Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 12 of "Chuck," entitled "Chuck Versus Sarah," or Season 5, Episode 13 (the series finale) of "Chuck," entitled "Chuck Versus the Goodbye" on NBC.
"Chuck, tell me our story."
Wasn't the answer Sarah got so much better than an upload from Intersect glasses?
I'll go on record right away as saying that I was very pleased with the "Chuck" finale, and I think the last 30 minutes of the final episode rank up there with the absolute best the show has ever done. It got dusty in my house many times during those last two hours, and as a sustained, well-earned sentimental farewell, the finale was everything I could have hoped for.
I needed to be convinced, however. When last week's episode ended with Sarah's memories gone, I was alarmed (even though I thought "Chuck Versus the Bullet Train" was a good episode). We've spent five years investing in the relationship of these crazy kids, and right here at the end, they were going to take that away from us? That was a hell of a risk to take in the show's final hours.
But you know what? I think that risk paid off, for a few reasons.
The "recovering Sarah's memory" story gave real stakes to the finale because we are that invested in Chuck and Sarah's hard-won happiness. There was part of me that wanted the gang to have one last victory lap, in which they would defeat some amusing or mildly scary villain and then ride off into the sunset; but at its best, "Chuck" has woven real emotions and real consequences into its best spy stories.
Sure, Quinn was another in a long line of bragging villains with eeevil intentions, but he was a mere device to get us to care about whether Chuck and Sarah would rebuild their relationship. On some level, I knew they would get back together by the end of the series finale, but the show gave me two hours of a broken-hearted Chuck, and Zachary Levi plays that so well that I was very much invested in his quest to win Sarah back. I knew in my logical brain that the quest would be successful, but damn it, in my heart and in the non-logical parts of my head (which are vast), I was rooting like hell for the good guys to win and for the couple I love to be happy again.
And that was really the key to why the "recovering Sarah's memory" story worked -- Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski played the hell out of every single scene they were given. In the hands of lesser actors, the whole memory-wipe story might have played out like a sci-fi cliche; but they gave us so many levels and layers of pain, hope and heartbreak. Sarah's face as she watched the video files, recounting her relationship with Charles Irving Bartowski; Chuck's face as he sat in their dream home, talking about the first time they really kissed; the two of them as they sat on that beach at the end, talking and laughing and crying and just being so right together -- that all worked like gangbusters.
Just as Sarah got to fall in love with Chuck all over again, we got to fall in love with their relationship once more, and revisit all its highs and lows in so many different ways. There were Sarah's videos, Chuck's recollections and at the end, a calvacade of glimpses into their most memorable moments (dual Weinerlicious uniforms!). The quest to get Sarah to recall everything that they'd been through allowed "Chuck" to stroll down memory lane, and this show took full advantage of it. It was risky to take that path, but when the show ended with those two kissing on the beach as The Head and the Heart's "Rivers and Roads" played, it was incredibly romantic, and this is a show that does intense romance very, very well.
So, sure, I can understand if you found it hard to see Chuck so heartbroken for parts of the finale, and if you found it hard to find Chuck and Sarah out of sync for so much of it, but there was a deeper reason that the finale worked for me. Throughout the two hours, we saw how Sarah literally couldn't pull the trigger on Chuck. Something lingered in her, some emotions and undercurrents that she couldn't account for. No memory wipe can take away how people change you, and Chuck had changed Sarah. And, of course, vice versa.
And that was the lovely subtext of the finale: The people we love have an effect on our lives, an effect that nothing can ever take away, not even super-complex spy devices.
Throughout the finale, Sarah's memories were slowly returning -- and I believe they would have returned in full over time, because I want to believe that. Bt what really happened in that last hour is that Sarah came to understand in her heart, head and soul how much that Nerd Herder had affected her.
Everyone had changed so much over five seasons. Think about these things in the context of who these people were at the start of Season 1: In the finale, John Casey was wearing a World's Greatest Dad apron and scrubbing the kitchen floor that his roommate Morgan Grimes had dirtied ("You really think I've changed?"); Morgan Guillermo Grimes got a great scene in which he, the Bearded One, challenged Casey's go-it-alone, tough-guy rationale; hell, even Jeff and Lester had changed. Jeff is now disturbingly clean and sober, and Lester is... well, still Lester; but good Lord, he can really hit those high notes these days. As for Big Mike, he's still Big Mike, finally in on the spy secret, but completely unwilling to believe it and happy to continue to eat fresh at Subway. (OK, so maybe not everyone changed -- but maybe some people didn't need to.)
Not that Zac and Yvonne didn't own the finale, but there were so many other great scenes for the rest of the cast, all of which paid tribute to the special bonds these characters shared (and I'll briefly mention just a few of my favorite moments in the bullet-point list below). And in terms of just plain old "Chuck"-tastic goodness, I just loved, loved, loved the Jeffster sequence at the concert hall. Not only did the band get to have one last big moment, one last scene of epic keytar greatness, but they also got to save the day.
That's why that finale worked so well for me: It had all the goofy humor, the brisk action and the well-acted heart that this show brings to the table when it's at its best. A really fun Jeffster scene, preceded by a Wienerlicious scene, featuring Chuck and Sarah going full badass? An embassy scene and Gen. Beckman invoking "old Casey"? Ellie telling Chuck that he's "aces" and Mama Bartowski flashing a firearm in front of her granddaughter? Zac and Yvonne doing some of their best work (and that's saying something)? How could I resist any of that?
Hot damn, I'm going to miss what this show did when it was really cooking with gas, which it was on its final Friday night.
So here's where we left the "Chuck" characters: Chuck and Sarah were back together and falling in love again (and presumably returning to Carmichael Industries, with Chuck re-Intersected); Casey was turning down an espionage job in favor of reconnecting with his old flame, Gertrude Verbanski; Awesome, Ellie and baby Clara were moving to Chicago (Ryan McPartlin's real hometown), a move I strongly approve of, because it's also my hometown; Gen. Beckman was continuing to be an awesome leader of men and women; Jeff and Lester as German pop stars were freely indulging in "women ... and men"; Big Mike was continuing to work at the Buy More with a smile on his face and a sandwich in his hand; and Morgan Grimes was moving in with Alex and probably getting married himself some time soon.
Before going on that last mission to reconnect with Sarah, Chuck Bartowski once again turned off a beeping alarm clock and tried to figure out how he would deal with his day. But this time, he was surrounded by friends and family who knew his secret, knew his strengths and wouldn't let him give up on the girl of his dreams, the girl who, when the show began, was way, way out of his league.
With the help and support of those who had changed him and whom he had changed, he got out of bed, got a plan together and eventually got the girl. Again. And he even believed he deserved her. By the end, they deserved each other, in the best possible way.
Also in the end, Morgan was right: "Grab this woman and kiss her." I firmly believe, with all my heart, that it worked.
Here is bullet list of some favorite or otherwise notable moments from the finale:
- Morgan and the Cloak of Invisibility were comedy gold. I loved that in the final two episodes, they gave the cast these great little comedy bits and character moments. And Morgan finding an amazing Harry Potter artifact was delightful. "You're a wonder, Harry!"
- Morgan and Sarah got one little scene as well. Lovely.
- Another great moment between two characters who haven't had many (if any) one-on-one, in-person moments together: Casey and Gen. Beckman. "For this job, I need you ruthless. Anything less will get you killed. I need old Casey. I need the Colonel." And that great moment from Bonita Friedericy was followed by a great Casey grunt, of course.
- One of my favorite moments in the whole finale was the scene of Jeff and Lester corralling the Buy Moreans into an act of coordinating stalking that would have impressed (or terrified) the NSA. After years of being essential and amusing background players, several of my favorite employees actually got some dialogue, and the way Jeffster masterfully ran their intel-gathering operation was a thing of beauty. "Unleash the perverts!"
- When Sarah arrived at the Buy More, wasn't that a golden opportunity for one more slow-mo, fan-enhanced walk into the store? I suppose having Chuck nervously greet her was more appropriate, but I enjoyed how the hot-person-entering-the-Buy-More became a running joke on the show.
- Would Evil!Sarah have really left the Intersect glasses where Chuck could easily find them? Would Chuck really have let her have them just before Quinn shot him? Those things stopped me a bit in the finale, but you know, I'm going to let 'em go.
- A favorite line, thanks to the way Zac delivered it: "Everyone keeps telling me Sarah's gone, but she's not. She's right here!"
- At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Zac and Yvonne proved once again what versatile actors they are. Yvonne brought so much heart and ass-kicking awesomeness to the role of Sarah, and she could be dryly funny too. Zac always nailed the comedy, became convincing as an action star, and from Day One knew how to bring the heart.
- We got a few more scenes of the Giant Blonde She-Male being badass: Sarah's long leg coming out of that bag on the plane (Kalinda on "The Good Wife" rightly gets a lot of attention for wearing sexy boots very well, but let's give it up for the woman who has been doing that -- and kicking so much bad-guy behind -- for five seasons); Sarah taking out five guards at the DARPA facility; and finally. Sarah coming out of the ocean looking particularly fierce. I'm going to miss that woman on my television screen.
- We got one last outing for the Nerd Herder during the Ellie chase scene. Nice.
- "You're afraid that when you're with us, that's when you're at your best. And that's the truth, man." You tell him, Morgan! Of course, the entire cast was on its A-game in the finale, but I have to say how much Joshua Gomez impressed me during the show's five-year run. Especially in recent seasons, he was not only the audience's surrogate (the show's Hurley, if you will), he was so funny and so delightfully enthused about everything. In the first season, I wasn't quite sure I'd ever care that much about Morgan or Sarah, but boy, did those actors (and the writers who came up with the most memorable material for them) prove me wrong.
- "Grandma, what did we say about baby Clara seeing firearms?" Nice to see Awesome get a few good lines in the finale.
- I loved that the symphony crowd was really digging Jeffster, and Morgan conducting the orchestra was dementedly inspired.
- Jeff and Lester weren't about to let their pop-music career pass them by, but before they exited the Buy More, we got one single tear from Canada's most notable Hinjew. I will miss those goofballs so much, you have no idea.
- I know the pop music on the soundtrack of "Chuck" gets a lot of attention (as well it should, thanks to Alexandra Patsavas' great work as the music supervisor), but I think composer Tim Jones did a terrific job in the finale, especially when Chuck and Sarah were in the dream house (his tender piano music was just right). Throughout the finale, he did a great job of backing up the emotion and action in various scenes. Well done, sir.
- They used Mark Pellegrino only for one brief scene? Oh darn, I wished he'd gotten a more meaty arc on the show (he previously appeared in Season 2). He's great (and almost in Titus Welliver and Mark Sheppard territory in terms of how often he pops up on TV). Still, Pellegrino got one good line: "The Ring. What amateurs." (Quinn: "I never liked the Ring.")
- In case you missed it, by the way, here's "Chuck" co-creator Chris Fedak answering 31 fan questions.
- Check out the new Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast that will arrive Saturday afternoon; Ryan McGee and I will talk all things "Chuck" for that special edition of the podcast. Ryan's review of the finale is here, by the way. And speaking of "Chuck" coverage, Alan Sepinwall's finale week coverage is essential reading for fans. UPDATE: The links to the all-"Chuck" podcast are here and here.
- You know what's awesome? The "Chuck" fandom. I teared up several times in the finale, but I really got verklempt when the bidding ended on a special Chuckfest item, which was part of my Swag for Charity auction. "Chuck" fans, guess what? Between that and some other "Chuck" items in the auction, you raised almost $1,200 for Operation Smile (in addition to the many other charitable fundraising things that the fandom has done in the past).
I love that this fandom didn't just help save the show (and it's worth reading NPR critic Linda Holmes on that subject) you also put your collective power to work doing good in the world. Four children will now get much-needed operations because of you. That is indisputably awesome.
Thanks not just for communing with those of us in the media during five years of ups and downs (and more ups than downs, I'd say); but thank you also for several years of delightful Comic-Con and C2E2 panels, for lots of good give-and-take on Twitter and for always being frisky and smart in comment areas. I hope we experience much awesomeness together in future.