Season 3 Q2: Why Does Chuck Refuse to Run? Or, The Man Who Walked Backwards

This is the second in the short series of essays on S3.  Spoilers!

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No other moment in Chuck more decisively shapes the entire series than the moment when Chuck meets Sarah at the train station in Prague.  He sees her; he smiles wanly; he begins to walk toward her. He heads to break her heart.

As he walks, Frightened Rabbit’s song, “My Backwards Walk”, plays.  That song centers the scene, the series.   The song takes us into Chuck’s interior, into his inner life, and allows us to move on his pulse. It sheds light on the motives that he does not or cannot provide to Sarah in what he says to her.

I want to investigate some of the lyrics of that song–in the context of the scene, in the context of the series. But let me say this by way of framing the investigation: the singer presents himself as breaking with a lover, but the singer’s actual point is that he cannot manage to do it, that he does not want to do it.  This makes the dominant image of the song so powerful.  The singer presents himself as leaving, as walking away from his lover, and yet he is walking backwards:  he is moving away, or trying to, but he remains fixated on her, oriented upon her. He is steering by her even as he tries to leave her.  He is not simply sneaking a backwards glance, like Lot’s wife at Sodom–he is, as paradoxical as it sounds, walking away toward her.  It is not the best strategy for leaving; but, then, he doesn’t really want to leave.

Before I turn to some details, let me quote a parabolic passage of Kierkegaard’s, from his Works of Love:

When a man turns his back upon someone and walks away, it is so easy to see that he walks away, but when a man hits upon a method of turning his face toward the one he is walking away from, hits upon a method of walking backwards while with appearance and glance and salutations he greets the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming immediately, or incessantly saying “Here I am”–although he gets farther and farther away by walking backwards–then it is not so easy to become aware.

Kierkegaard here plays with direction.  He imagines someone who walks away from someone else, but who does so while facing the person, saying things and gesticulating as if he were walking toward the person.

Chuck plays with direction in the scene I am considering.  But plays even more complicatedly with direction.  Chuck walks toward Sarah while he walks away from her, but he walks away backwards.  He walks toward her–in order to walk away from her.  And he walks away from her by walking away toward her.  Chuck does not mean to confuse anyone with all this walking to and fro.  Rather, Chuck means to exemplify  just how complicated Chuck’s state of mind is.

Sarah’s last name, ‘Walker’, has been important to the show from the beginning.  Her first action on the show is to walk toward Chuck, who is standing at the Nerd Herd desk.  That walk becomes the true icon of the show, more iconic, really, than the dark Intersect sunglasses.  It is the true icon because it compresses into one action all the action of the show:  the whole show tracks Sarah’s walk to Chuck–a walk that itself does not proceed exactly in a straight line. If you stop and think about it,the iconicity of her walk is clear, and it is insisted upon:  the show returns to that walk obsessively–from a variety of angles and in a variety of ways.[1]  But we have not yet seen Chuck walk toward Sarah in any iconic way, and when we finally do, he is walking toward her, but walking backwards toward her.

The difference between Chuck’s and Kierkegaard’s backwards-walking man is that Kierkegaard’s man really walks away.  He pretends not to be walking away–perhaps his pretence fools him too.  But he is walking away.  Chuck is not walking away, not really, not for good. He does know he risks losing Sarah.

So this again is the complicated image, our paradox:  Chuck walks toward Sarah there on the platform.  That is what is happening in physical terms.  But he is walking away from her as he does so–he never turns his back on her.  Because he still takes his bearings from her, still steers by her, he is walking backwards toward her.

“My Backwards Walk” begins:

I’m working on my backwards walk
walking with no shoes or socks
and the time rewinds to the end of may
I wish we’d never met then met today

I’m working on my faults and cracks
filling in the blanks and gaps
and when I write them out they don’t make sense
I need you to pencil in the rest

To understand these words in the scene, we need to move backwards in time, to the fateful conversation between Chuck and Sarah near the end of vs. the Break-Up. Although that conversation seems initially to involve them both making up excuses for not remaining close and growing closer, for refusing to bank on a future together, it actually involves them both revealing their deepest fears about the future.  Chuck eventually says to Sarah that even if they were together, they could not be together (“Even if our relationship were real, it wouldn’t really be real”).  He gives various reasons–but the one I want to focus on now is this:  He imagines them as misfit for each other because he imagines himself continuing to work at the Buy More while she continues to work as a spy.  Chuck rightly cannot see how that would go.

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The reason why I focus on these words is that they frame the lyrics. Chuck has known–when he allows himself to reflect on it–that if he and Sarah are to be together, more has to change than the handler/asset structure of their relationship.  He knows that he has to change. At bottom, what Chuck knows is that, independent of the handler/asset structure, he and Sarah would still be unequal.  He would be a Nerd Herder; she would be the CIA’s top spy.  The difference in their careers and in their career success presents as much a problem for them as class differences did for lovers in earlier times.  In a sense, Chuck is poor, Sarah is rich. Chuck feels like he has to make good, be somebody, if he is going to be a match (consider that word) for Sarah.

When Chuck downloads the new Intersect, when he acquires all these new abilities (e.g., Kung Fu), he transmogrifies from computer to weapon, from a posture of receptivity to one of spontaneity.  (Beckman’s comment to Sarah:  “You were protecting Chuck from the world, now you are protecting the world from Chuck.”)  As Chuck struggles to understand the significance of his transmogrification, the NSA and CIA have already made plans for him–he will be trained to be a spy, a super-spy.  No expense is to be spared.  Powerful people, presumably Beckman and others of her ilk, begin to whisper to Chuck about what he could do, about what he could be, about his duty.  All this would turn anyone’s head, make it hard to come to any realistic self-assessment, to sort out what you want from what you are being told you want.  But for Chuck, who has been so long an underachiever, who has looked like a loser so often, even to those closest to him (Casey, Awesome, Ellie), the chance to finally be a winner, to be a force, must be especially compelling.

Chuck has been painfully aware of the distance between himself and Sarah, of his dependence on her.  Chuck has never been able to credit himself with genuine heroism, with any kind of self-possessed competence (outside of video games and electronics, both of which he derogates while still loving).  In the pilot, Chuck has a post-it stuck to his computer screen:  “You are a professional nerd”.  This is a bit of wry, bitter self-deprecation.  For Chuck, the word ‘professional’ is meaningless in the context of the post-it sentence–and that is his point to himself.  There are no professional nerds, there are only bigger and smaller nerds–losers of differing size.  Chuck longs for the status of a professional; this is something he admires in Sarah, and it is a reason why, when she rejects what he wants or rejects advances from him as “unprofessional”, Chuck tends to be moved by her rejection.  This is also the reason why he is so sure that Sarah will choose Bryce or Cole or Shaw over him:  they are professionals, they are matches for her.  But, with Sarah, Chuck is overmatched.

The first word to consider in the lyrics is the repeated ‘working’.  In S3, Chuck is working, working on himself.  He is trying to become better, to become more.  He wants to acquire the standing of a professional.  Chuck wants to be a spy.  He wants to be like Sarah.  He wants to be her equal, he wants to be a match for her.  He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps.  He does not precisely want to imitate his father (for example, he does not want to abandon the people he loves, even if for good reasons); he wants instead to emulate his father, to be what his father was but to be it in an improved way.  The new Intersect has equipped Chuck to reach his goal, and doing what Beckman wants seems to him to be his way of working on himself.

Chuck is engaged in a project of self-transcendence.  And Chuck’s project faces a twofold problem:  One, Sarah is the catalyst of the changes in him; she matters more to his project than does the Intersect.[2]  He needs her with him if he is to become what he wants to become.  Two, and as is true of every project of self-transcendence, Chuck cannot forecast with any accuracy or in any detail, exactly what he wants to be when he transcends himself.  After all, although he can say, “I want to be a spy”, he also knows that he does not want to handle real guns; he has no taste for lying; and deceiving others, particularly those he loves, demoralizes him.  (Under Shaw’s manipulative influence, Chuck will waver on some of these points, but he never wholly succumbs.)

Chuck can name what he wants to be–“a spy”–but he has no clarity about what that actually means:  we might say that Chuck is working to create a concept, ‘spy’, the marks of which are still in flux.  He is more clear about what are not marks of his concept than of what are marks of it:  for example, does not fall in love is not a mark of Chuck’s concept; ignores or imprisons his own emotions is not a mark of Chuck’s concept; carries a lethal weapon is also not a mark of Chuck’s concept.

These two problems make clear the point of the lines

I’m working on my faults and cracks
filling in the blanks and gaps
and when I write them out they don’t make sense
I need you to pencil in the rest

Chuck is working on his faults and cracks, trying to be a better man.  He is filling in his blanks and gaps.  But the problem is that he needs Sarah to help him figure out what he is trying to be, to help him create the concept he wants to instantiate.  When he writes the marks out they don’t make sense.  He needs Sarah to pencil in the rest.  But he knows that Sarah resolutely opposes his becoming a spy; she wants to keep Chuck from the spy life.  Sarah, however, means by ‘spy’ why Beckman and Shaw mean by ‘spy’.  She does not yet understand that Chuck wants to keep their word but exchange its meaning for another, new one.

But of course, as he walks toward Sarah in Prague, Chuck is at best fitfully and unclearly aware of all of this.  He knows he feels compelled to do what he is doing.  He also wants to do what he is doing.  But what he is doing turns out not to be what Beckman takes him to be doing or what Shaw, later, will take him to be doing.  All hands agree:  Chuck is becoming a spy.  But Beckman and Shaw mean something by the term that Chuck will not end up meaning by it. This manifests itself in his inability to flourish under their training.  They are not training him to be what he wants to be–but he is not himself clear about the source of the trouble.  Given what Chuck will eventually mean by ‘spy’, his emotions will turn out to be a strength, not a weakness.  He fails under Beckman because she is teaching him things he does not want to know and failing to teach him what he does. But Chuck is only a bit more aware of this than Beckman, and she is not aware of it at all.

Because Chuck is still so much in the dark about what he is doing, what he is trying to become, he cannot enlighten Sarah effectively when he tries to explain why he will not run.

Chuck knows he cannot explain.  That knowledge prompts the wan smile when he sees Sarah.   What is going on in him is still in process, and it is going on deep within him.  He cannot yet give it voice.  All he is sure of is that he cannot finish whatever has begun in him by running with Sarah.  He does not realize though that she is not the problem–the running with her is the problem.  Chuck is in the crucible.  To leave now would be to leave half-finished. It sucks to be where he is, it hurts, and it will get worse.  He will learn that the crucible is not spatially located in Prague; he is carrying it with him; he will carry it all the way back to Burbank, where it will change its form, but its severe test will continue.

As I have said, Chuck is not remotely clear about all this.  All he has is a feeling, a concretion of hints and suggestions that have characterized his life since Sarah found him.  That he will decide to become a spy presents itself, albeit in a form not explicitly thematized, as early as the first scene of the pilot, when Chuck and Morgan are pretending to be spies so as to escape from Ellie’s party.  Being a spy is already lodged in Chuck’s imagination, and to a degree not to be explained by being a fan of Bond films.  (In fact, as we realize as the show continues, the explanation goes the other way around:  his imagining being a spy is why he so loves Bond films.)  As Chuck’s father suggests, being a spy is in Chuck’s blood.

Still, on the platform in Prague, Chuck is undergoing the early stages of these change into a spy, his sort of spy.  He knows that Sarah will not understand the changes, and he knows that he cannot help, because he does not yet understand them.  The best he can manages is the misleading, treacly stuff he says:  “A life of adventure”, “Helping people”.  But those things do not make anything clear for Sarah.  She thinks he is choosing for himself the last life she would choose for him–and choosing it instead of choosing her.  He is not doing that.  But he cannot explain what he is doing.  Chuck foresees his problem when he sees Sarah on the platform. He knows that the current state of things between them makes their parting unavoidable:  he cannot go; she cannot accept his not going.  The tragedy, like all tragedy, is necessitated.  Character is fate.  All Chuck can do is let her go, and hope they can find each other again. To do what he feels compelled to do, Chuck believes he must remove or distance Sarah from his life.  He can’t, of course; but he does try.

I’m working on erasing you
just don’t have the proper tools
I get hammered, forget that you exist
there’s no way I’m forgetting this

Think back once more to the conversation late in vs. the Break-Up.  Sarah tells Chuck that when he gets rid of the Intersect and resumes his normal life, he will forget her.  He rejects what she says:  “I very much doubt that.”  Sarah is part of Chuck even then, and more so as they stand on the platform.  He cannot forget her, no matter how hard he tries.  He cannot erase her without erasing himself. (One lesson of vs.Phase Three is that Sarah goes as deep in Chuck as he does.)   He does not have the proper tools to erase her.  He can bury himself in work.  (As he will do in Prague.) He can bury himself in drink.  (A strategy that he tries later in S3.)  But there is no way he is forgetting her.

I’m working hard on walking out
shoes keep sticking to the ground
my clothes won’t let me close the door
these trousers seem to love your floor

I been working on my backwards walk
there’s nowhere else for me to go
except back to you just one last time
say Yes before i change my mind

say Yes before I…

you’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it

Chuck desperately wants to say Yes to Sarah.  He wants to go with her.  He cannot go with her.  He wants her to say Yes to a question he cannot ask.  She wants to say Yes to a kiss Chuck cannot give.  Chuck needs Sarah in order to become what he wants to be.  He is not clear enough about what he wants to be clear about that.  He alienates the deepest part of himself by alienating her, thus causing unintentionally his own suffering in S3.  He starts trying not to love her; he starts telling himself he does not love her.  He works hard on walking out.  He will keep miserably at it, keep trying not to love her until Morgan tells him categorically that he does loves her.  Morgan knows:  Sarah’s the shit and Chuck’s knee deep in it.  When Chuck finally admits that, the Intersect begins to function again–because Chuck’s heart begins to function again.

Back and forth.  Backwards and forwards.  To and fro. Towards and fromwards.  The ancient Greeks conceptualized our relationship to the past in an image that reverses the one we use.  We conceive of the future as in front of us.  The past is behind us.  We walk forward into futurity.  But they conceptualized themselves as walking backwards into futurity.  The past is available to be seen, since they face backwards. The future is unseen since they are walking backwards into it.  Like the Greeks, Chuck walks backwards towards his future, toward Sarah, although neither of them can see that as they stand brokenhearted on the platform.


[1] We even get to see other women make that walk toward Chuck–Lou and Hannah.  But Sarah’s walk is premonitory in ways that theirs are not  Neither of them are a comet appearing in Chuck’s life, although each does cross Chuck and Sarah’s stars for a time.

[2] There is a good reason why, in their conversation on the beach in the finale, Chuck says that his life really changed, not when Bryce sent him the Intersect, but when he met a spy named “Sarah”.  Sarah makes Chuck the best version of himself.  The Intersect never, neither in early versions nor in late, has that power.  The Intersect adds to Chuck’s already great potential; Sarah actualizes Chuck’s potential. Chuck’s quandary has never been his lack of potential.  It has always been actualizing his potential.  

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