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Monday, 25 of May of 2020

Chuck vs My Heart Strings: A Reflection

“Tell me our story.”

Sarah and Chuck talk about their lives together on the beach.

"Does it bother you that, even though we're the stars of this show, Baldwin's going to be the one they demand at Comic-Con?"

I’m not sure I prepared enough. I knew that I was going to watch the final episode of Chuck live (because, basically, the windows deal for the final season, which left episodes off Hulu,, and the WB site) made me. But I didn’t get enough of the essentials to celebrate the end of this series. Sizzling Shrimp and (even if it wasn’t for drinking) Rombauer Chardonnay made their absence felt. I didn’t even get a fast-food sausage or a PinkBerry knock-off.

Snacking through a wake aside, the one thing I did make sure of was to watch this finale alone. Watching it live meant that I wouldn’t be able to rewind, to pause, to walk away (no DVR). I was going to have to stare at this series finale until it was over, commercial breaks being my only respite. I was subject to the whims of this show’s authors, ones that have notoriously (if inconsistently) taken advantage of me emotionally. But I was of two minds approaching the final episode of Chuck.

One was recollecting all the times this show has manipulated my inside feelings with neo-folk soundtracks, a guy debating the same things I debate since we’re of the same age, and a hopelessly romantic (if far-fetched) storyline. The other part of me couldn’t trust this show, not just because of the manipulation but also I didn’t know what to expect because the last three seasons have been so inconsistent (at times, straight up betraying). Even in the episodes leading up to the two-hour finale, I really liked the third-to-last episode but rolled my eyes at the penultimate one. It’s not like I was worried about them tying up loose ends but I was worried that the ending would be so sickly sweet that my inherent cynicism would pile up in my throat and choke any sentimentality I could feel for the show.

So I sat down to watch it, gastronomically unprepared but maybe emotionally over-prepared. After knowing this would be the last season NBC/WB could, in good conscience, support, would this series come up big in the end or did they muster up just enough disappointment to say “screw you” to me one last time?

The answer is somewhere in between, but mostly from how we got to this point. Quinn was introduced as a big bad really late in this season and represented just the beginning of a system of ret-con for the series. Chuck battled with what kind of show it wanted to be schematically for its entire lifespan. Would it be episodic so it could be sold and stripped out of order or dedicate itself to story arcs, syndication audiences be cursed? As the show limped through its seasons, ratings never very impressive against harsh competition (House for most of its life) and on a network that can’t buy viewers (no, really — I think NBC is willing to buy viewers — we should probably ask). So its appeal is in how well it might be able to do in the after-market. Their answer was kind of a hybrid: episodic plots with truncated story arcs so that, even if a viewer was confused, s/he would get answers quickly.

So with a series that didn’t really plan for the future very often and a plot that involved kickstarting memories and lost history, ret-conning was inevitable. I really liked Sarah losing her memory, just like I enjoyed her getting the Intersect in the first place (even if that was a story they could’ve continued for a little longer — but what else is new?) and her mind being erased played well into what they wanted in the end. But more on that later.

The point is that they had to ret-con a history, a mission log that Sarah kept. In the espionage game, the only people you can trust is yourself so there had to be a way for her to tell herself that Chuck is her man. So she, apparently, kept a mission log over the course of her time with the CIA, one that increasingly turned from being a professional account of her time in Burbank to a Dear Diary about her dreamy coworker. A little schmaltzy and a really far-fetched but they built some trust with earlier parts of the episode. And by building trust, I mean made me weepy enough to swallow anything.

Because Sarah couldn’t be trusted and because her light bulbs about her memories were never very bright, reconstructing the past for an emotional audience riding the waves of a desperate Chuck trying to scrape together the life he had before Quinn arrived, the full video diary was effective. The kind of thing that even the most hardened fan (me) could see as being stupid but still willing to concede for the plot. The fact that the log was evidence enough for her to believe that Chuck wasn’t a bad guy but still didn’t reignite those special feelings for her also contributed to its effectiveness because it was real. Chuck is a stranger to her and, just because she supposedly loved him before, doesn’t mean she’s going to instantly connect with this doofus that can’t even fire a gun right.

I suppose what I was most afraid of for this series finale was that we were going to get a fairy tale ending. Morgan’s suggestion that a kiss from her “prince” (he even mentions that the idea comes from princess cartoons he’s been watching with baby Clara) might make everything all right threatened foreshadowing, particularly with a ham-handed review of Chucknsarah’s early relationship.

Chasing the Ring agent through Berlin was a walk through the German versions of turning points in their relationship. El Compadre, dancing, even a Weinerlicious, they walked through Sarah’s lost memories, proven to her to be memories by instinct (like, for instance, restacking the cups at her old workplace) if not the actual visions in her mind’s eye. It was a little rough to watch this device unfold but, somehow, it was acceptable. This show, from the beginning, is sentimental and convenient. Sometimes the espionage intrigue distracted from it with killing and treason, but, at the end, this is a rose-tinted story about human capability, both physical and romantic. Spies are supernatural but have no superhuman powers, Chuck is preternaturally able to fall in line with the spy life, Buy Morians are self-involved enough to ignore the facts, and, of course, two people perfectly matched find each other in the most unlikely of situations. We may see that the connections are sort of forced but the results are compelling enough for us to allow the unbelievable magic it took for us to get there.

Yvonne Strahovski laughs with Zachary Levi in the final scene of Chuck.

Pretty much the picture of how I want to remember this series.

But Morgan’s fairy tale statement was really to defuse the notion. As a show, it wanted to front the information that the authors realize a fairy tale ending is possible and a direction that even might have been debated but not the road worth taking. As much as Chuck as a character may want the Disney ending for his life (understandably), what’s best for the narrative is to return to what Chuck wanted all along.

It’s hard to remember the time when Chuck was rejecting the spy life since, for the past three seasons, he resigned himself to being a part of this universe. But the theme for the beginning of the show was to return to order, to settle down with the girl of his dreams, this girl of ability and talent and beauty that impressed him so much, and be able to win her without her being smashed into his life through circumstance. He’s gone back and forth, believing he could win her as a normal dude then believing that she could never be normal so they could never be in the situation where she’d fall for him as a normal guy to wanting to escape entirely from the spy life so they wouldn’t be in this bubble of subterfuge and uncertainty. The distillation of all this vacillation is simple: Chuck’s greatest trophy, the one that could silence his insecurities and allow him to move forward, is to win Sarah (a girl like Sarah) on his own terms. Really, it’s the fantasy scenario of every gentle-hearted male with a history of video game marathons and fringe cultural interests to sneak into the majors and hit a home run for your first at-bat.

So the episode walks us through all the dream scenarios that might inspire a fairy tale ending but shows that they lead nowhere. Meanwhile, we’re serviced with a stream of call-backs in order to recall the mythology of the show and bring our emotional state to the brink of nostalgia, hoping we’ll jump. Jeffster returns for a stellar performance, the Irene Demova virus returns to save them, henchmen for FULCRUM and The Ring return (Mark Pellegrino!), even the fight sequence during which Sarah engages with the armed guards outside the Intersect white room was precisely the choreography for Bryce in the pilot episode. Chuck really should’ve responded that he was wearing a vest in Klingon.

Then the farewells. Beckman walks out unceremoniously. Casey walks out of Castle in slow-motion (as does Sarah when she leaves the lair for the last time) and only returns to help tie the threads for Morgan and Alex. Ellie and Awesome are spirited out of the story early with surprisingly convenient Mid-West posts. It’s all very quick so, by the time we reached the final scene for Chucknsarah, I was afraid of a Pushing Daisies scenario. We had six minutes and it hardly seemed like enough for the show to end the reason for the show living. Fans might’ve bought Subway sandwiches for the Buy Morians, the spy stuff, the slapstick, but this is a show that ‘shipping built.

It ends on the beach on Playa del Rey, just like the final scene in the pilot. This is the moment where Morgan’s suggested kiss could’ve opened all the doors and let Chucknsarah live happily ever after. But nothing Chuck says unlocks her memory. It can’t. It shouldn’t. To unlock her memories would be a capitulation to the saccharine and be untrue to the tenet of the series. Chuck has to be able to win Sarah on his own terms for his ending to be happy. So he tells her the stories but they might as well be about someone else. Instead, Sarah, not remembering him but genuinely liking him as a person, asks to be kissed. And, presumably, they’ll start all over again, from the place where it started.

It’s an acceptable ending. It’s not the kind that swells the heart but the kind that made me sigh with relief. It was over and I didn’t want to throw up. Instead, it made me reflect on the rest of the series and all the times I maligned it for its more trite stories and inconsistency in storytelling. I considered whether or not they were just assessments. Maybe they were unfair.

Well, not totally unfair. There were so many missed opportunities. Inconsistent storytelling was certainly a problem in the latter seasons. It could never be said the show wasn’t overindulgent. But I often accused it for ignoring the dark territory it could explore and for reducing itself to tomfoolery when it could hit strides in meaningful, complicated situations. I thought the show suffered from the fate of angry bands that make it and shows prone to goofiness that hit big with the slapstick (Scrubs): they said what they wanted to say so they’re just serving the audience all they can muster in order to continue. The truth was you could feel the writers wrestling with the decisions they had to make.

Whenever I show people the first episode of Chuck the reaction is uniform if it not in the same words. This is a “cute” show. It’s about spies and bombs and killing and terror and all the things that go bump on the news but the show’s theme is the familial and quaint. Chuck is a blue-skies show often tempted by darkness that writers would occasionally explore but forced them to ask themselves, “Am I draining the fun out of this?” “Is this fun?” They had to balance some of the intrigue with things like Buy More revolutions. They had to temper giant emotional breakthroughs with goofball breather episodes. They had to make sure Chuck’s existential crises were in equal numbers with examples of his unconscious capability for espionage and slapstick mission clumsiness.

I would’ve loved to see the darker side of Chuck but that show wouldn’t be this show.

And, the thing is, I’m going to miss this show and its bright spots, its hits, its characters. I’m disappointed the Morgan/Casey relationship didn’t blossom like I thought it would and even that there was no real emotional resolution to the Casey/Sarah partnership. Really, I’m disappointed with a lot of things involving Casey. His resolutions felt like they ran out of time. And there’s not enough Casey ever. But, as much as the show struggled for five years, I felt like this was my show and that I owned these characters. Not in the way those Season 3 Subway-munching ‘shippers did (the ones that wailed when they paired Sarah with Shaw and threatened to boycott) but because they’d been with me for so long and found a way to weasel their way into my head. If that isn’t an achievement for a show, I don’t know what is.

So, farewell, Chuck. I promise I’ll order some Sizzling Shrimp when I rewatch the finale on Blu-Ray. It’s a Morgan pick, after all.

Some other things about the final episode(s):

  • One thing I won’t miss about Chuck is the clunky exposition at the beginning of every story-heavy episode.
  • One last time to see Sarah’s bare back on network television.
  • “You really think I’ve changed.” Casey scrubbing the floors demonstrates the softening of the hardened characters but the Chuckification of the spies is made more evident by Sarah returning to her backstory form.
  • Here’s what I don’t understand about Quinn: even if he had the Intersect, could his body even perform the moves it inspired him to do? Unless the Intersect was constantly showing him how to pound pork rinds, I feel like climbing walls would prove difficult.
  • I like how they make DARPA look like a military-based Brookstone in Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. Flying saucers, invisibility cloaks, and the tiny robots from Short Circuit all have to be in the same room?
  • Morgan remembers The Fugitive but not Star Wars?
  • I’m glad that Casey is the one that delivers the mission log. “I guess Bartowski’s made us both a little soft.” I wished for more, something relating to them being partners. I guess I’ve watched too many buddy federal agent/cop procedurals.
  • “The truth is I don’t feel it.” Heartbreaking and a relief. Grounds us and makes the fairy tale ending remote. Dark. It makes me smile.
  • Why is Jacob on this flight? Is this the Chuck flash sideways?
  • I’m really, really glad that the “make Sarah remember” premise fell through. I know I just argued that it had to in order for the story to be right but Ellie’s call-to-action for how strong feelings could be dredged up reminds me how I’m glad that collapsed.
  • The Jeff and Lester network to find hot girls in Los Angeles is pretty amazing. “No nip-slips. No pokey Ps.”
  • We all know that Chuck would only refer to a Desert Eagle as a “deagle.” Do your FPS homework, writers.
  • What, no Echoplex in Berlin?
  • Awesome covering Clara’s eyes when Mary holds up Sarah? Precious.
  • Jeffster singing “Take On Me” is the best thing that could’ve happened in that situation. Or any situation. Or all the time. I’m really going to miss Jeffster randomly popping up in my life. Do you think we can get Jeffster to just happen in places all over LA? That would be great.
  • At the end of the series, Big Mike is the only one that isn’t directly implicated into Chuck’s spy life. Which, by the definition laid out by Sarah at the beginning of the series (“lie to them to protect them”), Big Mike is the only person Chuck has ever cared about.
  • I don’t really understand why Subway would buy the Buy More but the product placement isn’t anymore ham-handed than all the other ones Big Mike was forced to shill so — I’ll roll with it.
  • “It’s not fun with you.”
  • “I’m Casey. I don’t run. I stalk my prey.”
  • “Aces, Charles. You’re aces.” That coming from Ellie sounds just as forced now as it did in the pilot episode. But still important.
  • Remember how Chuck and Sarah’s song was supposed to be “Feeling Good”? What the heck happened to that?
  • Ugh. The beach scene. Acceptable. A relief. I lip-trembled through the whole thing. Even though the scene was the equivalent of a clip-show ending, and, essentially, a list of the many revealing outfits of Sarah Walker. Which I didn’t mind. A montage set to music is a tried and true manipulative convention for a reason.
  • Since Sarah doesn’t remember any of the last five years, is Chuck talking about Relationship Sarah (ostensibly an “ex” now) to Amnesiac Sarah analogous to Chuck talking about Jill to the girl at his party in the pilot? Consider your mind blown.
  • Cutting after the kiss, not letting on whether or not Morgan’s hypothesis actually worked, lets me draw my own conclusions. And I conclude that to be a worthwhile ending for a show that could’ve ruined any legacy it had with its final three minutes. Pilot graphics. Fade to black.

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