A Retro-Diary of Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger

So I've been teasing a retro-diary of one of the Chuck episodes on Twitter for the past few weeks. I like the idea of a retro-diary, because it's kind of a cheat. It's a way to talk about the episode as if you're viewing it for the first time, with the added benefit of knowing how it ends and having had the opportunity to collate your thoughts about it. You get the best of both worlds! Bill Simmons, one of my favorite sports writers, does this often for basketball games of personal importance, describing the vicious ups and downs that are associated with fandom. It translates nicely over to TV.

If you're not sure what a retro-diary is (Hi, Frea!) it'll be pretty easy to catch on once I start, but for clarification's sake, I'll explain. I watch the episode, and I write about it. I mark the time stamp (in this case, all timestamps will come from Hulu's stream of the show) to give you an idea of where I was in the episode at the time. It's very similar to my live tweeting, but I'm not restricted by 140 characters at a time, and-- as previously mentioned-- I have the added benefity of knowing what happens the whole time.

So, without further adieu, hit the break to join the fun!

0:00 - As you might know, or may have garnered from reading my tweets (or just this blog in general) I-- along with much of Castle Inanity-- have had very mixed feelings about Season Four. For me, it included a couple of my favorite episodes of all time, and a few episodes that I absolutely LOATHED. The problem so much wasn't that they were bad, just that they were boring.

I mentioned this in the Chuck's Stable of Hos/Castle Inanity podcast, but I felt that much of Season Four to that point (4.13) lacked stakes. That is to say, I didn't see any dire consequences resulting from Team Bartowski being unable to complete their over-arching objective, which was at that point, freeing Mama B from Volkoff's clutches. If they fail, what are the consequences for Team Bartowski, aside from Chuck being sad for like a few days?

The back half of Season 4 started out very poorly in that regard-- what are C.A.T. Squad and Seduction Impossible if pointedly aimless standalones?-- but attempted a few things to try to bring those stakes back. Volkoff returning and Vivian as a friend-turned-enemy had potential that the show ocassionally satisfied, and moreso the closer we got until the end. But, ultimately, there wasn't enough payoff to justify the plethora of moments that existed simply to get the show to the next episode.

One of the things I initially liked about Chuck was how they usually solved the petty shit within the course of an episode. Chuck is an instant gratification show, so it needs real conclusion every week around minute thirty-eight. And the things that might have made you tear your hair out if they lasted another episode were usually done with at that point. The solutions weren't always satisfying (or well-done), but they were there.

During S3, the writers attempted a different angle. They had one story they were going to tell over the course of thirteen episodes, building up the tension until it exploded in catharsis. But they had one of the show's most unlikeable characters paired with an excrutiatingly long Winter Olympics break that made those thirteen episodes last what seemed like thirty. It seemed to scare everyone off from that mode of storytelling. S4 was rife with episodes that could have had more emotional impact if they had been expanded.

In some ways, S4 was a victim of its own excellent casting. When they announced Linda Hamilton as Chuck's mom, there were scores of nerdgasms. But, from a storytelling perspective, now they needed to have her in there. Here's the thing: you could have dedicated an entire season to what Chuck and Morgan do in season four's first episode. You could have dedicated an entire season to determing who Mary Bartowski was, where she was, and why she kept mysteriously showing up. But fans knew Linda Hamilton was there. They wanted to see her. The writers wanted to use her. The producers wanted to work with her.

There were a few storylines like that in season four. An entire season could have been dedicated to Chuck losing the Intersect and struggling to find his way as a real spy. Or to Chuck's capture and Sarah's subsequent rampage to find him. You could have had a season with Sarah embedded in Volkoff's camp, forced to do things she's not proud of to save the man she loves. The idea that the CIA was attempting to replace Chuck with more efficient Intersects could have spanned more than an episode. And an season full of episodes where the ensuing Bartowski-Walker wedding collided with the spy world ala Wedding Planner could have been a spectacular palette cleanser after Sarah's brush with the dark side.

But there's little instant gratification in that. And even though it may have made for a bigger payoff, season four seemed like a rejection of that plan from season three. "We lost a lot of our core viewers," Season Four seemed to say, "So let's make sure we don't attempt anything too risky."

Let's get to the episode.

0:19 - Oh hey, and another thing that would have made a fun season: The CIA blacklisting and trying to murrrrder Team Bartowski because they've found out about a top level secret that would damage the government in the eyes of the international community. Thanks for reminding me, Casey.

0:32 - Here's what I mean about stakes. We know that Chuck is not going to go into Season Five without Yvonne Strahovski. Having her comatose throughout this episode didn't serve that much of a purpose. How much more interesting would it have been if Volkoff had struck Chuck's mom while Team Bartowski searched for a cure? With Linda Hamilton definitely not a regular, it would have added an actual dimension of "Whoa, Mama B might actually die" to the final episode.

1:35 - I also kind of feel like the show writers made the wedding planning portion of season four's back half into the time where they could play with Chuck and Sarah's neuroses. It had the effect of some chuckles, but I think it ultimately blunted what could have been some of the show's most genuinely affecting moments. Sometimes, it shone through anyway-- I think of Sarah trying on dresses-- but often I was left empty.

2:49 - Everyone pulls the "character almost dying regains consciousness to have an on-the-surface normal conversation that has profound undertones" card, but that's only because it seems to work every damn time. I teared up a little. No joke.

3:45 - Let's be honest, aren't we all glad they just cut to them successfully executing their bold rescue plan instead of having to justify the plot holes from whatever plan they would have explained?

4:31 - Hey weren't you in Firefly as an asshole law enforcement officer who doesn't actually care about the law and just wants to satisfy his own ambitions? #Typecasting

4:59 - "Aww. Bless your little primate brain. I'm not actually in the room with you, am I? Technology. It's complicated. You can't hurt the big 'ol God face."

5:12 - No room for Cake? There's always room for Cake! Oh, okay, just to throw in another portal reference: Don't tell me the Cake is a lie?!

5:28 - "What does that mean, Elle"? Didn't you go to Stanford? I mean, I know you didn't go for a medical degree or anything, but it's not like it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that what Elle is saying to you is "Things are bad."

6:15 - Here was another problem with season four: Show vs. Tell. In this scene, Beckman is telling Chuck that he and Sarah need to disappear. But the reason-- or the emotion-- for that is never entirely clear. Why do they need to disappear? Who would be hunting them if they broke Volkoff out and then brought him back? :-\

6:32 - "Eleven hours and counting? I don't really give a damn" is actually a pretty great line. Zachary Levi has a lot of great moments when he's trying to get something done for Sarah. Unfortunately none of them come versus Lieutenant Womack.

7:05 - Here's another inexplicable showmaking decision. Why did we need Zach Levi against a green screen during this scene? The back shots of a dude on a bike in the desert were more convincing, just plain looked better, and still got the exact same point across. The atrocious CGI during the horse riding scene a few episodes back could probably have been fixed with some similar practical thinking.

Also, was this "chase" scene about twice as long as it needed to be or what?

8:09 - I kind of wish there had been more Alexi Volkoff in this episode, instead of Harley Winterbottom. But only because I love that guy.

10:10 - Nice correct usage of "whom"!

10:54 - Peckerwood? That's still an insult?

11:37 - Another triumph of casting that painted Chuck into a corner? Timothy Dalton. The way dude does Winterbottom coming to after thirty years here is pretty much enough to make you forgive the ridiculousness of the storyline-- or at least it was for me. Dalton was so good they had to invent Vivian as a way to bring him inelegantly back into the fold, because everyone loved him so much. For moments like this, I get it. But the lack of foresight that birthed the manner in which he returned makes me a sad panda.

12:17 - "Reagan smart" and "Remember, it was the 80s" both made me giggle.

Okay, since I've mostly been bitching about the show this post, how about I talk in detail about something the show continued to do very well even when it wasn't doing much well: character quips. Those two examples above may have been tossed off lines, but they-- and tons of other bits throughout Season 4-- were the bits that often made me remember why I loved these characters. I remember Chuck mentioning FDR's fireside chats, the hilariously egregious Star Wars references of Last Details, and pretty much everything that came out of Casey's mouth during a firefight. Not only were they funny, but they were true to these characters, reminding us of thing like the nerd Chuck used to be without devolving into insulting his neuroses.

13:08 - Speaking of that, can we just abolish Chuck's overly nervous thing altogether? Because gotDAMN if Zac Levi doesn't seem at his best when he's finding hope in hopelessness. I point to the S3 finale for similar evidence. When bringing Confident Chuck-- even (or especially) Irrationally Confident Chuck-- to the table, Levi kills. It's when Chuck is turned wishy-washy that he seems less at ease, even if that's how he built the character.


14:21 - No, really. If we're talking about things the show has done well even during its worst episodes, it's been the genuinely sweet moments between Chuck and Sarah. For awhile they seemed few and far between, but as the wedding has approached, they've become more frequent and more poignant.

Chuck fans love these characters, have been through them with hard times, and it's not only satisfying but important for us as fans to know that they get moments like these. They started in Honeymooners, and I'm thinking more of "Feeling Good" than of "He'll need a walker when Walker's through with him." But they continued more in Season 4, even if they were hilariously awkward cute moments, like Sarah's wings popping out to everyone's-- especially Casey's-- chagrin.

If there's one thing that's pulled me through the episodes that I haven't liked, it's been scenes like this one.

15:40 - So it's Caseys friends with super fast military planes and not a TARDIS that's been getting Team Bartowski from place to International place? #Disappointing.

16:35 - Okay, this was a nice bit of writing if it was intentional. Morgan's story about Chuck making stuff up off the top of his head to get Morgan's pants back from the bullies is a fantastically deft and subtle foundation for Chuck making up such great wedding vows at the top of his head later in the episode.

Another great thing this season has been Sarah/Morgan interaction, just like Morgan/Awesome was the sneaky-best thing about S3. I think it's because of all the ground these two characters had to cover, all of the different facets of Sarah that could be thrown at Morgan that he could react to in unforseen ways. And it gave Morgans someone who shared his love of Chuck to relate to, even if they had little else connecting them.

The middle section of this episode, honestly, was pretty great. "You know that already." What a great line, delivered with such genuine pathos by Joshua Gomez.

17:00 - These scenes, with The Douche and Chuck, were less great. Maybe they didn't have to explain why Douche is such a huge, well, douche. But Chuck seemed like he was flailing and whining whenever he interacted with Decker, and it undercut his badassery elsewhere in the episode.

19:03 - Casey as Machiavelli? I'm on board. Casey has also been sneaky-great this season.

19:37 - "Waaah. I don't have the Intersect. Waaah." "Shut up." See what I mean about Casey?

20:59 - This bit really needed to be introduced earlier, maybe earlier in the episode but probably earlier in the season. It's just so sudden-- another moment where they Told instead of Showed-- that when we get to the climax of this storyline, it doesn't have the emotional impact it richly deserves.

24:04 - Timothy Dalton killed that scene, by the way. Just sayin'.

24:45 - Not gonna front, I liked that move from Chuck.

25:51 - Vivian is pretty much a bad Bond villain at this point, isn't she? Maybe that's appropriate? Or maybe even intentional? Okay maybe I can't believe it was an intentional move. But it's still an amusing parallel.

28:13 - We only heard about this plot point seven minutes ago, guys! Seven minutes! This should be Chuck's self-sacrificing hero moment! Instead I don't even really understand what these identities are! I'm sorry. This plot point made me frustrated. Because it could have been so huge and such a tear-jerker but we as an audience were just not made aware enough of its drama (seven minutes!) to get an appropriate response.

30:18 - Line of the season? I think so.

30:43 - "I know the move. I perfected it practically three seasons ago. Douche."

31:07 - I have really no idea why a sky full of Russians deserves morose piano music?

32:10 - Okay, I know it's been mentioned before but... FATES BLUFF! AHHHH!


33:58 - Hahahahhaa. Such a cheap laugh that is actually made worth it because we're so happy that the wedding is happening.

34:56 - What a fantastic Chuck moment. I am pretty much Morgan right now.

35:48 - And what a fantastic show moment in general. Especially the "Intergalactic Federation of Planets" bit. We've been waiting for this for a very long time, and it will live in Chuck lore for a very long time. Season 4 dulled some of my passion for this show, but damn if the wedding didn't rekindle a good deal of it.

37:03 - Sneaky good Princess Bride reference, too.


38:06 - So I was really truly hoping they were done with the BuyMore. Insert sad emoticon here. So much of the BuyMore plot has been nothing more than filling time for the rest of the episode, and the old parallels that used to crop up in Season 1 and Season 2 now seem incredibly forced.

Big Mike, Jeff and Lester are spectacular characters, and I'd watch a web series based on their exploits, but I just don't think the show Chuck has a place for them in the primary plot anymore.

Actually that web series is a good idea. Someone get me Schwedak's phone number.

39:13 - He had left one of his shoes?


41:46 - Hahahaha. Morgan's geek out is pretty classic.


42:40 - Everyone, let's not front: this is ridiculous. This entire premise for Season 5 is ridiculous. Morgan as the Intersect is ridiculous. After season three, I still think I would have been willing to buy into the show's ability to pull off ridiculous. After season four, I'm less sure. It was the most up and down season of Chuck ever, with moments classic and facepalm-y

The season finale thankfully embodied more of the former than the latter. It was a solid episode, with some fantastic payoff moments and great character performances. But it wasn't what it could have been, and I don't think anyone will disagree with me on that. I didn't get as teary eyed as I would have at the prospect of a Walker-Bartowski wedding back in S2. I didn't feel as bad for Chuck fighting through impossible odds like I did seeing him try to save Ellie in S1.

The show has one more season. The prospect of ending everything can be good for a television show. I think of the last season of Lost, where even though it was kind of ridiculous, it found a fantastic emotional center as it spiraled toward its end. I think not trying to push for another season will do well for the show and, to be frank, I hope the show doesn't get picked up on the back end, if only so the writers know definitely that 5.13 is The End.

When you shift the end so close to, well, the end, then the new end will lack the impact that was intended for the old end. It'd be like Harry Potter planning on ending with the epilogue of Book 7, then being picked up for another book. Stories don't work like that, and I hope NBC and the Chuck team have the good sense to realize that.

I will watch Season 5. But, unless there's a renaissance of Chuck, I won't watch it with the same fervor I afforded seasons 1, 2, and yes even 3. I skipped episodes of Season 4 for almost a week sometimes. And I can see the same things happening for Season 5. But I look forward to the story concluding. Maybe I'll be excited enough to blog the thing live, as opposed to cheating with a retro-diary.


  1. Rioja19.5.11


    I think we all did. No, wait, I actually had to pause it (international viewer), cover my face with my hands and squeal for a bit before restarting the video. Then repeat periodically every 5-6 seconds.

    It's really great hearing all your thoughts on Season 4 and the upcoming season 5. I've never seen the fandom so split down the middle about the upcoming Chuck episodes. I think I also wasn't as shocked or on the edge of my seat about much this episode. Sure, it was great, but yes, we knew they'd bring YS back, and that, because they thought it was the end, everything would be fine by the last few minutes. And it was.

    In Vs The Truth back in season 1 there was a very real possibility that Ellie would die. And I liked Ellie, and I didn't want that to happen. Now, I'm not saying that I'm not as invested in the characters this season, but ... Oh wait. Yup, that's what I'm saying. I'm not. Don't get me wrong, I love them, but what really got me into Chuck was the humour of him saying 'No, don't eat me' whilst playing with shrimp in 1x05 and spending the entire of seasons 1 and 2 convincing myself that every thing Sarah did, in some way, affirmed her love for Chuck.

    For me, the episodes have been a little light hearted in the wrong places. If they're gonna be wrapping everything up at the end of the day, don't put the stakes SO HIGH and then solve it all so easily. You can recover easily from a trip. Not from falling off a cliff top. I know Chuck is unrealistic, the guy has a freaking computer in his brain (I'm talking about Morgan, of course), and I love(d) it. But some episodes this season they've really pushed it.

    This season has simultaneously had the best and worst episodes of the series. And it's pretty hard for me to understand how the writing team can have produced such polarised results.

    RE: Your intro: It *is* interesting to re-watch and analyse, as sad as it makes me feel, it is good when you already know the writers' intentions with plot-lines, to then really think about how they could have done it differently.

    I'm missing pictures though. I NEEDED a picture of Chuck lifting up Sarah's 'veil' in The-most-adorable-scene-ever-ever-until-this-fandom-dies-ever-no-seriously-ever.


  2. ladycat71319.5.11

    I don't remember him in Firefly(I have the dvd set but haven't gotten around to a rewatch) but the Eraser was the hero in the show the Sentinal where he had advanced senses and a short curly haired sidekick who helped him learn to control his abilites.

    And I've definitely seen episodes before that could have benefited from expansion of a storyline point. For instance in season 2 , at the end of Predator , we saw Chuck hiding the Orion info from her and her looking worried that she had lost his trust. Several episodes could have been built with Sarah exploring what losing Chuck's trust meant to her and trying hard to get it back.

  3. ladycat71319.5.11

    And I don't think Morgan will be a particularly effective Intersect. I can see him telling Chuck at one point that he makes it look easy.

    One of the early season 1 episodes has Beckman and Graham watching Chuck and Morgan over a camera playing bull and bullfighter and Beckmana says something like at least that other idiot (Morgan) didn't get it.

  4. stephen29.5.11

    I loved reading your thoughts on both this episode and the season as a hole and although I understand your thoughts in some areas I dont necesarily agree with them.
    Some things stand out to me in your review of the episode one of the first ones is your views of having Sarah be the victim in the episode and that you would have preferred it be Mary and I have to say that I really disagree. I as a fan would not have been affected if Mary had died so therefore for us there is no emotional hook, Sarah is the core of the show,it is built around the relationship of Chuck and Sarah. The show would not exist without Sarah and i Cant help think that the news that the show was renewed swayed your belief that Sarah was going to be allright, if the news had been that the show runners had decided to end the show or that NBC were not happy about how things would progress in S5 would you have been as positive? I must admit I was concerned as I knew that if Sarah died it was the end but at the same time the ratings at that time all pointed towards cancellation aswell.
    Do I think Chuck would have gone to the lengths he went to save his mum no honestly I dont but that could be just me. This episode is Chucks take on Phase 3 and that showed that Sarah was prepared to torture and possibly kill to rescue Chuck. In this by going into Vivians office without intersect, skills, or weapons just his innate belief that he can fix what has happened and that without Sarah his life is not worth living he is clearly prepared to die to try and save her. The giving up of the safe IDs underlines that he knows with Sarah by his side they can do anything.
    Another thing is people keep mentioning LOST as a good example of writing and that they new it was ending and I have to wonder did we see the same final Season? the ending was crap! so many things left unanswered complete seasons being a waste of time. The one thing that you can say about Chuck is that they always have ended the season with an opening but all the major questions got resolved.
    I am not happy with Morgan as intersect but Chuck getting it back is repetetive and it will be good to see Chuck as a spy without it.


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