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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Chuck – “Chuck vs The Subway” and “Chuck vs The Ring, Part II”

“Muah ha ha.”

Shaw waves at Chuck from the subway train.

Where does one buy villainous trenchcoats?

The spy procedural is based on the “unreliable witness.” Espionage, as a genre, involves a number of “agents” that can turn coat on a dime or, at the whim of the show’s authors, reveal themselves to have always been a double agent without precedent. No character can be trusted with anything. In fact, not even what the audience sees can be trusted since, often, what they see is a biased version of what is actually transpiring. Nothing is reliable, not even what the viewer can testify to seeing. The abilities of spies have risen to superhuman in order to either (a) cover up narrative holes or (b) make an audience believe that this network of subterfuge, obfuscation, and coolness is believable. Spies are the new superheroes because, with a gadget or some sleight of hand, maybe even the opportunity to slip off a dress at a moment’s notices, anything is possible. For reference, see Alias, Burn Notice, or Dollhouse (though the latter has its own complications with the supernatural/extraordinary).

Chuck started like a children’s version of the spy procedural: many of the tricks of the spy trade but with this elementary element that even a goofball can do the job, if a bit clumsily. Chuck as a character is proof that spies have been elevated to something that has normally needed a cape and underwear-on-the-outside-of-the-pants to designate its superiority. We have been led to believe that he is a normal guy given extraordinary power and that is the only way he could possibly compete on the same level as his fellow agents (Walker and Casey) that received “ordinary” spy training. The thread of Chuck’s normal life kept it grounded and almost made it a parody of all those spy procedurals that take themselves so seriously.

But Chuck has been growing up over the past season and a half and has reached a sort of awkward adolescence. While the ending to Season 3 packed a few punches, it is constantly wrestling with the spy procedural genre and that which kept it grounded, a thread that was spinning out of control, the two halves of the show diverging intensely. At the end of this episode, the show seems to have made a choice. And I can’t say it made the right one. Especially since it goes into next season with what might be some heavy intra-network competition.

In the back of my mind, I’d hoped for the Chuck to embody the unreliable witness. Though it might be seen by some as a crutch or a reset button, I wishfully thought this mini-season was all a part of Chuck’s Intersect-fueled mental breakdown after pulling the trigger on Shaw. ‘Shippers be damned, I was hoping Chuck and Sarah never got together (officially) and that the final episode would be about Chuck struggling to re-engage a less idyllic real world, with the Ring bearing down and the team still dealing with the fallout of what happened in Paris. They went in a different direction.

Casey saves Alex from the threat of Justin.

After beating a dude with a napkin holder, he slings the girl over his shoulder and walks out, more or less casually. That what he does.

Not that that’s necessarily bad. The first hour (“vs The Subway”) was pretty great. My favorite parts involve Zach Levi’s emotional reactions. Chuck’s elongated, painful flashes are nice touches and exemplify the torture the kid goes through with a deteriorating brain, the editing pitch-perfect to demonstrate a dystopian version of the Intersect. Couple the neurological pain with the sense of relief Chuck feels after putting on the Governor (what a crap name), his body slumping like an addict after a fresh hit, and you have a full picture of what the producers want this show to do. Chuck is no longer a normal guy that happens to have this ability to pull up random bits of information on international criminals. He is now a struggling spy deeply disturbed by the burden placed on him by a government experiment gone haywire in his mind (one produced by his own father).

These are the dark parallels this show is pulling nowadays as Chuck ages from McG-style content (hip and fun with an edge, albeit blunt) to something more introspective and troubling (for example, we watch a stylized scene where Chuck and Ellie watch the last member of their family outside of them get murdered). I remember a discussion earlier this season on Chuck You Tuesday where, after an episode featuring a Ring agent being shot in the head, they discussed that this is no longer family-friendly (if it ever really was) and might not fit into what we consider content for 8 o’clock anymore. The spy stuff used to be light enough but the show has turned a corner. After watching Orion fall, Chuck and Shaw beating each other bloody later, and numerous cold-blooded attempts on the lives of any number of people in the show, is there room for Chuck’s defining comedic thread with the intrigue it seems to want to pull off?

The second hour of the finale (“vs The Ring, Part II”) speaks to that and sends me a resounding “no.” As far as Chuck’s spy career and life has matured in the past few seasons, the Buy More thread has become less balanced, flung somewhere south of Goofball. As the only people left in Burbank not yet implicated into Chuck’s web of espionage, Jeff, Lester, and Big Mike are obviously around as comic relief but in a way that doesn’t balance the intrigue of the A-story. They makes clever cameos in the first hour, providing Awesome drink to drown his sorrow of a maybe-cheating Ellie and hitting on John Casey’s daughter near the end. But their presence in the second hour is only to work toward their demise.

Chuck and Sarah infiltrate spy conference in disguise.

While Chuck goes for the “so fake it has to be real” disguise, Sarah opts for the Clark Kent “change one distinguishing detail and no one will recognize me” look.

Obviously, I’m not talking about their diegetic deaths or even actual exits from the show. At the beginning of the second hour, we know that the Buy More is cooked. How do we know? One, we saw it in the previews. One day, networks are going to learn (I’m sure of it) the difference between an exciting scene and a spoiler and I will be a happier man for it. But, two, this is the inevitable fate of the store where it all began. Sub-A stories involving the Buy More failed to really color the A-stories this season and, instead, have been departures from the episode that no longer fit into the context of where the show is going. That is to say, with Ellie being implicated into Chuck’s life as a spy, there is no longer room for people not involved in the secret agent life since there are no stakes. So what if Jeff and Lester find out about Chuck as a spy? Would Team Bartowski go to the same lengths to save Jeffster from an international conspiracy as they would for Ellie, Devon, or Morgan? The last group scene where they toast the fallen Orion would indicate a big, fat “no” since no one even takes notice of the two goofballs taking the fall for the “arson” at Buy More.

Possibly the biggest indication that the show has given up on the Buy More is contained in the last fight sequence between Shaw and Chuck, soundtracked by our beloved Jeffster. Chuck as a show descends from the traditions of the WB and, of course, the Schwartz-produced O.C., where important scenes are swollen with dramatic popular music. Confessions, major plot points, break-ups are continually enveloped by wan covers, neo-folk ballads, or indie-rock bands slow-jamming. Recall Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” when Chuck “did the right thing” in S2 (“vs The Breakup”) or even when Orion fell to Shaw’s gun in “vs The Subway.” Jeffster also featured in these capacities with “Africa” (“vs the Best Friend”) and “Mr Roboto” (“vs The Ring” – Part I) but, this season, they’ve been stomped all over by “more important” story rather than being allowed to assist. Yeah, I’m talking about “vs The Honeymooners” again. I might not ever be able to let that go. But, almost more tragically, the Jeffster-scored fight scene, with a song that, on paper, should have been amazing, felt, for lack of a better term, half-assed. The proper swell never fully actualized and it just felt lazy. “Blaze of Glory” seemed like an almost ironic choice of song since the fire Jeffster used to produce for the show has been snuffed by abandonment. If this is their swan song (which, when the episode was produced, it might have been), there was no glory. It was anticlimactic, especially given the gravity of the fight scene.

So the destruction of the Buy More is a deyoking of sorts for Team Bartowski. No longer are they saddled with having to dedicate themselves to a sub-A plot that has nothing to do with espionage (save a possible reset button in the S4 opening, kind of like what they did in the S3 opening). Instead, they can dedicate themselves to the plot everyone saw coming eventually: Chuck looking for his mother. And, thus, we have a predicament.

Team Chuck runs from the Buy More explosion.

Just awful.

I just can’t imagine Chuck going for a fifth season. The show, while improving in its structure and storytelling (despite an inconsistent S3), the storylines are pretty much the same as when they started: “let’s stop the evil organization du jour” and exploring Chuck’s natural abilities in spydom as they are descended from his absent parents. After conquering FULCRUM and the Ring, and revealing his father, Chuck is charged with finding his mother. The trajectory of this arc seems shallow. I hope I’m wrong. I want his mother to be heavily involved in something that will blow this show wide open. I don’t see it, though. Couple the shallow trajectory with basement-low ratings (compared to other networks and especially its nightly competition, House) and, beyond a stroke of brilliance, I can’t see this show continuing for much longer. This is particularly true with the new NBC show Undercover that threatens to steal the Chuck’s ace-in-the-hole, the adorable committed relationship between spies. I don’t think NBC would gut its own programming (I’m pretty sure …) but it will definitely show the campy chinks in Chuck’s already flimsy armor if Undercovers exhibits the same charisma the trailer seems to. It’s a little more Mr and Mrs Smith than Chuck is right now but that’s the only place I can see the fifth season going (since I surmise Chuck isn’t going to be searching for his mother a la Belle and Sebastian for more than a season).

So I might be a little harsh on Chuck. We’ll finish this sandwich with some of the things I really liked about the episode.

  • Morgan. I love Morgan. I love the potential in story for Mogan. I love that he is John Casey’s apprentice (the thumb breaking scene, mirroring Chuck’s refusal to do same thing previously in the series, is a winner). I love that he is what Chuck could be if Chuck wasn’t so whiny in the beginning. Chuck missed out on all the cool stuff he could learn from Casey and Sarah and, instead, had to have the Intersect teach it all to him. Morgan won’t make that mistake.
  • The intrigue of the Ring infiltration created a real sense of danger and anxiety in the first hour. Though tempered by Beckman’s “you’re our only hope” Princess Leia plea, the intensity of the first act was palpable.
  • That Devon was the one to crack may have been inevitable but I’m glad it was him to tell Ellie about Chuck. The “faithful” line before sipping his tea was great.
  • Good on Sarah Lancaster for finally getting some meat in her role. Though she was shipped off for the second hour, I was really happy to see her actually act rather than nag. I really like Ellie/Chuck scenes and, though the scene in the car might not have been the best, it was satisfying. They do have great sibling chemistry.
  • Shaw’s “muah ha ha” is probably the best thing Brandon Routh has ever done. Also, kudos to the writers for bringing it back for the second hour.
  • Okay, one more thing I didn’t like: the explosion. Fine, show the store exploding. Showing them running away from an obvious green screen job? Horrendous, dude.
  • Casey. As. A Dad. This can only be amazing. I really wished they’d focused more on him watching her since he found out he had a daughter but I’m okay with just watching him and her try to reconnect. I’m thinking spin-off.
  • Though I remarked that I’m not sure what the show’s going to do when they finally find Chuck’s mom, I’m interested in why she’s gone. I assume (as I’ve noted before) that Chuck is basically living out his parents’ history and his mother is a top agent that had to be spirited away, resigning Sarah to the same fate someday. I’ve been wrong before, though, so I’m hoping they keep me guessing.
  • Overall, I felt like this finale was much like the season: inconsistent. But in reflection on the two episodes as a whole, they were satisfying but could have been better.

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