So why do we stick with television shows over the course of weeks, months, and years? It’s a question I ponder a lot, because answering that question helps answer why we love the medium in the first place. And the answer is instructive, since it helps to select ways in which to lose our free time. There are just too many entertainment options these days, and justifying each one has become almost as time-consuming as the shows themselves. Whether it be in reviews, comments, or Twitter feeds, we’ve become hyper-aware of what works or doesn’t work about certain pieces of entertainment. But that analysis often sidesteps the central question: why watch the show at all?
All of this is a way to say that “Chuck Versus The Santa Suit” is the reason I watch Chuck, even at this late, wildly imperfect stage of the game. I’m not a fan of “Show X used to be soooo much better” discussions, because such arguments often come from a viewpoint that it’s inherently correct to trash what’s new in favor of what’s old. It’s about a perspective rather than a true analysis. While such a statement could be true, I often find the rationalization for it false. Chuck probably peaked in Season 2, but that hardly means that what has come after has been a total waste.
And so we get back to that first question: why do I keep watching? I keep watching because I pretty much love all of these characters. I want to see them interact. What hurt so much about last week’s episode wasn’t that the plot sucked. It was that Chuck didn’t act like the Chuck we knew. He betrayed his wife and coworkers in a way that felt inconsistent with how the show had developed him over the course of five years. There's plot continuity and character continuity, and last week violated the latter in favor of the former. That's always a recipe for disaster. I'm here for the characters first, and plots second.
I imagine anyone still watching at this point is watching for close to the same reasons. Sure, a small pocket is still here because the Intersect mythology makes them warm and fuzzy. But I can’t imagine that’s a large slice of the Chuck demographic pie at this point. (Mmm, pie.) I love Chuck not because of its plots. (Let’s face it: they are often terrible.) I love Chuck because it created characters meant to be loved, and I want to see these people happy. Ideally, the show would excel on both fronts. But if it could only do one well, it chose the correct one.
“Santa Suit” features the usual spy machinations, tech mumbo-jumbo, and enough plot holes to drive a Nerd Herd vehicle through. (Really, CIA? There’s a crippling virus and you’re throwing a drunken party INSIDE YOUR OWN BUILDING?) But little of that mattered tonight, since the driving force behind everything was character-based. All major players had a personal, emotionally invested stake in the proceedings. Brandon Routh gets an unfair rap for being part of the show’s downhill slide: I never blamed him that Daniel Shaw was a bland addition to the show in Season 3. Look at the way his character took off after The Ring turned him: it was a 180-degree turn from what came before, and demonstrated that the problem lay not with Routh but in the writing. What’s great about this version of Shaw is the great thing about all strong villains: he believes utterly in his own convictions, and fashions himself the hero of his own story.
In Shaw’s eyes, Chuck, Sarah, and the CIA need to pay for what happened to his wife. And it was a smart reveal to show that he had been pulling the strings all along on this half-season arc, using the Intersect 2.0 to learn about Decker’s secrets and blackmail him into doing his bidding. From there, the shit hit the fan in ways both satisfying and satisfyingly brutal. I’ve been saying all season how much Chuck as a show pulls its punches, but Shaw beats the living shit out of Sarah Walker for most of the episode. This isn’t about advocating violence against women as a way for the show to demonstrate it means business. But the violence in the episode felt organic and appropriate given the level of stakes in play. It wasn’t about Shaw beating up a woman. It was about him punishing a spy that ruined his life.
Connections like that were made all over this episode. With Shaw as a focal point, each main character could connect to something personal that drove their actions. Beckman wants to protect the CIA, after Shaw’s last failed coup at the end of Season 3. Casey wants to protect both his partners but also his daughter. And Chuck and Ellie want to avenge the loss of their father, which led not only to a spectacularly simple way to remove the Intersect 3.0 from Shaw’s brain but also gave Ellie the finishing blow on Shaw inside the Buy More. And yes: this feels like a finishing blow in terms of this particular arc. Chuck and company are back within the good graces of the CIA, Shaw’s threat is now neutralized, and now we can move onto the show’s final endgame. Apparently it has something to do with ANOTHER plan set in motion by Shaw that nobody can stop. But we all know how those go, right?
Push past all the impenetrable stuff about Omen viruses and Intersects and you had real people acting in real ways in extraordinary circumstances. The circumstances themselves aren’t unimportant, but they are ultimately ephemeral. What matters is what these people do, and how that defines who they are. And one glorious episode here near the end of all things Chuck, the show reminded us why we have watched all along, and rewarded us for our efforts.
- I’m sad Alex will never hear the message that Casey recorded for her on Mr. Pippers. But that also feels appropriate. In some ways, Casey suggesting that Morgan might deserve a second chance was more vulnerable than anything recorded inside Castle.
- Yvonne Strahovski did some stellar work tonight, but it was mostly in a reactionary role. I’m hoping this new twist about Hungary will put her center-stage for the show’s final run of episodes.
- Seeing the Intersect onscreen again felt…antiquated, no? I like that we’ve moved past all that, and enjoy seeing the show push past that crutch as the characters figure out their next moves.
- We all knew Stan Lee was really a spy, right?
- In general, this was a fantastic episode for Beckman, who clearly relishes acting outside the confines of the CIA. The Chuck/Beckman kiss, plus Sarah’s horrified reaction to news of its occurrence, were both great.
- Having Jeffster break the Omen Virus was another “whatever” plotlines for me, but watching them explain the nature of it after 15 caffeinated beverages was hysterical. “Water can only dilute this feeling.” “Plus? Fish have sex in it.”
- Nice to see Mary’s bracelet turn into an emotional focal point for the episode. I’ll take continuity concerning that versus a pair of CIA sunglasses any day.
- “Hello, nerd!”
- “If you were, you would have brought a coat, silly.”
- “I’m Eleanor Woodcomb. Since when do I do what I’m told?”
- “Does Chuck know about the baby?”