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'Chuck': Love and happiness -- possibly not in that order

March 29, 2010 | 11:47 pm

 It was another muddled and messy episode of "Chuck" this week, though in this case, a lot of that could be written off to the fact that the show's lower budget this season means the big action payoff to the Ring storyline couldn't be as big and action-y as we fans might have liked. At the same time, though, there was a lot of stuff in the episode that just could have been a little tighter, and I do think the series tried to keep too many plates spinning as it headed into the finale. And yet, there were a lot of very funny moments in this episode and a lot of very moving ones. And, heck, if you didn't like that final scene between Chuck and Sarah, you might not be a fan of this show. All in all, I liked it, but I did have some quibbles.

Let's start with what I liked best: The Chuck and Sarah storyline has had its ups and downs all season long. (Please remember that I'm one of the people who liked when the show paired the two with Hannah and Shaw respectively.) Since Chuck realized just how he feels about her, the show has thrown ways for them to not have the conversation about the future of their relationship at them both silly -- Sarah just deciding she doesn't have time to talk one week -- and inspired -- Awesome tackling Shaw to protect him from a Ring operative and knocking him through the window right onto the table between Chuck and Sarah in tonight's episode. But now that the cards are on the table, I liked that the show just went for it. Chuck finally told her near episode's end, and then the two shared a fairly steamy kiss. 

Now, of course, Sarah could choose to stay with her career or run off with Chuck (who, to be fair, would have to give up his career too). I'm not sure why the CIA is so dead set on its operatives not being together in the "Chuck" universe, but it certainly allows for big, dramatic moments like this one. And when Sarah, her belief that she's making the right choice confirmed by Casey revealing he killed that guy in last week's episode, tosses her gun on the bed as if to signify that she's putting all of this behind her, she's got such a great smile on her face that I'd almost love to watch the show where Chuck and Sarah go on the run from the CIA and just try to protect their love or what-have-you. 

But there's another complication in the web here, and this is the part where I'm less sure the episode works. I know that we've been playing the whole "Shaw lost his wife to the Ring" card all season long, but it still felt abrupt to find out that the person who killed his wife was actually Sarah, killing the poor woman as a part of her red test. (Why, exactly, did the CIA want Shaw's wife dead? Tune in next week, I guess.) I've liked Brandon Routh in this part, mostly, but I do think that the storytelling here feels a bit forced. The show needs a reason for Shaw to turn on Chuck and Sarah, and they don't want to make him an evil mole (since they've done that). So he ends up learning Sarah killed his wife and drags her off into the desert to kill her.

Here's the thing, though: I'm not so sure I buy Shaw as this ultra-competent bad guy. He's certainly the guy you want running your secret CIA mission, but he doesn't seem the type to get down and dirty. It also doesn't help that we haven't gotten to know who his wife was beyond the show simply casting an attractive actress in the part and hoping for the best. A lot of this is a function of the original 13-episode order the show had. In a 22-episode season, there would have been room for an episode that delved into Shaw's secret origin, an episode that showed us just how much he and his wife loved each other and just what happened when she died. Instead, we're just supposed to take on faith that learning Sarah killed her would cause him to get so vengeful that he would, well, drag her out into the desert to kill her. And I'm not sure I buy that coming from the guy as the season has established him so far. Your mileage may vary, obviously, and it wasn't a huge part of the episode (though it looks like it'll be the main basis of next week's episode), so I liked everything overall. I just wished there had been a bit more development here.

That said, some of this just had to do with the fact that the show can't really afford giant action payoffs anymore. The final scenes in the Ring headquarters were rather small in scale, when I think the show would have rather gone much, much bigger. At this point, it's hard to buy that the Ring is such a giant purveyor of evil in the "Chuck" universe simply because the show can only afford to give us one or two Ring operatives at a time. Finding out that one of the Ring heads was Romo Lampkin from "Battlestar Galactica" (otherwise known as the wonderful character actor Mark Sheppard) was fun, but the show simply hasn't had the money to make the Ring as big and nefarious as it needs to be. Where the show needed a James Bond villainous organization, it got a "Get Smart" one.

I did like the storyline where Morgan, Casey and Awesome tried to help Chuck get Sarah back, seemingly becoming their own ridiculous spy team. (Morgan's instructions to Shaw designed to get him as far away from the table as possible were funny, and I liked the payoff that Shaw caught him in the end.) Any time you can get these three guys on screen together, there's bound to be funny stuff going on, and this storyline was no exception. I also liked having Jeff and Lester tailing Shaw, particularly when Jeff reiterated Lester saying Jeff was the Picasso of creepiness by saying, "And this is my blue period." (And Jeff and Lester helping Chuck find Shaw? Awesome.) Ellie was used less well (as has seemed to be the case all season), but at least we got some movement on the "Ellie and Awesome are going to Africa!" plot line, which I hope doesn't come to fruition. I'd miss what those two bring to the show.

"Chuck" balances so many tones on a weekly basis that it's pretty much impossible for it to nail everything it's trying to do on any given week. When I complain about the plot logic of an episode like this, it's usually because the show is just trying to shoehorn in one too many things into 40-plus minutes of television. All season long, though, this show has been pushing as its center the conflict of whether Chuck can be both a spy and a good person. Now, he's finally made a choice, seemingly, and the question will be just how far he's willing to go to win back the woman of his dreams -- and whether going that far will be enough to push her away from him forever. And despite any issues I've had with this episode or the season as a whole, I can't wait until next week to find out.

Some other thoughts:

  • * The ratings for the show are still down. If you haven't read this summation of where things stand by TV by the Numbers, do so now. It's time to get any friends you have who don't watch the show to start watching.
  • * I think the reason Ellie has been such a problematic character this season is because the show has taken a character who used to be funny and soulful and made her a nag most weeks. I get why the show is doing it, but it still limits the character and the stories it can tell with her.
  • * I really enjoyed the scene where Sarah erupts at Chuck about how she can't be with him because he's not the man she fell for. Do we read this as her genuinely not liking that he's a stone-cold killer now? She's certainly been with such men before (like Bryce). Or do we read this as guilt over what has happened to Chuck under her watch?
  • * As mentioned, I've enjoyed Brandon Routh as Shaw. But his shout of, "NO!" was really unfortunate. Then again, there's just no good way to shout "NO!" is there?
  • * Predictions for next week? I can't imagine the show keeping Chuck and Sarah apart any longer, so that seems like a foregone conclusion, but I am interested to see what happens to Shaw, almost in spite of myself. And how will they get Casey back on the government's good side?

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi) desperately wants to tell Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) how he feels about her. (Credit: NBC)

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