to wrap up, the hour felt overstuffed: the impending wedding, The Norseman, Agent X, Morgan’s first field assignment…I mean, that’s a lot of stuff. And it doesn’t help that Vivian Volkoff is at the center of three of those things, and inserted herself into the fourth at the last moment. And in thinking about the clunkiness of aspects of this episode, I thought about the clunkiness of this latter half of the season as a whole.
I’m not sure the show could have possibly topped Alexi Volkoff, even if it tried. That’s not to say that Vivian’s the product of a tapped out imagination in writing staff, but she’s a hastily conceived character thrown into eleven episodes the show wasn’t even sure were going to happen. There’s been little in the way of direction for her character to go, when she actually DOES appear in an episode, and subsequently she’s whatever the episode needs her to be in that hour. Tonight, it needed her to be hesitant about the path she was about to go down: like Chuck, she’s uncomfortable around guns and goes out of her way not to murder people. Unless, you know, it’s the fiancée of the man at the perceived center of her ruined life.
Tonight’s use of Vivian hints at what I think was the initial conception of her on Chuck: a “two roads diverged” scenario in which the two could function as funhouse mirrors of each other. “There but for the grace of Agent X goeth Chuck”, etc, though one could argue both he and Vivian are both paying for the decisions made by The Bartowskis and Hartley Winterbottom decades earlier. If you want to compare/contrast the situation with another show, then Chuck is Buffy, with his fully-assembled Scooby Gang pulling out all stops to give him the support he needs. On the other hand, Ray Wise’s lawyer Riley is The Mayor to Vivian’s Faith. It’s a nature/nurture argument, in which the latter seems to play a major (if not wholly definitive) position.
On one hand, I love the fact that tonight’s episode revolved around Vivian choosing so brutal a target for her first would-be kill. On the other, did we really know this was such a pressing issue for her? Vivian’s presence has been so sporadic, and psychological insight into her mindset has been so scant, that her role as reluctant crime lord tonight seemed built around the cliffhanger ending, not the logical result of a half-season’s worth of character work. There’s some elegant parallelism in the idea of the Vivian storyline that unfortunately hasn’t come across in the second half of the season. I can see what the show is trying to accomplish with her, but it just hasn’t quite come across as successfully onscreen.
At it seems to stand now, with one episode to go, Vivian is the key to undoing the sins committed decades earlier by Stephen, Mary, and Hartley. Having the Bartowskis make peace with their own children is an important part of the puzzle, to be sure. But having the Bartowkis make peace with Hartley and Vivian is tantamount to them making peace with themselves, in addition to healing the wounds between a father and daughter that have never had the chance to be properly acquainted. It’s all stuff that seems made up to fit a show that gets as many 1-Ups as the tonight’s name-checked videogame hero, Mario The Plumber. However, the beauty of the concept of “Agent X” is that all previous lack of mention about it only serves to reinforce how big of a secret it was. It’s a Hail Mary of a story, but somehow it works well enough conceptually for me to roll with it. Emphasis there on “conceptually”.
When theory became practice, I have a few issues. Most of them concern a lack of focus on the issues outlined above. When the show serves not only that arc, but also throws in back stories involving Sarah’s father, Casey’s daughter, in addition to showing ongoing Buy More shenanigans…well, then things tend to get messy quickly. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a back-end arc that serviced Casey and Morgan’s character arcs, with Chuck/Sarah in the relative background enjoying being spies while planning a wedding. With “Chuck Versus The Push Mix,” the primary pair of the show hit a level that didn’t require much more in the way of current character definition. I’m not suggesting they should have been pushed into the background like McNulty in the fourth season of The Wire, but there was a ton left more to explore, and far more interesting places to go, with Casey and Morgan.
But as presently constructed, Casey’s climatic encounter with the love of his life got thrown into an episode about Sarah’s mom (“Chuck Versus The Wedding Planner”) and Morgan’s first big field mission was subsumed into the fifteen other storylines going on tonight. An hour spent primarily, if not exclusively, on either of those storylines would have been welcome additions this Spring, honoring characters Chuck fans almost universally love in what may be the show’s swan song. Watching Chuck and Morgan hum The Imperial March to psyche the latter up for his debut of Ettore la Barba was brilliant, as was Casey’s ability to snipe Morgan’s would-be killers through solid walls. You can’t tell me bringing these two men to the forefront this season wouldn’t have been a breath of fresh air for the show. (Well, technically you could. And I’m sure many of you will. That’s what the comment section is for!)
None of this is to say that Chuck should cease being about the titular hero, if this show continues into a fifth season. Mary Bartowski inadvertently described what could have been the perfect storyline for he and Sarah over the past few months: so consumed by their wedding, they inadvertently allow Vivian to rise to power under their noses. Great idea for an arc! Only, just like Vivian’s aversion to direct violence, this idea only arose tonight to create arbitrary tension between the two most important women in Chuck’s life. This wedding distraction could still have led into Casey’s temporary reassignment with Director Bentley, given Morgan time to actually train for his first mission over the course of a few episodes, and also allowed Chuck and Sarah to still chip into in-field missions when needed. Fans might have cried out that Chuck and Sarah would have looked foolish not seeing Vivian’s slow rise to power, but post-Alexi and post-engagement, could you have blamed them?
Again: the ideas of this latter half of Season 4 are sound. I just think they arrived fully formed well after the point in which it could have made a difference. The show certainly can do solid, long-form plotting. I’d put this show’s second season in the Top 10 of any full season of anything in the last five years. But that show’s apex also coincided with the last time that creators didn’t constantly worry that their big vision might get truncated. Forced to constant create potential series-ending episodes only to restart again after getting the green light at the eleventh hour should have undone the series long ago. It’s a testament to the writers and actors that this tenuous existence has managed not to completely sink the show’s creativity over the past season and a half.
Back to those final scenes as a way of wrapping things up: the rehearsal dinner was a series of beautiful, heartfelt moments that show the camaraderie and love between these characters. Having Jeff make a non-ironically beautiful tribute video for Ellie was surprising, but also surprisingly moving. I could see Mary’s speech to Sarah coming a mile away, but Lord did Linda Hamilton nail it. There was a warmth and safeness there that made Vivian’s intrusion all the more horrific: just as Chuck feels able more than ever to achieve true work/life balance, along comes The Norseman from a million miles away to bring pain to the proceedings. Chuck first killed a man (so he thought) to protect the woman he loved. Now Vivian has tried to kill that same woman to collect payment on a cycle that started when both she and Chuck were still children.
Tonight’s episode managed to get the show where it wanted to be with only one more to go. But imagine if they had been able to actually map out their route before hitting the road.
- Jeff and Lester have 1,250 hours of Sarah Walker footage. That puts them at about the same amount as most fans that have created Chuck/Sarah tribute videos on YouTube.
- Star Wars nerds must have loved the abundance of references to the franchise tonight, although the show missed the chance to truly deploy the phrase “Nerd Herder” with Casey-as-Chewie.
- Other nerdtastic reference of the night: SARAH CONNOR PULL-UPS!
- Chuck used the Intersect for the semi-trivial, though still important, use of freeing Morgan from a ledge inside the courtyard tonight. If there is a fifth season, I want each episode to have Chuck abusing The Intersect to perform mundane tasks. First up: analyzing which lane he should get into at the supermarket in order to leave the quickest.
- “Coups take time.”
- “Why would you say that? Do you not watch movies?” “I finally watched Mannequin.”
- “You seriously don’t do any core work?”
- “I kinda like the ones that make ME look big.”
- “Why don’t we leave the table before this thing attacks us?”
- “Honey, it’s a reference to Star Wars…oh, I love you.”
- “It’s-a me, Mario!”
- “Dude, that is just unholy!”
- “What? No, you heard me the first time. Shoot the puppy!”
- “Oh God, they have acid just like in the really disgusting scene from Breaking Bad!”
- “May you have many more adventures together, and may you always keep each other safe.”