There is nothing quite like watching an episode of Chuck in a convention hall with a thousand other fans. Known well for its communal endeavors to keep Chuck on the air via twitter, blog and mail campaigns – from sending boxes of Nerds to NBC executives to flooding corporate sponsor Subway’s comment card boxes with Chuck related notes – it is a vocal group. Rarely is this more apparent then when they are gathered en masse and thrilling in perfect unison to one of the strongest episodes of Chuck‘s young televised life.
It takes watching an episode at a convention to truly realize what creators and writers Fedak and Schwartz (and co.) have done with Chuck– there is no division in fan opinion as the episode rolls along. Even when events aren’t foreshadowed so much as fore-broadcast, even when the events aren’t particularly surprising or seem, in fact, inexorable as fate, the gasps, laughs, applause, cries of victory and wordless murmurs of discontent sweep across the audience without a dissenting voice to be heard. Everyone watching is rooting for the same things, and cannot help but be pleased by the way in which those things are delivered- with intelligence, warmth and humor.
In ‘Chuck vs the Other Guy‘, we are given a season finale in mid-season. Fedak and Schwartz explained in the Q&A following the episode’s premier that the entire arc of the season had led to this episode and that the final moments of it could well have been the final moments of the show- they have heard no word on being picked up for a fourth season yet. That being the case, the episode delivers in every sense: We are given closure to characters and events that have been happening all season long, albeit without definitively closing the door on any potential plots. Cleverly, though designed to be a book end, the episode acts as more of a portal, and the possibilities for new storylines spiral outward ad infinitum from it. From here on out, there will be major spoilers aplenty, so consider yourself warned.
The largest obstacles for Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) this season have been The Ring, a shadow agency seeking to do everything the CIA and NSA do but in bad ways, and Agent Shaw (Brandon Routh), the devastatingly handsome, confident, polished spy who does not simply appropriate Bryce Larkin’s monopoly on that role, but brings a new level of gravitas and compassion to it. Bryce was ever the adrenaline junkie- Shaw is the steadfast leader, who nonetheless can kick ass, take names, and weaken the ladies’ knees with a simultaneously more serious but somehow more vulnerable hand. Shaw is Chuck’s real nemesis, being in every way a better spy and more reliable person, a mirror Chuck is none too pleased to have held up before him, but most egregiously by proving a much better match for the smart, tough and wholly self sufficient Agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski). In ‘Chuck vs the Other Guy‘, the title alone promises a reckoning between our eponymous hero and the man who has been actively pursuing Chuck’s true love’s heart, but we get so much more than that.
Shaw is an agent of the The Ring, helping them in their quest to build a better intersect in retribution for the CIA’s contracted murder of his wife Evelyn. The Agent responsible for her death?- Sarah Walker. In an elaborate scheme motivated by the deepest grief and a bone-deep disgust with the games played and mistakes made by the government, Shaw has decided to send a message to his employers: You betrayed the wrong person. He figures Sarah’s corpse will be far more effective than a Hallmark card. But everyone trusts him, and so Sarah leaves with Shaw for what she thinks is a mission, and no one even thinks to be concerned.
Except Morgan Grimes, portrayed with a staggeringly consistent oddness by Josh Gomez. He adamantly protests the merit of Sarah going anywhere, let alone Paris (Chuck’s dream city, the physical location that manifests his equally, eternally just-out-of-reach life goals), with Daniel Shaw. In an attempt to sway Morgan’s opinion of the man, Chuck shows him video footage of Shaw taking down enemy agents and saving Chuck and Sarah’s life. Except Morgan knows his HK cinema the way Ben Stiller knows his Star Trek- with an unhealthy degree of devotion and ability to retain details that no human eye should be capable of detecting- and so he points out that the fight was a big old stagey fake. Chuck protests that he witnessed Shaw shooting people Morgan prompts him, “Did you see blood? Did you see viscera?” Brain matter, et all, were in fact significantly lacking from the shoot out. Chuck is given no choice but to respond in the negative, the delivery of which is pure hilarity.
And so begins the mad scramble to find Sarah Walker. Finding no help from his ever-doubtful NSA General, he turns to the action man himself- John “I Will Kill You With My Awesome” Casey. No, that nickname isn’t canon, but it’s totally applicable. At first resistant, due to his soul-crushing assimilation into Buymoria and civilian life, John of course steps up to help his team- now his friends- and even wears a nice suit while doing do.
En route to Paris, panicked by the seemingly endless crawl of the minutes spent helpless and in the air, Chuck gets a sharp reminder from John about who he is, why he’s our hero, and the audience gets a simply worded but extremely poignant remind of why Chuck is a good show, why the fans are devoted fans, why the team deserves to stay together and get as many seasons as they want to tell stories like this. John says, and I’m sadly paraphrasing, forget the spy stuff, forget the intersect. Before all of that, you were smart.
It is then those smarts that save the day.
Chucks finds Shaw and Sarah, and as the sound of a firefight breaks out in the background, we know Casey has found the director of The Ring (one of the happiest casting surprises of the season!) and his operatives. It isn’t a flash of the intersect that led Chuck to Shaw, but his natural propensity for puzzles, his ability to understand data and patterns- the things that got him into Stanford, the things that make him Chuck. And it isn’t an experimental government pill or zen-warrior training downloaded into his brain that enables him to shoot, and kill, Agent Daniel Shaw. It is sheer emotion- his love for Sarah, the realization that promising you would do anything for someone, and then stepping up and doing it, cannot be two separate things. Indeed, true to his nature, Chuck brings it down to the wire, trying with desperate earnestness to talk Shaw out of crossing this line, to save his career and life and give Daniel a chance for redemption. It is only once this has failed and Shaw cannot turn back that Chuck himself presses forward, doing that one thing that in three seasons he has been unwilling and unable to do.
‘Chuck vs the Other Guy’ is not just about Chuck taking on Shaw. It’s about Chuck taking on Chuck and becoming a real spy. He assembles his team, he takes necessary actions, he does it all for the right reasons. He finally puts to bed the panic and indecision that has plagued his graduation from playing at being a secret agent- and adult- and really being one. And he does it knowing that the act of saving Sarah may lose her to him- since it took passing his Red Test for Sarah to truly give up on him. Killing another person was Sarah’s bottom line, the act that signified the Chuck she’d fallen for was gone forever. Learning it had been a hoax, that Casey had completed Chuck’s Red Test for him, was visibly one of the greatest reliefs of her life, a beautiful moment from Yvonne Strahovski. We all know that these events can’t possibly go over well when he recounts them to her, although we also know that somehow they must, since the pair can’t come out of this with any remaining doubts about their love or need for each other.
We’re not disappointed. Neither is Sarah, who sees Chuck’s actions for what they are- the attainment of maturity motivated by love, not the attainment of rank motivated by the nagging self-doubt of boyhood.
It would have been a brilliant end to the season, and possibly the series, and for Chuck fans will stand as a landmark episode. The quality of the storytelling here is unsurpassed by any previous episodes. and the entire cast and crew should be extremely proud. Fans should be excited, also, as Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz said after the episode that, being given a further six episodes to film for the season, they had no recourse but to step up their game and meet the new standard they had set for themselves.
Fans of John “How Did I Get To Be This Good Looking” Casey (I can come up with these aaall day) have a lot to look forward to, as we’ll be seeing follow up on the matter of his family in these six new episodes, as well as Casey back in uniform. It was a gratified and enthusiastic crowd that greeted the Chuck cast and creators as they ascended the stage at Wonder Con, just as I’m sure it will be a similar viewing audience tonight who rallies for a fourth season. Zachary Levi besought the fans to watch it live, and tell their friends to watch it live, especially the ones with a Nielsen box. Or just hack Nielsen. If they’re going to give us more episodes like ‘Chuck vs the Other Guy’, or just maintain the level at which Chuck has been operating for the past three years, I’d say it’s the least we can do.