Friday, October 14, 2011

"Chuck Versus the Last Details" and "Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger" Flashback Reviews (Season 4 Episodes 23 and 24 - Season Finale)

Happy Friday Chucksters!  Today marks the end of our look-back at season four of NBC’s Chuck, a series of re-posts of reviews I wrote for YourHub this spring.  This is the last of these “double-feature” reviews that have been going up each Friday in anticipation of the season five premiere on Friday, October 28.  Next week, on Friday the 21st, I’ll be posting a special retrospective about the fourth season, but for now, enjoy these reviews of the last two episodes:  #23 – “Chuck Versus the Last Details,” and the finale, “Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger.”  The latter is my absolute favorite article I’ve ever written about Chuck.   

Spoilers for both episodes after the jump…

 Episode Twenty-Three
“Chuck Versus the Last Details”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 5/09/11

Episode Rating: B

Chuck Versus the Last Details was no masterpiece, but it worked fairly well at delivering a fun spy adventure while putting the pieces in place for next week’s finale.  Most notably, though, it gave us an absolutely terrific final ten minutes, an ending that demonstrated how full-circle the story has come while simultaneously making me dread the possibility that NBC will have cancelled the show this time next Monday (NOTE FROM THE PRESENT: they didn’t)

Let’s keep focusing on the positives, though, because the final act of the episode represented Chuck at its best.  The entire rehearsal dinner sequence was just wonderful, one of those scenes that Chuck does so well where we simply get to be there alongside the characters at a fun and important milestone.  Mama Bartowski’s heartfelt toast to Sarah nicely wrapped up the tension between the two, while Jeff’s surprisingly emotional picture-montage for Chuck and Sarah reminded us of how far these crazy kids have come over the years.  Sequences like these, where the giant Bartowski-clan – which includes many more members than just Chuck’s immediate family – get to have a simple and poignant moment of reflection and relaxation have appeared numerous times throughout the show’s run, but the moment has become increasingly meaningful as the years have gone by and the characters have developed more and more.

The peaceful jubilation of this sequence just made the cliffhanger ending that much more bone-chilling.  Vivian Volkoff has not been an effective villain thus far, and the vast majority of Last Details did nothing to disprove this, but that ending certainly raised her up a few notches on the baddie scale.  Threatening Chuck’s friends is one thing, but immediately following through on that threat with Sarah, of all people, is another matter entirely, and it’s a much darker place than we’re used to seeing the show go.  Sarah’s obviously not going to die – Chuck just isn’t that kind of show – but suspense wasn’t the point of that moment.  The point was to prove that Vivian is a viable threat, and though Sarah, Chuck, Casey, and Morgan probably aren’t expendable, anyone else is certainly fair game, and given that the title of next week’s finale is Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger…well, I don’t think I need to spell things out.

The rest of the hour didn’t succeed nearly as fully in turning Vivian into an intimidating villain, but it did, at least, remind me why Vivian turned bad in the first place.  I still don’t think she’s a solid or believable character, but Last Details did finally convince me that under these specific circumstances, without her knowing the full truth behind Chuck’s role in her father’s takedown, and with the far more sinister Ray Wise (who could have been a more effective full-time villain) subverting her visions with poisonous lies, Vivian would turn to the dark side.  I have no earthly idea how she escaped Chuck and Sarah in Moscow (can she teleport?), but other than that, Last Details did an admirable job making a villain out of the show’s most problematic antagonist to date.

Similarly, other parts of the episode managed to impress if not achieve greatness; I certainly enjoyed Chuck, Sarah, and Casey’s Star Wars-style extraction of Mama Bartowski, as well as Morgan’s antics infiltrating Vivian’s auction.  The writing was never particularly inspired, but the actors gave it their all – Joshua Gomez was especially hilarious, as always – and we got one great action sequence with Casey sniping Volkoff’s men.  Casey’s own subplot, in fact, was the hour’s single greatest storyline – any demonstration of Casey’s softer side is always welcome, but I especially liked how Adam Baldwin made it clear that Casey doesn’t just want to keep Morgan safe for Alex, but for Casey as well.  We know Morgan is more or less Casey’s best friend, but it’s always nice to get these heartfelt reminders.

Next week’s finale has some mighty big shoes to fill – last time Chuck ended a season with a wedding, it was my favorite Chuck episode ever: Chuck Versus the Ring.  I’m not sure the show can ever achieve those heights again, but with a top-notch cliffhanger to resolve and four seasons worth of character and relationship development to bring full circle, the finale will have plenty of material to play with.

Episode Twenty-Four
“Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger”
Original Airdate/Publication Date: 5/16/11

Episode Rating: A+

Thanks to NBC’s strange start/stop scheduling over the past few years, Chuck has had four ‘finales’ in two seasons, each of them memorable for many varied reasons, but uniformly epic in the mold the season 2 finale, Chuck Versus the Ring, set.  Each has been designed in such a way that they could close out the entire series if the show was cancelled, but none of them would have been truly satisfying resolutions.  Ring gave us the Intersect 2.0 and one hell of a cliffhanger, one we needed to see resolved.  Chuck Versus the Other Guy put Chuck and Sarah together at last, and we couldn’t leave it there – we had to see them as a couple.  So we got six more episodes and Chuck Versus the Ring Part II, which left us hanging to learn about Mama Bartowski and the family’s history.  The first half of season four went out with a tremendous bang in the form of Chuck Versus the Push Mix, and though this hour left us with no cliffhangers, ending with Chuck and Sarah engaged just wouldn’t have felt right – the story had to go further.

That brings us to tonight.  Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger.  In all likelihood, it was to be the series finale – but thanks to a last minute renewal for the fifth (and final) season, it’s just a season finale.  That makes me more ecstatic than I can express through words, but at the same time, Cliffhanger is, despite its title, the very first episode of Chuck that would have put me at peace as an actual series finale.  It’s the ultimate culmination of four years of storytelling, and in just 42 minutes, packs in everything that makes Chuck wonderful.  Having just watched the episode, I can’t say whether or not it’s the best episode since my personal favorite, Chuck Versus the Ring, but it’s absolutely the most all-around satisfying.  Action; comedy; ridiculously high stakes; and above all else, the kind of heartwarming emotion only the best stories can deliver.  It’s all here, better, perhaps, than ever before.  I’ve always loved Chuck, but the last time I was this invested in an episode was two years ago, in April 2009 when Ring aired, making me laugh harder and tear up more than any hour of the series up to that point. 

Now Cliffhanger has done the same, but in different ways.  The entire hour really did feel like a series finale to me, and an absolutely perfect one at that, full of moments that defined how far these characters and this show have come, defining moments that would serve as perfect images to end on.  Of course, that’s discounting the last five minutes, when writers Chris Fedak and Nicholas Wootton completely reinvented and reinvigorated the status quo for a fifth season.  Even then, I think it’s the kind of ending that suits Chuck.  But I am so, so happy that Chuck doesn’t have to go out just yet.  Cliffhanger would have been a great end, but above all else, it reminded me why, even now, as I leave high school and my own personal status quo behind, Chuck is something too special to lose. 

More on that cliffhanger in a little while.  For now, tackling this finale is going to take a section-by-section Lost-style review.  The episode certainly deserves the extra effort.

Mr. Sarah Walker and Mrs. Chuck Bartowski

“You’re Chuck Bartowski, the second-best spy I’ve ever worked with, and now you’re going to go save the best one.”

From the very beginning, Chuck has been, at its core, the story of two very special people giving huge pieces of their lives over to the other and forever changing each other for the better.  When the show began, Chuck was a brilliant loser working in a dead-end electronics store job, and Sarah was a deadly, world-class superspy.  Despite the obvious difference in glamour between the two jobs, neither of them were achieving their true potential.  Chuck dreamed of bigger and better things, but was never proactive enough to chase those ambitions, while Sarah’s true potential as a human being could never be realized with the CIA.  For both of them, everything changed the moment they met each other.  The hopeless romantic inside of Chuck spoke to Sarah from the start, while the effortlessly confident and courageous hero in Sarah sparked the bravery dormant in Chuck.

Fast-forward four seasons.  Chuck Bartowski is still Chuck Bartowski.  The qualities that have always defined him – his intelligence and heart and undying devotion to others – are all still there, but now, when his lover is threatened, he fully transcends to the level of world-class superspy and saves the day with a series of incredible physical and mental heroics.  Meanwhile, Sarah Walker is still Sarah Walker, powerful, calm, collected, and confident.  Yet now, when she and her lover are scared about the biggest day of their lives, she too becomes a hopeless romantic, using her calm confidence to write the sweetest wedding vows imaginable and delivering them with tear-jerking sincerity.

Chuck and Sarah don’t just complete each other – they’ve given essential parts of themselves over to the other person, and in return become better people than they ever could have imagined.  Chuck’s spy skills can rival Sarah’s by now, just as Sarah’s heart and pathos are on par with Chuck’s.  In the other, both have found not only happiness, but fulfillment, all without losing those things that made them so wonderful in the first place. 

At heart, that’s what Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger is all about, and that’s why it could have functioned as an absolutely beautiful series finale.  When Chuck chases down the prison transport on the world’s fastest motorcycle, or when he brings the whole of Volkoff industries bearing down on the CIA, he’s finally reached his pinnacle as a professional spy.  Every mission, every mishap and success, every bit of training and hardship culminated in these moments.  When Sarah delivers her gorgeous wedding vows, declaring her undying love for Chuck without a moment’s hesitation, it’s representative of her tremendous heart, her limitless capacity for caring and compassion.  Every kiss she shared with Chuck, every moment spent with her new friends and the Bartowski family, every time she’s bared open pieces of her soul to others made those vows possible. 

Four years ago, Sarah wasn’t this endearing or passionate.  Chuck wasn’t this confident or badass.  Today, they are all these things and more, both sharing the other’s best traits in equal measure.  Both in their own individual moments and in the brilliant flashback structure that kept giving us pieces of their ‘practice’ wedding, tonight’s episode delivered this statement, the ultimate message of the series, to the viewers.  The actual wedding scene, so powerful in subtle and simple ways, served as a coda, a final reminder of everything Chuck and Sarah have shared in four years of storytelling.  It’s the kind of moment most series finales can only dream of achieving, and Chuck did it in a season finale.  Whether it will be remember this way or not, Chuck is a television classic for the ages, and moments like these prove why.

A Tale of Two Volkoffs

Had Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger only managed to pull off the Chuck/Sarah dynamic so well, it still would have been a masterpiece.  Yet it didn’t stop there – not even close.  Satisfying resolutions abounded throughout the hour, and the Volkoff story was one of my favorite elements. 

I’ve talked at length about how much Timothy Dalton has impacted this season, and I surely need to go in to detail again this late in the game.  He’s the best guest star the show has ever had, a brilliant performer in an amazing role.  Tonight, Dalton played yet another variation of Alexi Volkoff, now in the form of Hartley Winterbottom.  Ironically, Hartley is very similar to the ruse Volkoff used to trick Chuck in his first appearance, back in Chuck Versus the First Fight.  Hartley, however, was even more lovable, and Dalton did a terrific job making the character both hilarious and endearing.

More importantly, however, turning Volkoff back into Hartley allowed for some incredible character moments.  Hartley’s dilemma felt entirely palpable – what would you do if you woke up thirty years later and learned that you had spent those decades as the most evil man on the planet?  Hell, that could be a concept for an entire series, but Dalton and the writing effectively illustrated Hartley’s arc in just one hour.  I’m sure Dalton will be used again going forward, and as Hartley, there’s more untapped material than ever before for this character.

Meanwhile, Fedak and Wootton did the impossible in redeeming Vivian Volkoff – both her character and her arc – during her sole scene.  Last week’s installment got the job done in terms of making Vivian a viable threat and making her turn to the dark side more understandable, and tonight’s episode expanded on those concepts exponentially.  Chuck talking Vivian down was primarily a showcase for Chuck and his development, but the scene also made me empathize with Vivian, even if I still don’t enjoy her as a character.  A good ending can make all the difference in the world, and this was such an effective culmination of Vivian’s story that I can easily forgive the scatterbrained plotting that permeated much of season 4.2. 

Most significantly, this scene also gave Hartley – and Dalton – another chance to shine, as Hartley helps Chuck save his daughter’s soul.  More than any other moment, it really hammered home the pain Hartley felt in trying to piece together the horrible 30 years he missed out on as Volkoff, and in tying Vivian’s fate to her father’s redemption, it also made me root for Vivian’s own salvation.  It’s a great sequence all around, and though I couldn’t have cared less about Vivian a few weeks ago, I was wearing a big grin on my face by the time it became clear that she and Hartley would get to live their lives in peace.  Since the Volkoff family was introduced in this season, this is more traditional season finale material, but given the tone of the rest of the episode, this particular resolution also felt like something out of a particularly good series finale.  

That’s Smart – Reagan Smart

Of course, Chuck, Sarah, and the Volkoffs didn’t hog all the great character moments.  Casey got one of his all-time greatest badass scenes when he confronted Agent Decker, a brief but unforgettable action moment that surely belongs in the Adam Baldwin hall of fame.  Morgan – his part in the cliffhanger excluded at present – got plenty of funny and endearing moments from start to finish, not least of all presiding over Chuck and Sarah’s wedding with power vested in him by the United Federation of Planets.  Casey and Morgan got resolution to their own story arcs last week, but I still appreciated how the script found so many great moments for them in an already jam-packed episode.

Ellie and Awesome didn’t have much to do – though Awesome got to punch out a CIA agent, and it’s always nice to see the couple actually being Doctors – but again, I’m just happy they had a presence in such a busy hour.  After all, we also got memorable appearances from Jeff, Lester, Big Mike, the CAT Squad, and Mama Bartowski.  It wouldn’t be Chuck finale without the entire gang, and Cliffhanger gave us absolutely everybody.  That’s not to mention new character Clyde Decker, played effectively by Richard Burgi.  I don’t think Decker is going to become a classic Chuck villain or anything, but his presence certainly motivated the great sense of tension and high stakes that permeated the episode.

The stakes, in fact, were higher than they’ve ever been for Team Bartowski, and I’m quite frankly amazed the episode pulled off such a satisfying resolution.  Chuck parting ways with the CIA – for good this time – was another element fit for a series finale, and by the time he and Sarah drove away for their honeymoon, I was beginning to scratch my head in wonder at what the titular cliffhanger could be, let alone what the fifth season could possibly look like with everything tied off so neatly.

The answer was something I don’t think anybody expected.

The Cliffhanger

I’ve been saying for a while now that Chuck and Sarah’s wedding seems like a natural place to end the series, and the majority of Cliffhanger seemed to fall in line with that assessment.  I’ve also said that the show will certainly need to reinvent itself to continue, and once again, the show was one step ahead of me, because the titular Cliffhanger is exactly the kind of shake-up a series entering its fifth season needs to stay fresh.

Let’s recap: Team Bartowski no longer has any CIA connections, but thanks to the Volkoffs, they do have a cool Billion dollars (technically 877 million, but it’s cooler to say a billion) and own all the resources – Buy More and Castle included – to become private spies.  Their services may be needed soon, as Decker has hinted that Chuck’s entire journey was part of an elaborate and mysterious conspiracy.

And, of course, Morgan is the new Intersect.

This is why Cliffhanger had to function as a series finale of sorts, taking the chance of cancellation out of the equation.  The board had to be completely wiped clean for this new status quo to take place.  To go solo, Team Bartowski had to be fired from the CIA.  To get rich, they had to save the souls of Alexi and Vivian Volkoff.  To get a brand new Intersect, Chuck had to lose the computer in his brain – this time for good.  Forty minutes in, the slate had been wiped clean, and just a few minutes later, Fedak and Wootton had loaded it back up with an exciting new premise.

I don’t think I need to explain why Morgan as the Intersect will be hilarious.  Heading into the final season, it also makes sense from a full-circle point of view.  In the first few seasons, Chuck functioned as Morgan has recently, as the nerdy goofball.  The difference was that Chuck also had all the government’s secrets in his head.  Now, Morgan really does get to inherit Chuck’s role, which seems only fitting now that Chuck has developed to such a radically different point. 

As for Team Bartowski going solo, that’s really going to change things.  Some of the stalest elements of the show as of late have come from finding the Team new government-approved missions – after all, there are only so many ways you can make fighting terrorists interesting.  Working solo will certainly reinvigorate the stories on a week-by-week basis, while Decker’s conspiracy revelation has given the team a new long-term goal.

It’s appropriate that the episode should end with the line “Guys, I know Kung-Fu.”  If any episode deserves to reference the season 2 finale, it’s Cliffhanger, because this finale has given us more to look forward to – and, at the same time, more closure – than any Chuck finale to date.  I could have said goodbye to the show with this episode more easily than with other Chuck finales, but having to would have been horrible.  Cliffhanger proves that Chuck deserves to continue, and when the true conclusion to the series does come next season, I think I’ll finally be ready to say goodbye to this show.  Even if it’s only 13 more episodes, Chuck surely deserves a victory lap, not just for the new story elements introduced in tonight’s episode, but for years of terrific, entertaining, and heartwarming adventures.  Tonight, we know – more surely than on any other night in the past five years – that Chuck’s future has never shone brighter.  I’ll be back next season to write about that light thirteen more times.  It’s been a hell of a ride.  Thanks for joining me this far, and I can’t wait to finish the journey next season.


--For only the second time in the series, there was no theme song tonight (the first time being last year’s finale); it worked out great, however, as the title card and heroic theme played off of Chuck’s awesome line, “That guy might think he’s a hard-ass, but I’m the Intersect.”
--I really want to hear the full version of Morgan’s pants story someday.  Season five flashback, maybe?
--When writer Nicholas Wootton wrote his first two Chuck episodes last year, I expressed concern that he wasn’t the right writer for this show.  Mea culpa.  He’s now written Chuck Versus the CAT Squad and co-written Cliffhanger, both of which I consider A+ episodes.  I guess he just needed some time to learn, and I’m very glad he’s a part of the team.
--Richard Burgi, who played Agent Decker, also guest-starred on an episode of Firefly, “The Message,” where Adam Baldwin played regular character Jayne Cobb.  Burgi played…well, the exact same character he played here, though Baldwin didn’t get to shove a table on top of him.
--It wouldn’t have fit, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s at least a little sad we got a Chuck finale without any Jeffster!

In anticipation of the premiere, I’ll be re-posting my
“Farewell Season Four Extravaganza!”

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