Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Nothing Can Go Wrong: Chuck review


CHUCK: 'Chuck Versus The Last Details'

That's a perfect example right there of why channels shouldn't show 'next time' promos after cliffhangers. Or should at least edit them as not to ruin what was one of the most sinister and powerful moments Chuck has ever produced.

Of course, we all know that Sarah was never going to stay 'dead', but it's not great to have it confirmed by a post-episode ad rather than the suspense of waiting until next week to see how the situation resolves itself. It's up to the programme to confirm our suspicions, not the channel's marketing department to take advantage of them. Anyway, rant over. The sight of the near-invulnerable Sarah Walker collapsing at the feet of her fiancée just as everything in their lives seemed to be aligning in some sort of order was a brilliant way to lead into the season, and possibly series, finale. Let's hope that Sarah makes a sufficiently quick recovery so she isn't sitting on the sidelines when the action kicks off. Should Chuck not make it to renewal, which we'll know by the time the episode airs next Monday night, the last place we want to see Sarah Walker, this generation's Emma Peel, is lying in bed.

Well... you know what I mean.
'Chuck versus The Last Details' was as overstuffed as most of this season's episodes, having to pay off any number of storylines which the series' writers had to cram into eleven episodes (I suppose you could say they should be used to it by now, though), but if it clears the path for a more focused season finale, that's fine by me.

It certainly wasn't a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination and featured several wonderful moments of Chuck back at his geeky best, though having to pull together so many plot threads, not limited to Sarah and Chuck's impending wedding, the final step of Vivian Volkoff's transition into a true big bad, the Norseman super-weapon, the Casey/Morgan/Alex difficulties and the consequences of a Bartowski family history of terrible decisions, was always destined to result in a choppy penultimate hour. That there were so many enjoyable moments, and bringing those threads together resulted in such a sucker punch of a climax, is a testament to the core strengths that have kept the series alive during its more challenging moments.

I mentioned last week my mild frustration at how Chuck's villains too often seem to echo the protagonist himself in some way, but at least this time there appears to be a definite purpose to it. Ultimately, Chuck is all about family and the bonds between people who care for each other. After four seasons, the final scene of 'Last Details' gets Chuck to what appears to be the end point of that theme. He is no longer lying to Ellie, is reunited with his mother, had the chance to get to know his father and is about to marry the woman he loves. Even Morgan, in Casey and Alex, has found an odd family of his own. I've long suspected that one of the reasons Chuck and he are so tight is because of their mutual abandonment issues regarding parents: it's not as though Morgan's mum seems to have much respect for her son, even though Big Mike does his brilliant best.

In Vivian Volkoff, we have a villain who was given a brief insight into the family she never knew before having it all taken away from her, with Chuck, whose family was responsible for her grief, held responsible. It's a great idea for a villain and could have used her parallels with Chuck to great effect, but for eleven episodes being far too few to develop such an intricate chain of conflict and the character herself, who has only appeared sporadically in this latter half-season, never convincing either of her pain or the strength of her convictions to avenge it.

Chuck's casting is normally one of its strongest suits, but Lauren Cohan has proven a rare misstep. My best guess is that she has been trying to play up the character's ordinariness but struggled to find a convincing next step when required to turn villainous, or perhaps that her arc seems destined for her to find salvation (thus redeeming the Bartowskis as well), meaning the writers have held back from making her too evil. While I have sympathy for Cohan, given how quickly the character had to make a severe turn to the dark side (lots of Star Wars moments in this episode, all of them brilliant), Vivian has always seemed stuck in neutral when we really need to be getting a sense of the character's emotional turmoil. She hasn't been helped by having to follow the spectacular Timothy Dalton either, whose return next week deserves celebration.

The majority of the fun in this episode came from individual moments, as there were so many plots and subplots being worked through that none of them really felt satisfactorily developed on their own terms. Opening with Mary being captured by Vivian (and Ray Wise's Riley, who turned out to be a waste of a very entertaining actor), then Chuck being able to immediately track her down courtesy of some unlikely information in the Intersect, set a rushed tone that continued until the formidable final scenes. The prison break-out was ridiculously easy and had Chuck compromise his family with important information more out of necessity for plot development than a natural mistake, while the Norseman auction didn't go anywhere other than to service Morgan and Casey's subplot and establish what the weapon was capable of. The conflict between Mary and Sarah, though it resulted in a touching conclusion, was as superfluous and engineered as so many of Chuck's other relationship problems of the week.

Fortunately, individual scenes within those plots more than made up for that flimsiness. Casey had a great episode, starting with his gun mug, the delightfully silly "Wait until I get his pants off" exchange with Chuck that went broader than the series usually does, his disgust at Morgan's Italian accent ("You have to stop that") and one of Adam Baldwin's grumpier growls. His worry at Morgan being sent into the field, in case of breaking a promise made to his daughter, was a satisfying next step in the relationships between them and Alex, with Baldwin conveying how much the promise meant to him - and to a lesser extent, his growing fondness for Morgan too - in an appropriately restrained way.

Other great moments included Jeff's unexpectedly tender video tribute to Chuck and Sarah, bagging him a serious kiss from Ellie that was fulfilling and laugh out loud hilarious, the build-up to Morgan entering the Norseman auction as an Italian gangster (see 'Best Moment' below) and subsequent attempt to prove his evil credentials - "You heard me! I said shoot the puppy! I'm so sick of feeding him!" - and Carlyle the useless spy, a fabulous little Indiana Jones nod that might have been the episode's second, if you count the Specialty of the House's similarity to the delicacy served up in Temple of Doom. There was also a quick Terminator gag with Linda Hamilton seen on CCTV doing Sarah Connor pull-ups in her cell.

'Last Details' may have set itself too much work, but was one of this season's most frequently funny non-Dalton episodes and lined up the finale with an uncharacteristically vicious twist, which worked thanks to the happy point the episode seemed ready to end on being a lovely reminder of why these characters will be so missed, whether forever or just for the summer. I'm not going to jinx the situation by making a prediction, so will end instead with a fitting line from Mary Bartowski's heartfelt speech to the soon-to-be newlyweds: "May you have many more adventures together, and always keep each other safe."

Best Moment: Chuck and Morgan getting in a dark side mood by humming the Imperial March together, as Sarah looked on dumbfounded.



larcollins said...

Great review. This is my first time clicking on your blog

Xander Markham said...

Thanks larcollins, glad you enjoyed the review and hope to see you here again!