Chuck: “Our kids will be little super-heroes with little capes.”
Meet Hartley Winterbottom, for whom the expression “mild-mannered” doesn’t begin to cover it. In a fair bit of irony, Gregory Tuttle, the timid handler in “Chuck versus the First Fight”, turns out an exact replica of the man beneath the fake persona beneath the other fake persona. You see, thirty years ago, Orion’s technology turned Hartley into Alexei Volkoff, the most dangerous criminal on the planet. Now, in a plot twist that makes little sense to me, the CIA’s brought back his original personality, leaving him to ponder, “What do you say to a daughter you’ve never met?”
I have a better question: if government agents could erase the Volkoff identity at any time, why didn’t they do that before instead of locking up the man and trying to rehabilitate him? For that matter, if the goal is to prevent Chuck from finding an antidote to the Norseman, why not just shoot Hartley? Why not just shoot Chuck? Why does Sarah have to die? Wouldn’t it be easier to let our heroes talk to Alexei in exchange for keeping silent about Agent X? Come to think of it, how does a sonic gun dispense a chemical poison from halfway across the world, and when did the V writing staff take over Chuck?
The first finale in the series to be written with a clear continuation in mind, “Chuck versus the Cliffhanger” sticks strangely close to formula, concluding every dangling plotline in under an hour before hinting at untold possibilities with a tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger. This time, the Powers That Be promise to retcon the last four years into a giant conspiracy, prompting the question, “Good God, why?” I suppose the episode serves as a fitting end to the season, by which I mean it’s got all the cool stuff we’ve come to expect from New Chuck along with all the problems that plague it.
Let’s start with the good. Timothy Dalton is awesome. Like Harry Lennix in the penultimate episode of Dollhouse, he has the thankless task of portraying a brand-new character while evoking enough familiarity that we think of him as an old acquaintance. It’s a clever cheat to get us invested in relationships the show never got to explore, and the veteran thespian does wonders conveying years of loss in a handful of scenes. Plus, something about the way he surrenders to the CIA makes me laugh whenever I think about it. I’m giggling now.
I also like the flashbacks of Chuck and Sarah’s private wedding rehearsal. The super-spy lovebirds have got into a few too many sitcom skirmishes this year, but I find it impossible not to root for them when they’re allowed to relax. Props go to Yvonne Strahovski and Zachary Levi as well as whoever assembled their romantic clip reel at the end for reminding me why I care about this romance. It’s astounding how much these tender moments add to the action. I guess it helps to know what Chuck is fighting for, what with the episode serving up six different capers.
Why then do I feel like nothing of consequence happened in “Chuck versus the Cliffhanger”? Obviously, it’s got little to do with the density of the plot, which has Team Bartowski running in every direction to cure Sarah, give Hartley his life back, rescue Vivian from herself, and outsmart an out-of-left-field government hound played by that desperate ex-husband in Desperate Housewives. Rather, I’m having trouble believing in these payoffs because the story hasn’t earned them.
Consider the resolution to the Seed of Volkoff arc. For some reason, the Chuck Powers That Be believe Vivian can maintain her innocence as long as Sarah survives her attack, but didn’t the crazy lady order a hit on our favourite Nerd Herder in “Chuck versus the Muuurder”, causing the deaths of three promising spies? I wish the writers had provided some excuse for her erratic behaviour. Daddy issues can only take you so far unless you’re on a deserted island with a smoke monster.
Decker doesn’t do it for me either. Set up as next year’s big bad (or at least an important henchman), the corrupt CIA agent comes across as little more than a cackling madman. In fact, he literally cackles in his final scene. At least Chuck defeats him without the Intersect, admittedly a nice touch, though it’s worth noting our hero’s table-turning move consists of showing up with bigger guns, which doesn’t exactly scream wit. I get what the show runners were going for, but they may have glossed over a few too many details to get there.
Chuck versus Season Four
I’ve made no secret of my recent dissatisfaction with Chuck, but has the series jumped the shark, nuked the fridge, added Kara DioGuardi to the judging panel? Between Mary’s one-note characterisation and the Volkoff threat turning out somewhat generic, it does feel like the writers might have run out of material for our favourite man in the making. In fact, save for Morgan becoming the new Intersect thirty seconds before the credits, the season ends more or less where the previous left off: with Chuck uncovering corruption in the CIA, gaining private resources, and getting ready to strike out on his own.
Maybe the show runners felt our hero needed one more challenge before transitioning from secret agent to super-hero. One might argue season four has been about letting go of the crutches that keep our lives safe but limit our potential: the bachelor pad your girlfriend’s never seen, that cushy dead-end job you’ve had since you graduated, or, in Chuck’s case, General Beckman and the Intersect. I don’t have it in me to revisit the season with that in mind, but the offbeat notion of Chuck outgrowing his own spy fantasy gives me hope for next year.
Bits and Pieces
- I find the Nighthawk motorcycle upsetting. I want the Nerd Mobile back!
- For a fraction of a second (the official time it takes to throw a punch), Devon got to be Awesome again and not such a dork.
- The First Church of Saints runs on a tight schedule: a funeral at three, then a wedding at four. Let’s hope none of our heroes’ guests came early. Awkwaaard!
- Chuck and Sarah’s wedding vows came across as both earnest and succinct, unlike those interminable “if I were a G.I. Joe, this would go in the back of my cardboard box” character synopses we got in some other finale. Also, we only had to hear them once, and Planet Apokolips didn’t suddenly appear out the window.
The episode comprised more running around than anything else, but we still got a couple of good quotes:
Casey: “Russians! So many Russians!”
Decker: “You really think you’ve been fighting evil, doing good? You’re just a pawn. You always were.”
Chuck: “What are you talking about?”
Decker: “You think it was all a coincidence? The Intersect, Fulcrum, the Ring, Shaw, Agent X: it was all just part of the plan, pieces on a puzzle board. See you never, civilian!”
Cackle, cackle, cackle!
Hartley [pointing to a picture of Ronald Reagan]: Is he still in charge?”
Casey: “If only.”
It’s a funny joke until you think about the setup. Why would Hartley assume a US President stayed in power for thirty years?
Casey: “Then you can whack them if they get out of line. That’s smart. Reagan smart.”
Mary: “He’s a mean, dictatorial, conniving–”
Chuck: “Manipulative, amoral–”
Casey: “Limey, but with relatively good teeth.”
We’ve had an awful lot of xenophobic humour this season.
Decker: “Your real name is Hartley Winterbottom.”
Alexei: “Nobody names a person that!”
Morgan: “Guys, I know kung fu!”
Morgan’s character progression has been a highlight of the season. I’m glad we got to end on that note.
Now excuse me as I see Adam West about some Bat-Shark-Repellent.