Saturday, 21 January 2012

Television - Chuck 'Chuck vs The Bullet Train' review

Although much of it has been enjoyable, Chuck's final season has been a weirdly structured creation. Most assumed that showrunners Josh Schwarz and Chris Fedak would take the (miraculous) opportunity given to them to give their series a fitting end by telling a single, cohesive, season arc. Instead, they have given us a series of mostly unrelated cliffhangers and mini-arcs. Perhaps all these will wrap together in some way. Morgan's short-lived acquisition of the Intersect has become a more prominent plot point in the past few episodes, for sure, yet everything that happened in the episodes in-between seems to have been largely disposable.

We only met Nicholas Quinn last week, yet it looks like he will be the antagonist to take us through to the finale. (There hasn't been any sense yet that he is working for anyone else). Plotlines in Chuck have never been of paramount importance, but unless there's a big unplayed card yet to be revealed, that choice isn't looking like a strong one. We've been with these characters for so long, it would be nice for their final adventure to have a certain symmetry to it. For the villain to come out of nowhere at the last minute (and not exactly bearing Timothy Dalton levels of charisma, either) denies us much of the emotional investment that could have come from a more carefully prepared long-term plan.
The weird thing is that it looked, for a while, like Schwarz and Fedak had exactly that in place. At the beginning of the season, Team Bartowski were being hunted by a villainous CIA Operative, Decker, working for an unknown master with a grudge against Chuck. When Decker's boss was revealed, the resulting episode was one of the best in recent years, 'Chuck vs The Santa Suit'. Its plot may have been as messy as every other Chuck plot in the series' history, but Shaw is a villain whose motives we understand, whose anger towards Chuck and Sarah we have seen develop, and who has a place in the series mythology. In other words, he would have been a perfect villain for Chuck to face off against in his final hour.

A shame, then, that he didn't last until the end of the episode.

Perhaps it was Chuck's tiny budget that scuppered the possibility: former Superman Brandon Routh probably costs a pretty penny. Then again, for the sake of delivering a more fulfilling last hurrah, couldn't, say, the Mark Hammill cameo have been sacrificed? Or, as terrific as she has been, Carrie Ann Moss as Gertrude? I love the idea of Casey settling down with Trinity, but it's a fun sidenote, not something that impacts on the enjoyment of the character. Had the original story arc been extended and 'Chuck vs The Santa Suit' (minus its Christmasiness) acted as the series finale, it would have been a perfect note on which to end the series once and for all. Instead, maybe out of force of habit, Chuck threw it in as a mid-season finale: a great one, which now threatens to overshadow the series' real end.

Doubly strange is that Quinn's motives could very easily have been transposed to Shaw with very little difficulty, all the while making much more sense. The idea of the original agent intended for the Intersect coming back to claim it isn't a bad idea by any means, but is handicapped by not having been properly set up. Presenting a theoretical alternative, let's say that Shaw's seemingly endless resources allowed him to escape gaol at the end of 'Santa Suit'. He wants his Intersect back and he wants revenge on Sarah and Chuck more than ever. Wouldn't the ending of 'Chuck vs The Bullet Train', where an Intersected Sarah woke up in a hotel room with no memories and was given an assignment to kill her beloved (but unrecognised) husband, be an absolutely perfect way for Shaw to exact that revenge? It would have the symmetry with how he hates Sarah for killing his wife, by now making her kill the man she is unable to remember as her husband.

It was also make just a smidgen more sense regarding how Quinn was somehow able to climb around the outside of a bullet train going at full speed after being kicked out of a window. Shaw, at least, is in his prime and (courtesy of the Intersect) has done some nifty tricks before, which might linger in physical memory. Quinn, let's be brutally honest, is a little chubby and doesn't look like someone who has ever pulled off much in the way of mind-blowing gymnastics. Even for Chuck, the moment he climbed back into the train was a serious eye-roller.

For the most part, the episode wasn't too bad: the change in location was neat (accompanied by an odd new credits sequence, possibly a reference to some movie I've forgotten - Death Train, perhaps? I haven't seen that one in a looooong time) and Jeff and Lester saving the day - particularly Lester turning up in full Terminator gear - was oodles of fun. The plot never really went anywhere, though, and too often felt like it was just a series of obstacles to fill time, without much in the way of stakes. Plus, weakening Sarah at this point in the story feels like another bad decision. This woman is the Emma Peel for a new generation: let's give her the opportunity to kick some serious arse before bowing out.

Maybe it's unprofessional of me to approach this episode from the point of view of what it wasn't rather than what it was. A great series finale is still very much possible. Sarah could be cured at the end of the next episode (the provocatively titled 'Chuck vs Sarah') and all go to fight alongside her husband for one last time in the finale. For the moment, though, the weight of missed opportunities and questionable decisions is suppressing my enjoyment of these last few episodes. Seeing these characters get their happy ending will be sufficient, but a programme with Chuck's history and devoted fanbase should be aiming so much higher than just doing enough.


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