Chuck: “Chuck vs. the Subway” & “Chuck vs. The Ring, Part 2”

All in the Family

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. the Subway”

Teleplay by Allison Adler & Phil Klemmer
Story by Matt Miller
Directed by Matt Shakman

“Chuck vs. The Ring, Part 2”
Written by Josh Schwartz & Chris Fedak
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill

“I must be losing my mind.” —Chuck Bartowski

The last two episodes of Chuck’s third season are game-changers—but I’m not sure that means anything. Important characters die—but I’m not sure that means anything, either. This is what happens when you mess with people’s heads—they stop understanding or trusting you. We’ve seen “game-changing” episodes before, where important characters died. But the game did not change, and the dead men came back—Bryce Larkin, Steve Bartowski, and now Daniel Shaw. It’s just a little hard to imagine that the ground is really going to shift for this show, long overdue though that movement may be.

This two-hour finale focuses on two main story elements: the damage the Intersect is doing to Chuck’s brain, and the involvement of the remaining members of his family in his spy life. It starts when he spots Daniel Shaw passing through a farmer’s market, and follows him down into the subway. He doesn’t make it onto the train in time, and Shaw taunts him as the train moves out. Back in the Castle, Papa Bartowski takes time out from watchmaking (he’s building a governor to help control the Intersect) to locate Shaw on surveillance cameras; at last Casey and Sarah are convinced that Shaw is alive. The team mounts an operation to simultaneously capture Shaw and expose the Ring, but of course it all goes sideways. It turns out that Shaw has lured them to an actual CIA headquarters, where General Beckman is testifying before a tribunal (yes, they actually used that word) in an attempt to save Operation Bartowski. The unsympathetic generals call on Chuck to testify, but before he can get a word out, Shaw himself strolls in. In a few carefully chosen phrases he demolishes Chuck’s defense. But even as he speaks, something triggers his Intersect. When Chuck realizes this has happened, he tries to prove it with his own father’s trick: he throws a letter opener at Shaw. But Shaw does not catch it, thereby “proving” that Chuck’s mind is deteriorating, and Chuck is hauled off to a holding cell.

At this point, I am almost feeling some sympathy for Shaw. How many times has Chuck perforated this man? At their first meeting, Shaw shot himself in the shoulder because Chuck would not do it. Later, Chuck filled him full of holes (presumably) on the banks of the Seine in Paris. Now he’s throwing knives at him. Daniel Shaw must have an alligator hide. However, I do like his presence in this show. As I’ve said, a hero is measured by his enemies, and Shaw is a worthy opponent. He’s not a faceless conspiracy like Fulcrum or the Ring, he’s not an egotist like Roark. He’s a dedicated spy with an agenda of his own, as well trained as Chuck, and possessing an Intersect. It’s high time Chuck had someone to measure himself against; I can see a season dedicated to a battle between these two. Superman had his Lex Luthor; Chuck needs his Daniel Shaw.

In short order, Chuck escapes with his father’s help, but Sarah is taken into Ring custody. Casey, realizing that Shaw will come after not only the team, but everyone they love, warns his daughter, Alex (Mekenna Melvin, Thrillseekers) and gives her a key to his locker at the Buy More. He is hauled away by Ring agents, and she flees. At the Buy More, Morgan helps her uncover the secret locker Casey hid at the back of his real locker, containing guns, money, and identity documents. Who is left to rescue Casey and Sarah, though? Beckman finds Morgan and Devon in the Castle, and as she frantically shreds documents, asks for Morgan’s help in the one code Morgan will never ignore: Star Wars.

Beckman: They’ve apprehended Colonel Casey, Agent Walker is in custody, Bartowski escaped this facility and he is a wanted man! As much as it pains me to say this… you are our only hope!!!

In case there were any lingering doubts about Shaw’s villainy, he contrives a showdown in the subway, involving Justin, himself, Papa Bartowski, and Chuck. No one knows that Ellie has followed Chuck and is a silent witness to the standoff, in which Shaw callously shoots Papa B at point-blank range. While Chuck tearfully cradles his dying father, Shaw takes the governor-watch and escapes. I was dead certain that Ellie would reveal herself and try to save her father—she is, after all, an experienced doctor. Her decision to remain in hiding does not ring true to Ellie’s warm and caring nature. She is shocked to find out about Chuck (and her father’s) spy life, but I cannot imagine that discretion or shock would prevent her from running to the rescue of her nearest and dearest. This was pure plot obstacle, and it came across as very fake.

Morgan and Devon console Ellie on her father’s loss, jump into Casey’s beloved Crown Vic, and set out to rescue their friends, who are being held in an armored car. Casey and Sarah are trying to scheme a way out, but Chuck is sunk in despair. This attitude was so unlike him, I imagined that it was a side effect of the Intersect’s poisoning of his mind. Chuck was most decidedly not his usual optimistic self. Morgan and Devon inadvertently launch one of the missiles built into Casey’s car (shades of James Bond!) and rescue their friends, while disabling Shaw. Finally, Ellie gets a chance to mourn with her brother and demand answers from him. She is, as I suspected, angry at being the last one to learn of his spy life.

Ellie: I don’t want a soothing brain bath, Morgan. I want answers!

Thwarted, Shaw shows up at the Buy More during a going-out-of-business sale. We finally get the one-on-one Spy vs. Spy showdown we’ve been building up to, with Intersect matched against Intersect. Chained to a counter, Sarah can only watch helplessly as Chuck’s Intersect flashes, but then causes him debilitating agony. He’s losing the fight as Shaw knocks him down. Chuck remembers his father building the first prototype Intersect in his study, on a classic Mac 128 K computer. He remembers downloading it into his head, and his father calling him “special”. He leaps to his feet, demolishes Shaw (with an assist from Sarah), and retrieves the governor-watch. However, they are unable to discover the bombs that Shaw planted in the store in time, and the Buy More is blown to smithereens.

The family/team gathers at Chuck and Sarah’s to toast the memory of Steve Bartowski. Ellie gets more answers, though she doesn’t like them. Alex shows up and greets her father in an awkward hug. Chuck finds a message on his computer from his dead father (see, I told you he’d be back, one way or another), and follows his instructions to find Papa Bartowski’s basement—which appears to be about the same dimensions as the fabled warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. More to the point, he finds a link to… his mother. Yeah, like nobody saw that coming. Stay tuned for next season.

There wasn’t much to laugh at in these grim but well-written episodes. The Buy More subplot gave us a hilarious Jeffster cover of a Bon Jovi classic, but otherwise was less funny than tense. The store has been blown to smithereens and Big Mike is in trouble with his mole at Buy More headquarters, Big Moses. The few geek jokes were big, to be sure—nothing outshines a Star Wars reference—but infrequent. I loved Morgan explaining that he is a “lapsed vegetarian”. Every season should end with a Jeffster performance. It was a nice touch to have Chuck and Shaw exchanging “Mwahahas” at one another, in classic villain fashion. I will say that Brandon “Superman” Routh diving out a window, and saving himself by wrapping himself in the American flag, was one of my favorite moments. Overall, however, this season ender felt more like an episode of 24 than a slapstick geek comedy. I don’t have a problem with that—short term. I just hope we get the sparkling, witty dialogue and in-jokes back next year, pronto.

Casey: Don’t know when it happened, but our boy became a man. Bartowski’s a spy. Picked a good one, Walker. Finally.

No praise is sufficient for Zach Levi’s performance in this double episode. Chuck’s horror at his father’s murder, his cold fury when confronting Shaw, his tenderness with his sister and Sarah were all beautifully present in face and body language. He managed to be, as Sarah pointed out, the wonderful geek we all fell in love with, while at the same time showing us the maturity and courage Chuck has developed over three years. Adam Baldwin continues to amaze me at how much he can say with just a grunt. I loved Ryan McPartlin’s portrayal of Devon’s meltdown at the very thought that Ellie might be cheating on him, especially in light of the recounting last week of his daily routine, which involves giving her foot baths and massages. And finally, I must mention how much better Brandon Routh is as VillainShaw than as GoodGuyShaw. He lurked, he glowered, he glared, he sneered in the best traditions of Snidely Whiplash, and I loved every minute of his performance.

It would appear we are set up for a rousing beginning to Season Four, which now consists of the thirteen episodes NBC has currently ordered. Will Papa Bartowski be back (he was, after all, right outside the Ring’s special cell regeneration center where they brought Daniel Shaw back from the dead)? Will Ellie become a spy? Will Alex and Morgan fall in love, to the annoyance of Colonel Casey? Will Chuck really give up the spy life, as he promised Ellie? And how does Mama Bartowski fit into all this? Stay tuned.

It takes a special kind of masochist to be a fan of this show. Once again, Chuck fell far short in the ratings game, racking up a 1.8 rating with adults 18-49 in the first hour, and a series-low 1.7 in the second hour. If NBC had not already renewed the show, those numbers would have me biting my nails. As it is, I’m not getting my hopes up for more than 13 more episodes. I don’t see how the show can pick up many more viewers in its fourth season, which is long past the time when viewers have usually committed to a show. I only hope the writers write a fourth season that doesn’t push a cliffhanger on us, that wraps up its storylines with grace. We’ll see. See you in the Fall.