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Chuck, Ep. 5.12, “Chuck Versus Sarah” is a heart-wrenching, wonderfully touching surprise

Chuck, Ep. 5.12, “Chuck Versus Sarah” is a heart-wrenching, wonderfully touching surprise

Chuck Review, Season 5, Episode 12, “Chuck Versus Sarah”
Written by Rafe Jenkins and Lauren LeFranc
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
Airs Fridays at 8pm (ET) on NBC

As Chuck’s final season nears its conclusion, it’s been difficult not to compare the latest episodes with the wonderful highlights from earlier seasons. So much of the show’s success related to the burgeoning relationship between Chuck Bartowski and Sarah Walker. Their connection built an emotional core that combined perfectly with the silliness of the spy missions. There have been some great moments this season, but they felt a bit hollow because the characters were too static. Many of the conflicts felt minor compared to the hurdles overcome in previous stories. Chuck was still dealing with bad guys focused on the Intersect, and there were plenty of entertaining scenes. The missing element was major stakes.

This missing piece arrived with the jarring end of “Chuck Versus the Bullet Train” when Nicolas Quinn (Angus MacFayden) forcibly removed Sarah’s memories of her entire time with Chuck. This cruel move was nastier than any physical damage that he could possibly inflict. Altering her mind and sending her after Chuck for his own ends makes Quinn a different type of villain. He’s become a worthy foe because he’ll do anything to obtain the Intersect, even if it means destroying everything that Chuck holds dear. “Chuck Versus Sarah” brings the emotional stakes to a stunning pitch for a generally light series. It pushes its hero to the emotional brink and doesn’t give him an easy way to save the day. Sarah remains damaged possibly beyond repair, and even Chuck’s best efforts to find her heart might not be enough.

Easily the best episode of the season to this point, this story involves all the central characters in finding a way to save Sarah before it’s too late. The first half effectively builds up the tension as Sarah returns home and works behind her husband’s back to further Quinn’s plans. It’s clear this is not the same person who fell for Chuck. Yvonne Strahovski wonderfully channels Sarah’s personality from the start of the first season. She takes action with little thought of the consequences and is all about the mission. This connection all the way back to the pilot is refreshing and has been missing from much of this season. Strahovksi deftly underplays the small changes that only Chuck would recognize because he knows her so well.

The episode’s second half works superbly because the danger is so much more than avoiding death or injury. When Sarah threatens to kill Ellie, it’s a striking moment because they’d become as close as sisters over the past few years. Sarah Lancaster gets an excellent chance to shine in these moments and doesn’t waste her opportunity. Ellie’s rash decision to crash the car and save her brother is shocking and believable at the same time. She’s willing to sacrifice her own safety (and Sarah’s) to ensure that Chuck survives. The effect of this choice is stronger because the audience has spent five seasons with these characters. Ellie loves Sarah but realizes this is not the same person she knew. These scenes would be the highlight of most episodes, but they’re just the start of a series of classic moments.

Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski might seem like an oddly matched couple, but their chemistry has been present from the start and only grown over the years. Chuck and Sarah’s back-and-forth feelings about getting out of the spy life and having a family have been tedious at times, but the actors never missed a beat. Having Chuck take Sarah to their dream home to try and save her soul makes those earlier moments feel less trivial. His tear-filled reminders to Sarah about their big moments are wonderful, even as they fall on deaf ears. Along with its defining role for the characters, this conversation reminds the audience how much they loved Chuck and Sarah. Seeing their first kiss and her first use of “I love you” is a master stroke and made the room a bit dusty for this reviewer.

Placing these key moments in the penultimate episode is also an excellent choice. It clearly outlines the stakes before sending viewers into the final hour. Sarah is still looking to recover the life that Quinn stole from her, Casey is considering his next job, and Ellie and Awesome have a lucrative offer away from California. “Chuck Versus Sarah” sets up the last story perfectly and ranks among the show’s best episodes from its entire five-year run. It provides a special reward to fans who’ve stuck it out through the less stellar moments. After feeling resolved a few hours earlier, the story has plenty of steam left as it rolls towards the ultimate conclusion.

Dan Heaton