"It looks like you're going to get everything that you always wanted." -Sarah"Chuck vs. the Final Exam" was written back at a point when it would be the 11th out of 13 hours this season, not 11th out of 19. Schwartz and Fedak have said the original 13 episodes more or less continued to be produced as an intact unit, so this is the point when the original season arcs really start kicking into gear, as Operation Bartowski appears to come to an end: Chuck passes his final spy test (albeit with secret, illegal help from Casey), Sarah prepares to move to Washington with Shaw (definitely as colleagues, and possibly as more), and Casey has to mostly embrace civilian life (even as he makes time for a bit of freelance killin' on Chuck's behalf). And after a few months of hemming and hawing, Chuck and Sarah finally have a moment where both are interested in discussing their feelings at the same time, and preparing to kiss each other, when work again gets in the way, first with Shaw's radio call(*), then with Sarah's mistaken belief that Chuck has become a killer - and become it for her.
(*) At least this interruption felt natural and part of the plot, as opposed to Sarah arbitrarily changing the subject on Chuck last week.
In order to get the characters to these big crossroads, Zev Borow's script has to throw in more than your usual fair share of "Chuck" plot contrivances. Chuck, for instance, gets placed in a no-win scenario: either he passes the test and is assigned away from Sarah (and, whether he's entirely aware of it or not, completes his transformation into someone Sarah feels she can't love anymore), or he fails and... what? Becomes a civilian with no government oversight, in spite of having a souped-up Intersect in his head? (Whatever happened to the days when Beckman was ready to have Casey put a bullet between Chuck's eyes rather than let him "retire"? And this was back when Chuck wasn't half as dangerous as he is now.) Wouldn't there be talk about the team reverting back to its old configuration, with Sarah and a killer-to-be-named-later as handlers and Chuck waiting in the car?
And, of course, you have to swallow a lot to believe Casey would just let his cover job at the Buy More become his new career, as opposed to becoming a mercenary or security specialist or some other far more lucrative and exciting profession that takes advantage of his propensity for a bit of the old ultra-violence. That he follows Chuck on his final exam and kills the bad guy for him suggests that he really does care about Chuck and can't quite bring himself to leave, but all his earlier scenes at the Buy More are written (and played by Adam Baldwin) as if Casey has no idea what he's supposed to do next with his life.
(A few readers last week wondered if perhaps Casey's situation was like Michael Westen's on "Burn Notice," where he's basically cut off from the military-intelligence community. If so, I would absolutely watch a Baldwin-centric spin-off with Casey stuck at the Buy More while being a vigilante-for-hire and trying to find a way back in from the cold. And in lieu of Michael's voiceover narration, each episode could be liberally sprinkled with Casey Facts.)
But if I had to suspend my disbelief more than usual, it was worth it. "Chuck vs. the Final Exam" continued this terrific post-Olympics run, providing suspense (will/did Chuck kill Hunter?), romance (Chuck treating Sarah to the world's most romantic stakeout, with plenty of callbacks to season one's "Chuck vs. the Sizzling Shrimp"), and comedy (Big Mike mentors Casey the interim Ass Man).
After Sarah has been frosty towards Chuck for so much of the season, a scene like the stakeout-cum-date was a very potent reminder of Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski's chemistry, and why so many fans are pulling for these crazy kids to make it work. Ditto the scene at Union Station, where Chuck is all psyched up for a romantic night with the woman of his dreams, only for Sarah to crush those dreams (and in turn to be crushed when Chuck appears to go through with the assignment). Some really high-caliber work done by both leads in both those scenes.
And if the two seem further away than ever at episode's end, I've got faith that these last two episodes of season 3.0 are going to finally bring these two crazy kids together for more than interrupted make-out sessions so shippers and non-shippers alike can live in peace and harmony and the show can move on to its next great dilemma: like how to get Team Bartowski back together, and specifically how to get John Casey his colonel's eagles back.
Casey's interruption during Chuck's red test complicates matters for both him and Chuck. Casey, of course, has now committed murder without any kind of government-issued license to kill to cover him, but I'm also not sure what kind of favor he did Chuck - at least, assuming Beckman wasn't going to order Chuck's death again. If the job Chuck is training for requires the ability to kill from time to time, and Chuck still can't bring himself to do it (both of his "kills" from season two were accidents)... well, isn't Casey just setting Chuck up to fail - or, worse, get himself killed because his opponents will have no such compunction?
But I'm sure the writers thought that problem through, even if Casey didn't, and Chuck's continued skittishness about homicide will play an important role in these next two episodes. And I'm hopeful that the spy stuff will be as much fun as it was here, with Chuck busting out the kung fu in a steam bath, and winding up nude on a hotel balcony to get a good look at the bad guy. ("I am a naked spy!")
Again, the idea of Casey choosing continued employment at the Buy More is pretty goofy, even by "Chuck" standards, but as we saw with the Casey/Morgan team-up in "Chuck vs. First Class," Casey having to carry out actual Buy More duties is a comedy goldmine. And the stakes are even higher here because, at the moment, Casey doesn't seem to have a real job to fall back on if he can't stop himself from punching Lester.
Where Jeff and Lester were mostly harmless in the first two seasons (give or take Lester's brief turn as Ass Man, and various scams), the duo have become much more antagonistic towards our heroes (Morgan included) this season, and it's been a very smart use of Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky. Their sheer delight at forcing Casey to eat Jeff's sandwich while Lester lists all the places Jeff's mouth could have been ("fire hydrants!") was hilarious, as was Baldwin playing Casey's struggle to follow Big Mike's teaching.
Two more episodes from what was the original season 3 run, then two weeks off for reruns, then Season 3.1 kicks off in late April. Based on how the show's been bringing it lately, I'm very excited.
Some other thoughts on "Chuck vs. the Final Exam":
• This week in "Chuck" music: Hall & Oates' "Private Eyes" (Chuck puts it on the iPod during the stakeout, just as he used it in a stakeout mix in "Sizzling Shrimp"), "Permalight" by Rogue Wave (Sarah invites Chuck to dinner at Union Station) and "In My Sleep" by Austin Hartley-Leonard (Sarah tells him that he has to kill Perry).
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Anatoly's cover name is Ivan Drago, who was, of course, the steroid-abusing, Apollo Creed-killing commie bastard villain of "Rocky IV." Two Drago clips for ya: his catchphrase and Rocky and Drago's training montage, scored to the not-at-all-dated-no-matter-what-you-say sounds of John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band.
• The supporting cast availability is flip-flopped from last week, with Morgan, Ellie and Awesome absent, and Big Mike and Jeffster! back in the fold.
• Two weeks ago, we got our first Subway sandwich sighting of the season, and here, we go whole-hog, with a long scene set at the mall's Subway shop, complete with Jeff ordering his own creation (the Tunaroni), and Big Mike uttering what should be the chain's new slogan: "Subway can soothe the tummy and the soul."
And speaking of one-time "Chuck" savior Subway, many people (including Josh Schwartz) were very concerned when the show's ratings last week dropped 17% from the week before, even though the CBS comedies were in repeats and ABC was in between "The Bachelor" and "Dancing with the Stars." You can pin most of the blame on Daylight Savings Time, since it's been a trend in recent seasons that nearly every show (particularly shows in the 8 o'clock hour) suffers when DST begins, because people are staying out longer and watching less TV. On the same night, "House" was down a similar amount.
The difference, of course, is that "House" can stand to lose 17% of its audience a lot more easily than "Chuck" can. I still believe NBC's problems are too big and widespread for "Chuck" to not come back next year, even if it's just as cannon fodder until other parts of the schedule can stabilize. (If they try to come back in the fall with a schedule that's primarily composed of new shows, they're gonna get killed.) But I could certainly say that with more confidence based on the ratings circa "Chuck vs. the Beard" than I could after last week's numbers. A fan campaign like last year's isn't going to work again. All that matters at this point are two numbers: the ratings the show pulls over the rest of the season, and the license fee Warner Bros. is willing to agree to for a fourth season. All we can do is watch (and encourage anyone we might know with a Nielsen box to watch), wait and hope.
What did everybody else think?