Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Chuck" Series Finale Review: "Chuck Versus Sarah" and "Chuck Versus the Goodbye" - You're my Chuck, one last time....

I openly wept while writing the following article.

I’m dead serious: I was honest-to-God sobbing, and there is now a large blurry spot on my glasses from a dried tear obscuring about half of my vision.  In particular, writing the last two paragraphs of this review broke me.  I’ve never gotten that worked up writing an article, but I try to infuse my writing with my very heart and soul, and tonight, that meant getting embarrassingly emotional.

As it should, since tonight was the two-hour series finale of Chuck, comprised of the episodes “Chuck Versus Sarah” and “Chuck Versus the Goodbye.”  I shared my thoughts on Chuck as a five-year experience yesterday, and tomorrow, there will be a new Chuck-themed installment of the Monthly Stuff podcast.  Couple all that with my years of writing about this series, and perhaps you can understand my heightened emotions.

After the jump, I’ll be reviewing the Chuck series finale.  There will be spoilers, for those who haven’t seen it yet, and a lot of mushy-gushy writing that, like I said, made me weep.  But I’m immensely proud of my final Chuck review, and at the very least, I hope you feel half as much emotion reading it as I felt writing it. 

For the very last time…spoilers for “Chuck” – the series finale – coming up after the jump…

In five years of watching Chuck, thinking about Chuck, re-watching Chuck, and writing about Chuck, I had never been as conflicted as I was when I sat down tonight to review the series one last time. 

See, much of the two-hour Chuck series finale disappointed or outright angered me.  I will go into detail in a little bit, but in short, I felt that the series’ best character, Sarah Walker, simply wasn’t present for much of these last two hours, and therefore, nearly every relationship felt off.  It all certainly felt like a finale, but not to the show I knew and I loved, and that disturbed me.

But then……but then Jeffster! started playing A-Ha’s “Take On Me” in the concert hall to keep Nicholas Quinn’s bomb from going off, something that terrified General Beckman even more than the bomb beneath her chair; and then Morgan jumped in to begin conducting the choir.  In the midst of this awesome performance, Chuck and Sarah leapt into action to stop Quinn, and Chuck had to once again make the decision between the greater good (re-uploading the Intersect) and romance (using the Intersect to bring Sarah’s memories back), and ultimately uses both the computer in his brain and a porn virus on the Internet – the same Irene Demova virus from the Pilot, no less – to save the day. 

The scene was Chuck at its purest and its best, but we weren’t done yet: Casey finally gives Chuck the great big bear hug he’s wanted all along (along with the perfect send-off line, “If there’s one thing Russians do well, it’s giving hugs”) before heading off to Russia to be with Gerturde Verbanski, Jeffster! become rock stars in Germany, Big Mike happily lives in ignorance of the spy life, remaining at his beloved Buy More with a new Subway hierarchy to perfect his life, Morgan and Alex finally decide to move in together, and Ellie and Captain Awesome move to Chicago to become the big-shot Doctors they were always destined to be, building a better life for their family in the process.  Perfect, beautiful, wonderful endings all around. 

And then there was the beach, the very same beach from the Pilot, the beach from the scene that made me fall in love with Chuck.  And there was Sarah, sitting in the sand, contemplating her future, and there was Chuck, going to her to make one last attempt to make things right.  And I couldn’t help myself.  The tears started flowing freely.  Just as Sarah needed to fall in love with Chuck Bartowski again, I needed to fall in love with Chuck the series one last time, and this final scene, this poignant, powerful, emotional, perfect final scene accomplished both goals.  I finally understood what Chris Fedak and the rest of the Chuck crew were aiming for the entire evening, and as Chuck told Sarah the story of their relationship, and Sarah Walker was born anew, I couldn’t help myself.  I was a wreck.  I felt just about every emotion this incredible series has ever inspired shooting through my heart all at once, and it was almost too much for me to take. 

So even though I don’t know for sure what happens after Chuck and Sarah kiss, and even though I probably won’t be sure for a good long while how I felt about the two-hour finale as a whole, that last, greatest emotional punch made me absolutely sure of one thing: that Chuck had crafted an absolutely perfect ending, and had therefore gone out on the strongest note possible. 

If my writing seems completely incoherent right now, that’s because my thoughts are in disarray.  Those last twenty minutes, and the beach sequence in particular, were so fantastic that I’ve been forced to reevaluate every preceding scene, and I won’t be able to craft a more concrete opinion on the finale as a whole until I watch it all again, which I intend to do whenever I find the time.  As I said before, my core problem was that Sarah’s amnesia robbed the finale of the Sarah Walker we’d known and loved for five long years, and I wasn’t comfortable watching a Chuck finale without Sarah in it.  Her absence splintered the group in other ways that bothered me; Casey reverted to his cold, emotionally closeted self from the show’s early days, and the team dynamic I so loved watching was all but gone.  It just didn’t feel right, especially not for a series finale, and up until those last few scenes, I assumed those problems would be the focus of this review. 

But those final scenes really did shed new light on what had come before.  Perhaps the heightened emotions accompanying the “last episode ever!!” made me lose focus on what this finale was saying, or maybe I was just being stupid, but for whatever reason, once I sat down and started thinking critically about these last hours of Chuck, I began to understand what Fedak and company were going for, and I now have no interest whatsoever in badmouthing the finale.

Your interpretation may vary, of course, but here’s how I read “Chuck Versus Sarah” and “Chuck Versus the Goodbye:” the discomfort I felt watching Chuck without Sarah Walker was exactly what Fedak wanted me to feel.  I and every other critic and/or fan have been saying since the beginning that Sarah is the heart of this series, Yvonne Strahovski the highlight of the ensemble.  With her gone, of course the other characters will be thrown into disarray, either in small, subtle ways – mostly involving their group dynamics – or in large, observable ones: Casey is the best example.  If the Big Man doesn’t have his good friend Walker around to believe in, his shining example of humanity’s capacity for change, then he’s obviously going to lose his faith in the new and improved self he’d spent five years building.  The finale was essentially a case study in what happens when the Team we’d watched for five years loses its heart and soul, and viewed through that prism, this is the single most crucial mission Chuck and friends have ever faced, not to mention one of their most poignant.  It was wildly funny at times (Chuck accidentally shooting down Casey’s chopper), kick-ass (Sarah infiltrating the government base) and epic (Sarah skydiving) at others, but that contemplative and resonant undercurrent is what truly made this finale special, even when I was having trouble realizing it.  

But here’s the thing: the Team’s heart didn’t really disappear with Sarah’s memories.  Her spirit lives on inside Chuck, the partner, lover, and best friend she’d entrusted everything to.  When two people share a connection that close and that meaningful, the best of one will always exist in the spirit of the other.  As long as Chuck carried Sarah in his heart and in his mind, she could never truly be gone, and in this final story, Chuck never gave up trying to make her see that.  He pleads with her, in the house they had once decided to buy, to remember their romantic history (one of Zachary Levi’s absolute best scenes in the entire series); he takes a bullet for her, even after she beats him to a pulp; he goes on another mission for her, dances with her, holds a gun for her, and ultimately resigns himself to simple be there for her, however long it takes for her memories to come back, because he will not give up.  He can’t give up.  Sarah herself taught him that, after all.  When they met, way back in the Pilot, life had beaten Chuck down pretty hard, and Sarah gave him a reason to start trying again.  As long as she was there, he never stopped.  And because of the time they shared, she will always live on inside him, and as long as her influence is felt, he will always carry on, even when Sarah’s mind has gone.

In short, there’s no Chuck Bartowski without Sarah Walker.  She made him who he is.  And there’s no Sarah Walker without Chuck Bartowski, because he holds the keys to unlock her soul.  That’s what the entire series has been about, and this finale, the last scene on the beach in particular, was a beautiful encapsulation of that five season journey.  Whether or not we actually see Sarah regain her memories is of no import.  The most significant message of the series had already been sent, and the story is over as soon as Sarah asks Chuck to kiss her.  Morgan’s “Disney-princess” remedy may not work; it could take weeks or months for Sarah to remember everything she’s been through.  But when Chuck and Sarah are together on that beach, they are whole, and that is the only image worth leaving them on.      

As long as the show got that core relationship right, I knew I would count the finale as a success, and tonight, Chuck approached its most important dynamic with more profundity than ever before.  The finale was most certainly a success, but not just on that front.  It had action, it had comedy, it had the best damn Jeffster! performance of all time, and it had pitch-perfect endings for every member of the ensemble.  It was the Chuck we’ve spent five years loving, going out on a high note so incredible that its absence will indeed make the heart grow fonder. 

Chuck is a show I will treasure and remember and look back on for as long as I live, and mere words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards every last person who worked on this legendary series, who enthusiastically and reliably brightened my weeks throughout High School and even into college.  As a society, we like to downplay the importance of media and entertainment in our everyday lives, but film and television are studied and exalted because they can make a difference.  They can touch us in ways we can hardly explain, influence our lives on truly profound levels, and for me, Chuck has been a crucial part of my existence since it debuted on September 24th, 2007.  It was there for me whenever I most needed it, to make me laugh, to get me excited, to reenergize me after a bad day at school, to help me hone my writing skills, to entertain me when I needed a distraction, to share with my loved ones, and most important of all, to fill me with hope, the hope that an awkward, nerdy kid like myself could one day find success and happiness and love so long as I stayed true to myself, valued my friends and family, and worked hard to make my dreams come true.   

That’s what Chuck Bartowski achieved in the end.  That’s what I hope to achieve in my own ongoing journey, and I can say with some confidence that for the immediate future, anyway, life will be just a little less brighter without the weekly pick-me-up Chuck provided.  But though I’ll miss Chuck, I’ll never forget it, and that flame of hope the series ignited inside me will continue to burn for years to come.

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"Jonathan Lack at the Movies"


  1. Sir,

    I just watched the Finale last night (I'm in Afghanistan, with the Army, things don't happen on the same day as they do in the states).

    I can't agree with you more on every single word you've written above. The Finale of Chuck was clearly the most perfect way that show could have ended, Chuck and Sarah are at the beginning of a whole new set of adventures.

    Keeping the outcome of the kiss a mystery, too, was perfect. In much the same way as Chuck's proposal was left between them, this kiss too, was left between them. It was THEIR moment.

    I feel the same way, about the void left by this show's absense, I discovered it in College, and it's kept me company through Law School and a deployment. I've loved Chuck and Sarah and always rooted for them. And I know for a fact that even if Fedak et al didn't actually TELL us that the kiss worked, they didn't need to, it was Sarah, real SARAH who told Chuck to kiss her, reborn in all her glory.

    I didn't cry, but I came damn close, and I'm glad to read that someone else got the import of the ending.

    Thanks for all the comments over the years, from one Chuck fan to another :)

  2. You are very welcome, and thank YOU for kind words and thoughtful analysis. It's always so cool to hear from another fan who feels the same passion for this show as I do. And your point about the "Kiss Me" line being Sarah's rebirth is something I hadn't thought of, but makes total sense. I'm very glad you pointed it out.

  3. Since the Chuck series has finally turned up on Netflix, myself and a good many others are now catching up on the series, filling in the blanks on missing episodes and the story. Yes, its almost 2 years since the series ended, but a good many people are finishing it off for the first time. And yes, the angst over the ending remains as strong today, as it was in January of 2012.
    I didn't see the finale the first time around - I couldn't watch it. I had heard about it, and simply couldn't accept it. Yvonne especially, had crafted so perfect and poignant a character, blessed her with so much hope, that I literally, couldn't stand to see that lost. I've only recent worked through it, and I'm not okay with it just yet.

    Many have not noticed that the finale kiss is a callback to the episode in which Chuck saves Sarah from Shaw by shooting him with a real gun - the "shut up and kiss me" scene in Paris. Yvonne delivers the finale "kiss me" in the same way that she did in the Paris episode. This circles the arc back to her hazy memories of that time, and her slow realization that Chuck saved her. I think we're being asked to believe that this where we are again. For many though, I think it was maybe too subtle, especially those who had not seen that previous episode.

    For me, the ending has been as difficult to watch, as their relationship has been important to me as an engaged viewer. I'm probably on average about 30 years older than the typical viewer, and unlike many viewers. I'm old enough to have actually lived through some of the real elements of Chuck and Sarah' s relationship. I needed a happy ending, because as art mirrors life, I truly know what an unhappy ending feels like in real terms. I want Chuck and Sarah to be whole, because I, personally, need the catharsis that comes from their salvation. Such is the power of television and the theatre when the actors and their work is as good as Yvonne's is in this.

    Like many, I hope for a sequel for an affirmation of our desires Yes, it's just a TV show, but the uncertainty of wonder carries a price in the real world too. Good review, dude.

  4. I just finished watching the finale last night. I've got to say it hit me hard. Harder than I expected. As a man you're supposed to be stoic about these sort of things but I was very upset. I just feel like Chuck and Sarah were robbed. Literally robbed. We the fans got robbed too. I can understand what Fedak et Al, were trying to do but it just doesn't work. Chuck gets back the woman of his dreams and she doesn't remember who he is? Or her love for him? WTF? Seriously? that's horrible.
    The way I understand it her feelings will come back and a lot/most of her memories will also return eventually. But whichever way you slice it she won't be the same Sarah who put on those intersect glasses. That Sarah died when Quinn abducted her. She will never be quite who she was or remember/understand their history together. It will be as if Chuck has dated two Sarah's. Some people seem to be able to rationalize this away but come on! She doesn't remember Casey, Morgan or Ellie and Devon! Since most of them are moving away there is no guarantee she ever will! It's like she died to them. No other fans feel how f'd up that is? You go through hell with a friend for years only for your relationship to be erased! Not OK!
    Also Morgan's miraculous recovery doesn't make sense anyway. Huge chunks of his memory are just gone. Even if his feelings about people return (Which I believe happens for both Morgan and Sarah) he's not going to be able to make sense of it or his identity because huge chunks of subtext are missing. In reality he would be a wreck who would never be the same person (exactly) again. Sarah was an even more extreme case. The idea of her just getting on with her life is preposterous! She would be a very damaged and disturbed person with a fragmented personality! Personally, it is obvious to me that If the intersect can take away memories it can be reprogrammed to restore them as well. We can see that Sarah’s memories have been supressed but are still in there somewhere. Ellie and Chuck between them should have been able to reverse the process. Volkoff had his real memories and identity completely supressed by the Intersect and subsequently 100% restored decades later. No reason that ultimately Morgan and Sarah couldn’t have their memories restored too. I would just like to have seen it!
    Another thing is that there was no mention of the insidious masterplan against Chuck which Dekker revealed had been in motion for years if not decades. Anyone recall his little speech about how the Intersect, Fulcrum, The Ring, Volkoff and himself were all part of a well-orchestrated plan against Chuck? You know not just a series of coincidences. Poof! That part of the plot vanished. If you’re thinking that the plot-point I’m referring too was wrapped up by Shaw’s return think again. His plan was devised after his imprisonment. All of that I could overlook if they had at least shown Sarah getting her memory back and both Chuck and herself escaping the Spy life unscathed.
    It was a very clever and well-acted finale which completely crapped on the character development of Sarah and the history between her and all of the other characters. The show ended with her a stranger to everyone that really mattered to her. What a load of F****** B*******!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Chris the pissed off fan!