Monday, January 30, 2012

Is it really a happy ending? My disappointment with the Chuck Finale

Several days after the fact, I still can't quite shake my disappointment over the final episode of Chuck. Final episodes are always hard, owing to the difficulty of matching raised expectations and providing some level of closure for devoted fans who've stuck it out across several long seasons.  We've talked before about some of the best finales and the worst finales, and if there's one universal lesson, it's that it's hard to please everyone.

For the last five years, Chuck was one of my favorite shows for pure escapism.  The series dealt with an average guy who finds himself as one of the CIA's greatest counter-terrorism assets against evil spies, and in a post-9/11 world, playing terrorism and CIA ops for laughs are pretty rare.  Even Alias, which was similarly escapist, often treated some of its villains and overarching storylines with an almost melodramatic seriousness.

Chuck pulled off the incredibly difficult balancing act of treating the characters seriously enough to invest the relationships with a great deal of depth and growth, while never letting the James Bond-ian absurdity of some of the plots ever feel ridiculous.  We live in an era where we demand that our James Bonds and our Batmans be grim, gritty and "realistic," but Chuck's world was almost always a place where the audience could go for a fun romp.  Even so, every now and then that fun would be tempered by an incredibly dramatic beat - such as when Brandon Routh's Daniel Shaw shot Chuck's father in cold blood right before Chuck's eyes.  Fewer comedies could have killed off such a beloved character and not lost the audience, but it worked, due in no small part to the talented actors involved.

I don't think anyone would dispute that Zachary Levi's Chuck and Yvonne Strahovski's Sarah were the heart of the show.  In the pilot, she was assigned to be Chuck's CIA handler and to maintain that cover, she had to pretend to be his girlfriend.  It was probably inevitable that the characters would get together for real, and Levi and Strahovski's screen chemistry was always one of the show's best assets.  And as a writer, I get why the creators chose to up the stakes in the final episodes by threatening that coupling.

To recap the final arc in brief: Sarah gets captured by a bad guy who erases the last five years worth of memories from her, convinces her that her relationship with Chuck is just an assignment, and tells her that she is to use Chuck to break into CIA Headquarters.  Once there, she is tasked with stealing "The Intersect" and killing Chuck.  Without her memories of the last five years, Sarah reverts to being the cold, efficient assassin she was before her time with Chuck softened her, and the first hour of the finale is an exercise in breaking Chuck's heart in two as he has to admit that the Sarah he knew may be lost forever.

I want to deal with one issue before getting on to my bigger disappointment with the finale. The bad guy played by Angus MacGuffin - er, I mean, MacFadyen - is probably one of the least compelling "big bads" Chuck has ever produced. He first materialized a few episodes prior to the end and has no backstory or real connection with our characters. The idea of the villain turning Chuck and Sarah against each other would have been a lot more interesting if the antagonist was someone who had a personal beef with both.  Just putting Shaw in place of McFadden would have elevated this story further.  Shaw brings a history with him and if there's one thing Brandon Routh has shown in his last few appearances on this show, it's that he is great at playing a character the audience loves to hate. MacFadyen's character was little more than a plot device and it wasn't helped by the fact at least a third of his dialogue was him talking about how much he wants "a pristine version of the Intersect."  For a show that had been so good at creating its baddies and stunt-casting them appropriately, this character felt like a big swing and a miss.  It being the finale, that disappointment is, naturally, magnified.

In the second half of the show, Sarah realizes that Chuck is on the side of angels, but without her memories of the last five years, all she wants to do is stop the bad guy and then go off on her own.  During the mission, Sarah experiences a few echoes of memories that should have been erased.  In the show's final scene, Chuck finds her on the beach and tells her every last detail of their time together.  He wraps up by saying that his friend had this crazy idea that kissing her would bring back all her memories.  Sarah, looking at Chuck as if she desperately wants to remember everything she told him about, says, "Chuck, kiss me."

And that's where the writers leave us, with Chuck and Sarah's kiss.

As a writer, I get what they were going for.  They wanted to leave it up to the audience to decide if Sarah got her memories back right then and there, or if she got them back at all.  When pressed about it in an interview, writer Chris Fedek said, "I would certainly say it's not erased. It's not all gone. It hasn't been five seasons all for naught. It's in there. And the fun will be remembering it and falling in love again. How could you imagine anything better?"

My take: I get what the writers were going for.  Hell, I'll even conceded that it's the sort of romantic idea that sounds like a brilliant concept when you come up with it.  One of the clever conceits about Sarah's memory loss was that it allowed the show to harken back to its beginnings and explore just how much the characters have grown and changed. It's always a good idea to find a way to bring things full circle in a finale.

As my list of Best Finales shows, I'm not adverse to dark or ambiguous twists in a finale.  The Angel finale is a great example of both, as it ends with our heroes overwhelmed, but still ready to take on thousands of opponents in a battle that makes 300 look like an even match.  But then, that ending honored the tone and the style of the series.  Chuck is a different case, as it was never a show that seemed designed to end on such an open note.  Across its run, the show produced several episodes that nearly served as series finales and none of them left the status of the Chuck/Sarah relationship in quite so ambiguous a state.

I can't help but think this might have been a more interesting course of action to take at the start of this final season. (Comic book/novelist Peter David actually postulated last season that the 4th season finale could have gone in the direction of erasing Sarah's memory.)  If the writers wanted to use amnesia to explore the show's history, it could have been an arc that streatched across the entire season, or even just half the season.

Heck, even just confining Sarah's mind-wipe to the final episode might have worked better had there been more of a coda.  This article exploring what it takes for a film to have a satisfying ending has been making the rounds.  Several other bloggers have written articles about it, so I won't go in depth here.  One of major points that script doctor and producer Lindsay Doran makes is that an audience has a better reaction to a happy ending when they see the heroes celebrating their success as opposed to just seeing the success itself.

Doran says, "Audiences don’t care about an accomplishment unless it’s shared with someone else. What makes an audience happy is not the moment of victory but the moment afterwards when the winners shares that victory with someone they love."

That's what was missing on Chuck. By fading away on the kiss, we don't see Sarah's reaction.  We don't see her and Chuck truly celebrating whatever connection they've rediscovered.  We don't get to see their friends happy for them in whatever life they end up building.  The show denies us a wrap-up that shows them finally moving into their dream home, settling down, raising the children they talked about.  We're shown the kiss, but not a hint of the happily-ever-after.  The writers have given us enough that we can intellectualize that happy ending is possible, but do we feel it?  A brief coda could have made all the difference.

"Give the audience what they need, not what they want," was a favorite motto of writer Joss Whedon.  Even though I can respect that Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedek may have made a bolder, less conventional choice in how they resolved the Chuck/Sarah relationship, I can't help but feel that in this case, what the audience wanted (Sarah to be restored as the person Chuck knew and loved) was exactly what they needed.

There was a lot I liked in the finale, too much for even that one moment to totally smear, but yet I can't help but feel that the ending hits a double when the writers have shown they were more than capable of hitting home runs.

For Chuck fans, Alan Sepinwall did a great 5-part interview over on HitFix.com.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

4 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree with you more. To leave it ambiguous like they did really hurt. And it was made all the worse because the flashbacks to some of their early moments together really resonated to me.

    So by drumming up the nostalgia and making Sarah realize that she loved Chuck through watching her video logs they had me primed for the happy ending. As you say, I needed to see that love again. And I don't think I can easily make that leap to assuming it's there (or that it will be there) because that just wasn't how the show was.

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  2. That's so weird, because I thought the finale was fantastic. I agree that Shaw would have been a better choice for a villain, but I absolutely love that the ending was left up to me, and that it revolved around Chuck having to make her fall in love with him all over again.

    I thought this last season of the show was borderline unwatchable, but the finale redeemed the season to me. It was great.

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  3. I'm ambivalent about the series finale. The show hit such emotional highs in previous seasons in episodes thought to be series finales, but this time around was different. Emily was right and season 5 was a mess given they knew an end date.

    I loved the nods and winks to fans in the last episode, but the last moments of the show on the beach were definitely polarizing. The writer in me thinks it was a beautiful, bittersweet, perfect ending. However, as a fan I felt emotionally unfulfilled. And I don't want to see a flashforward like the ending of Harry Potter, that's just laughable. Nor do I need the clumsy moment of Sarah flashing with a flood of memories coming back after the kiss. I just think they set the bar so high for Chuck/Sarah moments over the series that it was impossible to live up to any expectation.

    Either way, it was and remains a special show and the fact that people are still discussing the finale means they did something right.

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  4. Finally caught up on my TiVo, and I felt a little cheated. Chuck was never really a show with much ambiguity, and to dabble in it at the very end was a risk that, for me, didn't pay off.

    At the very least, to give us a little more hope for Chuck and Sarah, why not let them finish kissing and then end the show off of a surprised reaction from Sarah? Did she get her memories back or was it just a fantastic kiss? Either way, there's hope... and they get to keep their ambiguity.

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