This is the last in the series of short essays I have been writing. It is also likely to be the last Chuck-related essay I write for a while. Other tasks demand my attention. I thank those who have read and commented on these essays.
We cannot step into the same river twice. –Heraclitus
We cannot step into the same river once. –Cratylus
Change is hard for us. It is hard to endure. It is hard to understand. Each hardness hardens the other. While we are changing, especially early in the change, we have a hard time knowing exactly what is happening to us. We have a hard time putting up with it. We have a hard time conceptualizing it. While we are changing we are somehow in a passage and a transportation between two worlds which seem to have no real unity–a murky one behind, a brightening one ahead. But we cannot see clearly into either or see clearly during our passage. As we change, we are doing our undoing; we put off the old person so as to put on the new, but the new is not a ready-made.
Season 3 is the season of change in Chuck, the moulting season. I do not deny that changes have been underway since the pilot. I do not deny that changes continue in Seasons 4 and 5. As Chuck says in vs. the Coup d’Etat, “change is inevitable”. Still, S3 is the season of the most fundamental changes, the season in which Chuck and Sarah finally break free of the asset/handler relationship that has imprisoned them and find their way to a new relationship, a relationship in which each of them is renewed, changed. I have addressed some of the central changes in the first couple of essays (here and here). In this final one, I want to address some of the larger issues of S3 and of the series.
Abstractly stated, the problematic dynamic between Chuck and Sarah involves three things.
(1) Sarah is changing and wants to change, and she needs Chuck to help her.
(2) Chuck needs to change but Sarah fears him doing so.
(3) Chuck does not fully believe in the depth of the change in Sarah.
(1) Sarah is changing and wants to change. She has changed enough to recognize that Chuck represents both the tutor of her change and, in some way, its destination. She needs Chuck to teach her how to change and to be there as what she is changing for. But this means that she does not want Chuck to change. If he does, he imperils her education in change and the goal of her change. One of the most unsettling features of S3 is Sarah’s despair over the changes in Chuck. She despairs for him, first and foremost, but she also despairs for herself.
Sarah is in the midst of change, in the middle of her transportation between two worlds, when her tutor seems to abandon her and deprive her of the result of the change she most desires–him. Sarah’s despair causes her to flail about wildly, even if it is hard to notice it given the amount of attention Chuck’s even wilder flailing draws. Sarah ends up with Shaw as a slumping stand-in for Chuck; Shaw becomes her substitute teacher. But he is about as effective as substitute teachers normally are, that is, not very. While under Chuck’s tutelage, Sarah was oriented on her future–even her forays into her past are for the sake of her future. Under Shaw’s tutelage, Sarah orients on her past; she starts trying to identify not the person she is to become but the person she was (Sam). While Sarah wounds Chuck when she shares her name with Shaw, Chuck and Sarah will both eventually realize that it is not her name, not her real name. It was Sarah’s name but is no longer. Shaw educes nostalgia of a sort in Sarah (he is trapped in a different sort of nostalgia himself) but he cannot manage Sarah’s passage into her future, her transportation to a new world.
(2) Chuck needs to change. Sarah fears his changing and takes it to be unnecessary, but it is necessary. Sarah loses faith for a while in Chuck (and in herself as a consequence). She is focused only on the way others–Beckman, Shaw, Casey–picture the result of Chuck’s changing. She really cannot imagine anything else clearly herself. Chuck is no help here, because he only knows he is changing; he cannot see clearly what he is changing into, and, adding to the confusion, he sometimes believes he needs to change into what Beckman et al. want him to become. Chuck is a hero and has behaved heroically frequently enough for his heroism to be a settled feature of his character–Sarah recognizes that it is. Because she recognizes this about Chuck, she sees his changing as unnecessary: he is a hero; he does not need to become one. But Chuck does not see himself as Sarah sees him. He does not recognize what she recognizes.
Recall the exchange in vs. the Final Exam. Chuck, nauseated and unbalanced by the sudden assignment to kill the mole, asks Sarah what he will be if he is not a spy. She answers that he will still be Chuck, and that is good enough. Sarah means what she says–he will still be Chuck, the hero, and his not being a spy is inconsequential. (That last claim fudges: given how things stand between them, personally and professionally, if Chuck is not a spy he will probably not be with Sarah–and that is consequential, and Sarah knows it. But of course, to her credit, she is not really thinking about them at this moment, only about him.) But Chuck hears her as sentencing him to the Buy More, as sentencing him to being (to use a later line) alone in Burbank.
Although being alone in Burbank is preferable to being a killer, Chuck now knows what he wants to do with his life and who he wants to do it with–to be a spy with Sarah. He wants that so desperately that he is willing to entertain killing the mole, although he cannot will to kill him. (This is why we see his trigger finger begin to squeeze and then release the trigger: he cannot do it. He cannot kill simply to realize his dreams. But that he can so much as squeeze the trigger measures his desperation.)
Chuck needs Sarah to help him become what he wants to be, to help him to understand what it is he wants to be. But they are in an impossible situation. He needs her to make real his change; she fears his change and resists it–wants nothing to do with it. She feels guilty, regrets, that he even wants to change. He cannot explain and she cannot help.
(3) Sarah is changing at a depth that mostly eludes Chuck or is hidden from him. Chuck wants Sarah to change. He fears that the change he sees is either merely apparent or temporary or superficial. It does not help that Sarah is not always aware of how deeply she is changing. For example, at the end of S2, Sarah believes she can leave Burbank, leave Chuck, and go with Bryce to Washington. She is conflicted; yet, she believes she can do it. She cannot. During Ellie’s wedding ceremony, Sarah realizes that her belief is false. She can no longer choose to be a spy if choosing it means she will have to abandon Chuck. But Chuck does not know how deep this change reaches in Sarah. –He lingers in unclarity about this, to lessening degrees, until S4. The ghost of this lingering helps make the end of S5 so unsettling–it is as if, at some level, Sarah did not change after all. –And Sarah’s anger and pain and hurt serve to mask the depth of the change in her. Chuck cannot see that she does not want to choose the spy life if that choice costs her him. She does not want him to choose it since she thinks that choice must cost him her.
I could say more about these changes. I say some more about them in my book. But, even though I could say more, I will finish here. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Chuck is the fundamental but believable and emotionally satisfying changes in its main characters. Few shows have managed such changes. Relatively few have really tried.
Change is hard. Portraying it is hard. As characters change, they go out of focus for themselves and, as a result, for the audience. But we can, with patience and with a disciplined imagination, bring into focus why they go out of focus.
S3 is messy. It admits this near the end of vs. the Three Words. To straighten up some of the mess, we have to remember that we can conceptualize change (to the extent that we can) only by contextualizing it between a past (world) and a future (world). We have to see the changes as changes, as in passage or in transportation. No still snapshot alone will make sense or help us to make sense. Now, I cannot straighten up all the mess of S3; I have not tried. But if we keep in mind that fundamental changes are underway, we can explain some of the mess, excuse some of the mess, and, perhaps, ignore the rest. We can face the changes.
 Besides, being a hero–unless you hail from Krypton or chance bites from radioactive spiders–is not exactly a career choice.
 Among the many challenges of S3 is recognizing just how different Sarah’s vision of Chuck is from his of himself, and recognizing the centrality of Chuck’s vision to what happens between them. Sarah sees him as a hero, and as a man who can educate her in what it means authentically to be human. He sees himself as a underacheiver, losing and losing on his way to being a loser. –Is Sarah’s vision more just? Yes. –Is it as efficacious as Chuck’s vision? No.
As Chuck will tell Sarah in vs. the American Hero, he has hated himself for all his existential maundering–his (personal and professional) indecisiveness, caused by his inability to get over his failures: his failure at Stanford, his failure with Jill, his failure to escape the Buy More, his failure to get out of his sister’s apartment. (N.B., if this isn’t the only time Chuck uses the word ‘hate’, it is one of a very few. ‘Hate’ is not one of Chuck’s words; but there it is, falling off his lips, characterizing his relationship with himself. (One’s self is the one self one cannot fail to have a relationship with. The only question is what that relationship is to be. Even failing to have a relationship with oneself turns out to be having a particular relationship to oneself. I am deeded to me.)) Chuck’s self-hatred nourishes the roots of S3’s darkness (as do Sarah’s hurt and regret). Acknowledging it and overcoming it is Chuck’s task. So, despite the fact that Sarah’s vision of Chuck is more just, his vision of himself has more explanatory power, particularly in the arctic night of the first 13 episodes of S3.