Source: The Chuck Book | Chuck This
In my Chuck book, I mention that my other favorite show is Buffy. I ran across this paragraph in a ‘cuts’ section of my manuscript. It needs elaboration, sure, but I thought it of interest.
Comparing Chuck to Buffy is useful in a variety of ways. Let me mention a few, briefly: (1) We might say that Buffy takes the ordinary, hurtful experiences of high school and college–the anxieties, fears and frustrations–and incarnates them as monsters, demons, vampires, ancient evils. Chuck takes the ordinary, hurtful experiences of our lives with ourselves and with others–the doubts, hesitations, confusions, and alienations–and amplifies them into exercises of spy-craft. (2) Buffy’s characters have a special lingo, an idiolect, all their own. The dialogue is often quotable for its own sake. Chuck’s characters, although they use the guild language of the intelligence community, have no special idiolect that is all their own. Appreciating Chuck’s dialogue turns almost wholly on the keeping track of (what J. L. Austin called) “the total speech act in the total speech situation”. That is a technical way of saying that we have to keep careful track of the context of what the speaker is doing with his or her words, both in their immediate conversational context and their context in the life of the speaker. We must attend to the full circumstances in which the words are said. This is true of Buffy too, but the point is that its dialogue achieves a kind of stand-alone significance that Chuck’s does not, and that can make Chuck’s dialogue seem less crafty and careful. But Chuck’s dialogue is crafty, although it does not exhibit all the dimensions of craftiness that the dialogue of Buffy does–and Chuck’s dialogue certainly is careful. (3) Whereas Buffy centers on no one single couple across its run, Chuck does. It follows the various ways in which its central couple, Chuck and Sarah, are together. The show is a grammar of togetherness, declining its inflections–its tenses and moods. If we consider Buffy’s many couples, including those in which Buffy is one half, but also those of other characters, we could say something similar of it. But Buffy assembles its grammar more loosely, less obsessively. Buffy, at the end of the day, concentrates on Buffy in a way that Chuck does not concentrate on Chuck.
In my *Chuck* book, I half-jokingly remark that the entire series could have been entitled “Chuck vs. Chuck”. Half-joked–because there is considerable truth in that remark. Chuck’s primary war throughout the show is with himself. One reason why S3 is so pivotal is that it is the season in which the most intense battles in that war get fought. We have to keep that in mind in order to get the season straight, really to understand it. It is hard to keep it in mind, because of the dispiriting sullenness of the first 12 episodes, because of the painful split between Chuck and Sarah, because of the mess they make of themselves as a couple.
But I want to bring it to mind, and keep it in mind, because the question I want to address, namely “Where is Sarah going at the end of S3E12–to meet Shaw or to meet Chuck?” is hard to think clearly about unless you remember that the series could have been entitled “Chuck vs. Chuck”. A warning: My eventual answer to this question is not super exciting; what I am trying to do here is to find a way better to frame the question, to understand the moment in context.
Now, here is a premise I start with, although I will not argue for it in any detail. Sarah is not in love with Shaw and she knows it and she knows that she will never be in love with him. Despite her telling Shaw that she no longer loves Chuck, she obviously does still love Chuck and will still love him even if she goes to DC.
Sarah is not choosing between Shaw and Chuck in the sense that her heart is divided between the two men. It isn’t. It is all Chuck’s. (Her reaction to Casey’s confession shows this, I take it.) So, to understand Sarah’s choice we have to backtrack some and think our way toward it.
The central event that has to be kept in mind is the choice that Sarah offers Chuck in Traxx: will Chuck kill the mole or not? Will Chuck do what he has to do to become a spy or will he not? Consider that choice for a minute. What sort of choice is she offering Chuck? –Nothing less than a choice between two different Chucks. Will he be the man she loves, the man of integrity and compassion, or will he be a new, different Chuck, the extension of the Chuck he has been flirting with through much S3, a Chuck capable of lies, betrayal, violence and killing? The choice focuses on Chuck. In Prague, although Sarah did not understand it that way, she in effect forced him into a choice between running with her and doing his duty (as he understood it). But the choice in Traxx is a choice that leaves Sarah out, and does so the hard way, since Chuck will (as both Sarah and he believe) almost certainly lose Sarah no matter which choice he makes. Chuck is left alone to choose between Chucks. No choice gets him Sarah.
His choice is between versions of himself. The problem with that choice, other than that Sarah is no part of it (a very serious problem, indeed) is that Chuck is being forced to choose (from his point of view) between the Chuck who hated himself (as he explained to Sarah when he interrupted her date with Shaw) or a Chuck who is a killer. That choice sucks; both options suck. Chuck’s genius is that he finds a way, with Casey’s help, to make a third choice, to choose a Chuck who is not a killer, not the kind of spy Shaw is (bad-spy Chuck), and a Chuck who is not a loser, the kind of guy who hates himself. Chuck will eventually become his own kind of spy–one like his father, but different (good-spy Chuck). (That is a topic for another day, although I have written some about it here.)
Sarah, of course, does not understand Chuck’s choice as he does: she does not think the old Chuck a loser; she does not quite process what it means for Chuck to have hated himself, even though she, better than anyone else, should be able to process it. She knew he was stalled, stuck, facing a fontless five-year plan, but she did not really understand the depth of his self-loathing. Remember, at Traxx, when Chuck considers choosing his old self, she says something like, “You’ll still be Chuck, and that’s good enough”.
–Well, yes and no. Being that particular Chuck is preferable to being a killer, but it is still not an appealing choice for Chuck. And, let’s face it, it is no longer clear that Chuck really can make that choice. He has changed too much to be that Chuck anymore. He does now know what he wants and who he wants to be with–when he hated himself, he hated himself for not knowing either of those things. He can’t make that choice because he cannot turn back the clock. But of course he can’t finally choose to be a cold-blooded killer–that just isn’t in him and no easily conceivable series of changes will bring it about.
I’ve dwelt on this because we need to understand that when Sarah is packing, she is packing in the shadow of the choice she gave Chuck. She is not choosing between Chuck and Shaw. She is choosing between her Chuck and bad-spy Chuck. She does not want the latter. But she fears that the former no longer exists. And she is right, although not in the way she thinks.
Now, if she were packing just after the rail yard, just after the shooting of the mole, it would be clear that she is packing to go to DC, that she is choosing against bad-spy Chuck (she is not choosing Shaw). The structure of Sarah’s choice reflects the choice she gave Chuck. She thinks he chose one side of that either-or, and that she would choose the other. But since the other no longer exists (as least so Sarah believes), she has to leave. She cannot stay and watch the final ruination of the man she loves.
But Sarah is not packing immediately after the rail yard. She is packing after (1) Chuck’s two speeches, the eloquent one (1a), at the restaurant and the shorter one, (1b), in Castle; and, after (2) Chuck has saved Shaw. Each of these deserves individual attention.
1a. In the restaurant, after Morgan lures Shaw away, Chuck talks to Sarah. There’s a lot in the conversation, (like the line about hating himself) but I want to focus on the fact that although Sarah is still fixated on the Red Test, she is at least willing to listen to Chuck as she was not when he approached her in Castle, right after she got back from DC. Then, she was simply unwilling to allow Chuck even to begin to plead his case. But in the restaurant, she is willing at least to listen. She is no longer so sure that he killed the mole. Some doubt has crept in. And although Chuck does not succeed in convincing her there, by the time Shaw and Devon crash through the restaurant window, Sarah is responding to Chuck as she always has, in a way that is much like the way she responded to him on the stake out during the first phase of the Red Test. A few more minutes, maybe a few more seconds, and the whole situation between Chuck and Sarah might have changed.
1b. In Castle, Chuck gives the shorter version of his speech from the restaurant to Sarah. This time, instead of focusing the speech on himself and his changes, he makes it a confession–a confession of his love for her. He tells Sarah that he loves her, tells her repeatedly. And then he asks to kiss her, and she allows it. She even begins tentatively to respond, or so it seems to me. When he ends the kiss he asks her to run with him. He tells her not to answer, he just wants her to show up at Union Station so that they can leave together. As Chuck leaves, Sarah is clearly conflicted.
2. Although 1b occurs after 2, I wanted to mention it first. I think that Sarah is already beginning to wonder if Chuck did kill the mole. Chuck’s saving Shaw does not prove that he didn’t, of course, but it does make Sarah wonder if Chuck has changed in the way she thought. He has changed–he has admitted it in the restaurant–but he does not act like a man who has killed someone. Remember, even Sarah, who Casey will later say is wired differently than Chuck, even Sarah struggles with her Red Test and its aftermath. Had Chuck changed enough to kill the mole, would he have also changed enough to be completely unmoved by having done so? And if he had changed so much that he could kill the mole without any pangs of conscience, without regret (which Sarah could not do in her own Red Test), why would he be willing to risk himself and Rome in order to save Shaw? But he does save Shaw, and he does it for her, even when he thinks she will leave him, and leave him with Shaw. That Sarah is not more troubled by Chuck’s lack of reaction to killing the mole, that it never occurs to her to wonder how Chuck–hand-wringing, second-guessing Chuck–could suddenly have become a man who not only could kill, but kill without any regret, kill without any apparent compunction, kill without any reaction at all, is one of the weirdest bits of the many weird bits in S3. –Perhaps it never occurs to her because of her own misery? She blames herself for the choice she thinks Chuck has made, and that is an important part of what pushes her toward DC and toward Shaw. As I said, she cannot watch the final ruination of the man she loves–a ruination for which she counts herself responsible. Still, it is strange that she never wonders about how he could have changed so much. Does she think that he is so excited about Rome that the excitement is overriding his guilt? Chuck? Weird. How would that go? I guess even if there is no explanation for it, that it does not occur to Sarah to wonder testifies to how convinced she is initially that he really did kill the mole.
But, however that goes, she now knows he saved Shaw at great risk to himself, and for her sake. That has to be on her mind as she is packing. Can she really believe that he has changed as much as she thought? She could not be packing to go to DC with Shaw, if that is what she is doing, if Chuck had not saved Shaw. In a sense, Chuck gave this choice to her.
The drift of the plot at this point in S3 favors Sarah’s packing for DC. Her comment to Chuck (1b) is that she has made commitments, and not just to Shaw. Her reaction to Chuck’s kiss, though conflicted, is measured and hard to read. And that brings me to another crucial point.
Throughout the show, Sarah really never rejects a direct appeal from Chuck. She resists, but does not utimately reject. (Even when she seems to do so, she changes her mind.) Given what he says to her in Castle (1b), if Sarah is still going with Shaw, then we have reached a decisive moment in the show, a decisive moment between the two of them, a moment at which Sarah not only resists but rejects Chuck’s direct appeal. Is that what happens here? Has Sarah rejected Chuck’s direct appeal?
I suspect that this question really nags anyone who has gotten stuck on the question about where Sarah is going. (Mea culpa.) The real issue is whether Sarah can reject Chuck when Chuck has done all that he has done to get her to choose him. But–at the risk of being really repetitive–it is worth remembering again that if Sarah is rejecting Chuck, Sarah is not rejecting Chuck in favor of Shaw. If she rejects Chuck, she will end up with Shaw, presumably, but that is a consequence of her decision, not its real object. –So where is Sarah going?
Of course there is no way of knowing for sure.
For a long time, I thought Sarah was packing disjunctively, that is, packing to go with Shaw-or-Chuck, but not knowing which. I still think that is a very real possibility. But having thought about this for a while now, and having discussed it with various fans of the show (you know who you are), I am inclined to think that she is packing to go with Shaw. That is, she cannot see how to renege on her commitments if she is anything less than sure about Chuck. In the past, when Chuck appealed directly to her–and in the future, when he does so–Sarah finds or will find a way to respond to his appeal, to believe him, or to trust him even if she doesn’t believe he is right. (Chuck will ask Sarah to do that in S4, mirroring her request to him from S1.) This is the one time in the show when events have overwhelmed Sarah’s basic responsiveness to Chuck. Prague alone would have created difficulties, but they were moving past them (S3E11). But Prague combined with what Sarah thinks happened in the rail yard, combined with Sarah’s feelings of guilt for Chuck’s predicament, combined with Sarah’s re-living of her own Red Test, well, it proves to be too much. She cannot respond to his direct appeal. She collapses under the combined weight of these events. As much as this may seem to contradict the overarching logic of the show, I have come to think it actually coheres with it. Sarah has been pushed past her breaking point and she is packing to go to DC.
(I think the closest to a decisive bit of evidence, if there is one, is that Sarah is packing wearing what she was wearing in Castle (1b). But, after Casey’s visit, when Sarah is heading to meet Chuck at Union Station, she has changed her clothes, and in a dramatic way. She is dressed up, clearly dressed for Chuck and in celebration of her new non-spy life with Chuck. That she is packing wearing what we might call her work clothes sure suggests that she is choosing work, choosing DC, choosing Shaw.)
Casey is the one who saves her, saves Chuck, saves them as a couple. For all the grief he has given them about their being together, he turns out to be nearly as invested in them as they are. It is worth remembering too, since the things that happen next happen so quickly and mask the fact, Casey’s decision to tell Sarah is a Really. Big. Deal.
He is, in effect, confessing that he is technically guilty of murder. If Sarah were really not in love with Chuck, if she were really in love with Shaw, that confession might have had disastrous repercussions for Casey. He gambles on Sarah still loving Chuck–he gambles right, but he gambles. He also knows that if Sarah acts as he expects, she and Chuck will run. And if they run, Casey will be left alone in Burbank, probably locked out for good from the job that matters so much to him. Casey is, in effect, preparing to fall on his own sword, and for Chuck and Sarah’s sake. It ends up working out for him. But he has no way of knowing that when he shows up at Sarah’s apartment. When he tells Sarah, “Have a good life, Walker”, for all he knows he has effectively ended his own.
Chuck will himself soon collapse under the weight of events. He will take everything that has happened, including his unhappy attempt to save Sarah from Shaw, to have destroyed his chance at happiness with Sarah. Chuck’s retreat into liquored-up, video-gaming is the moment of his collapse under the combined weight of events. Sarah shows up and saves him (and Morgan).
This is the true nadir of the show, the deepest valley it visits. (Well, setting aside the end, maybe, but that too is a topic for another day.) Sarah thinks Chuck has chosen the wrong version of himself, the wrong Chuck. Chuck thinks Sarah has chosen Shaw. Sarah gets out of her valley before Chuck, and so she is the one who rescues him from his. But in the course of these events, they each lose faith in them, in them as a couple, in the possibility that they can be together. It is Casey (of all people) who keeps faith, Casey who is ultimately the author of their salvation as a couple. First, he saves Chuck from failing the Red Test outright, giving Chuck time to win Sarah back; second, he saves Sarah from a disastrous choice: she would have chosen the wrong Sarah, Sarah-without-Chuck.
That is the final thought in this too long, rambling essay. The show could have been called “Chuck vs. Chuck”. Or it could have been called “Sarah vs. Sarah”. Neither can truly win the other or be won by the other until he or she wins out against himself or herself. And to win, each needs help from Casey.
Addendum (10/17): As if this long, twisty essay needed more twists…A friend (atcDave) pointed out to me something that I somehow managed to miss in the episode. While Sarah packs, her photograph of herself and Chuck is framed on her nightstand beside her. Now, while I do not know that this decides the issue in Chuck’s favor (proves that Sarah is running with Chuck) it is a clearly significant piece of evidence, and it strikes me as outweighing my Sarah’s-still-wearing-her-work-clothes point). So, maybe she is packing to go with Chuck after all…?
 One thing that viewers do not focus on enough is the far-ranging effects of the changes in the Intersect on Chuck’s understanding of his duty. If Chuck had only the Intersect of S1-2 in his head, and Sarah wanted him to run, surely he would have run–as is proved by the final episodes of S2. But the Intersect of S1-2 is an Intersect that only provides Chuck with information, not with skills. It gives him a certain kind of power, but does not make him powerful, as we ordinarily understand that term. The Intersect of S3 (setting aside its glitching problem) does make Chuck powerful. And, to borrow the oft-repeated Spiderman tag, with great power comes great responsibility. When Sarah wants to run in between S2 and S3, when she meets him in Prague, Chuck’s understanding of his duty has changed with his recognition of his power. If we don’t recognize this change, we will never wrap our mind around Prague; Chuck will look like he is refusing to do what he has already proven willing to do. But that is wrong. The situation is vastly different because of the different Intersects. Chuck feels victimized by Intersect of S1-2, and so he feels that having it confers upon him no special duties. But he feels empowered by the Intersect of S3, and so does feel that having it confers upon him special duties. (And remember, Chuck chooses to download the Intersect of S3; he did not choose to download the one from S1-2.) I think that even Sarah does not fully understand how Chuck’s relationship to the Intersect changes from S2 to S3. Her failure to do that is a partial cause of the misery between them, as is, of course, Chuck’s inability to explain the changes effectively. He bungles his attempt in Prague and then gets gassed as he tries to explain later, in S3E2. Sarah (thanks to Carina) eventually hears the explanation he gives before he passes out, and while she is moved by it and understands some of what Chuck is saying, I do not think she comes fully to understand it yet.
 You might now think: “Wait a minute! I thought you said Chuck’s relationship to the Intersect had changed and that he now took himself to have duties because of the powers it gives him. But he is willing to run again, like at the end of S2!” –Well, I did say that and I believe it. But the thing is, Chuck’s understanding of his duties changes when he realizes he cannot be the spy (bad-spy Chuck) that Beckman and Shaw want him to be. He still feels like he has duties, but he is not sure how to discharge them, since he has not yet worked out how to be a spy on his on terms (good-spy Chuck). He has also figured out that his control over the Intersect is itself contingent on his emotions, and in particular on his emotions for Sarah. The Intersect really only empowers him when she is with him, when all is good between them. Ultimately, it is Sarah, not the Intersect, who really empowers Chuck. I noted in my book that Sarah goes as deep in Chuck as Chuck does. (Proven, I take it, by the events of Chuck vs. Phase Three.) And it is important to remember that she goes deeper in Chuck than the Intersect does. That is one of the fundamental truths of the show. It is why Chuck, narrating their story to Sarah as the show ends, claims that his life really changed, not when he downloaded the Intersect, but when he met a spy named Sarah.
I love when writers so arrange words or events or characters that a line that would ordinarily be clichéd or hackneyed, conversational jetsam that means little, if anything at all, becomes truly weighty, deep. Jane Austen was a master of this; so too was Shakespeare. A nice example crops up on the final pages of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, when Arthur Winner–having demonstrated throughout the novel his deep constancy and his capacities for different forms of suffering–answers his mother, who calls for him from upstairs: “Here I am.” Cozzens’ art is such that the line skyrockets to first among quotable lines from the novel–but of course it is in effect unquotable, since to quote it in isolation from its place at the end of the novel renders it paltry, some kind of truism: “Of course, Arthur Winner, you are here; no matter where you are, here is it.” To appreciate the line, you need to know Arthur Winner, and it of course helps if you know Samuel and Isaiah.
Chuck manages to do this sort thing often. Lines in the show gain in meaning or begin to take on additional meaning across episodes. The one I want to consider now is my favorite of these, Sarah’s comment about being in Burbank (broadly) and about being with Chuck (particularly): “I’m good here.” When she first says this, it means what it means primus visus. “I am ok here and with being here; I am making it, making it work.” But as the show unfolds, it becomes clear that the word ‘good’ puns. (Is Sarah punning with the word? Later, and surely by the time of her vows to Chuck, she must hear the pun, even intend it?) The claim still means what it meant before, but now it means more: “I am good (as opposed to bad) when I am here. This place, this guy, makes me better, a better person. I like who I am here.” Sarah, recall, more or less puts it this way when dancing with her father (in vs. The Wedding Planner). To appreciate Sarah’s line, you have to know her and what has been happening to her.
By the way, the Arthur Winner line is more or less Chuck’s too. Think of his vows to Sarah. “You can count on me.” It is his way of telling Sarah “Here I am.”
This is the second in the short series of essays on S3. Spoilers!
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. 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.
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. 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.
 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.
 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.
An essay about a central question of S3. I will be posting a least one or two more such essays in the next few of weeks. Spoiler warning for anyone watching the show for the first time.
For more than two seasons, when no one else would or did or could, Sarah trusts Chuck; she believes him and believes in him.
Then–the Red Test. And now she does not believe him, even though she knows that she did not actually see Chuck shoot the mole. Sure, what she saw, arriving seconds later, looks like the immediate aftermath of Chuck shooting the mole. But Sarah is a spy. She manipulates appearances for a living. She knows how far things can sometimes be from what they seem to be. (In fact, a logical difference the show insists on is this: in real life, things are almost always what they seem; in the spy life, they are never quite what they seem.) So, why won’t she believe Chuck? I do not think the answer to this question can take the form of a rationalizing her disbelief. The best that can be done is to make her irrationality understandable. Chuck’s Red Test depresses all of Sarah’s buttons at once; it is no wonder she short-circuits.
So why does Sarah fail to believe Chuck? Why does she disbelieve his denial that he shot the mole? –Is it because she loves Shaw? No. Of course not. Sarah does not love Shaw and she knows it. She has what she felt–and still feels–for Chuck to compare her feeling for Shaw to, and, whatever she feels for Shaw, is not that. As she says, what she has with Shaw is different (she says this when they are on stake-out in vs. the Final Exam.)
Is it because Chuck changes during the weeks and months as he struggles to become an agent? That plays a role, because Sarah sees him lying to Hannah, for example, in a way that clearly indicates that his character is under pressure, perhaps is cracking. But she also sees him pull back from the precipice.
Is it because of Prague? That, too, plays a role, an important one. Even when she seems to have moved past it, that disappointment haunts Sarah throughout the season, and it helps explain her choosing Shaw. Despite her bravado in telling Chuck he cannot hurt her, he can hurt her–he has, and he still does: the whole situation of S3 appears for Sarah against the background of her crushed dreams for the two of them. She is living through her wretched hollow. Every day with Chuck is a reminder of what she does not have: a real life with him. Every day stabs. Every day cuts her with some shard of what-could-have-been. Choosing Shaw is choosing a back-up, makeshift life-in-waiting. It is not what Sarah wants, and she knows that, even if she tries to ignore it. (Sarah does surely like Shaw; and, equally important, she admires him. As she says, she has a type. But liking plus admiring have never equalled love, not in any sober calculus of the heart.) Sarah has retreated to her old posture, treating her own emotions as if they were her asset, and she their handler. That did not work out well before; it is not working out well now. Complete emotional invulnerability demands complete emotional numbness. Sarah can no longer be numb. Chuck quickened her emotions for good, and they refuse to be deadened again. She cannot kill her love for Chuck; she can only deny it.
So why does she not believe him? Answering the question forces us to go back to a much earlier conversation between Chuck and Sarah. In vs. the Truth, Chuck, Sarah and Casey, all suffering from the effects of the truth serum/poison, are sitting in the hospital hallway. Sarah, clearly making no effort to withstand the serum at that moment, tells Chuck how sorry she is about all that has happened. And by all, she means all–not just Ellie’s being poisoned or Chuck’s being poisoned, but everything that has happened since she arrived. This is an important speech. It comes from deep inside Sarah.
From nearly the beginning of their fake/real relationship, Sarah has felt a mixture of gratitude for the presence of Chuck in her life and of regret for her presence in his. Just as Chuck cannot easily see himself as a hero, Sarah cannot easily see how much of a role she plays in his being heroic. But others, especially Morgan, can see how much Sarah catalyzes growth in Chuck: “When Chuck is around Sarah, he’s the Chuck we all knew he could be.” Sarah is so involved in Chuck’s effects on her that she often fails to see or forgets her effects on him. (This fact bulks large in the dysfunction of S3: Sarah cannot see that Chuck refusing to run with her results from her good effect on him. She has actually succeeding in making him think that maybe, maybe he can be a hero.) Sarah tends to focus only on how she complicates Chuck’s life, and how the complications cause him frustration, anxiety, shame and pain. She regrets all of that. And she carries that regret with her into S3.
At Traxx, when Chuck joins Sarah at the table, flushed with excitement about (he thinks) having become an agent, and about having dinner with her, Sarah has to tell him that he now faces his Red Test. He must kill the mole to become an agent. But before Sarah can deliver that doom to him, Chuck thanks her for all she has done and comments that he would never have gotten to where he is without her. She does not want him to say that. It is–literally–the last thing she wants to hear. Her regret about her presence in his life crashes in upon her. If she had never come along, Chuck would not have had to undergo any of this (Seasons 1-3), or to face the choice to kill the mole or to fail to become an agent. Sarah realizes the vise that Chuck is in: He can kill the mole and so lose her, or he can fail to become an agent and so lose her. Chuck may not see all that quite so clearly, but he can feel the vise closing.
Later, when Sarah arrives in time to witness the immediate aftermath of the shot that kills the mole, Sarah reports to Shaw: “Chuck is a spy.” From her point of view, the Chuck she knew and loved, her Chuck, is as irrevocably dead as the mole. But, still from Sarah’s point of view, Chuck does not kill himself: she kills him: she is responsible for pulling the trigger that causes Chuck to pull the trigger. Sarah is so sure that she is responsible for what Chuck has done that she never really stops to consider whether or not Chuck has actually done it. Her pervasive guilt for all that has led up to the Red Test colors how she sees the Test. (It is worth remembering here too the guilt Sarah feels about her own Red Test. It is no accident that she is thinking about her Test immediately after Chuck’s.) The crashing wave of guilt she feels swamps Chuck and everything else. She cannot distinguish her guilt from his–all the guilt is hers. But, strangely enough, this makes it impossible for her to believe–at least initially–that Chuck is not guilty. She is guilty, so he must be. After she has had a little time to reflect, she begins to wonder if maybe Chuck is telling the truth. At least, she is wondering enough to ask him about it when Chuck takes Shaw’s place at the restaurant table (in vs. the American Hero).
She has still not sorted it all out when Chuck saves Shaw–or when Chuck at last professes his love to her. She has sorted it out enough to take it to be somehow possible that Chuck did not kill the mole. He is no longer swallowed up in her pervasive guilt. But if she no longer disbelieves him, she still does not yet believe him. She does intuit this much: Shaw’s decision to infiltrate the Ring’s compound is reckless, not courageous; Chuck’s decision is courageous, not reckless. At some level, Sarah can tell the difference.
An aside: generally, Shaw’s actions seem virtuous only because they are instances of vices that look like virtues, and so are easy to confuse with them: foolhardiness with courage (as in infiltrating the compound), cruelty with honor (as when he brutalizes the bound assassin for his inappropriate remarks to Sarah), manipulation with mentoring (as in his relationship with Chuck) obsession with loving memory (as in his relationship with his dead wife), possessiveness with love (as in his relationship with Sarah). Shaw manages to be broken, bad, while looking good. From the moment Shaw first appears, burning his Zippo in Beckman’s office, it is clear that there is something wrong with that man. But getting it into focus is hard, because he seems right, he seems good. It will require a certain sort of context, an appropriate series of events, to sift Shaw’s virtuous appearance from his vicious reality.
As I said, Sarah is beginning to notice these things about Shaw. No one else–not Chuck, not Casey, not Beckman–notices. Well, no one else other than Morgan, whose comment about Shaw’s stiffness (“He’s a stiff as a board!”) seems to me to penetrate deep into Shaw, to a fundamental unresponsiveness, a lack of genuine care, in him. But even though Sarah is starting to notice these things, she is not clearly conscious of them. She cannot articulate them.
Sarah can tell that Chuck’s decision to go after Shaw is noble. He does it for her sake and not for his own. But she is still awash in her own feeling of guilt, and she still does not exactly believe Chuck; so, she cannot satisfactorily process what she feels about him and about what he is doing. He seems like he is virtuous, her virtuous Chuck, the man she loves. But in her guilt she has convinced herself that that man is dead, and that his blood is on her hands.
When Chuck professes his love for her, when he kisses her, when he forswears convincing her–wanting her instead to freely choose him–he effectively washes her hands. His words are a benediction. It may still be wrong to say that she exactly believes Chuck. She has not worked that out completely yet. There are also the complexities of her commitments, to Shaw and to Beckman, still to work through. But, at long last, the high tide of confusion, hurt, guilt and regret begins to go down. She can begin to remember: she is grateful for Chuck’s presence in her life. Casey will soon transchange that gratitude into joy. Sarah will have waited it out.
 In the tumult of The Red Test (and of S3 generally) it is hard to keep the sequence of events in mind. Sarah makes her trip to DC with Shaw before The Red Test. And it is right after the Red Test that Shaw asks Sarah if she still loves Chuck. She answers: “No. Not any more.” So while she was with Shaw in DC she was still in love with Chuck–and Shaw knew it. Although I do not know how to prove it, I am reasonably convinced that Chuck’s Red Test and Sarah’s ‘proctoring’ of it are compelled by Shaw to drive Chuck and Sarah finally apart. His question, coming when it does, reveals that.
 As I mention in my book, ‘different’ for Sarah almost always means ‘worse’ or ‘compares unfavorably to’. It is a bit of emotionally controlled shorthand, and Sarah has a set of such terms at her disposal. They are among her techniques for avoiding the use of first-person desiderative verbs, to avoid having to express desire or aversion, emotional satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Later in S3, she will be able to answer Chuck’s question: “Sarah, do you love me?” by saying, “Yes”. But she will struggle to use the word ‘love’ herself (vs. the Tooth).
 Keep in mind I say all this while still harboring a certain sympathy for Shaw. There is a story to tell about how he got to be as he is. It does not excuse him but it does make him less opaque. Also, I am not saying that Shaw is purposely deceitful about himself, as if he realizes his viciousness and tries to keep his vices hidden. He does not realize (fully) that he is vicious. He is as taken in by his looks as anyone else.
 Watch carefully. Morgan’s judgments about other people are perceptive, particularly about those closest to him. And he has something of the visionary or prophet about him where Chuck is concerned. Time and time again he predicts something–“Chuck and Sarah will come right through that door”–and is proven right. This surely matters for his S5 prediction that one kiss will revive Sarah’s dormant memories.
 I have been weaving Imogen Heap’s “Wait it Out” into the essay. I have done so in order to bring the song to mind. That song does far more in S3 than comment on what is happening early. It takes us into Sarah’s inner life and allows us to understand its shape, to understand what is happening in her, from the beginning of the season all the way to Casey’s revelation. The parallel to this song for Chuck is Frightened Rabbit’s “Backwards Walk”. I will discuss that soon.
A passage from Stuart Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen:
All the heroines find happy endings and they all deserve them, as each has, in one way or another, worked, suffered, learned. But if they do not get more than they deserve they often seem to arrive at, or be helped to, the happy ending by a stroke of luck…at the right moment. The happy ending is not guaranteed by their actions. What seems to be more important than the sudden and fortunate event, however, because it precedes the ending again and again, in whatever manner the end is produced, is that the heroine is prepared to accept unhappiness. The endings of Jane Austen’s novels are never sentimental because before she will allow the happy result the heroine must face the fact that she has lost…The reader may refuse to believe that any of these things will happen because he has been given a different set of expectations, but the heroine must believe. She must not simply see the threat as another obstacle that she can do something about, and she must not despair because, having lost, there is nothing in her life for her to do. She must really see it as a loss, absorb it as an irreversible fact, and then come to terms with herself and go ahead with what she must do now. She often finds herself in the same place and in the same company as she was at the beginning, but she cannot be the same person herself because time has made a difference and things will never be the same again. She must in the same place face a new time, and it is very hard…[The heroines] must accept their unhappiness before they are granted happiness. The reward then is not the essential thing because it need never have arrived; that may well be dependent on chance; what is important is that at the time it is granted the heroine is worthy of a happiness that has a meaning. She would have been worthy of it even if her lot had proved unhappy because in her place she has used her time well, and that is not a matter of chance.
This is a promising candidate for the most important paragraph ever written about Austen, but I want to appropriate it for thinking about the final episode of Chuck. Of course, to do so requires changing out the ‘heroine’ for ‘hero’–but it is also worth remembering how insistently the show portrays Chuck himself as ‘feminine’. (His girlish screams, his only learning the woman’s part of the tango, etc., etc.)
Think particularly about the scene after Sarah has shot Quinn and Chuck has grabbed the Intersect glasses. Chuck knows that Ellie can use the glasses, after modifying them, to restore Sarah; that has been Chuck’s plan and he tells Sarah so as he looks at the glasses. But if he does not use them himself and download the Intersect, Beckman and everyone in the venue will die when the bomb explodes. The Intersect is necessary to defuse the bomb. Chuck explains this to Sarah, and she nods, acknowledging the necessity. She understands what the choice means for her, but especially she understands what the choice means for Chuck. Chuck puts on the glasses and downloads the Intersect. He defuses the bomb.
I isolate this moment because it brings into clear focus Chuck’s willingness to accept unhappiness. His last chance to do something himself to bring about his happiness goes up in the smoke that issues from the Intersect glasses after the download. But he does not despair, he does not simply give up. He saves everyone. In doing so, at least from his point of view, he loses Sarah. He believes that. He sees it as an irreversible fact. He may hope that something will change; but he can no longer expect it to do so. He must now in the same place, in Burbank, face a new time–and it is very hard. He is alone again and anew in Burbank. Choosing to save everyone from the bomb rather than to bring Sarah back (and her willingness for him to do that) is his way (and, it turns out, I believe, hers) of showing that he (and she) is worthy of a happiness that has a meaning. They have made similar choices before, but never one where they lose so much–not just their life together, but even Sarah’s memory of their life together, and all of her growth during that the time of their life together.
This is perhaps the central reason I think the kiss works. Is it a Disney-esque device, as Morgan himself admits when he suggests it? Yes. But the point is that Chuck has worked, suffered, learned. (We can also say these things about Sarah mutatis mutandis.) He has used his time well, and that is not a matter of chance, not Disney-esque. As much as we viewers may want that reward, the success of the kiss, for them both, that is not the essential thing. The essential thing is Chuck’s acceptance of his unhappiness.
That he has accepted it is borne out on the beach. He tells Sarah to trust him, that he will always be there for her. But crucially he also says that he does not expect anything of her. He is reconciled to losing her, but that has not changed how he feels about her or his desire to be there for her. As I said in my book, Chuck will be her husband even if she chooses not to be his wife. He is worthy of happiness; he is worthy of her. The boy-man Nerd Herder is gone. A fully grown and self-possessed man is beside her. Seeing him, and seeing him to be what he is, she wants to be kissed. She is ready to remember.
My Chuck book, *Chuck: Real Love in the Spy Life*, is available for free. It can be downloaded in multiple formats–ebook or .pdf. Click on “The Chuck Book” above.
I am making my Chuck book, *Chuck: Real Love in the Spy Life*, available for free. It can be downloaded as a e-book or as a .pdf file. I hope fans of the show enjoy it!
For Kindle: .MOBI
For Nook/Other: .Epub
For Adobe/PC: .Pdf
There are still a few kinks in the formatting for these files. E.g., the quotations are not consistently formatted, so you have to be careful–sometimes you seem to be reading me still when you are reading someone else. I do intend to update the files at some point.
My thanks to Andy Bass for all the expert technical help. Without him, not.