Feeling as Finding: Watching Chuck (TV)

So I have been watching Chuck.  I just finished it.  I started watching while I was sick a few weeks ago, couchbound at home.  I wasn’t sure of what I thought at first.  And then, in a rush, I got completely drawn in.  Part of it was realizing that there was a serious long-arc story being told.  Part of it was the show’s willingness to allow its central characters to suffer.  Not just to be angry, upset, frustrated, stymied–but genuinely to suffer.  Not many tv comedies have been able to do that.  Buffy was of course the best at it.  Part of it was being taken captive by Yvonne Strohovski’s beautiful portrayal of the central female character, Sarah Walker, and Zachary Levi’s of the other central character, Chuck Bartowski.  Part of it was the great, often quite obscure music in the soundtrack.  Music deepens and intensifies almost every crucial scene in the show, most memorably the use of Nina Simone’s “Feelin Good” at a crucial moment in the third season, although the use of The Head and the Hearts “Rivers and Roads” in the very final scene of the show is perhaps equally good.

At heart, the show is a romantic comedy decked out as a spy thriller.  But it is also a dual Bildungsroman:  the two central characters, Chuck and Sarah, both grow throughout the show, and grow because of each other and because of their romance.  Sarah empowers Chuck.  She gives him the will and the confidence to become what he is (but cannot believe himself to be).  Chuck challenges Sarah’s moral imagination.  He quickens her sense of human actualities of trust, love, loyalty and family.  Sarah models competence for Chuck.  Chuck models vulnerability for Sarah.  Chuck becomes a spy while remaining human; Sarah becomes human while remaining a spy.

One of the things I like best about the show is the role of pattern in the story telling.  The show is full of deliberate symmetries, assymetries and reversals and repetitions.  Understanding what is happening in many episodes and many scenes requires understanding the broadly syntactical relationship between it and previous episodes and scenes.  (One reason why the show starts a bit slow:  it takes time to establish patterns that can then be used to reveal or to deepen meaning.)   The final episode provides a great example.  (Spoiler alert! But I will be leaving out details in order to better show pattern.)

Many fans complained about the final episode.  They complained that the show did not come to a close, to a final resolution.  Here’s why:  by the time of the final episode, Sarah and Chuck are married.  They have finally had enough of their spy life.  They want a home and children.  They plan to turn their spy business, Carmichael Enterprises, into a business that fights cyber terrorism.  But before they can do that, they have to take one final mission.  On that mission, Sarah ends up losing her memory of the five years covered in the series, the five years of her relationship to Chuck.  The bad guy of the final few episodes, Quinn, makes her believe that her marriage to Chuck was part of her cover, that she has been spying on Chuck, and that Chuck is responsible for the death of people she knew.  Sarah eventually learns that Quinn has lied to her, and she come to believe that she was in fact in love with Chuck, really his wife.  But what she knows does not restore her memory; it does not recall her feelings for Chuck.  As she says in a heartbreaking scene at the end of the penultimate episode:  “I believe you but I don’t feel it.”  She leaves to take revenge on Quinn for stealing her life from her.

In the final episode, Sarah is still hunting Quinn.  She narrowly misses revenging herself on him, but he gets away.  In need of help to find him, Sarah returns to Chuck and to the resources of Carmichael Enterprises. (Sarah is wearing an outfit that in colors and materials (tan leather jacket, white blouse, jeans) is the same as the outfit she wore the day they met.)  Chuck volunteers himself and the rest of his (and, previously, Sarah’s) team to help her find Quinn.  They figure out that Quinn is in Germany and so they go to find him. Once there, Chuck and Sarah follow the man Quinn plans to meet, a man who has a piece of computer hardware that Quinn needs.  The man leads them into a German Mexican restaurant that turns out to be almost identical to the Mexican restaurant in Burbank where Chuck and Sarah first ate together. (Chuck thought they were on a date; Sarah was acting as his handler.)  Chuck tells Sarah about this, but she is intent on the mission and uncomfortable with his starting to tell her their story.  Quinn, paranoid about Sarah looking for him, phones the man they are following to change the location of the exchange.

They follow the man to an embassy dance, reduplicating the end of the evening of Chuck and Sarah’s first ‘date’, when they danced together.  They dance together (Chuck reminds Sarah that she taught him how to dance.)  Once again, Quinn calls and changes locations for the exchange.  So the man leaves the embassy and goes to a German version of the Wienerlicious restaurant Sarah worked in as her cover in her early time as Chuck’s handler.  Already, in the previous episode, Sarah has shown signs of her memory returning.  (At the beginning of this episode, in her first brush with Quinn, Sarah is knocked unconscious by a blow on the head.)  Now, while she and Chuck pose as Wienerlicious employees, she begins rearranging cups to get them into the appropriate pattern, recalling her earlier cover job.  Quinn finally shows up, followed by several henchmen.  He gets the hardware he needs, kills the man with whom he makes the exchange, and escapes once more.  Chuck has a chance to shoot Quinn, but as he has throughout the show, he refuses to kill.

Sarah blames Chuck for letting Quinn escape, but he tells her that she liked the fact that he was unwilling to kill.  Eventually, the team figures out where Quinn will go to get his final piece of hardware.  They find Quinn and foil his plot. (The plot involves a bomb, much the same as the bomb in the first episode. Chuck defuses it, again as in the first episode, but with Sarah’s help.  She remembers how he did it before.)  But foiling Quinn requires Chuck to destroy (by using its one application) the computer hardware assembled by Quinn and which might allow Chuck to restore Sarah’s memory.  He destroys the hardware believing that it will cost him his wife–but he does it to save hundreds of innocent lives.  He explains what he is doing to her, and why he is doing it, and makes clear what he believes the consequences will be.After it is all over, Sarah tells Chuck that she is sorry about everything, but that she has to leave, to find herself.

So the final episode recapitulates the first episode, but also earlier seasons.  Chuck’s strategy, when he got Sarah to take him along to find Quinn, was to get her to fall in love with him again.  So the recapping recreates in miniature Chuck and Sarah’s first ‘date’ and the longer time during which they fell in love. Sarah witnesses in one episode all the things about Chuck that caused her to love him. As the episode nears its end, Chuck wants to find Sarah, to talk to her once more.  His friend, Morgan, tells him to use his heart to find her.  Chuck leaves in the wake of a sudden intuition of where Sarah can be found.

He goes to the beach they visited at sunrise after their first ‘date’.  Sarah is sitting on the beach alone.  He approaches her as she approached him when he sat there, lost, five years before.  He sits down beside her, he sitting where she sat before and she sitting where he sat before.  “I was hoping you would be here.”  She acknowledges him, acknowledges his finding her.  Then she says, “This place is important, isn’t it?”  The line has two meanings.  Chuck is able to find her here because the place was important to them, but she is there to be found because she (now, still) finds the place to be important.  She does not just know that the place has a significance.  She feels that it does.  Her heart is working even if her head is not (quite).  Chuck then tells her that he does not expect anything from her, that he just wants her to know that he will always be available to her if she needs him, that she can call on him anytime.  He then says to her almost verbatim what she said to him five years before.  “Trust me, Sarah. I’m here for you always.”

She then asks Chuck to tell her their story.  (Another significant change:  she now wants to hear the story that she did not want to hear earlier in the episode.)  He tells it to her.  She listens, laughs, cries.  When it ends, he tells her that Morgan has a crazy theory that if they kiss, her memory will be restored.  They both laugh and she asks, “One magical kiss?”  She looks at him.  “Chuck, kiss me.”  He leans toward her and they kiss, first tentatively then more intently.  The screen goes black.

–So does the kiss work?  Does Sarah’s memory return?  Or, if it does not, does she find herself moved enough by Chuck to allow him to try to woo her again?  Or, does the kiss fail, does Sara feel nothing, does she leave, perhaps never to return?  No answer is given.  And this is why many fans found the final episode frustrating.  To end with no resolution seems strange, and certainly does run against the grain of the romantic comedy.  But I think that the patterning of the final episode strongly suggests that the kiss works.  (There is other evidence too, from earlier in the final season and even from earlier seasons.)  Sarah’s memory has been returning, even if in bits and pieces, even if not mostly in memories of herself and Chuck as husband and wife.  But she is beginning to feel it.  The beach draws her because of a feeling, not primarily because of a memory or belief.  She goes to the beach to find herself because it feels right to do it, because she goes to find herself where she found Chuck.  And he finds her there.

It is true that the viewer has to take this on faith, since it is not shown to happen; the viewer does not know it happens.  But there is something to be said for limiting knowledge to make room for faith.  Chuck is a show about two people’s faith in each other.  It ends asking us to have faith in them.

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