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Fighting the Hydra: Thoughts on the Semi-Season Finale of Chuck

I've been candid over the years about my love for Chuck, supporting it and nurturing it and standing up for it whenever renewal seemed like a distant proposition rather than a sure thing. But I've also been upfront about my thoughts about this creatively uneven season, which seemed to veer from strong episodes to really weak ones on a weekly basis.

Last night's episode ("Chuck Versus the Push Mix"), written by Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc and directed by Peter Lauer, was originally intended to be the season finale for Season Four of Chuck, back when the season had only gotten a thirteen-episode commitment, but as with last season, an eleventh hour order of additional episodes meant that the semi-season finale wrapped up several storylines but wouldn't be the end to the season.

Which brings us to the here and now, as I have to take an unpopular stand and say that I didn't enjoy this episode as much as others seemed to. In fact, I'll admit that I'm puzzled by the rave reviews that this episode received, both in advance and post-air. There were some fantastic moments in the mix (I did love the final minutes with Chuck's silent proposal), but it felt stitched together from some sub-par parts and the final act, with its host of happy endings, didn't feel entirely earned to me, but rather tacked on cheaply, an emotional ploy to satisfy in case this was a season (or series) ender.

So what did I really think of "Chuck Versus the Push Mix"? Let's discuss.

First, I have to say that I'm extremely glad that this marks the end of the Volkoff storyline, which intrigued at first and then just grated on my nerves. No disrespect to Timothy Dalton, who was in fine form here, but the character never gelled into something three-dimensional. He was yet another maniacal super-villain with delusions of grandeur and an inability to pick up on the fact, after twenty years, that Mary Bartowski was just not into him.

I'm still not clear as to what Alexei Volkoff wanted, what his MO was, or what his grand scheme was for world domination or whatever. Or why he was so dangerous that it took Mary Bartowski twenty years to catch him, or why she had to walk out on her family in order to do so. There must have been countless times when Mary should have been able to enact her endgame and grab Volkoff, so I'm still confused why it took this long and why it involved Sarah Walker going undercover in his organization to finally pull off the capture of the century.

Which brings us to Point #2: I understand that Sarah Walker is a superspy and is as dangerous as sin, but how was she able to accomplish in what seemed like under a week what Frost was unable to do in two decades? (Yes, two decades.) Here is where things started to fall apart for me, because I couldn't accept last week that Alexei would willingly allow her into his organization, even with the "rogue agent" status she had created for herself, knowing that she was Chuck's girlfriend and wouldn't flip that easily on her country, especially for the reasons she gave. (And, yes, Alexei has proven that he's far from rational, but this stretched credulity a bit.)

In the past, I've been willing to suspend my disbelief when it came to Chuck because the show was firing on all cylinders and it's easy to overlook some niggling things when they're couched in awesomeness. But I've been finding it increasingly hard to do so here, especially in the last two weeks as the Volkoff final act ramped up. There are some things that are easily swept under the rug and there are others that, once introduced, can't be erased from my mind as easily.

That Volkoff's entire network--his most important, powerful, and prized possession--should be concealed behind a door whose security can so easily be breached caused me to sit up. Compounding this are the lasers that even a schlemiel like Morgan can outmaneuver. Without use of the Intersect. The Chuck gang already utilized the laser gag to full effect back in Season 3 ("Chuck Versus the Three Words"), as Chuck had to evade some lasers with cat-like precision, thanks to the Intersect-derived abilities. But to have Morgan do so, so easily, thanks to some yoga (!?!) poses? Suspension of disbelief out the window.

(Likewise, the fact that Chuck did a general internet search for "The Contessa" early on, that he and Morgan were able to climb onto the Contessa with such ease, and that they were able to saunter around the ship without a single guard noticing, all got on my nerves.)

Yes, it was fitting that Alexei should be undone by his jealousy and by Chuck's smarts, utilizing the "ghost" of Orion to get Alexei out in the open and use the authorization code words that Chuck needed to transfer his Hydra network, and it showed some moxie on Chuck's part, but at this point I just wanted the Volkoff storyline to be over. Now that Mary had flip-flopped so many times between good and evil, between Volkhoff confidante and CIA agent, I just wanted this arc to be over already, something I've rarely ever felt with Chuck before.

In watching this week's episode, I found that I was willing myself to like it but that I was failing. And I've never had to "will" myself to like Chuck in the past, as the show has abounded with clever writing, fine acting, and genre-busting fun. Elements that in the past have worked with such precision (Jeffster) seemed thrown in here for no real purpose. While some have raved about the "Push It" sequence with Jeffster at the hospital, I found it a complete turn-off, an over the top scenario that further tested my patience, even as the patients themselves (not to mention the nurses) seemed not bothered in the least.

I'm glad that Ellie and Awesome had their baby (following the world's most easy labor and delivery) and it will be interesting to see just how the writers deal with having a baby in the mix on the show. For the most part, Ellie and Devon have been largely tangential to the plot this season, and I'm still hoping that Chris Fedak and Co. can find a way to bring these disparate elements together.

Which brings us to the very end of the episode, which I thought was actually the best handled sequence in the entire installment, as we wrapped up all of the storylines (Casey is okay! Alex isn't going anywhere! Volkoff is defeated! Ellie has her baby!) and put the focus back onto the Chuck/Sarah courtship. Throughout the season, Chuck has sought to engineer the perfect situation for his marriage proposal but has been foiled by nerves, the CIA, and Sarah herself. Which is why it was perhaps so perfect that the ideal moment was the one right at hand: in the hospital corridor, sitting on a bench together, as a custodian waxed the floor.

Sometimes the best moments are the smallest ones, and the silence of Chuck's proposal played out magically, allowing us to infuse the scene with our own emotions and sense of fulfillment rather than let the dialogue do the talking. After a season of talking about proposals and false starts, it was a canny way to make Chuck's actual offer seem dramatic, engaging, and romantic, and Sarah's acceptance all the more heartfelt and genuine.

But that small moment wasn't enough for me following what was largely a lazy episode that was full of narrative holes and forced emotion. And, yes, I even surprised myself with how little I enjoyed it. I'm hoping the writers, given the next batch of episodes, can find a way to win me back, because I don't want to wax nostalgic about Chuck: I want to enjoy it again.

What did you think of this week's episode? And of the last thirteen episodes as a whole? Head to the comments section to discuss and debate.

Next week on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible"), John Casey, Chuck Bartowski, and Sarah Walker are sent to Morocco to rescue Roan Montgomery (guest star John Larroquette); Morgan Grimes plans to meet Alex's mother; Mary spends some time with her family.

Comments

Rob said…
Jace,

I am a huge Chuck fan, and I happen to agree with your analysis of this season and it's overall arc. The season began by laying a solid foundation for the overall arc, but the execution was poor.

One problem, as we saw in season 3, is the creative team's difficulty planning out a story that can be well executed in a 13 episode stretch. Taking on a lot of story may have helped them earn their backorder for the past two seasons, but those orders come too late for them to lengthen the arc and do justice to the story and characters.

A second issue has been the quality of the writing this season, due mainly to the exodus of almost the entire writing staff due to the late pickup season 4 pickup. As evidenced by the storyline about Chuck's inability to flash,these writers setup a lot early on, and then let it fall by the wayside without a payoff. The laziness and feeling that this episode was largely cut together further supports the issue of writing quality.

Finally, Josh and Chris continue to push story elements, like the Buy More, that have lost their relevance as the show has evolved. Time that could be spent better addressing the A story are wasted on finding ways to incorporate the Buy More crew into an episode. The show worked much better when Ellie and Awesome were involved in the spy plot last season, and Jeffster was benched.

The back 6 last year showed that the shows quality improves when they attempt to cover less story in a short episode span. Perhaps NBC has done Chuck a disservice by continuing to give it late pickups, short orders and late back orders. Lackluster writing and overly ambitious story lines are what you get when you are writing a season and series finale twice a season.
If there were to be a 5th season, I hope NBC provides Chuck with a reasonably early commitment, and a 16+ episode order to allow the creative team enough time to send the show out on a high note.
YC19916 said…
I am on the same page as you here, the Volkoff and Mary story was dragging but i think it did deserve more time to make the destruction of Volkoff Industries a bit more believable, although i did have a huge smile on my face when it turned out that Stephen had played a huge part in it. When i first heard that Jeffster were back i was really thinking it would be in the Buy More as a sub-plot but the 'Push it' sequence was too fake and i really hope that Jeff was just drunk and in reality it was alot different. i did really like the ending although it is going to be weird seeing them back into missions again next week and i am looking forward to what happens next. I think can see a Volkoff escape on the horizon so we can get our finale (just hope he doesn't kidnap Clara).
Anonymous said…
I wish there had been some kind of conversation between Sarah and Casey regarding his accident. Even though neither one intended for him to actually hit the ground, I would imagine that Sarah would still feel some guilt about it. It felt odd that the issue was just glossed over.

Also, they shouldn't have bothered giving Casey a daughter if they're going to devote so little time to that relationship. Because Alex and her father have had so few scenes together, their "bonding" in the hospital had no emotional impact.

Finally, why is Jeffster still around?
Grant said…
The show suffers from too many characters and too much story. It's choking on them. Part of the fun of "Chuck" was its spy stuff alongside its everyday stuff. They've forgotten how to weave in and out of each.

A minor but niggling point: Alex's mother. Did she ever find out that Alex Coburn (Casey) isn't dead?
Rachael said…
I am really glad that I wasn't the only one who was annoyed by this episode. I didn't hate it, but I found myself irked by many things. I can't figure out why it is getting such across-the-board raves ... even from Mo who has been probably the most consistently critical one of this show since S3!! (I haven't read her review yet but her headline calls the episode "Awesome".) And Sepinwall, actually it seems like he mostly enjoyed it but was not totally head over heels like many other folks are.

The episode felt extremely rushed to me, almost as if I was skipping through it on my TiVo in fast forward. I think the reason for the rushed feeling was that they glossed over so many important plot points, which added to the feeling of plot holes and poor storytelling which Jace mentions in his review. I agree that the Volkoff character was never completely fleshed out in a way that made him seem all that dangerous, and it absolutely made NO sense that he would trust Sarah so easily, knowing her loyalty to Chuck and her country. I guess the thing about her pushing Casey out the window was supposed to prove her loyalty 100%, but it seems like Volkoff would never have been willing to entertain the thought of bringing her in to begin with.

I also completely agree with Jace on the ridiculousness of the Morgan laser scene (it was funny, but just WAY too silly that he did it so easily, and there was zero explanation of how he could have maneuvered out of his wetsuit). And yes when he and Chuck decided they were going to sneak onto the ship and then all of a sudden, BOOM, they're there, I was like, huh?? And the piece about Chuck hacking into Hydra was just glossed over and way too easy, I thought. I saw no struggle there at all, it was just like, "Hey Morgan let's save the day," "Booyah, ok, done!" When the Volkoff storyline ended my husband said, "Well they wrapped that up quickly and easily, didn't they."

The couple things I disagree with Jace on: I was not getting sick of the Volkoff storyline and I was actually bummed that they wrapped it up so quickly and easily, but I think that’s just cause I was waiting for something more interesting to happen with him ... or for us to learn more somehow about his motives, or for him to become more menacing than he had been up till now. Also, the Jeffster scene ... yes, it was ludicrous but ... I thought it was fun. I had no issues with that part really. But in the hospital scene I did have issues with how much they glossed over Sarah’s apology to Casey. That should have been a MUCH more substantial scene!! Instead it was just like, “Sorry oopsie!!” Casey: “No worries girl!” Done.

Anywho I’ve blabbed enough now but yeah ... I’m glad people enjoyed the ep because I hate when Chuckpocalypses occur, but I am also confused as to why I feel like practically the only person out there who doesn’t get the raves on this one. I also don’t like the fact that the rave reviews will encourage further episodes where the story feels super rushed, plotholes abound, and the general storytelling method is just kinda sloppy. Errgh.
astral_monkey said…
I have always been a huge and vocal fan of the show, but the quality just isn't there anymore, and as much as it pains me to say it - it doesn't excite me anymore.

There have just been too many holes, too many loose ends, and too many contrived storylines.

What gets me most is that a lot of those things could have easily been dealt with.

For example; Frost and Orion have been communicating for years, working together to bring down Volkoff. They already know Hydra is the key to bringing down the whole organisation, and use Frosts insider intel to get Yuri the Gobbler caught and locked up until they can figure out how to extract Hydra (which is in his head intersect style, not his eye). Which is where the computer Orion left for Ellie comes in, and why after Orion's death he leaves Chuck the mission to find his mother, and why Frost contacts Chuck herself. Once Ellie has worked out Orion's mistake and fixed the computer, Team B just need to put the Orion/Frost plan into action. 20 years of work explained, and used to destroy Volkoff.

I would have much preferred this over Frosts flip-flopping loyalties.

Plus if they had shown some volatility in Volkoffs organisation, a result of Frosts undercover sabotage, prompting the need for things to be wrapped up quickly before the organisation fractures and becomes more difficult to bring down.

I guess I don't really have much of a point, I just used to expect better from this show and now I only expect to be disappointed.
Wes said…
Thanks for this, Jace. I completely agree. Not sure why people were raving. I might be done with CHUCK.
ZebZ said…
I've never been a fan of this arc. I completely agree that Volkoff and Mary were never fleshed out, and the leaps of logic that enabled Sarah to infiltrate his organization so easily were absurd.

But looking at this episode individually and putting aside that the steps that got us to this point in the plot, I'd still think it's one of the better episodes this year. That's not to say it wasn't without its flaws.

The first half of the episode was kludgy and slow. The interrogation scenes were filler whose time would've been much better used elsewhere. But on the points of Chuck and Morgan magically appearing on the ship, I'm glad the writers didn't waste time getting Chuck and Morgan to meet up with Mary and Sarah. Morgan's laser maneuvers felt like the retread it was, but the shtick with the wetsuit gave it a funny end. Again, I didn't feel that, as a viewer, I needed to see the process of how he got out of the wetsuit. The gag was that he did.

Once everyone got together in the server room, I enjoyed the rest of the show and didn't find anything horribly out of place like I've been able to do with previous episodes this season.
Anonymous said…
While I agree that it felt rushed.. what Chuck 'finale' or "would be finale if it didn't get renewed at the last minute" hasn't felt rushed? I mean really? I partially blame NBC for deciding on a "Oh, by the way.. Chuck's renewed even though their episodes are written already. Have fun" sort of bombshell they tend to drop, but you can only blame NBC so much, sadly. :/

I agree on a lot of points here in the review for sure, though. I only felt marginal respect for Mary in this episode after being very indifferent the rest of the season. Volkoff was probably the best actor outside of Sarah Walker.. throughout the whole season. Good thing they let it open for him to make a return.

I dunno. I'm not going to quit watching, but I do hope it picks up speed and transitions back to the Chuck we love now that his mother's safe, and his relationship with Sarah is in a good place.
Unknown said…
I agree with ZebZ. Yes, this episode had flaws, but consider this: it was trying to wrap up what had been a very mediocre season. The majority of the flaws in this episode had been created earlier. The Sarah infiltration story was awful, but they quickly got to the point where it was no longer an issue in the episode. I would imagine that, at a certain point, someone realized they'd made some wrong moves, and wanted to correct them before the end.
Unknown said…
I also thought the proposal would have had a lot more impact if they hadn't been beating us over the head with it all season. Everyone knew it was coming. Everyone. Imagine if it had only ever been brought up once before -- the ending would have been even more intense.
Sentry said…
This entire season has had me saying to myself what are they thinking? Where are they going with this? The only episode written to Chuck specs was “Chuck Verses The Third Phase”. Morgan's buffoon attempts to be a spy has not worked, will not work - Chuck has the intersect, so why was he trying to hack his way into a security system, while Morgan is negotiating a maze of lasers? Jeffster has never worked - and if Captain Awesome is so awesome, why was he speechless and dazed during the birth of his baby? Speaking of which, the birth of the baby has to be one of the most effortless births I have ever seen on TV. I could see Ellie taking charge, but to have Devon completely fall apart...Come on! Sarah pushes Casey out of a building, almost kills him, amazes me how nothing was written that showed her concern for his status - for all she knew he could have been killed in the fall – after taking down volkopf and seeing each other for the first time in the hospital the two of them have a very awkward moment, instead of something gritty or more substantial, that would have played quite nicely into the “Family” sub-plot.
Things to do: Morgan is a sidekick and comic relief and is not strong enough a character or Gomez an actor to carry a scene or sub plot. Casey works best with his emotions tight around the handgrip of an assault rifle, have him grunt more and develop his relationship with his daughter. Alex is definitely someone that can take the show to new heights especially if she has more groundbreaking scenes with Casey, although the scenes at the hospital with Alex and Casey were severely underplayed. The “Buy More” only works when they are over the top on what we expect of a retail store (season 3’s Fight Club was classic). Get rid of the Greta’s give them real names and have more hotties playing the role, call their Buy More a training center for Nerd Herders, and replace them often. Ellie and Devon – they only work in supporting roles, keep them out of the spot light.
The new writers need to do some homework and understand the characters a bit more...NBC needs to make a commitment and order enough episodes so that the writers don't write themselves into a corner. This hang season finale – not a finale is getting old.

Sentry
Anonymous said…
"But that small moment wasn't enough for me following what was largely a lazy episode that was full of narrative holes and forced emotion."

Agreed! The whole season has been fool of plot holes! I know the show has always had them but never as much as this. And as much as I enjoyed Dalton in his role, the Volkoff/Mary B. arc made no sense. I thought Volkoff was supposed to be this really menacing and sinister mastermind, but he ended up being a fool and cartoony villain with a soft spot for Frost.. who he never even had sex with in all these 20 YEARS. Laughable for a character like this.

I also hated how poorly they wrote the Chuck character this season. God, he was so whiny and insecure about his love relationship with Sarah. It made little sense, especially after how things ended last season. This drastic regression on the character was such a disappointment and a great diservice to the character.

Finally, I was expecting more fleshing out of the Alex/Casey and even Morgan relationships, but no.. I feel like there was too much Sarah and too little Casey, who is always awesome and a strong character in the show.

I think I might be done with the show too, sadly. At least I got 3 top notch season to watch. Yes, they weren't perfect, but they made a lot more sense and were much more enjoyable to me than this season. Oh well. I miss the old writers.
Unknown said…
I don't necessarily expect shows like this to have tight, well-knit plots like John Le Carre novels. However! The Volkoff story bored me to tears. I don't even know what crimes he committed (other than killing people and chewing scenery). (Don't get me wrong--I loved Timothy Dalton's performance, but I think it worked better when he pined for Mary instead of his Hydra network.) Rather than Mary being unable to arrest him in twenty years, it might've been better if Volkoff had been threatening her family to make her stay.

Anyway, a show I've loved for this long gets a pass, especially because I blame NBC for most of it. If you have a show that you think is successful enough, then you should curate that show better. Give full orders up-front, not at the last minute. Writers need time to work up a full plot. Last minute changes only hurt.
Anonymous said…
I don't blame NBC for most of it. Sorry but most of this season so far reads like fanfiction to me; it's like the writers/showrunners were trying to 'please' a certain sector of the fanbase.. but the executin has been really poor. And unfortunately is hurting the show pretty badly, and the low ratings this week are showing it. People really got tiring of waiting for this story to make sense. I know I did, I didn't watch the show live. Got other more important things to do.

Besides, they were also in the same situation last season, and the execution of that first arc was far superior to this season's first 13 episodes. I know some people hated the first half of season 3 (I didn't) because Chuck are Sarah weren't together, but at least the story had a lot more depth, was coherent, there was fantastic character development, and by episode 13 all the lose ends were tied nicely. Unlike this season. This season everything was done very sloppily. Like I said, it reads like fanfiction. It seems to me like it's time for the show to end before it gets worse.

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