"You're still Chuck. You're still my Chuck." -SarahAnd after tonight, "Chuck" is very much still my "Chuck," too.
As mentioned many times before, originally "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" was going to be the end of a 13-episode third season - and, depending on how things broke, could well have been the very last episode of the series. We now know that there are six more episodes to go this year, and that a fourth season is still quite possible (the ratings ticked up a couple of points last week, and I still believe NBC has too many holes to not renew, even if it's just for another abbreviated season), but if "Chuck vs. the Other Guy" had been the series finale? Well... I'd have been sad the show was over but pleased that it went out on such a strong note, with easily the best hour of the season, and one that's in my handful of favorites from the entire run to date.
Chris Fedak, Josh Schwartz and company set themselves quite a task in trying to make Chuck a more grown-up spy, and "Chuck" a slightly more grown-up show. There have been episodes this season that were full of fun ("Chuck vs. First Class," "Chuck vs. the Beard"), and episodes that were dark and emotional ("Chuck vs. the Nacho Sampler," "Chuck vs. the Tic Tac"), but the Fedak-scripted "Other Guy" was the first to successfully balance both tones throughout, leading to an hour that made me laugh as much as any this season, but that also made me very pleased about the character growth.
So we got the hilarious cut from Chuck having a kung fu flash to Chuck playing Guitar Hero in his underwear while Morgan lay on the floor, bound by electronics cords, but we also got Sarah dealing with the knowledge that she killed Shaw's wife. We got Jeff and Lester inviting Casey to join their crew (if not to join Jeffster! itself) and Big Mike asking Morgan if he'd be selling his body in his new job, but we also got Chuck finally, definitively getting his first intentional kill. We got that amusingly awkward confrontation with the Ring Director in the overcrowded elevator, but we also got Sarah finally expressing her love for Chuck - and, even better, got them finally, definitively, without any kind of outside complication, becoming a couple(*). And the hour moved fluidly between the fun and serious sides; a show shouldn't be able to work in jokes about The Clapper and Chuck ordering too much back-up while also putting its heroine through an emotional wringer and putting its goofy hero in a position to shoot a man to death and not have the shifts feel jarring, but "Other Guy" did exactly that.
(*) And in Paris, no less - which, since they were both there because of Shaw, became a nice payoff for Shaw making Chuck immediately fly home without seeing the city at the end of "First Class."
I said last week of "Chuck vs. the American Hero," that "This is the show I fought to save last spring," and that sentiment applies even more strongly to "Other Guy," which had everything I ask for in an episode from "Chuck," other than Captain Awesome (along with Ellie, a budget casualty this week) and a performance by Jeffster! (And if they don't rock out again in the back 6, someone's gonna have some 'splaining to do.)
In particular, I'm so glad we got the Chuck and Sarah scene on the floor of his apartment midway through the episode. Not only was it a moment the 'shippers had been waiting three years for (and, based on Sarah's comments on the timing of when she fell for Chuck - i.e., before the end of the pilot - she'd been waiting just as long), but I'm glad Sarah's feelings were addressed before the action on the streets of Paris. We knew from the end of last week's episode that Sarah chose Chuck over Shaw, and that was a big enough moment for the series that it deserved a spotlight separate from the later shenanigans with Shaw. If Sarah were to seemingly choose Chuck just because he saved her life, that would be lame (particularly since he's done it several times before). Sarah, and the show, needed to make it clear that she loved Chuck for being himself, so the final scene in the hotel room wouldn't be Sarah declaring that love for the first time, but letting Chuck know that she could ultimately accept a world in which he kills people on occasion. By letting Sarah choose Chuck in a calm moment, and not in the flush of being rescued from a classic damsel-in-distress situation, it gave Sarah back a lot of the agency she lost this season, even amidst an episode where she was completely helpless for the climax.(**)
(**) And I hope that, in addition to saying goodbye to Shaw and cementing Sarah and Chuck as a couple, this episode allows the writers to turn Sarah back into the assertive, ass-kicking woman we fell for right along with Chuck.
And I liked how the scene with Casey and Chuck on the airplane nicely paralleled the earlier Chuck/Sarah moment. Sarah admits that she liked Chuck way back when he was still a hapless, non-Chuck-Fu-enabled dweeb, and Casey gives Chuck a pep talk by noting that before he had either Intersect in his head, or three years of haphazard spy training, he was someone who was very smart, someone who could foil the bad guys with his lightning-fast label-making skills, who could save the world because he's very good at Missile Command, and here who could track down Shaw because he knew how to read expense reports and vacation requests. (And, since the Intersect 2.0 was on the fritz again due to Chuck's emotions, that perfect double-tap to Shaw's chest was all Chuck the gamer, not Chuck the cyborg.)
We can argue whether or not it was right for the show to go so far in the direction of trying to make Chuck into a "real" (as in traditional) spy, just as we can debate whether the Shaw story worked, and whether Chuck and Sarah's will-they-or-won't-they situation was dragged out too long. (Well, maybe not the last one; I think we're all in agreement that it should've been sooner.) But in the end, the show comes down on the idea of letting Chuck be Chuck, with the resurrection of the original Team Bartowski and the very promising addition of Morgan to the gang in some kind of capacity to be explained later. (And here filling the role Chuck did very early on, as the normal guy applying geek knowledge to spy world.)
Chuck and Sarah are finally together, Casey has his wings back, Morgan's (kind of) a spy and "Chuck" is again 100% fun. That would have been a damn fine note to close the series on. Instead, we get at least 6 more episodes, and maybe another season beyond that, and I hope whatever's coming next can build on the sheer entertainment value of these last two, and learn from some of the stumbles of Season 3.0.
Now excuse me while I hit the local Subway for a tunaroni, just in case.
Some other thoughts:
• Great work from all available castmembers this week, doing what they do best: Yvonne Strahovski playing the tragedy of Sarah (both in the warehouse and then at realizing Shaw wants to kill her in Paris) and the depth of her love for Chuck ("You saved me"), Adam Baldwin seething (and also showing Casey's realization that he likes not only Chuck, but Morgan), Joshua Gomez being over-eager but believable whenever Morgan turns out to be smarter than anyone assumes, Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky being creepy, and Mark Christopher Lawrence being overly emotional and fatherly. And, of course, Zachary Levi managing to do a little bit of everything, and guiding the show through all the tonal shifts.
• This week in "Chuck" music: "Kettering" by The Antlers plays both as Shaw confronts Sarah in the warehouse and then again as Shaw dies on the bridge, and "Bye Bye Bye" by Plants and Animals plays over Chuck and Sarah's kiss in the hotel, and OMD's "If You Leave" is heard briefly during Chuck's long dark John Hughes night of the soul. And speaking of which...
• This week in "Chuck" pop culture references: Oh, a whole bunch. Chuck of course drowns his sorrows by listening to the music of and quoting from various John Hughes movies like "Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink," etc. (The correct version of the "Pink" quote, according to IMDb, is "You said you couldn't be with someone who didn't believe in you. Well I believed in you. I just didn't believe in me.") The business with Chuck demanding the Director produce his Ring Phone felt like a hat-tip to the "I have no gate key" scene from "The Princess Bride." Morgan can spot a fake fight scene due to his love (shared by Quentin Tarantino) of the works of Sonny Chiba. Morgan quotes Yoda in "Empire Strikes Back" when he tells Chuck, "No! There is another!" And the moment when Sarah and Chuck turn the Beckman laptop around so they can have an uninterrupted Parisian romp was reminiscent of how most of the Bond films with Roger Moore ended (case in in point: the final moments of "Moonraker").
• Also, in identifying the songs used every week, I don't want to give short shrift to the work of Tim Jones in composing the weekly score - which, like the rest of the show, does a nice job of balancing tones and paying homage to all the movies and shows that influence "Chuck." I particularly liked the music used as Shaw seemingly kills all the people on the elevator to save Sarah and Chuck.
• Bonita Friedericy has one of the most thankless jobs on the show, as she's there most weeks to give exposition and sign off abruptly. Perhaps as a reward for three seasons of this, Fedak gave her a lot of funny bits to play here, whether it was Beckman admitting an unsurprising fondness for Ayn Rand, Beckman waking up and using The Clapper to turn on her bedroom lights, or Beckman's complete misery at having to deal with the likes of Morgan Guillermo Grimes.
• I'll be curious to see if, having let Chuck kill (albeit under extraordinary circumstances), and having shown Sarah to be okay with it, the writers will let him do it more casually going forward. As some commenters have noted, Chuck's attitude towards killing hasn't quite been the Superman/Captain America approach of "killing is wrong, and if I or my allies have to kill to win the day, we've failed," but rather "killing makes me squeamish, but I'm perfectly fine letting my partner John Casey and the woman I love kill on my behalf." See, for example, Chuck and Sarah's exchange before they go down the elevator shaft. And much as I want to let Chuck be Chuck, that attitude seems more than a bit hypocritical and weak.
• I got a kick out of Casey kicking much Ring butt off-screen while Chuck faced down Shaw, but I wonder if this is it for this particular group. The Director has been captured, Casey reclaimed the Intersect plans (which were the whole point of the elaborate ruse with Shaw taking Sarah to the warehouse, and then pretending to kill the Director and steal the Cipher), and it's still not clear what the group was up to other than trying to build a new Intersect, which Fulcrum was already working on last year.
• Given what we know about the rules of pop culture and the "Chuck" writers' devotion to those rules, was there any way Sarah's hotel room wasn't going to have an Eiffel Tower view?
• Why does Casey need a new Crown Victoria? Did I miss it getting damaged in "Tic Tac"? Or is he just taking advantage of his bargaining power to get a more pimped-out model?
Remember: we get two weeks of repeats (I believe next week's is "Chuck vs. First Class") after this, and then Season 3.1 runs for 5 weeks straight beginning April 26, with the last two episodes airing back-to-back on May 24 - which will be a week after NBC announces its schedule for next season. So unlike last year, we'll go into a "Chuck" finale knowing for sure if it's the end of the line or just a pause for a few months.
What did everybody else think?