Chuck: “Chuck vs. The Ring”

Chuck vs. The Reboot

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Stegall


Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. The Ring”

Written by Chris Fedak & Allison Adler

Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill

Chuck me!” — Colonel John Casey


Funny, poignant, shocking, heartbreaking, fast-paced and full of surprises, this season finale of Chuck actually manages to top last week’s thrilling story. I really didn’t think they could pull that off, but I’m glad to be proven wrong. We start with a really game-changing move–Chuck finally quits the Buy More. In the opening scene. The writers are really upping the stakes in this episode, and they live up to every promise. I applaud this move even as I mourn the loss of the Buy Morons; although their weekly antics were amusing, the Buy More and its crew had really outlived their usefulness and were becoming a drag on the show. Chuck–both the character and the show–is moving on, and it’s long past time to move out of the Buy More.

Since the Intersect is out of Chuck’s head, he’s fired. The General orders Casey to cut him loose. Casey presents Chuck with his very own economic stimulus check, says goodbye, and hands him his personal phone number. Nice to know ya, buh-bye. Apparently only Sarah is going to stick around for Ellie’s wedding. At the church, Ellie is enduring the last-minute hysterics of her Mother-In-Law From Hell (Morgan Fairchild) while Chuck corners Sarah for a quiet moment. The chemistry between these two is fairly simmering, as he launches into what sounds like a proposal, but turns out to be an invitation to a getaway vacation. Which she flattens in the next breath by revealing that she’s leaving on assignment with Bryce Larkin tomorrow to work on the next version of the Intersect.

Ow. This one scene illustrates the tight, compact writing and acting of this episode: we go from breathless anticipation to a proposal fake-out which leaves us giggling but is immediately stomped by a heartrending refusal followed by Chuck’s painful acceptance. Laughter to shock to tears to resignation in thirty seconds. Zach Levi and Yvonne Strahovski absolutely shone in that scene, and I needed oxygen after it. Chuck retreats to the reception ballroom to console himself with champagne, and literally stumbles across two dead bodies. Which turn out to be the work of the evil Ted Roark (Chevy Chase), who is determined to retrieve the Intersect. He threatens to kill Ellie unless he gets it.

Chuck enlists Morgan in one final mission: delay the wedding and warn Sarah. Morgan hits on the perfect solution–one final mission from Jeffster, Jeff and Lester’s band. Chuck races to the Castle to fetch it but finds Bryce guarding it. Bryce proposes an alternative: rescue Ellie. Chuck’s down with that, and they return to the reception room to challenge Roark; on the way, Chuck dials Casey’s special number. Accompanied by the musical stylings of “Sam Kinnison and an Indian lesbian” (Papa Awesome’s description of Jeff and Lester) singing Styx’s “Mr. Roboto”, Sarah, Bryce, and the Fulcrum team manage to completely destroy the reception area, the wedding cake, the decorations, and an ice sculpture. Fulcrum corners the good guys and Roark is about to kill Chuck when Casey literally drops in, bringing his Special Operations team with him. To put a final finish on this disaster, Jeffster sets off the fire alarms and sprinklers in the church, drenching everyone.

Ellie: Wedding canceled!

Yeah, I guess so. Aghast at the way his spy life has devastated his sister’s life on her most cherished day, Chuck determines to set things right. Using his stimulus check in the way the US government prefers (spending it), he enlists Casey and Sarah to rescue his sister’s wedding. And if I had not enjoyed every other minute of this episode, watching John Casey tell a seasoned Marine that a fabric was unsuitable for the wedding because “it would clash with the bunting” would have been more than enough to put this episode in my top three. The wedding proceeds, and Ellie FINALLY marries her Captain Awesome in a very touching, intimate family wedding on the beach, followed by a reception in the courtyard of their very own duplex. I was only surprised that Subway didn’t cater the event.

Meanwhile, back at the Castle, Casey is in trouble. In a sudden yet inevitable betrayal, one of Casey’s own men, Miles (Tug Coker,Numb3rs), assassinates Roark and takes out the rest of the team, sparing Casey only because Casey once saved his life. Bad enough, but when Bryce Larkin’s CIA contact comes to fetch him for his Intersect upload, Papa Bartowski (Scott Bakula) “flashes” on him. Surprise! Or not. Why didn’t I realize that Papa B. would have tested the Intersect on himself? Of course he has a database in his head! Although it seems to physically weaken him. I had my reservations when it turned out Steven Bartowski was a spy–the idea has been done to death (see Mulder, Fox, father of). Yet this twist makes the entire premise of the show that much more believable, strengthening both the character and the show. It’s a brilliant plot twist, and I am now hoping Scott Bakula winds up as a permanent member of the cast. Papa B. warns Sarah, who dashes off to alert Casey. When Chuck starts after her, Papa B. reminds him he’s not a spy any more. Doesn’t matter to Chuck.

Chuck (to Dad): I love her!

Cue fanfare. That announcement was way, way, way overdue. That popping sound you heard was the champagne at my house. Chuck, whose basic personality trait is honesty, finally owns up to his feelings and publicly acknowledges them. He’s been hinting around all year–to himself, to Sarah, to his father. Now he mans up and owns his feelings, and this is a new Chuck. I like this Chuck a lot. He’s earned this moment.

So Chuck, Casey, and Sarah are off to rescue Bryce Larkin. This time, no one is going to make Chuck stay in the car. When Sarah and Casey start to wave him off, he shows them his dad’s wrist computer and says, “I’m a Bartowski”. Ain’t he ever. I love the three of them racing down a hallway, an integrated team. Bryce, of course, has been betrayed by Miles, and gunplay has ensued. Bryce retreats to the white room where the newly built (and updated) Intersect is waiting to be uploaded from its customary 128K Classic Mac (Oh, how I love this show’s geek artifacts). Chuck uses brains rather than brawn to find a way in, where he finds Bryce dying of a gunshot wound. Bryce’s last words reveal that there is an evil organization even beyond Fulcrum.

Bryce: Fulcrum doesn’t matter. They’re just one part of the Ring.”

And now we have come full circle. In the pilot, we began with Bryce Larkin alone in a white room with a 128K Mac, uploading the Intersect into a hard drive to send to Chuck. Now we finish, two years later, in a white room with a 128K Mac and an Intersect. The faith Bryce had in Chuck is justified as Chuck realizes the only way he can survive in this world, fighting the bad guys who are never going to leave him alone, is to arm himself with the Intersect. Bryce dies (again) and Chuck uploads the Intersect (again). Yet this time around, it’s not a matter of a helpless Chuck being force-fed the database. This time he freely accepts his destiny, well aware of what he’s getting into. The padwan has become the master, and accepts all of the responsibilities that go with it. Then the bad guys break in, holding Casey and Sarah hostage, and threaten to kill Chuck.

And Chuck takes them out.

Nothing–not Ellie’s wedding, not Chuck’s resignation from the Buy More, not the revelation of the Ring, not even his declaration of love for Sarah–changes this show more than Chuck Bartowski demonstrating a mastery of about five different martial arts. Chuck has always been the non-starter, the joke of a spy, the walking spoof of spooks. Now he really is James Bond; he even impresses the hell out of Casey. Watching him turn aerial somersaults as he disarms and overcomes six guys at once was an eye-popping revelation. It’s a revelation to Chuck, too, whose final words for Season Two express his amazement:

Chuck: Guys! I know kung-fu!

Boy, is he going to be sore in the morning.

Last week I said everything had changed. I was only half right. This week, everything changed. If this show picks up again in September, it will be a different show. The writers are clearly setting up for a series reboot. I think it’s a good idea. The Buy More is done. The secret spy life is done. Chuck-as-wimp (not nerd, wimp) is done. The Bryce Larkin as rival is done (although I don’t believe he’s really dead. He has more lives than a cat). What’s more important, the writing has gotten so good that the show no longer needs to rely on the clichés that propped it up before. While I will miss Morgan (never thought I’d say that), Chuck no longer needs him.

Chuck has evolved, as he should, and the show built around him must also evolve. Of course, there are plenty of television sitcoms whose heroes never grow or change (According to Jim, anyone?). The charm of Chuck is that it stays true not only to the geek roots that give us so many charming moments, but it stays true to its character. Chuck is not required to don a new personality every week to suit some plot point; rather, the show revolves around him. Only an actor as strong as Zach Levi could carry this show that well, without rendering Chuck a one-note wonder. I feel confident that a future Chuck, in which the show turns into a family spy drama involving Chuck, his dad, his brother-in-law and maybe even Ellie, would be a show well worth watching. I will miss the Buy More, but it was kindergarten. Time to move on to the adult world.

There were so many moments to love in this episode. Bryce Larkin’s hero strut into the reception ballroom. Jeffster. Awesome digging “Mr. Roboto” as it destroys his own wedding. Sarah deciding between Bryce and Chuck (how many women would kill for a choice like that!). Jeffster. Emmett’s BuyMoria flag. Roark’s critique of Ellie’s wedding dress. Papa B. punching out Roark. Scott Bakula as a warm and funny dad and spy. Big Mike taking Morgan’s mom to the wedding. Jeffster. If Jeffster is no longer going to be part of Chuck, I can only hope they get a spin-off. If Flight of the Conchords can get renewed, there’s room for a Jeffster show on prime time.

We still don’t know, as of this writing, whether NBC will renew the show or not. The Internet is alive with campaigns to “Save Chuck“, including an effort to show support for the show by buying footlong sandwiches from sponsor Subway. (My personal choice was the Oven Roasted Chicken Breast.) Alas, while the numbers for Chuck did not go down, they didn’t go up, either. The season finale raked in 6.1 million viewers for a 2.3 share, 6 in the 18-49 age bracket. This is pretty much the same as the last two weeks; the ratings are stagnant. Although NBC execs have said they like the show, this is a hard nosed business where sentiment takes a back seat. With this show consistently coming in fourth every week, it will be hard to justify a third season. Everything is in place for it as far as the series premise goes, including a built-in hook for next season. It’s up to the shadowy gods of television to determine Chuck’s fate right now. Me, I plan an appropriate sacrifice of propitiation: another footlong Subway sandwich. Too bad sandwich maker Lou, from “Chuck vs. The Hard Salami”, isn’t around to make it.