[A short excerpt from the penultimate chapter of the Chuck book. The working title of the book is Chuck: Nerd Herder and Girl Impossible. Beware: this definitely contains spoilers.]
I suspect that one reason why a number of fans of the show disliked the ending was that they confused their reaction to the end of the show with their reaction to the end of the episode, to the storyline about Sarah’s memory loss and its possible return. Chuck’s power resides ultimately in how invested we became in these characters and in the world they inhabited. They came to be presences in our real lives despite being fictional. The show took our hearts captive. And so its ending is not something we can meet tranquilly. No, we hate that it ends. The ending makes us sad. That is perfectly appropriate. Watching the final episode is like having to say goodbye to friends who we will not see again. That sorrow hangs over and permeates the final episode, and it can seem like that sorrow somehow determines the ending, decides how it is to be understood. We are sad–and so we attribute that sadness to the ending of the storyline. But they are two separate endings–one can be happy (the storyline ending) while the other is sad (the end of the show). To respond properly to the final episode, we have to keep the endings and our reactions to them separated. I have had my say about why I regard the storyline ending as happy. Let me say a word more about the ending of the show.
Samuel Johnson, writing the final essay in his series of essays, The Idler, discusses what he calls “our secret horror of the last”. He notes that
There are few things not purely evil, of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, “this is the last”.
He continues by linking this secret horror to the limits of our life and our dread of death. We mark periods of our life in various ways–and one of them is by the duration of a tv show that matters to us. And when a period of our life ends, we make a “secret comparison” between part and whole; we are forcibly reminded that life itself has a final episode, that our show too must end. Eventually, all screens go black. I mention this not to be morbid, but rather to explain why I find reacting to the final episode correctly to be hard to do. The show is ending, and we experience our secret horror of the last, we experience the pain of parting with these (fictional) friends. That there is a reminder of death in all this seems to me undeniable. But there is also a reminder of death internal to the storyline of the final episode. Sarah’s memory loss, if permanent and complete, feels functionally equivalent, for Chuck, to her dying. He loses her (or at least five years with her), despite the fact that she goes on living. Their five years together are irrevocably taken from them. That does not happen. Still, the specter of it haunts the unfolding of the storyline. But then another specter of death–the reminder that the last brings with it–also haunts the ending of the show. One specter is laid to rest, the one in the storyline. But the other remains. And in the black of that final screen, it is hard to tell the specters apart.