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'Chuck' recap: A satisfying ending, but what about Season 5?

May 17, 2011 |  8:30 am

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Had that been the series finale of “Chuck” it would have been a terrific place to leave things, even with the cliffhanger that sets up what happens next year (in the show’s almost certainly final 13 episodes). Big emotions were expressed. Risks were taken. Lives were forever changed. It was the show at its very best, and even if the journey there was all over the place, this show has proved twice this season that it doesn’t have a problem coming up with finales that conclude its storylines with the maximum amount of both closure and excitement.

Sarah Walker — soon to be Bartowski — is dying. Vivian Volkoff has dosed her with a highly toxic poison that will kill her within days, no matter what Ellie and Awesome do to try to save her. As Chuck’s sister works to save his fiancée’s life, he embarks on a mission to find the antidote or a cure, even though time isn’t on his side. (When he finally learns it’s in Moscow, I had to chuckle a bit. The characters on this show negotiate the world about as believably as Jack Bauer used to get around L.A. during rush hour on “24.”) On the way to saving Sarah — because of course he’s going to save her — he will lose the Intersect, be given a high compliment from Casey, and gain an ally in an agent who’s been missing for 30 years.

Well, “missing” is not the right term. Hartley Winterbottom didn’t disappear. His body just contained a new personality, that of Alexei Volkoff. I was surprised to find that Hartley was deprogrammed extremely early in the episode, thus giving Chuck an important ally as he tried to break into Volkoff’s compound and confront the woman who left his fiancée for dead.

Timothy Dalton’s portrayal of the many faces of Alexei Volkoff has been the single most consistent thing about this wildly inconsistent season, and he turns in another stellar performance here. If I thought Emmy voters paid attention to this show, I wouldn’t be upset by recognition for Dalton in the Guest Actor category.

Dalton has a limited amount of screen time to sell the frankly ridiculous conceit that Hartley wakes up after 30 years living as another man, and then he has to learn that all that time has passed (making him much older), confront the evil he’s done, and discover he has a daughter who believes herself the heir to his criminal empire. It’s a tricky idea to make play on screen, but Dalton sells every minute of it, and I was caught up in Hartley’s journey through just what he’d done over the last three decades.

The episode also worked because it returned to a familiar conceit for the show in the waning passages of its seasons: Strip away one of Chuck’s greatest gifts -- the Intersect -- and force him to figure out a way to save the day without it. I love when the show returns to the idea that Chuck’s got a big brain in his head and when it admits that he’s become a pretty great spy even without the Intersect. And while the show has played this idea so many times that it could have been hard to milk much more drama out of it, when Chuck had the Intersect stripped from him it felt final, like something that would be impossible to ever undo. As it turns out, it wasn’t, but the show also made the smart choice of leaving Chuck Intersect-less heading into the final season.

If we’re being honest, the scene between Vivian and Chuck felt just a bit abrupt, as though the show had written itself into a corner and needed to find a way out as quickly as possible. But I loved the way the episode both showed everybody closing ranks around Chuck’s mission to save Sarah and the secret government group behind the Agent X project, the one that will do whatever it takes to keep the truth a secret and, thus, attempts to prevent Chuck from saving Sarah. The scene where Chuck confronts the group’s leader -- played by Richard Burgi, a very good fit for this show -- outside the hospital where Sarah waits for him is very good and features one of my favorite moments of the season: Chuck actually calling in a Russian mini-invasion of the country to save Sarah’s life. He’ll be a traitor, if it means Sarah will live. The way that the show avoids Chuck having to face any consequences for this action is a bit convenient as well, but I doubt anyone would want to see a fifth season of the show with Chuck as a fugitive from justice.

It all concludes with a sweet, heartfelt final act, an act that made the episode feel more like a series finale than ever, as Chuck and Sarah wed with virtually every major character from the show’s run in attendance; I didn’t see Beckman, but I think that was the only one missing. The show could have made this too sappy, but keeping in mind that everyone involved probably thought this was very likely their last hurrah allows the episode to get away with it. Having Chuck and Sarah practice their wedding vows in flashbacks sprinkled earlier in the episode also spread the sentiment out more evenly, making sure this scene wasn’t an overload.

And then the show reaches its final few moments, and I find myself almost wishing what follows existed only in my imagination. Chuck and Sarah as super-rich owners of both the Buy More and a freelance spy agency? Definitely fun to picture in my head. Morgan as their new Intersect? Even more fun. Yet at the same time, I worry that this will get too silly, too over-the-top in the fall. But after this finale, I’m willing to cut the show a little slack. I’ll be there come September to see if they can make that setup work for the final few episodes. Will you?

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

Photo: Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) finally tie the knot, then get a very generous wedding present from Hartley Winterbottom in the fourth season finale of "Chuck." Credit: NBC

 

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