Last year, Chuck's finale was a bittersweet affair, marred by the fact that the show hadn't yet been renewed and the forthcoming twist of the Intersect 2.0 was hella promising. Two years ago, no one cared. This time not only has the show already been picked up for a fourth season, but people cared a whole lot. Chuck's actions have taken on loftier targets and his posse rolls even deeper with the addition of beloved family and friends. The stakes were probably higher for Chuck Bartowski than they ever have been. That urgency helped both "Chuck Vs. The Subway" (an episode with a fortuitous name but containing no actual Subway sandwiches) and "Chuck Vs. The Ring, Part II" (an episode with multiple, to put it mildly, super-gratuitous uses of Subway sandwiches) ascend to dramatic heights the show hasn't seen before. But Chuck is not a show to let loose ends hang, so the episodes also suffered from some clunky "force everything to make sense"-iness, for lack of a better word(s).
This is a little bit of a roundabout way to explain what I mean, and perhaps a little cursory, but here it is anyways. I've been thinking a lot about TV writing recently, particularly because Lost has ended in a way that I, for one, found, for the most part, satisfying. (Noel Murray's excellent story says it best.) But many of my friends who had a problem with the ending keep coming back to the point that the Lost writers didn't have a plan, and therefore simply couldn't deliver the goods as a result. I've always had a problem with that argument as it pertains to any show. TV writing, at its nature, is plan-less. Who knows how long shows are going to last, and what stars are going to get movie careers and walk out? There are simply too many factors beyond the control of the showrunners to instill some rigid master plan on any TV show. That's not to say a little foresight isn't helpful (you hear that, ghost of Heroes?), but you get the idea. Great TV writing, in my opinion, happens when shows introduce new, unexpected twists and characters in a way that makes its viewers say, "Huh. That actually makes total sense." Not to give anything away, but the most salient example that leaps to mind is the big reveal in the final episode of 24 season one. Do you think anyone on staff ever dreamed it would come to that? Probably not. But once that reveal happens, it makes total sense, eh?
As far as the details that kicked off tonight's mini-marathon, Chuck was thinking outside the box, but also inside the larger box. (Even sci-fi shows need rules.) The Intersect is breaking down inside Chuck's mind, causing relentless problems for flashes and overall functionality, even when he's not in spy mode. Thanks to Shaw, The Ring knows about Chuck and has now enlisted his sister Ellie under false pretenses to be a part of their plan. Chuck's dad, fearing for the safety of his family, has also been pulled back into the fold and is eagerly working on a fix for Chuck's Intersect problem, though perhaps not fast enough.
The first hour plays on this discouragement, and really backs our main team into a corner. It begins by exploiting Chuck's weakness: his failing mind. Chuck finally sees Shaw for real, and the team tracks him into a CIA facility; inside, they inadvertently interrupt Beckman as she attempts to save the entire Intersect program from a bunch of suits ready to slash budgets. Enter Shaw, who says he was actually a double-agent infiltrating The Ring for the CIA, but who is actually a double super secret agent working with The Ring to fake out the CIA. The team knows it, but no one will listen because Shaw has Chuck's psych report, which he gladly shares. Chuck's unstable, he says—just as Chuck sees Shaw flash on something and tries to expose him for it by whipping a knife at him. Shaw, always the pro, doesn't let himself flash and instead takes a knife to the shoulder. Chuck's carted away, and Shaw's "reputation" remains intact. Meanwhile, Ellie's all topsy-turvy because she sees Chuck jack the guy she previously trusted, and now her brother's being held in custody. Oh, and Awesome accidentally spills the beans about Chuck's spy life, and Ellie is paralyzed with fear. Sarah, now just as emotional as Chuck (as Shaw points out), has been taken away along with Casey, and the three await execution in the back of a truck. So much is about to collapse.
Now, I'm not saying the "underdog to the rescue" card hasn't been played before on Chuck, but I sure as hell never get tired of it—and this time around, with the whole rest of the gang helping out, it was even more satisfying to watch. Ellie, Devon, and Morgan leap into cars and tail Shaw so willingly, so blind to the consequences, I couldn't help but cheer out loud. Chuck's dad had pointed out that Bartowskis stick together, and those guys are like the extended family, fiddling around with Casey's car and its missile buttons.
The second hour of Chuck was some good-old-fashioned spy shenanigans, with Chuck as the centerpiece of the whole thing. The gang infiltrates a spy convention dressed like Fred Armisen and Sarah with black hair, con Shaw into texting the Five Elders of The Ring—in the audience of Shaw's keynote speech—and apprehend them all in one fell swoop. Chuck even lures Shaw up to his own room and gets him to admit his true allegiance into a secret camera, so everyone at the conference can hear and shun him. Shaw narrowly escapes by leaping out the window into the open air of bad special effects, and thus the stage is set for a nasty showdown on Shaw's terms in the Buy More with Chuck—sans the upper hand, the Governor, and Sarah, with only the sage words of his father to guide him.
Okay, now we're getting into some of the clunkiness I was talking about. In order to zap Chuck into action, the show suddenly showed a flashback of Chuck as a boy, stumbling onto a very early version of the Intersect, downloading it, and being fine. "You're special," his father tells him, and those words suddenly echo through Chuck's mind and he's able to steady himself for the fight. "I just needed to reboot," he says. But this little bit of knowledge threw me off. Chuck's always been a regular guy with nothing special about him, who happened upon a great gift; then, later, it turns out his gifts as, simply, a decent and clever human being are the greatest rewards to his work. He's a stranger in a strange land, with the best navigation tool the government has ever constructed. To throw in this last detail about Chuck's superhuman ability to retain the Intersect felt way too convenient for this one scene, and counter to a lot of what we already know.
I suppose after all the mystery the show has thrown at us—and by the looks of the last few minutes, there's a great deal more to come—it's time to unwrap the mystery of Chuck a little more, but I'm finding the mystery of the rest of the characters to be a lot more compelling. Let Chuck deal with the crazy world being thrown at him: I wanna see more of Casey finally confronting his daughter and everything that comes with it, particularly his joyously awkward exchange with Morgan upon finding his daughter's number in Grimes' pocket. And there's Sarah, more by Chuck's side than ever before, who is now going to be once again on the outside as Chuck examines his father's files and seeks out his mother. I know Chuck will be back next season, so this isn't a bittersweet "hope to see you soon" as it was last year. Now it's a feeling all-too-familiar in shows I enjoy: I can't wait for summer to be over.
"Chuck Vs. The Subway": A-
"Chuck Vs. The Ring, Part II": B+
- "There's no plan." "That's never stopped me before."
- I never thought I'd say this, but as much as I love the Buy More guys—particularly Jeffster—they were once again way too distracting, save for some wonderful lines. And, of course, the best music video ever.
- Wouldn't the spy community at that convention know Shaw, that he was apparently dead? He would be swarmed by paparazzi, I'd suspect. The stealthy kind.
- "What are you thinking?" "Pineapple."
- Morgan trying to unlock his iPhone with his whole face = comic gold.
- Jeff's dream woman is Chuck with lady parts? Uh…
- And those special effects blowing up the Buy More? I appreciate the budget-consciousness, but still…
- "Morgan, you are our only hope." I like Morgan more with each episode.