SEASON REVIEW: Chuck, Season 4

Chuck (Zachary Levi) in dark clothes, looking serious.

A review of the spy comedy’s fourth season after the jump…

Chuck, as of season four, is coming off of its weakest of its three seasons. Season three, while containing some really strong episodes and arcs, struggled beneath a messy and awkward arc centring around Brandon Routh‘s Daniel Shaw. A promising character at first, Shaw became a messy distraction when he began an unlikely romance with Sarah and then, soon after, became a literally muahaha-ing black hat. Though the finale was all in good form, it left me unsatisfied, as I’d been frustrated with so many aspects of the back half of the season.

Season four is an improvement, but still suffers from some of the same issues.

Alexei Volkoff (Timothy Dalton)

The first thirteen are very strong, with a great building arc towards finding Mary Elizabeth Bartowski (Linda Hamilton), a strong villain in Timothy Dalton‘s Volkoff, and a handful of really good episodes. “Chuck Versus the Suitcase” (4.02) was fun, playing with Chuck and Sarah’s dynamic well. “Chuck Versus the Coup d’Etat” (4.04) was truly one of the show’s better comedic standalones, bringing everything down to the love life between two revolutionaries who have stopped communicating. “Chuck Versus the Couch Lock” (4.05) was a strong episode for Casey and his growing mentorship of Morgan – which, incidentally, has become one of the show’s strongest dynamics since its inception last year.

And the confrontation between Volkoff and Chuck in the climax of “Chuck Versus the Push Mix” (4.13) was everything I’d wanted the season 3 finale to be, making me wish we’d gotten to see Volkoff as Big Bad last year. Having Stephen dead when this story allows for the tragedy of his never seeing his family come together again, but it also simplifies it, and the complications it might have incited would have been delicious – particularly in the back half of the season.

Vivian Volkoff (Lauren Cohan)

Where Brandon Routh did his ample best to save a ridiculous villain last year, Timothy Dalton either overcame the character’s flaws, or found himself with a much stronger character to play. It helped that they kept his appearances to few and kept his story clear from the beginning, instead of the complexities and ‘mysteries’ from Shaw’s opening episodes. Where Dalton was served by the writing, second stage villain Vivian Volkoff, played by Lauren Cohan, was sunk by it. This was particularly disappointing for myself, as I was a big fan of her Supernatural work, and I liked the character in her opening episodes. Watching the dynamic between Vivian and Chuck, so strong as first, slowly poison because of the lies he had told her, was excellent. Though we knew he was sincere, it was easy to see Vivian seeing herself be handled by a CIA pro and become frustrated, then enraged.

The problems began with “Chuck Versus the Family Volkoff” (4.20), where Vivan makes a character turn so quickly it leaves your head spinning. She goes from a relatively normal young woman searching for her path to a psychotic, bloodthirsty villain – mostly offscreen, no less – in so short a time as to make the transformation unbelievable. Thus, every scene with Vivian in the ensuing five episodes feels wrong and frustrating, just as it did after Shaw’s side switch. Both felt fake and unearned, and this is the main issue I worry about in the show’s final season. Thankfully, the writers tend to have a tight grip on each season’s opening salvo, so it’s less worrisome than one might think. Even in the finale, as Vivian chooses to go back to the good side, her character is no longer real enough for the character to contain any gravity.

There were some flaws outside of Vivian, as well. I didn’t particularly enjoy a handful of the episodes, particularly “Chuck Versus the A-Team” (4.19), “Chuck Versus the Muuurder” (4.20) and “Chuck Versus the Wedding Planner” (4.21). A habit developed this season of occasionally writing Chuck and Sarah really poorly, and these three episodes were the height of that particular issue. Chuck and/or Sarah would often grate or feel unrealistic, with awkward dialogue quirks or ‘catchphrases’ that kept recurring (like their obsession with being the titular ‘A-Team’ in 4.19). I wasn’t a fan of how the ‘government trains other Intersects’ plot went nowhere, even if thematically it tied in beautifully with the Volkoff revelation in the finale.

But other than Vivian, and a few other issues, plenty about the back half of the season is gold.

Timothy Dalton gets plenty to do, playing both Volkoff and his true personality, scientist Hartley Winterbottom, and owns the screen as each. The arcs work great, with Ellie being integrated into the spy story effortlessly and discovering the truth about Agent X, as well as learning about the Intersect. Chuck truly proves himself as a spy, both before and after having the Intersect removed. And the show plumbed some great moral waters by revealing Stephen Bartowski to be the creator of Alexei Volkoff, throwing his heroism into doubt completely. And it contains a lot of fun standalone episodes, including the best the show’s had since season two, “Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible” (4.14).

Mary Elizabeth Bartowski (Linda Hamilton)

This year also gave every one of the leads a decent arc, with Chuck and Sarah being involved with their new relationship and wedding, and Casey and Morgan getting used to sharing their lives in connection to Alex, Casey’s daughter and Morgan’s girlfriend.  And even though there was a lot of relationship-related work going on, Chuck also had the is-she-good-is-she-evil relationship with his mother building, and I was happy to learn that Mary Elizabeth Bartowski didn’t disappear after the midseason finale.

And the finale was one of the series’ best, showing off Chuck’s strength as a character, the cast in great way, and tying up the entire season. It honestly felt like a series finale, between the wedding (including its callbacks to the pilot) and that final sequence. It was the first ‘series finale’ that honestly felt like one, with a final moment that brings the entire show full circle: Chuck, a real spy without the Intersect, in the Casey position to the newly-Intersected Morgan. It’s a great set up for the show’s final season, but I could easily have seen the show end there, and it makes me wonder how they’re going to wrap everything up and top this.

Overall, season four isn’t quite as strong as the show’s peak in season two, and it doesn’t have the purity of heart and carefree nature of season one, but it sits equal to it because of its strong character work and some great episodes. Definitely an improvement over the frustrating season three, with a strong final twist that sends us into a season five brimming with potential.

2 Responses to “SEASON REVIEW: Chuck, Season 4”
  1. Tatu says:

    Dude, you must be joking, Wedding Planner was one of the best episode of the series and Chuck/Sarah were super funny in that one…i hope for more episodes like this.

    • R. Lackie says:

      I thought their characters were stretched a bit too far toward ‘funny’, so it fell kind of flat with me. That said, I’ll admit I was kind of biased because the premise of it frustrated me (Chuck and Sarah not using a CIA-vetted wedding planner? Really?), plus, the back half was largely excellent. I was really frustrated with how Chuck/Sarah were written in the first half, but “Wedding Planner” was really the best of the three mentioned.

      Thanks for the response, though. Always appreciated!

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