Chuck has been teetering on the verge of cancellation since its inception way back in 2007. Yet, despite so-so ratings (to put it mildly) and the shadow of death dogging it at every turn, the super-spy-comedy hour has managed to survive for – as of last Thursday’s renewal announcement – five seasons. Pretty impressive, when you think about it.
Tonight’s season 4 finale, “Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger,” will see the titular main character join forces with arch-nemesis and the original intersect Alexei Volkoff (the awesome Timothy Dalton) against his daughter, Vivian Volkoff (Lauren Cohan of Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries fame), to save the life of Chuck’s fiance and spy partner, Sarah.
Whereas the entirety of season 1 and 2 as well as the majority of season 3 were about keeping Chuck and Sarah romantically apart – will they or won’t they times a billion – season 4 has been building toward the pair's wedding.
Despite not being on par with the nearly flawless quality of season 2 (a perfect combination of eighties-esque action and comedy if there ever was one), season 4 has been far more consistent than season 3, and never anything less than damned entertaining. “Major props,” as the young people call them, should go to fantastic supporting cast members like Timothy Dalton (James Bond #4), Ray Wise, and Linda Hamilton (Terminator 1 and 2), among others.
Last week’s episode, “Chuck Versus the Last Details,” saw everything go right for Chuck (that's a change). He stopped the bad guys, saved the good guys, and all in time to make it back for his rehearsal dinner. That is, until Vivian Volkoff remotely zapped his fiance with her Norseman weapon, rendering Sarah nothing more than a convulsive heap on the floor - and a barely alive one at that.
Will Sarah die in agony like everyone else who has ever been zapped by the Norseman? Probably not, but the only way to find out is to watch the season finale…
As if there were ever any doubt, Chuck did it. Again. Despite suffering from continually declining ratings, the spy-comedy wrapped up every one of its plot threads from season 4 to deliver one of the better season finales – not to mention episodes, period – in the show’s history.
Everybody was on their A-game tonight, including Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin, Timothy Dalton, Joshua Gomez, Linda Hamilton, the writers, the producers, and, heck, even show creator Josh Schwartz. The jokes were great, the action was packed, the emotions were intense, and the music was perfect. Save for a few issues here and there, "Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger" was pretty much a flawless experience all around.
From the jump, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been for Charles Bartwoski. His bride-to-be is about to die a terrible, agonizing death and has the jaundiced face to prove it. Thus, Chuck is desperate and determined to do whatever it takes to save Sarah’s life – even breaking into a maximum security U.S. prison to retrieve and work with the “evil” Alexei Volkoff, the only man alive with the means to save Sarah.
Of course, this plan immediately goes south, as we’re introduced to a new villain named Clyde Decker – the CIA’s toughest son of a gun as played by Richard Burgi (Desperate Housewives) – who has already moved Volkoff and intends to imprison Chuck and Casey if they don’t cooperate. When Chuck begs Decker to let them save Sarah first, Decker says no. Needless to say, they do not cooperate.
Seriously, so many things happened in this episode, one can scarcely keep track of them all (SPOILERS ABOUND):
- After the intersect is stripped from him, Volkoff becomes plain, old Hartley Winterbottom, a kindly scientist from the eighties who was friends with Chuck's dad
- The intersect is ultimately stripped from Chuck, too, and we’re left with an intersect-less protagonist
- Chuck and Hartley team-up to find Vivian Volkoff, who, it turns out, has the antidote
- Thanks to Hartley, Chuck manages to turn Vivian back from her evil ways and she gives him the antidote
- Chuck blackmails Decker into leaving him and his friends alone forever, then quits the C.I.A.
- Chuck returns to Sarah just in time to give her the antidote
- Chuck and Sarah get married; Hartley and Vivian's wedding present to them is all of Volkoff's assets ($877 million!)
- Chuck and Sarah buy the Buy More
- Decker reveals to Chuck that everything that has happened to him has been a part of someone's plan -- a conspiracy -- but doesn't expand further
- Chuck, Sarah, Casey, and Morgan decide to start their own freelance spy agency
- Morgan puts on a pair of sunglasses meant for Chuck containing the intersect, accidentally turning himself into the intersect
But more powerful than the plot developments (of which there were many) was the surprisingly emotional tone of the episode, thanks to exchanges like: Sarah’s brutal and poignant wedding vows to Chuck; Chuck’s somehow more brutal and poignant wedding vows to Sarah; Morgan’s hilarious yet sad retelling of the way in which Chuck protected him from bullies back in elementary school; et cetera.
However, my favorite exchange by far was the one between Chuck and Casey, after Chuck lost the intersect and was doubting his ability to save Sarah:
“But Casey, they took the intersect out of me!”
“Shut up. You’re Chuck Bartowski, the second best spy I’ve ever worked with. Now you’re gonna go save the best.”
Referring, of course, to Sarah. This is the kind of thing that made "Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger" so enjoyable. That exchange was four years of surprisingly extensive character development neatly packaged inside of just two lines of dialogue. Two simple, effortlessly-acted, and fantastic lines of dialogue. Way to go, Adam Baldwin.
Despite the glowing nature of this review, we still had a couple of problems with the finale -- nothing too terrible, but they’re worth noting nonetheless.
First, if Decker is such a terrible and scary bad guy, where has he been up until now? We only needed to see him (or even hear about him) once or twice earlier in the season to accept him as a major player in the C.I.A. As it is now, he felt more like a last-minute plot device thrown in to get the main characters from point A to point B to point C and so forth.
Second, we still don’t buy the massive, nearly overnight personality change for Vivian Volkoff seen earlier in the season – from kindly, horse-loving Vivian to evil daughter of Alexei Volkoff Vivian. As such, it’s even harder to be moved by her shift back to the light side of the force, so to speak. If not for the general awesomeness that is Timothy Dalton, this part of the episode would have fallen flat on its face. Thank heavens, then, for Timothy Dalton.
One can only speculate what season 5 might entail, but our best guess says it'll be The A-Team meets Mission: Impossible meets, well, Chuck, as Chuck and his buddies are their own bosses now. Are Decker and the C.I.A. the new bad guys? Hopefully. "Chuck's entire life has been one big government conspiracy!" will almost definitely be the main storyline. And while Chuck no longer has the intersect in his head -- he's "the second best spy" Casey's ever worked with, so he doesn't need it anymore -- there will no doubt be plenty of intersect-related hijinks involving Morgan in his place.
"Guys! I know Kung-fu!"
We can't wait.
Chuck's final season will return next year on Fridays @8pm on NBC.
Follow me on Twitter @benandrewmoore.