Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Betrayal and Hope: The Chuck Season Finale

From what I’ve read around the Internet, the response to the Chuck season finale has been positive, maybe even overwhelmingly so.  Fans have loved the twist at the ending, and are looking forward to seeing how it plays out in a fifth and final season, now that we know for sure that Chuck has been renewed for another 14 episodes come fall.

But can I respectfully disagree?

I didn’t like it.  And I’m someone who has watched Chuck from the very beginning, who owns it on DVD, and who is thrilled there is going to be a fifth season.  I’m a fan--a huge fan--of the show, and I see the unbelievable elements of the show (I could give examples, but I’d be here all day) as a key part of what makes the show great, rather than a reason to write it off.

But perhaps the part of the show that I liked the most was the way it stayed connected with its fans.  It didn’t shy away from giving us a Chuck and Sarah relationship that was real, progressed, and stayed interesting.  It gave us a protagonist who was a real hero and super-spy material on his own, not just because he had a supercomputer in his head.  And even in its moments of extreme corniness--like the Subway product placement--it pulled these off in such an over-the-top way that it reminded us viewers that we were a key part of what kept the show on the air.

And for most of the finale, Chuck stayed true to this commitment to treating its fans with integrity.  We got to see Chuck stand up and fight successfully for Sarah without the Intersect, we got to see Sarah express her love for Chuck in about the most touching, sincere way possible, and we got to see Ellie step up and kick ass as a doctor.  The Volkov plot was resolved in a satisfying way, there were some great lines from Casey, and General Beckman came through in a big way for our heroes.

But there was one moment in the episode that threw the whole thing off for me.  One moment where I felt betrayed.  And that was the moment where, after cutting to commercial right after Chuck unsuccessfully tries to rouse Sarah, Chuck returned to show a church sign that read “Funeral and Viewing 3pm.”  After holding there for a moment, the camera then panned down to show “Bartowski Wedding 4 pm.”  I certainly realize that there is a need to build suspense, to make it seem like Sarah is actually going to die, and that the practice wedding is all that we’re going to get.  I get it, I really do.  And honestly, they pulled that part off so well--as Chuck ran down the hall of the hospital, with the flashbacks to him and Sarah putting twist-tie rings on each others’ fingers, the logical part of me that knew the show wouldn’t kill off its female lead was hiding under a blanket with the emotionally vulnerable part of me, sobbing.  And when the show cut to commercial, right after Ellie hung her head, I was right at the edge of my seat.

But for us to find out that Sarah is ok from a church sign?  To miss seeing her wake up and to know that it was her Chuck--the man with the plan, or in this instance, with no plan at all--who saved her life?  That’s cheap.  And to have that same church sign try to extend the suspense just a tiny bit further?  Even worse.  The shift in emotional tone from intense, heart-breaking suspense to a two-bit sleight-of-hand trick was jarring, and more importantly, distracted me from what ended up being a beautiful actual wedding.  I was so thrown off by the lack of resolution with Sarah’s recovery that I honestly thought the whole wedding sequence was a dream (it didn’t help that Sarah was wearing a different dress than the one that she had allegedly decided on earlier this season).  I was so busy looking for clues about whether it was reality or a dream that I missed all the poignant moments--Chuck’s vows about super-spy kids in capes, Casey tearing up, Sarah interrupting Morgan to say “I do,” and Morgan deriving his authority from the Intergalactic Federation of Planets--and upon rewatching the episode, these were moments truly not to be missed.  So even though it was just one moment where Chuck’s integrity slipped, one moment where I felt betrayed, it seriously affected the way I viewed the entire episode.

As far as the ending goes--at first, honestly, I hated it.  It seemed like such a regression, a move back to square one.  I was so irritated with Morgan for putting on glasses that were clearly not intended for him.  All the bumbling awkwardness of Chuck in the first seasons will be back.  But then I realized--it’s Morgan’s bumbling awkwardness that we will be watching, not Chuck’s.  And after reading a few other reviews of the finale and watching it again, I’ve come to appreciate what a good move this is.  The finale really highlights how Chuck is the man with the plan.  That is one of his major strengths--something that we saw come to fruition in Chuck Versus the Push Mix, and that was played with a lot in this finale. (“Your plan’s not going to work, Charles.”  “Listen to me.  It will work.  My plans always work, I promise.”)  Without the Intersect, Chuck can be the one to make the plans, staying true to the evolution and maturation of his character over the course of the show, and the show itself can retain the comedy and plot opportunities presented by having someone awkward and bumbling in the role of super-spy.  I hope this is how things end up playing out.

I have two other big hopes for the final season of Chuck.  The first is fairly generic, but definitely genuine: I hope that they wrap everything up well, and that they come through on the giant conspiracy suggested by Decker.  As much as it sucks to lose a show that I love, it sucks even more to lose a show that I love without getting any closure (ahem, Firefly).  

The other big hope is this, and it’s been something that many fans have been hoping for several seasons: give us some decently developed female characters.  I can’t think of the last time an episode passed the Bechdel test.  The finale was particularly noticeable in its lack of non-stereotypical female characters--both Ellie and General Beckman were great, but very limited in their roles, and Mary’s sole contribution to the episode was to play the role of the over-concerned, nagging mother.  Carina and Zondra showed up, but they had a pair of lines between them, and Sarah spent most of the episode unconscious.  I realize that the show is aiming for the 15-35 year-old male demographic, but perhaps the show would have struggled less over the course of its run if it hadn’t put all its eggs in that basket.  I know that this is probably a lost cause at this point, given that the show is wrapping up next season, but a girl can dream, right?
Here's looking forward to next season!