Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Never Gives Up: Chuck season finale review


CHUCK: 'Chuck Versus The Cliffhanger' 

What a relief that Chuck continues to be so resilient to being killed off, either as a character or as a series. I don't think many people would have bet on Mr. Bartowski getting a fifth season, but either showrunners Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz knew all along something they weren't willing to pass onto worried fans, or they just got even more exceptionally lucky than on every previous unlikely renewal.

Previously, the Chuck finales have focused on giving the characters a strong send-off in case it proved to be their last, possibly aware that the characters of this particular programme have considerably greater value for its fans than the often questionable storytelling. This time, with ratings at an all-time low and cancellation looking more likely than ever, Fedak and Schwartz not only ventured the possibility of ending the series with a cliffhanger, but one which suggested that there was an entire second meaning, a conspiratorial grand plan, governing everything we'd watched over the past four years. 

Perhaps it's just me, but had the series ended on that note, I would have been furious (as a fan - not literally wandering my house fuming, you understand): the second twist was fine, and I'll discuss it after the jump in case anyone who hasn't watched the episode yet is perusing the front page. But that first twist was the promise of a revelation that, had the series not been renewed, would have left fans with the bitter taste of a key continuity-altering plotline they would never get to see, on a show they had supported so faithfully. That's not a problem now, of course, but I doubt Fedak and Schwartz would have known that at the time of writing. I didn't appreciate their readiness to leave fans in a state of limbo.
The second twist, of Morgan accidentally downloading the Intersect after Chuck's was stripped from him, was a lot more fun and I'm looking forward to seeing where they take it next year. (The difference between that and the masterplan was that Morgan having an Intersect, incidentally, is that the latter doesn't change anything about the show's past or how we've experienced it). Speaking as someone who has no more information than what was presented on-screen, as no-one can say how it will pan out next year, I think I would have preferred it had Morgan received the Intersect information, but not the kung-fu skills, although I suppose they're one and the same in the recent models and allowed for a terrific reprisal of Chuck's final line from the season two finale. Plus, Josh Gomez has considerable potential to be an hilarious martial-artist. Let's just hope the writers don't indulge the reversals on season-ending twists they have at the beginning of the last few seasons.

If Morgan is going to be be sent out into the field though, my first feeling was that it would be more suspenseful if, like classic Chuck, he wouldn't have the skills to defend himself and would need Sarah and Casey to provide the muscle. I'm a little concerned that this could shift the focus of the show away from Chuck though: he's happily married now, surrounded by his family and with no more secrets to reveal. There was a suggestion that Stephen Bartowski was still alive, but that seems a credibility push too far. Instead, it appears that a lot of the drama being set up will revolve around a certain Mr. Grimes. Not only now a vital asset for missions (moreso than Chuck, who now only really has his intuition, and neither Sarah nor Casey are lacking in quick-thinking skills), but he's presumably going to start lying to Alex again, to whom he told he would leave the spy life behind. I think that there's a lot of potential for fun from this twist, but it will have to be played very carefully.

The rest of the episode didn't fill me with a huge amount of hope, as it was a reminder that while Chuck can do moving character moments very well, its plots, either individually or as season-long arcs, rarely reach the required standard to function adequately on their own. Tying together the previous four seasons into one convincing and satisfying scheme will take a lot of doing, as will the aforementioned issues of how to balance the new Chuck/Morgan positions, and there were too many signs last night that left me worried the writers don't have it in them to pull it off successfully.

Take the Vivian Volkoff storyline, for example. What the previous eleven-odd episodes of build-up amounted to was putting Sarah's life in danger, only to have the situation resolved by a chat in her office. While the previous episode ended on the powerful image of Chuck cradling his dying fiancĂ©e in his arms, putting a single person in danger, even if they are on the verge of getting married, is not a point that should take half a season to get to. Vivian was lined up as holding a vendetta against Chuck a while back, so why the time wasn't taken to up the stakes, giving us the chance to see the full breadth of her anger as she targeted everyone Chuck cared about, was a big dramatic oversight. 

As it turned out, we never got a sense of what Vivian was capable of, so her turn to the dark side essentially amounted to wearing more leather, frowning a lot and then turning back to the side of right and virtue after a quick natter with her real dad. The scene in her office where we should have felt Chuck's utter despair at begging for mercy from the woman who so hated him was embarrassingly undercooked, with Chuck not in any worse a position than he has been every other time Sarah, or any other character he cared about, got themselves into trouble. With Vivian's villainous credentials never established, there was no reason to be concerned she wouldn't turn good again.

While I appreciate that time was taken to establish the seriousness of Sarah's condition (although technically the fact that she's still alive was a bit of a cop-out given how the Norseman had always previously been immediately fatal), it did mean that she was confined to bed while the drama was unfolding. Again, had this been the final episode of the series, it would have been a tragedy not to see her kicking some ass one last time.

The episode even wasted the final appearance of Timothy Dalton, with the removal of the Volkoff personality giving him few opportunities to indulge the broad malevolence that has consistently provided many of Chuck's high points this season. He did have a lovely moment when Chuck asked if he would help Sarah though, immediately replying: "Yeah, of course I will". Dalton in that line sold Hartley Winterbottom ("Nobody names a person that!") as a completely different person to the Volkoff persona forced on him, and every bit the kind scientist he had been described as.

At least the wedding scene was as perfect as the character scenes in Chuck usually are. The vows felt very true to the characters speaking them and having Morgan both marry Chuck and Sarah (don't question it) and then act as their driver was a fitting nod to how, in many ways, he's the most suitable man to hand Chuck over to his new wife. The Princess Bride reference was pretty great too. He and Casey tearing up during the ceremony was both very funny and a nice recognition of how they've influenced each other since becoming unofficial partners. Between Casey's "Russians. So many Russians!" and Morgan's "Let him in, douche!", the pair also got the night's best lines. Meanwhile, the return of Sarah's CAT Squad as bridesmaids, even if they barely said a word between them, was another neat touch in bringing together the happy couple's whole lives under a single roof.

While I can say that 'Chuck Versus The Cliffhanger' did make me pleased it wasn't the series finale, it  unfortunately wasn't always for all the right reasons. It highlighted too clearly a lot of the problems that the series has struggled with, preventing it from stepping up to real greatness in the past and I worry may do so for what remains of its future. There has been much to enjoy in the fourth season, which while inconsistent  and often nonsensical, has been a significant improvement on the series' flat third year. Perhaps now knowing for certain that everything has to be wrapped in thirteen episodes will bring the best out of everyone involved, to send these wonderful characters out with the flourish they and their fans deserve.

BEST MOMENT: Chuck and Sarah say their vows.


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