Yesterday, Chuck finished principle photography on the series' final episode. The day before, Community waved a seasonal farewell before embarking on a hiatus of undetermined length. How appropriate that these two fan-favourite programmes should collide at such an opportune moment, in an episode already so concerned with endings. Danny Pudi's cameo took up only a few minutes of screentime - and included one other, completely unexpected but resoundingly excellent, reference to Dan Harmon's series - but the circumstances surrounding it gave a twinge of extra poignancy to what at any other time would have been a throwaway gag.
There is still half a season of Chuck left to go, of course, but seeing Zachary Levi posting a twitter photo of his last day in the Nerd Herd outfit made everything feel that little bit more final. The episode's events thus took on greater dramatic weight than ever, which is admittedly not saying much about a programme that so strongly favours character over storytelling, but was a stick-in-the-throat reminder that once these last episodes have finished, these characters that fans have grown to care about really will be gone forever in all but memory. The glaring absence of Community in the New Year schedule is an ominous reminder of what is to come.
The questions being posed throughout 'Chuck vs The Hack-Off' revolved around ideas of past and future. Where do we go from here? How have we changed in the time since we have known each other? Zac Levi's third time in the director's chair didn't yield any clues that the series' star was guiding the camera, but few episodes have offered such a deft observation into the characters' changing lives.
Chuck has become a more serious figure in recent years, as you would expect from a man who has had to grow up with his life constantly being in peril, but the opportunity to bring out some of his old hacker skills (and unheralded passion for glugging Chardonnay) was a glimpse at his past, boundlessly enthusiastic self. No wonder Sarah found it strangely alluring: this was the ridiculously nerdy but puppydog happy Chuck she fell in love with all those years ago. He was having the time of his life on that computer.
Casey, too, was confronted with the happiness of the past coming to assist an uncertain future. Framed by Decker and thrown in gaol, Gertrude Verbanski turned up to give him - let's politely say - a helping hand. Casey might not have known if he was ever going to taste freedom again, but having his old flame hanging around almost made that a price worth paying. Adam Baldwin hasn't had the chance to give puppy eyes many times during his time on Chuck, but Carrie Ann Moss (another brilliant bit of guest star casting, albeit in a more understated way than the hilarious Timothy Dalton last year) has proven a worthy target of his affections. If the series ends with some sort of epilogue, hopefully we'll be able to see them picnicking together, taking out hippies with a sniper rifle concealed in the hamper.
In the Buy-More, the recently sobered Jeff remembers how much he used to enjoy Lester's company (prior to getting him arrested last week) but wants to make sure that their friendship will resume with his former partner-in-crime understanding that he has changed for the better. Lester, never the most forward-thinking of beings, unfortunately isn't hearing a word of it, at least not until he is given a reminder - via Danny Pudi cameo - that if he is willing to change, his place in the world he relies on for support could slip through his fingers to a new, better model.
Though the themes were more keenly felt than usual, the central plotline stuck to the usual Chuck formula of throwaway fun involving ominously named evil organisations, macguffins of mass destruction and a heap of storytelling conveniences. I know Chuck and Sarah are trusting, but would even they really be so quick to jump onboard such a transparent plot by Decker, the man who has done nothing but try to ruin them since the start of the season?
Fortunately, it hit all the series' most enjoyably whimsical notes, from the break-in to a military compound that turned out to be a particularly well-protected nudist colony for the reformed rich (with nude Yvonne Strahovski and Zac Levi's modesties only protected by well-placed blurring), to Sarah getting in a catfight and Chuck 'The Piranha' Bartowski revealed as the inspiration for the movie Swordfish, which he doesn't talk about, because it wasn't exactly an A+ production. Only Gertrude's sudden opening up to Sarah felt slightly misplayed: in the endlessly optimistic world of Chuck, everyone can be redeemed by becoming more in-touch with their feelings, but though the moment was amusing, it came too far out of nowhere to feel justified. Sarah's worries about her place in a life after retirement were understandable, but a fear that the character has faced before.
In a season that has featured several strong cliffhangers, the conclusion to 'Hack Off' once again redirected Chuck and Sarah's path towards the dream house they longed for in the opening episode. With Decker now out of the way but the consequences of his actions yet to be fully felt, it looks like Team Bartowski could be on the run for the foreseeable future. Casey is out of gaol, but may have lost Gertrude again in doing so. Meanwhile, the 'Next Time' preview revealed the return of an face from the past with a score to settle. Chuck has had to come to terms with his family's messy history to become the man he is today. To take his last steps, it appears that the final traces of the past remaining to be confronted are all his own.
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