The Conversation in El Compadre (*Chuck*)

[This is an section of the chapter devoted to Chuck‘s pilot episode.  The chapter title is “The Lonely are Such Delicate Things”.  This is still first-draft material, but I thought I would share it anyway.  The section reacts to Chuck and Sarah’s conversation on their ‘date’ in the restaurant, El Compadre. There are a few look-aheads, so if you are watching the show and want no spoilers, you may not want to read this.]

Much that creates the need for heavy emotional lifting later in the show is presented in what appears pleasant banter.  Chuck’s openness, especially to Sarah, opens the conversation, when he reveals (without any signs of embarrassment before or regret afterwards) his peculiar living arrangement–with his sister and her boyfriend.  Just the arrangement makes Chuck look like a child.  Had he gone on to mention that his sister raised him, he would have made fully clear that he still lived at home.

But Sarah takes the revelation in stride, doesn’t pull back from it.  Instead, she seizes on Chuck’s nickname for Devon.  When she laughs and says “No!”, Chuck takes her to be expressing disbelief about his living arrangement, but she quickly clarifies that her attention has instead been caught by the nickname.  She takes more interest in what Chuck calls things than in his current situation. She finds the nickname very funny–although she must also recognize that many of Chuck’s anxieties about himself are inscribed in Devon’s nickname.  Everything Devon does may be awesome.  Chuck does nothing awesome; Chuck’s flossing is ordinary.

Sarah finds Chuck funny.  Her eager response to his jokes (along with her comment about not being funny) suggests laughing to be something Sarah loves to do but rarely does.  It is her laughter and their shared laughter that primarily metamorphoses a conversation that could be taken as nothing but a clever handler developing an asset into something more.  Sarah is enjoying herself, forgetting herself, forgetting to see herself and Chuck as handler and asset. Of course, she could be pretending to find him funny.  But her laugher is too unself-conscious, too quick, too obviously the result of listening to him and not merely of hearing what he says, to easily be classified as part of a pretense.

Chuck talks about Sarah meeting Awesome.  Chuck’s thoughts have already turned toward the future–he is hoping she will see him again.  In effect, he is talking about Sarah meeting his ‘parents’ and within scant minutes of the beginning of their first date.  But again she does not pull back from this, but instead reacts to Chuck’s ending his list of Devon’s awesome feats with flossing. Although Sarah likely does not have a name for it (and it is likely Chuck does not either), she recognizes and responds to Chuck’s on-the-fly reverse-auxesis as the bit of real cleverness that it is,  (Auxesis is rhetorical figure that lists items in such a way that the last is climactic; Chuck’s list ends in anti-climax).  So, when she compliments him on being funny, her compliment results from both her recognition of what Chuck has done and her reaction to it.  This kind of appreciative acknowledgment is rare for Chuck. People laugh at what he says often enough, but often do not recognize why what he says is funny.

What does Sarah mean when she then confesses that she is not funny?  Well, she rarely makes anyone laugh.  Her spy life has not afforded room enough or time for joking.  She’s all business.  But she also is confessing, in the light of Chuck’s cleverness, that she is not clever in this way.  By that I do not mean that she estimates herself dumb (she surely is not), but rather that she knows that she does not have Chuck’s easy access to or variety of means of expression.  Words are hard for Sarah.

The conversation then begins to encroach on more intimate issues–it does so when Chuck asks about Sarah’s big secret.  Although Chuck is asking Sarah the question as a question about her, he is really asking a question about himself:  What really explains you–a woman like you–being out on a date with me–a man like me?  As the show unfolds, it will turn out that every time Chuck has (apparently) managed to be Really Together with Sarah, this anxiety will enfold him.  And of course the inevitability of this anxiety will also dog his attempts to win Sarah, since he will always be tempted–at least at the level of his brain, if not his heart–to rate his attempts as quixotic:  How could he win her?  How could he even be in the contest for her heart? The few times Chuck will be tempted to quit trying to win Sarah, it will be because he has a chance to be with someone else, someone who he can be with without this anxiety.  Chuck’s self-mistrust makes it very hard for him to believe in himself and Sarah as a (possible) couple.  But what Chuck has a hard time getting into focus or keeping in focus is that his anxieties about Sarah are rooted not so much in her beauty or competence as in the way he experiences her presence as a call to arms, as inciting a riot of changes in him.  Sarah is such that for Chuck to win her at last, he will have to believe he can win her. (This is not a condition she lays down, it is one he lays down, although he does not yet realize it.)  It will be his self-mistrust ultimately, and not any other man or Sarah’s profession or Sarah’s past, that will prove to be his final opponent in the contest for her heart.  (Having yourself for opponent is the worst, since it means that your opponent is just exactly as strong as you, knows just exactly as much as you, knows your intentions and motives just as you do.  And of course, you cannot win by cheating because it will be you who gets cheated.)

Chuck deftly uses his question about Sarah’s big secret to turn her confession of not being funny into something funny. Since her being out with him cannot simply be explained by her liking him, it must be explained by Sarah having a problem.  She cannot be all she seems to be, she must be, somehow, less.  Chuck disguises how seriously his thought tempts him by choosing as the options for what is wrong with her one that is patently silly (cannibal) and the other one she has already confessed. Of course, his thought is not really that she is not all that she seems to be.  It is that he cannot be whatever it is she thinks he seems to be.  If she is less than she seems to be it is only in her mistaken assessment of him.

But before Chuck manages this turn of the conversation, Sarah confesses something more:  she confesses that there is plenty wrong with her.  Chuck hears this but does not immediately and directly react to it.  I take it to be clear that he hears it, and hears it as a muted plea, one that gets repeated in a moment, when Sarah says that she has come out of a long relationship and so may come with baggage.  That and how Chuck hears Sarah is revealed by his response:  “I could be your very own baggage handler.”  A plea and a self-offering.  This is not a striving for intimacy with Sarah on Chuck’s part; it is the achievement of it.  Neither of them intended for the conversation to take them here.  But Sarah has forgotten herself for a moment.  And Chuck cannot say No to her, has no desire to say No to her.  He is available to her.  He wants to and will say Yes.  The intimacy of the moment strikes them both at the same time and they each quickly look away, breaking the eye contact that subtends their emotional contact.

Notice that Chuck has co-opted Sarah’s private word for herself–’handler’.  She begins the evening thinking of herself as handler, Chuck’s handler.  Chuck is her asset.  With this one happy, if ordinary, image–of himself as her baggage handler, Chuck spins the bottle, so that instead of his being handled, he is handler–Sarah is his asset.  This is a nice example of the easy-to-miss density of dialogue in Chuck.  Because the word ‘handler’ is part of a familiar phrase ‘baggage handler’, it is easy to miss the multiple meanings that the word carries.  Chuck of course is unaware of them when he speaks the word.  But they are there. In Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, each will be or become both the handler and the asset of the other.

Chuck asks if her ex was the reason she left wherever she had been.  Sarah tells him that she had been in D.C., and that she realized she needed to leave when she realized that all her friends were her ex’s friends and that everything in D.C. reminded her of him.  Other than the name, this is all true.  She misses Bryce.  D.C. now appears to her in the shadow of Bryce’s death.  Yet, it is important to keep in mind that the people Sarah calls her friends (and Bryce’s friends) are her co-workers, other agents.  And everything in D.C. is the CIA.  There is no reason to think Sarah spends time in D.C. with people who are not her co-workers or that she habitually took long walks among the cherry blossom trees. She worked. She was with Bryce primarily when they worked.

Sarah continues her story–and continues confessing.  She needed–she needs–a change, a big one.  Sarah does not specify what would count as a big change.  But she is considering  Chuck as she says this.  Her comment about coming with baggage is a comment about her past oriented on her future.  It means that if Chuck takes her on, he takes it on.  She, like Chuck, risks a peek ahead.  Perhaps she believes nothing can come it, but she does it.

Sarah reins herself in–and tries to get back to work.  She asks about Chuck’s skeletons, Chuck’s past, Chuck’s secrets.  Have there been any women? She turns from their possible future to Chuck’s actual past.  Chuck admits to her that there was a woman in college–but then he pulls back and lets that story go, unlike at his birthday party, where he had told it, re-lived it, in excruciating detail.  He lets it go because he remembers Ellie’s rule–don’t talk about old girlfriends.  He lets it go because he does not want to exceed Sarah’s brevity about Bruce.  He lets it go because, for the first time in five years, he can actually imagine getting over Jill.  The woman sitting across the table from him outshines (his memory of) Jill.  In Sarah’s light, he can even joke about Jill.

Sarah confesses one thing more–responding spontaneously to Chuck yet again, yet again giving herself away.  “I like you, Chuck.”  She does like him. She tells the truth.  She is having a good time.  In spite of herself, she is finding that she cannot maintain a manipular posture in relation to him. Chuck’s responds to what she says with pleased surprise.

This is the first time Sarah uses Chuck’s name, calls him ‘Chuck’. She will use his name over and over again in their relationship, for example, she will use it over and over again before the cockcrow of sunrise at Malibu beach.  Sarah will principally use last names in relationships with others. She will not use the first names of anyone else with a frequency approaching the frequency of her use of ‘Chuck’.  It is not just the frequency of her use of ‘Chuck’ that marks out the name and its bearer as holding a special place for her.  It is also the way that she uses it.  She calls him by name as a form of recognition–she recognizes him, she knows who he really is and can be.  She sees him.  She recognizes him hidden in the Nerd Herd, living with Ellie and Devon, still wounded by an old girlfriend.  She recognizes him as the Chuck he believes he has failed to become.

It is important to keep in mind that my description of this conversation is not an attempt to capture the moment-by-moment self-understanding of the characters.  For example, my calling what Sarah is doing confessing does not mean that she takes herself to be confessing as she is talking.  I presume she is not classifying her actions in speech as she performs them, as if she were saying silently, “I am now confessing…” while she audibly confesses that she comes with baggage.  Even Sarah sometimes does not know (quite) what she is doing at the moment she does it. I do think that she does realize, part of the way through the conversation, that she has been confessing.  What I am trying to do is to capture what is actually happening between the characters.  Sometimes that means that I will be interested in capturing their moment-by-moment self-understandings, but I will be interested in those only to the extent that capturing them is required to capture what is really going on.  Does Sarah realize fully that she has revealed as much as she has revealed in the conversation?  No.  Does Chuck understand clearly the commitment he offers Sarah in the conversation? No.  But does mean that Sarah has not revealed as much as she has or that Chuck has not offered the commitment he has offered?  No.  Does this then mean that Sarah’s revelations and Chuck’s offered commitment are not deliberate?  Yes.  Does that mean that these things do not count as actions on Sarah and Chuck’s part?  No.  Much of Chuck is driven by and explores how much we do without doing it deliberately, how much we give away about ourselves without setting out to do so.  All of us, even spies, are endlessly, constantly expressive.  To deny that is not to treat our bodies or voices, our faces or eyes, as screens.  It is to deny that we have bodies or voices, or faces or eyes, at all.

[Many of the themes of this conversation return repeatedly throughout the book.]

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