Friday, September 2, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Balcony" and "Chuck Versus the Gobbler" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 11 and 12)

Happy Friday Chucksters!  Since it’s the end of the week, we’re continuing our look back at the fourth season of NBC’s Chuck with re-posts of reviews I wrote for YourHub last year.  These “double-feature” reviews will continue to go up each Friday until the fifth (and final) season premiere on Friday, October 21.  Small alterations to the reviews have been made, but please keep in mind these were all written the night the episodes aired, so they may read as somewhat out of date (especially since the first of these reviews discusses how Chuck has just debuted in 2011, when in actuality, that happened a long time ago).  Today we hit the season’s mid-point with episodes eleven and twelve, Chuck Versus the Balcony and Chuck Versus the Gobbler.

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump…

Episode Eleven
“Chuck Versus the Balcony”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 1/17/11

Episode Rating: A-

“Call me Jonathan again and I’ll break your leg!”
Heh heh.  How could I resist opening a new year of Chuck blogging with that quote?  But in all seriousness, there’s another, much more powerful quote that really summed up not only what made this episode wonderful, but what makes Chuck such an amazing series:

“I didn’t fall in love with James Bond.  I fell in love with you.”

We’re all right there with you, Sarah.  Chuck is often compared to James Bond, as it should be, and the show is fully cognizant of how the immortal superspy’s adventures have influenced the story of Chuck Bartowski – Bond #4 himself, Timothy Dalton, plays this season’s villain, after all.  But none of us would have stuck with the show past episode 1 if there was nothing more to the series than a nerd-world version of James Bond.  Chuck, both the character and the show, is so much more than that, and the things that make Chuck different from a suave superspy like Bond are the things that make him endearing, the things that make this show so interesting and exciting and fun.  He’s not James Bond, he’s Chuck Bartowski, and that’s an unmistakably original identity that he’s been developing for four seasons now.  That’s why we love him, that’s why Sarah loves him, and that’s why this show is so damn good.

It’s fitting that this should be the episode to kick off the show’s fifth calendar year on the air, because it’s the kind of story that simply couldn’t work without the character development that comes from having known these characters for so long.  It’s surreal, looking back to all the times we’ve been scared for this show’s future since it debuted in 2007.  When we fear for the future of a show, we’re scared of missing out on episodes like this one, where the series can capitalize upon the relationships the characters have developed with each other and the audience.  After what we’ve seen so far of season four, of course an entire episode must be devoted to Chuck’s proposal to Sarah.  Anything less simply wouldn’t cut it because of how tremendous the last four seasons-worth of buildup have been.  That’s the magic of good television, the magic we believed in when we all went out and bought Subway sandwiches at the end of season two in support of the show. 

It just feels good to be a Chuck fan. 

Chuck may not have actually popped the question in this episode – and we’ll get to that heartbreaking twist in a minute – but by the end, it hardly mattered.  Sarah’s actions said ‘yes’ plenty of times, and as Casey’s brilliant dénouement speech about his own proposal explained, the proposal itself isn’t nearly as important as what it means.  By the end of the hour, we were fully aware of what this development means to Chuck and Sarah, both independently and as a couple. 

The journey to reach that point was tons of fun, from the hilarious restaurant opening (does it get any better than Morgan waiting outside with a horse-drawn carriage and a bushel of balloons?) to the creative twist of turning ‘proposal’ into a ‘sub-mission;’ but it was also heartwarming.  The climactic moonlit proposal may have been interrupted, but everything else about it was pitch perfect, culminating in the (second) line I opened this review with.  What makes all these scenes so funny and heartwarming is just how well we, the audience, understand the impetus behind the moments.  We’ve been there alongside Chuck and Sarah from the very start of their romantic spy adventures, and their affection for each other is only matched by our love for them – otherwise, we still wouldn’t be glued to the TV.  But we are, and a powerful episode like this is our reward.

Of course, there was plenty of other material to love besides Chuck and Sarah’s story.  The spy plot was really just a vehicle to put the lovers in France, but it was an exciting and inventive story in its own right, one that allowed for a hilarious scene filled with wine-based rhyming wordplay.  Meanwhile, Lester had romantic problems of his own back at the Buy More.  We haven’t seen a B-story so intensely focused on Jeff or Lester in a while, and this was a welcome – and hilarious – change of pace, resulting in the first Jeffster! performance of the season (it took them long enough!).  Their rendition of Whitesnake’s “Is This Love” may not have been as memorable as other Jeffster! events, but it was another priceless moment that fit in nicely with the rest of the episode.

And then there was the devastating twist ending, something the show has really enjoyed doing this season.  Like season 3, NBC first ordered thirteen episodes for season 4 before ordering additional installments, so the writers planned and wrote a 13-episode arc.  When the deal for more hours was struck, they decided to continue with new stories rather than artificially stretching the planned arc.  We’re on episode 11 of that original order, which means that in two episodes’ time we’re going to be seeing a sort of ‘season finale,’ and Sarah’s decision to go undercover with Volkoff in hopes of saving Chuck’s mom does indeed seem like the beginning of the end.  As I said above, whether or not Chuck actually popped the question is a non-issue, because Sarah’s actions throughout the episode – and specifically her selfless choice at the end – said ‘yes’ louder than a word ever could.  That’s why I loved this twist – it’s yet another proclamation of heartfelt love while simultaneously sending us into the final act of this story.  Whatever comes next, it’s bound to be pretty amazing, and as much as I loved season three, I think Chuck is at an even stronger place with this episode 11 than it was last time around. 

Episode Twelve
“Chuck Versus the Gobbler
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 1/24/11

Episode Rating: A-

Now that is how you set up a finale!

As I explained in the last review, we’re approaching what would have been the season finale had NBC not extended the season order, so like last year, we’re building to a climax in the middle of the year.

The difference?  Last year’s episode twelve, Chuck Versus the American Hero, certainly wasn’t this good.
Apart from the questionable Chuck-loses-the-Intersect (again) mini-arc, season four has worked like gangbusters.  Everything we love about the show has been there stronger than ever on a week-to-week basis, and the writers have learned and taken to heart the mistakes made during season three.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the third season – it broadened the scope of the show and moved the story forward in really wonderful ways, but in crafting the first thirteen-episode arc, the writers forgot how fun a good Chuck standalone adventure can be, instead shifting to a more fully serialized approach that didn’t fit the show quite as well.  The pacing was off at times and the ‘fun’ factor didn’t hit the highest notes quite as often.  Season four has rectified that fantastically; the big, serialized story arc – Chuck’s Mom/Volkoff, in this case – is still there, but interspersed with the goofier, character-building standalones that made season two so consistently brilliant.  On a show like Chuck, I don’t need heavy serialization – every episode needs to contribute to either the story or the characters so there’s a strong sense of momentum, but it doesn’t always need to do both, something season four exemplifies.

And that’s where Chuck Versus the Gobbler comes in.  As the prelude to the finale, it had to take everything we’ve seen thus far and send us into the endgame in top form.  As such, it was a fast-paced, action-packed, edge-of-your-seat adventure that set the bar high for the ‘finale.’  It was also an extremely busy episode – I’ve loved the build-up to reach this point, but unlike American Hero from last year, Gobbler didn’t have the luxury of eleven solid, concrete arc-centric-hours to play upon.  Instead, it had to do a lot of the heavy lifting – in the plot department, at least – on its own, and that can be dangerous.  Here, it worked really well, further solidifying just how much the writers have nailed the season thus far, and sent us into the ‘finale’ on a higher, more thrilling wave than American Hero did. 

That ‘busyness’ was most clearly apparent in the on-screen personnel, as every main cast member except Bonita Friedericy (Beckman) appeared in the episode, along with returning favorites Timothy Dalton as Volkoff, Linda Hamilton as Mama Bartowski, and Mekenna Melvin as Alex; there was even a new villain, Yuri the titular Gobbler.  As usual, the many characters were balanced exceptionally well – I loved the material between Morgan and Alex, or Morgan and Casey, and the scene where Morgan comforts Alex at Casey’s hospital bedside proved to be the most moving moment in a very powerful episode.  Dalton further cemented his status as the show’s best villain – the scene where he shot Yuri and then ripped out his fake eye was extremely shocking, and a little bit terrifying – and Hamilton was just as impressive.  Chuck got another great ‘underdog’ fight sequence in the prison, and some wonderful dramatic material to boot, while Sarah….well, we’ll get to her in a minute.  If anything felt out of balance, it was Ellie and Awesome’s ‘baby-name’ subplot.  I enjoyed it, just as I always enjoy material with these characters, but it certainly felt out of place in an episode that had much, much bigger fish to fry.  Still, it was an entertaining story that gave us some extremely funny moments with the Buy More gang.

Now, back to Sarah.  If Yvonne Strahovski hadn’t earned the title “Most Badass Person on TV” yet, male or female, then she certainly did with this episode.  One of the common complaints about season three was that the needs of the story put Sarah on the sidelines, at least in terms of action.  The badass award was certainly hers in season two, what with all the creative, kick-ass fights and stunts she participated in, but she didn’t have nearly as much to do in season three.  It’s something I didn’t really notice at the time, but since season four has brought back ‘badass Sarah’ with a vengeance, it’s a much easier flaw to spot.  Sarah has just gotten more and more awesome as this season has progressed, and the moment in the pre-credits sequence where she burst through Volkoff’s door, hair dyed black and decked out in an awe-inspiring leather suit, just cemented how effortlessly cool Strahovski can be. 

But, of course, she’s also the show’s emotional core, a duty she’s never stopped performing.  Her undercover exploits in this episode may have given her some great action material, but her emotional turmoil about the horrors the mission requires are what really made this a powerful episode.  As usual, Strahovski sold every moment perfectly.  In fact, this story turned out to be so good that I could have understood it being split over two episodes, just to do greater justice to Sarah’s journey.  Ultimately, though, the story works as it is, and I think Gobbler managed to hit every point it needed to without feeling relentlessly busy or breathless.  By the time we reached the fantastic ending montage, the emotional wallop needed to send us into the finale on the edge of our seats had been delivered – which means it’s time to make a few predictions for next week’s big episode.

It’s easy to surmise that Volkoff will be taken down by the end of the hour.  I suspect he’ll be killed, both because Chuck villains don’t typically make it out alive and because Dalton was only hired for a finite number of episodes.  I’ll go on record saying Chuck will be the one to pull the trigger, thus saving Sarah by taking down the bad guy as he did in the (first) season three finale.  I sincerely hope Volkoff lives to fight another day, though, because Dalton is just too good to see disappear.  I don’t think we’ll see the last of Hamilton, however, since Volkoff’s downfall will inevitably lead to Mary’s liberation.  I’m positive Chuck and Sarah will get engaged, resolving one of the big season four arcs, and amidst all the mayhem, Ellie and Awesome’s baby is bound to arrive. 

It’s going to be a very busy episode, and creators Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz have even said that the last ten minutes are the best ten minutes of Chuck ever.  That’s a damn tall order, but at this point, I wouldn’t doubt that for a second.  Chuck is on the top of its game. 

Next Week:
Season 4.1 ends with “Chuck Versus the Push Mix”

And Season 4.2 begins with
 “Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible”

No comments:

Post a Comment