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.
[Here is a bit of the Introduction to the Chuck book.]
Thinking about Chuck, Reading Chuck
Chuck artfully grafts a spy thriller onto a romantic comedy. It deepens the romantic comedy by including within it two complementary Bildungsromane, the story of the growth of the two central characters–their growth as individuals, as a couple, and as individuals because they are a couple. Each tutors the other; their we tutors their I’s. The show explores trust and mistrust, belief and doubt, truth and falsity, and reality and appearance. It also explores hope and despondency, love, loss and loneliness. Sarah challenges Chuck’s self-mistrust. She gives him the will and confidence to become what he is (but cannot believe himself to be). Chuck challenges Sarah’s moral imagination. He quickens her sense of human actualities of trust, warmth and hearth. Sarah models competence for Chuck. Chuck models vulnerability for Sarah. Chuck becomes a spy while remaining a human being; Sarah becomes a human being while remaining a spy.
Chuck achieves density and resonance. It is a show of patterns: of duplications, of symmetries, of echoes, of types and anti-types. It is animately, virtuosically contrapuntal–like Bach. It speaks an elaborate language of images, events, actions, places, words and music. It also speaks that language quite quickly and volubly, making serious demands on its audience’s attention and memory. But it also rewards that attention, that active participatory recollection, by steadily ingathering meaning.
Density and Resonance
Let me clarify some of my terms. What do I mean by ‘density’ and ‘resonance’? By calling the show ‘dense’ I mean that in it many meanings are often carried by one image, event, action, phrase or word. By calling it ‘resonant’, I meant that one word, phrase, action, event , place or image is often projected into or recollected in many other contexts. Think of density as a many-in-one phenomenon and of resonance as a one-in-many phenomenon.
One interesting, complicated example of density is the word ‘date’. The problematic meaning of the word between Chuck and Sarah (the central characters) is established in the very first episode. They go on what Chuck takes to be a date. Sarah takes it to be an opportunity to establish herself as her asset’s handler, i.e., as her chance to insinuate herself into Chuck’s life and establish control over him. But one problem with going on a pretend date (of the sort they go on) is that it is very much like going on a real date (think how much like waving pretending to wave is). Sarah gets dressed up, as Chuck does–except her outfit includes body armor and weapons. He picks her up and takes her to dinner. They talk. They go dancing. Chuck intends to go on a date and believes he is on one. Sarah intends to develop an asset, and so begins the evening with intentions unlike those that normally are involved in an actual date, those like Chuck has. But before the evening ends, her intentions have become unclear. Maybe she is on a date. It starts to seem–to her–like she is on a date. Eventually, she is on a date–although she would deny it if asked. So did they go on a date or not? Yes? No? Sort of? Whether this is the right word, or at any rate what meaning the word has, will remain an issue between them. They will come back to it several times in the course of the show and even in the final episode. For them, the word bears both an attenuated and a full meaning–say that it is appearance/reality ambiguous. The attenuated sense is the sense of a merely apparent date, a pretend date. The full sense is the sense of a real date. Many of the words of Chuck are appearance/reality ambiguous, and thus dense in a problematic way.
Here are a couple of examples of resonance in the show (they will be discussed in later chapters):
Rings: engagement rings, wedding rings (fake and genuine), ordinary rings, even an evil spy organization known as “The Ring”–rings appear and reappear throughout the show.
Trains and train stations: many of the significant moments of the show take place on trains or at trains stations, a train station in Prague and Union Station in LA are perhaps the most significant.
Together, the density and resonance of the show make reading it (I will say more about this use of ‘reading’ below) tricky in specific ways. Often, the full meaning of an episode will not be revealed until a later episode, but not because there is something unexplained in the earlier episode–say, something kept secret. No, the full meaning of an episode will not be revealed because there is a word, phrase, action, event or image that gets projected into a later episode, and which deepens or widens or heightens the significance of the earlier one. We can call density and resonance ‘linguistic’ phenomena: a language is marked by the way in which its individual words and phrases can simultaneously carry many different meanings and by the way in which its individual words and phrases can be projected into new contexts, contexts in which their old meaning remains part of their story, but only part of their story. The words now have more to tell. That is part of the reason I say of the show that it speaks an elaborate language.
Chuck strives for formal completeness. It is not just telling a story that begins, has a middle and that ends. Of course, it does do that. But the story-telling is peculiar. Put it this way: the beginning of Chuck presupposes its ending as its ending presupposes its beginning. The final episode presents the end of the events began in the pilot. But it does more than that. It retells the pilot episode, reenacts it. By an instance of what James Joyce in Finnegans Wake calls “a commodius vicus of recirculation”, the end of the show takes us back to its beginning a second time, to a second beginning. When They Might Be Giants sing, “How About Another First Kiss?”, part of the fun of the song is the impossibility of what is requested. But Chuck, because it has structuring principles other than temporal ones, contrives to make what is requested an actuality.
Understanding the show as linguistic, as speaking a language, helps to explain why I want to call what I am doing reading the show. But I use that word to do more than to provide an appropriate description of my response to the show’s linguistic character. I also use it because I want to situate Chuck in relation to various (other) texts–works of philosophy and works of literature. By saying that I am reading Chuck I am insisting on the fact (I take it to be a fact) that the show can withstand sustained comparison to such works. It can be read in the active, inward and sympathetic way that they can. For example, I repeatedly appeal to the work of the philosopher Gabriel Marcel in what follows–I have used lines of his as epigraphs for the book itself and for some of its chapters. Marcel’s work clarifies the show, helps to bring its deeper concerns and its fixations into view and to make them easier to understand.
I realize that this may seem fantastic. After all, a tv show, a network tv show, a long-arc romantic comedy network tv show? Surely, pairing Gabriel Marcel with Chuck staggers credulity. I must be mistreating Marcel. I can’t be serious. –I am serious. The show can survive such a pairing, and still others that will appear in the pages below. The pairing does no damage to Marcel–in fact, it helps to clarify what he is saying and why he is saying it.
Sarah is still in her yellow nightie with a short white robe over it, barefoot. Chuck has put a blue-grey suit jacket on over his pajamas. Sarah begins the ceremony wearing a doily on her head, simulating a veil. Chuck reaches for it and removes it ceremoniously. Sarah is smiling widely, laughing. Chuck laughs too. The moment has tremendous symbolic significance. Sarah has been veiled from Chuck for most of the time he has known her. While the veils protected her, kept her from being known, they also made it nearly impossible for her to make herself known. Our faces harden into the contours of the masks we wear. Chuck has removed those veils with painstaking care. He now removes the last. He knows this woman. She is gladly known. She knows this man. He is gladly known. ‘Know’ has older meanings–perhaps most famously used in the Authorized Version–like to approve and to acknowledge with due respect and to commit or have. These meanings coalesce here. Their wedding celebrates and consecrates their mutual knowledge.
Sarah picks up a piece of paper on which she has written her vows. Chuck gently chides her. This is their wedding ceremony. He has written his vows in a leather journal–a document appropriate to the occasion. But Sarah is satisfied with her vows.
Sarah: I think I covered the bases.
Chuck: Ok, cool. Yeah, good, good. You go then I’ll go and then we’ll have a little note session, afterwards.
Sarah: Ok. I’m just gonna go…
Chuck: You go..mm hmm.
Sarah: [clearing her throat] “Chuck, you’re a gift. You’re a gift I never dreamed I could want or need. And every day I will show you that you’re a gift that I deserve. You make me the best person I could ever hope to be, and I want to spend and learn and love the rest of my life with you.”
Chuck is listening with his eyes closed as Sarah begins to read. He opens his eyes as the words reach his heart. Sarah begins by reading but ends speaking the words from her heart directly to Chuck’s heart, heart to heart. The woman who is no good at the saying-how-she-feels part says how she feels with more direct, economical and poetic power than anyone else–including Chuck–ever manages. She summons and commands a word magic here, one that even Chuck, for all his articulateness, cannot summon or command. Perhaps it is overcoming all the years of living at a distance from her feelings, refusing and abusing them, perhaps it is the freshness of her efforts to express herself, perhaps it is Chuck’s ability to invite expression from her. Perhap it is all of these–and also perhaps it is love itself, love’s uncanny ability to raise us above ourselves, to allow us to do and be what we never imagined we could do or be. Sarah speaks from within the glow of a mandoria, the meeting place of the person she was and the person she hopes to be–the person she is and keeps becoming. In their very first extended conversation, in the Mexican restaurant, Chuck used a complicated rhetorical figure to make a joke about Devon. Sarah uses one to capture the multiple-dimensionality of her life with Chuck: she wants to spend the rest of her life with Chuck, to learn (for) the rest of her life with Chuck, she want to love Chuck and to love with Chuck (to share the things they love) for the rest of her life. The three verbs, ‘spend’, ‘learn’ and ‘love’ all govern ‘the rest of my life with you’ but they do so in different ways.
But the most striking feature of Sarah’s vows is the way in which they transfigure Chuck and reveal the way he has transfigured her. Just before Sarah walks to Chuck for the first time, she is on the phone being briefed about him. He is her asset. Asset. An asset is something disposable, something to be used. He is now her gift. Gift. A gift that she deserves and wants to keep deserving. Gifts are not mere assets. Assets I can have with no question of desert. But not gifts. Gifts impose responsibilities on the person who receives them. If someone paints me a picture and gives it to me, and I take it home and use it as a serving tray, that will be taken (so long as there is nothing else to say) as an expression of contempt not only for the gift, but also for the giver of it. Sarah knows how lucky she is that Chuck appeared in her life–a comet lighting up her darkness, quickening her numbness–and she wants him to know how grateful she is. Her vows give thanks for Chuck. The asset she unveils as a gift.
Wonder overcomes Chuck. Her vows plumb his heart, find in it depths of responsiveness he did not know it had. She asks if the vows were talky. He tells her the vows are perfect, so perfect. He hugs her to him.
After Chuck and Volkoff save Sarah, we are taken into the ceremony just after Sarah’s has made her vows. The bells peal joyously. Sarah sighs, satisfied and relieved, and Chuck begins to speak.
Chuck: Right. My vows. My turn for that. They just don’t cut it. I’m sorry Sarah. How do I express the depth of my love for you? Or my dreams for our future? Or the fact that I will fight for you every day? Or that our kids will be like little superheroes, with little capes and stuff like that? Words can’t express that. They don’t cut it. So no vows. I’ll just prove it to you every day for the rest of our lives. You can count on me.
Chuck of course makes vows here. What he means is that he will not read the vows he wrote. Sarah’s vows already made him describe them as a complete tear down, a page one rewrite. He has not found anything better that he can prepare to say. And so his vows are his confession of inarticulateness before this woman and the prospect of a life with her. The man of words finds that they have deserted him.
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
Chuck has attempted a raid on the inarticulate but returned empty-handed. The guy who is good at the saying-how-he-feels part fails to find words. But his very inarticulateness is expressive. Sarah is closer to him than words are. She has accepted his invitation into the very heart of who he is–and so it is easier for him to show her his avowal than to say vows to her. He is her very own baggage handler. He is her guy. He will fight for her. She can count on him. He is very available. His schedule is wide open.
Dwelling in Wonder
Together, their vows testify to their wonder at each other. R. W. Hepburn notes that
Wonder does not see its objects possessively: they remain ‘other’ and unmastered. Wonder does dwell in its objects with rapt attentiveness.
Hepburn continues by explaining that although we may reach a point at which the interrogative element in wonder–”What is this? How can it be?”–may no longer expect further answers, it still remains in a muted and generalized form. We always find ourselves in an interrogatory posture before proper objects of wonder. She continues
With [the interrogatory element] may persist also an odd sense of the gratuitousness of the object and its qualities. Its existence strikes us as a gift, undeserved. A sense of unlikelihood pervades the experience.
Both Sarah and Chuck, each in his or her own way, is struck by the gratuitousness and the unlikelihood of the other. Each is struck by the sense that the other is ‘other’ and yet belongs to him or her. Each is struck by the fact that the other, loved and trusted, remains still unmastered. Their fidelity to each other will be, will have to be, a creative fidelity. They vow to dwell with each other in rapt attentiveness.
[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.
[This is an section of the chapter devoted to Chuck‘s pilot episode. The chapter title is “The Lonely are Such Delicate Things”. This is still first-draft material, but I thought I would share it anyway. The section reacts to Chuck and Sarah’s conversation on their ‘date’ in the restaurant, El Compadre. There are a few look-aheads, so if you are watching the show and want no spoilers, you may not want to read this.]
Much that creates the need for heavy emotional lifting later in the show is presented in what appears pleasant banter. Chuck’s openness, especially to Sarah, opens the conversation, when he reveals (without any signs of embarrassment before or regret afterwards) his peculiar living arrangement–with his sister and her boyfriend. Just the arrangement makes Chuck look like a child. Had he gone on to mention that his sister raised him, he would have made fully clear that he still lived at home.
But Sarah takes the revelation in stride, doesn’t pull back from it. Instead, she seizes on Chuck’s nickname for Devon. When she laughs and says “No!”, Chuck takes her to be expressing disbelief about his living arrangement, but she quickly clarifies that her attention has instead been caught by the nickname. She takes more interest in what Chuck calls things than in his current situation. She finds the nickname very funny–although she must also recognize that many of Chuck’s anxieties about himself are inscribed in Devon’s nickname. Everything Devon does may be awesome. Chuck does nothing awesome; Chuck’s flossing is ordinary.
Sarah finds Chuck funny. Her eager response to his jokes (along with her comment about not being funny) suggests laughing to be something Sarah loves to do but rarely does. It is her laughter and their shared laughter that primarily metamorphoses a conversation that could be taken as nothing but a clever handler developing an asset into something more. Sarah is enjoying herself, forgetting herself, forgetting to see herself and Chuck as handler and asset. Of course, she could be pretending to find him funny. But her laugher is too unself-conscious, too quick, too obviously the result of listening to him and not merely of hearing what he says, to easily be classified as part of a pretense.
Chuck talks about Sarah meeting Awesome. Chuck’s thoughts have already turned toward the future–he is hoping she will see him again. In effect, he is talking about Sarah meeting his ‘parents’ and within scant minutes of the beginning of their first date. But again she does not pull back from this, but instead reacts to Chuck’s ending his list of Devon’s awesome feats with flossing. Although Sarah likely does not have a name for it (and it is likely Chuck does not either), she recognizes and responds to Chuck’s on-the-fly reverse-auxesis as the bit of real cleverness that it is, (Auxesis is rhetorical figure that lists items in such a way that the last is climactic; Chuck’s list ends in anti-climax). So, when she compliments him on being funny, her compliment results from both her recognition of what Chuck has done and her reaction to it. This kind of appreciative acknowledgment is rare for Chuck. People laugh at what he says often enough, but often do not recognize why what he says is funny.
What does Sarah mean when she then confesses that she is not funny? Well, she rarely makes anyone laugh. Her spy life has not afforded room enough or time for joking. She’s all business. But she also is confessing, in the light of Chuck’s cleverness, that she is not clever in this way. By that I do not mean that she estimates herself dumb (she surely is not), but rather that she knows that she does not have Chuck’s easy access to or variety of means of expression. Words are hard for Sarah.
The conversation then begins to encroach on more intimate issues–it does so when Chuck asks about Sarah’s big secret. Although Chuck is asking Sarah the question as a question about her, he is really asking a question about himself: What really explains you–a woman like you–being out on a date with me–a man like me? As the show unfolds, it will turn out that every time Chuck has (apparently) managed to be Really Together with Sarah, this anxiety will enfold him. And of course the inevitability of this anxiety will also dog his attempts to win Sarah, since he will always be tempted–at least at the level of his brain, if not his heart–to rate his attempts as quixotic: How could he win her? How could he even be in the contest for her heart? The few times Chuck will be tempted to quit trying to win Sarah, it will be because he has a chance to be with someone else, someone who he can be with without this anxiety. Chuck’s self-mistrust makes it very hard for him to believe in himself and Sarah as a (possible) couple. But what Chuck has a hard time getting into focus or keeping in focus is that his anxieties about Sarah are rooted not so much in her beauty or competence as in the way he experiences her presence as a call to arms, as inciting a riot of changes in him. Sarah is such that for Chuck to win her at last, he will have to believe he can win her. (This is not a condition she lays down, it is one he lays down, although he does not yet realize it.) It will be his self-mistrust ultimately, and not any other man or Sarah’s profession or Sarah’s past, that will prove to be his final opponent in the contest for her heart. (Having yourself for opponent is the worst, since it means that your opponent is just exactly as strong as you, knows just exactly as much as you, knows your intentions and motives just as you do. And of course, you cannot win by cheating because it will be you who gets cheated.)
Chuck deftly uses his question about Sarah’s big secret to turn her confession of not being funny into something funny. Since her being out with him cannot simply be explained by her liking him, it must be explained by Sarah having a problem. She cannot be all she seems to be, she must be, somehow, less. Chuck disguises how seriously his thought tempts him by choosing as the options for what is wrong with her one that is patently silly (cannibal) and the other one she has already confessed. Of course, his thought is not really that she is not all that she seems to be. It is that he cannot be whatever it is she thinks he seems to be. If she is less than she seems to be it is only in her mistaken assessment of him.
But before Chuck manages this turn of the conversation, Sarah confesses something more: she confesses that there is plenty wrong with her. Chuck hears this but does not immediately and directly react to it. I take it to be clear that he hears it, and hears it as a muted plea, one that gets repeated in a moment, when Sarah says that she has come out of a long relationship and so may come with baggage. That and how Chuck hears Sarah is revealed by his response: “I could be your very own baggage handler.” A plea and a self-offering. This is not a striving for intimacy with Sarah on Chuck’s part; it is the achievement of it. Neither of them intended for the conversation to take them here. But Sarah has forgotten herself for a moment. And Chuck cannot say No to her, has no desire to say No to her. He is available to her. He wants to and will say Yes. The intimacy of the moment strikes them both at the same time and they each quickly look away, breaking the eye contact that subtends their emotional contact.
Notice that Chuck has co-opted Sarah’s private word for herself–’handler’. She begins the evening thinking of herself as handler, Chuck’s handler. Chuck is her asset. With this one happy, if ordinary, image–of himself as her baggage handler, Chuck spins the bottle, so that instead of his being handled, he is handler–Sarah is his asset. This is a nice example of the easy-to-miss density of dialogue in Chuck. Because the word ‘handler’ is part of a familiar phrase ‘baggage handler’, it is easy to miss the multiple meanings that the word carries. Chuck of course is unaware of them when he speaks the word. But they are there. In Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, each will be or become both the handler and the asset of the other.
Chuck asks if her ex was the reason she left wherever she had been. Sarah tells him that she had been in D.C., and that she realized she needed to leave when she realized that all her friends were her ex’s friends and that everything in D.C. reminded her of him. Other than the name, this is all true. She misses Bryce. D.C. now appears to her in the shadow of Bryce’s death. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that the people Sarah calls her friends (and Bryce’s friends) are her co-workers, other agents. And everything in D.C. is the CIA. There is no reason to think Sarah spends time in D.C. with people who are not her co-workers or that she habitually took long walks among the cherry blossom trees. She worked. She was with Bryce primarily when they worked.
Sarah continues her story–and continues confessing. She needed–she needs–a change, a big one. Sarah does not specify what would count as a big change. But she is considering Chuck as she says this. Her comment about coming with baggage is a comment about her past oriented on her future. It means that if Chuck takes her on, he takes it on. She, like Chuck, risks a peek ahead. Perhaps she believes nothing can come it, but she does it.
Sarah reins herself in–and tries to get back to work. She asks about Chuck’s skeletons, Chuck’s past, Chuck’s secrets. Have there been any women? She turns from their possible future to Chuck’s actual past. Chuck admits to her that there was a woman in college–but then he pulls back and lets that story go, unlike at his birthday party, where he had told it, re-lived it, in excruciating detail. He lets it go because he remembers Ellie’s rule–don’t talk about old girlfriends. He lets it go because he does not want to exceed Sarah’s brevity about Bruce. He lets it go because, for the first time in five years, he can actually imagine getting over Jill. The woman sitting across the table from him outshines (his memory of) Jill. In Sarah’s light, he can even joke about Jill.
Sarah confesses one thing more–responding spontaneously to Chuck yet again, yet again giving herself away. “I like you, Chuck.” She does like him. She tells the truth. She is having a good time. In spite of herself, she is finding that she cannot maintain a manipular posture in relation to him. Chuck’s responds to what she says with pleased surprise.
This is the first time Sarah uses Chuck’s name, calls him ‘Chuck’. She will use his name over and over again in their relationship, for example, she will use it over and over again before the cockcrow of sunrise at Malibu beach. Sarah will principally use last names in relationships with others. She will not use the first names of anyone else with a frequency approaching the frequency of her use of ‘Chuck’. It is not just the frequency of her use of ‘Chuck’ that marks out the name and its bearer as holding a special place for her. It is also the way that she uses it. She calls him by name as a form of recognition–she recognizes him, she knows who he really is and can be. She sees him. She recognizes him hidden in the Nerd Herd, living with Ellie and Devon, still wounded by an old girlfriend. She recognizes him as the Chuck he believes he has failed to become.
It is important to keep in mind that my description of this conversation is not an attempt to capture the moment-by-moment self-understanding of the characters. For example, my calling what Sarah is doing confessing does not mean that she takes herself to be confessing as she is talking. I presume she is not classifying her actions in speech as she performs them, as if she were saying silently, “I am now confessing…” while she audibly confesses that she comes with baggage. Even Sarah sometimes does not know (quite) what she is doing at the moment she does it. I do think that she does realize, part of the way through the conversation, that she has been confessing. What I am trying to do is to capture what is actually happening between the characters. Sometimes that means that I will be interested in capturing their moment-by-moment self-understandings, but I will be interested in those only to the extent that capturing them is required to capture what is really going on. Does Sarah realize fully that she has revealed as much as she has revealed in the conversation? No. Does Chuck understand clearly the commitment he offers Sarah in the conversation? No. But does mean that Sarah has not revealed as much as she has or that Chuck has not offered the commitment he has offered? No. Does this then mean that Sarah’s revelations and Chuck’s offered commitment are not deliberate? Yes. Does that mean that these things do not count as actions on Sarah and Chuck’s part? No. Much of Chuck is driven by and explores how much we do without doing it deliberately, how much we give away about ourselves without setting out to do so. All of us, even spies, are endlessly, constantly expressive. To deny that is not to treat our bodies or voices, our faces or eyes, as screens. It is to deny that we have bodies or voices, or faces or eyes, at all.
[Many of the themes of this conversation return repeatedly throughout the book.]
So I have been watching Chuck. I just finished it. I started watching while I was sick a few weeks ago, couchbound at home. I wasn’t sure of what I thought at first. And then, in a rush, I got completely drawn in. Part of it was realizing that there was a serious long-arc story being told. Part of it was the show’s willingness to allow its central characters to suffer. Not just to be angry, upset, frustrated, stymied–but genuinely to suffer. Not many tv comedies have been able to do that. Buffy was of course the best at it. Part of it was being taken captive by Yvonne Strohovski’s beautiful portrayal of the central female character, Sarah Walker, and Zachary Levi’s of the other central character, Chuck Bartowski. Part of it was the great, often quite obscure music in the soundtrack. Music deepens and intensifies almost every crucial scene in the show, most memorably the use of Nina Simone’s “Feelin Good” at a crucial moment in the third season, although the use of The Head and the Hearts “Rivers and Roads” in the very final scene of the show is perhaps equally good.
At heart, the show is a romantic comedy decked out as a spy thriller. But it is also a dual Bildungsroman: the two central characters, Chuck and Sarah, both grow throughout the show, and grow because of each other and because of their romance. Sarah empowers Chuck. She gives him the will and the confidence to become what he is (but cannot believe himself to be). Chuck challenges Sarah’s moral imagination. He quickens her sense of human actualities of trust, love, loyalty and family. Sarah models competence for Chuck. Chuck models vulnerability for Sarah. Chuck becomes a spy while remaining human; Sarah becomes human while remaining a spy.
One of the things I like best about the show is the role of pattern in the story telling. The show is full of deliberate symmetries, assymetries and reversals and repetitions. Understanding what is happening in many episodes and many scenes requires understanding the broadly syntactical relationship between it and previous episodes and scenes. (One reason why the show starts a bit slow: it takes time to establish patterns that can then be used to reveal or to deepen meaning.) The final episode provides a great example. (Spoiler alert! But I will be leaving out details in order to better show pattern.)
Many fans complained about the final episode. They complained that the show did not come to a close, to a final resolution. Here’s why: by the time of the final episode, Sarah and Chuck are married. They have finally had enough of their spy life. They want a home and children. They plan to turn their spy business, Carmichael Enterprises, into a business that fights cyber terrorism. But before they can do that, they have to take one final mission. On that mission, Sarah ends up losing her memory of the five years covered in the series, the five years of her relationship to Chuck. The bad guy of the final few episodes, Quinn, makes her believe that her marriage to Chuck was part of her cover, that she has been spying on Chuck, and that Chuck is responsible for the death of people she knew. Sarah eventually learns that Quinn has lied to her, and she come to believe that she was in fact in love with Chuck, really his wife. But what she knows does not restore her memory; it does not recall her feelings for Chuck. As she says in a heartbreaking scene at the end of the penultimate episode: “I believe you but I don’t feel it.” She leaves to take revenge on Quinn for stealing her life from her.
In the final episode, Sarah is still hunting Quinn. She narrowly misses revenging herself on him, but he gets away. In need of help to find him, Sarah returns to Chuck and to the resources of Carmichael Enterprises. (Sarah is wearing an outfit that in colors and materials (tan leather jacket, white blouse, jeans) is the same as the outfit she wore the day they met.) Chuck volunteers himself and the rest of his (and, previously, Sarah’s) team to help her find Quinn. They figure out that Quinn is in Germany and so they go to find him. Once there, Chuck and Sarah follow the man Quinn plans to meet, a man who has a piece of computer hardware that Quinn needs. The man leads them into a German Mexican restaurant that turns out to be almost identical to the Mexican restaurant in Burbank where Chuck and Sarah first ate together. (Chuck thought they were on a date; Sarah was acting as his handler.) Chuck tells Sarah about this, but she is intent on the mission and uncomfortable with his starting to tell her their story. Quinn, paranoid about Sarah looking for him, phones the man they are following to change the location of the exchange.
They follow the man to an embassy dance, reduplicating the end of the evening of Chuck and Sarah’s first ‘date’, when they danced together. They dance together (Chuck reminds Sarah that she taught him how to dance.) Once again, Quinn calls and changes locations for the exchange. So the man leaves the embassy and goes to a German version of the Wienerlicious restaurant Sarah worked in as her cover in her early time as Chuck’s handler. Already, in the previous episode, Sarah has shown signs of her memory returning. (At the beginning of this episode, in her first brush with Quinn, Sarah is knocked unconscious by a blow on the head.) Now, while she and Chuck pose as Wienerlicious employees, she begins rearranging cups to get them into the appropriate pattern, recalling her earlier cover job. Quinn finally shows up, followed by several henchmen. He gets the hardware he needs, kills the man with whom he makes the exchange, and escapes once more. Chuck has a chance to shoot Quinn, but as he has throughout the show, he refuses to kill.
Sarah blames Chuck for letting Quinn escape, but he tells her that she liked the fact that he was unwilling to kill. Eventually, the team figures out where Quinn will go to get his final piece of hardware. They find Quinn and foil his plot. (The plot involves a bomb, much the same as the bomb in the first episode. Chuck defuses it, again as in the first episode, but with Sarah’s help. She remembers how he did it before.) But foiling Quinn requires Chuck to destroy (by using its one application) the computer hardware assembled by Quinn and which might allow Chuck to restore Sarah’s memory. He destroys the hardware believing that it will cost him his wife–but he does it to save hundreds of innocent lives. He explains what he is doing to her, and why he is doing it, and makes clear what he believes the consequences will be.After it is all over, Sarah tells Chuck that she is sorry about everything, but that she has to leave, to find herself.
So the final episode recapitulates the first episode, but also earlier seasons. Chuck’s strategy, when he got Sarah to take him along to find Quinn, was to get her to fall in love with him again. So the recapping recreates in miniature Chuck and Sarah’s first ‘date’ and the longer time during which they fell in love. Sarah witnesses in one episode all the things about Chuck that caused her to love him. As the episode nears its end, Chuck wants to find Sarah, to talk to her once more. His friend, Morgan, tells him to use his heart to find her. Chuck leaves in the wake of a sudden intuition of where Sarah can be found.
He goes to the beach they visited at sunrise after their first ‘date’. Sarah is sitting on the beach alone. He approaches her as she approached him when he sat there, lost, five years before. He sits down beside her, he sitting where she sat before and she sitting where he sat before. “I was hoping you would be here.” She acknowledges him, acknowledges his finding her. Then she says, “This place is important, isn’t it?” The line has two meanings. Chuck is able to find her here because the place was important to them, but she is there to be found because she (now, still) finds the place to be important. She does not just know that the place has a significance. She feels that it does. Her heart is working even if her head is not (quite). Chuck then tells her that he does not expect anything from her, that he just wants her to know that he will always be available to her if she needs him, that she can call on him anytime. He then says to her almost verbatim what she said to him five years before. “Trust me, Sarah. I’m here for you always.”
She then asks Chuck to tell her their story. (Another significant change: she now wants to hear the story that she did not want to hear earlier in the episode.) He tells it to her. She listens, laughs, cries. When it ends, he tells her that Morgan has a crazy theory that if they kiss, her memory will be restored. They both laugh and she asks, “One magical kiss?” She looks at him. “Chuck, kiss me.” He leans toward her and they kiss, first tentatively then more intently. The screen goes black.
–So does the kiss work? Does Sarah’s memory return? Or, if it does not, does she find herself moved enough by Chuck to allow him to try to woo her again? Or, does the kiss fail, does Sara feel nothing, does she leave, perhaps never to return? No answer is given. And this is why many fans found the final episode frustrating. To end with no resolution seems strange, and certainly does run against the grain of the romantic comedy. But I think that the patterning of the final episode strongly suggests that the kiss works. (There is other evidence too, from earlier in the final season and even from earlier seasons.) Sarah’s memory has been returning, even if in bits and pieces, even if not mostly in memories of herself and Chuck as husband and wife. But she is beginning to feel it. The beach draws her because of a feeling, not primarily because of a memory or belief. She goes to the beach to find herself because it feels right to do it, because she goes to find herself where she found Chuck. And he finds her there.
It is true that the viewer has to take this on faith, since it is not shown to happen; the viewer does not know it happens. But there is something to be said for limiting knowledge to make room for faith. Chuck is a show about two people’s faith in each other. It ends asking us to have faith in them.