Chuck vs. Bryce: Sarah’s Choice?

Chuck can be devious.  Take the first season, beginning with The Kiss (E7).  The Kiss takes place in front of Bryce’s life support pod. Chuck and Sarah (and we the viewers) take it to be a bomb and only later does Sarah (and do we) find out otherwise.  

Chuck does not find out about Bryce until he is brought in later.  Bryce, revived, will talk to no one else. Chuck takes the reappearance of Bryce to mean that Sarah will resume her relationship with Bryce.  Later, when Chuck sees Sarah and Bryce kissing, he believes that she has resumed the relationship.

When Bryce leaves, he tells Sarah, “We will always have Omaha”.  This, Chuck figures out with some help from Casey, is a code, an invitation from Bryce to Sarah to go deep undercover with him.  Chuck fears she has done so, since on the next day she does not show up for work at her normal time (E9).

What we viewers know is that Sarah was packed to leave and obviously was seriously considering Bryce’s offer.  When Bryce calls her on her apartment phone, Chuck calls on her cell. As the episode ends (E8), Sarah is standing between the phones as they continue to ring.  The thought that seems compulsory here is that Sarah is choosing between Chuck and Bryce.

And, in one sense, that is true; but it is true only in one sense.  Sarah is not trying to figure out which man she loves, which man she wants to be with.  She is trying to figure out which *life* to choose. Her life with Chuck is very hard for her, and is becoming harder.  She is in love with him; that is becoming clear to her even if she tries hard to ignore or deny that knowledge. With The Kiss, Sarah revealed herself–not only to Chuck but to herself.  It proved that she is not in control with Chuck (and this was shown even before The Kiss, in Sarah’s jealous reaction to Chuck’s interest in Lou).  But until The Kiss, she had a kind of plausible deniability–whatever seemed to show that she cared for Chuck she could explain away, either to him or to herself, as required by the job, by the cover.  That was true even of her actions in response to Lou.

But The Kiss is a different story.  Although Chuck suggests that maybe she would have kissed just anyone in that situation, neither of them takes that suggestion seriously.  Chuck does not press it; Sarah never even responds to it. The Kiss was what Chuck had been wanting all along–one True Thing about Sarah–and it is the last one (at least in many ways) that she wants him to know.  It is no wonder that she re-christens it “The Incident”. She does not want to have to admit to herself just how much she has revealed. Her ability to remain the handler and to treat Chuck as her asset has been severely compromised.  

So when she stands between the two ringing phones, her deliberation is not over who she loves, but over whether she can stay with the man she loves and face all of the difficulties and the pain that choice will cause (because Chuck remains the Intersect and she remains a CIA officer) or whether she will go with the man she used to love (or once believed she did) and do what is for her the easy thing, resume her old spy life, her life before Chuck.  One way to put it is that she is standing between ringing phones, deliberating about whether to choose her known, familiar past or her unknown, unfamiliar future. Being with Chuck changes her and will keep changing her. Bryce lets her be, be nothing but a spy (no muss, all fust).

Obviously, the choice takes a toll on Sarah.  She oversleeps the next morning. When she finally does interact with Chuck, she has re-assumed her handler role (she acts toward Chuck much as his prospective new handler does in vs. the Broken Heart).  She has chosen to stay with the man she loves, but, predictably, given that she is Sarah, she has also chosen to try to distance herself from him, to deny in her current behavior what she had revealed in The Kiss.  She wants to be able to stay with him without being with him.  This leads to the perceptible chill in vs. the Crown Vic, and it is what makes her warm smile at him near the end of the episode so welcome.  Though she has not yet made another “mistake”, exactly, she is heading back toward being with him.  Despite herself (and despite her pretense), she cannot be with him and not with him.

So what we have in these episodes is subtle misdirection.  We–along with Chuck–think that the problem is Bryce, is what (who) emerges from the ‘bomb’.  But the problem is what happens in front of the ‘bomb’, not what (who) is in it. Sarah would likely have been tempted to leave Burbank after The Kiss even if Bryce had never shown up:  consider her immediate reaction to The Kiss, consider just how uncomfortable it makes her. I do not deny that Bryce’s return affects Sarah, that it stirs up and confuses her feelings in various ways.  Of course, she has unsorted feelings for him–she thought he was dead and he isn’t. (That takes some adjustment.). But I do deny that Bryce is ever (either here in S1 or later in S2) a serious challenge to Sarah’s feelings for Chuck.  (Ellie was right when she asked, “How could anyone choose Bryce over Chuck?”)

All this becomes clear in Bryce’s next visit. Sarah has by then gotten fully clear of her feelings for Bryce.  And she has more or less allowed it to become clear (in S2 E1-E2) that she does have feelings for Chuck. Her job as his handler keeps them apart, but she is no longer making much of an attempt to keep Chuck in the dark about her feelings.  (Of course, Chuck’s insecurities, especially about Bryce, make it hard for him consistently to believe how she feels about him.) But Bryce himself begins to realize what Sarah feels when she reacts to Chuck’s apparent indifference to her salmon-colored dress.  He becomes certain after Sarah goes off-mission to save Chuck, and after his heart-to-heart surgeon talk with Awesome.

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Part of the reason I have gone through this is to make clear how the show misdirects our expectations, tempting us viewers to believe, as Chuck does, that Sarah at worst prefers Bryce to Chuck or at best is dithering between the two men.  She is dithering, but between life paths, between the past, the life she has known, and a future, a new life, mostly unknown, that Chuck opens to her.  That life, its vulnerabilities and its threat of normalcy, frightens her in many ways–more, much more than does the spy life with its duplicities and threat of gunplay.  Even so, that new life is the life she chooses; she chooses her future, not her past.

 

Receptions End

Receptions End

A daughter is a treasure
That keeps her father wakeful

Gather the Bud Lite bottles
Dump the undrunk champagne
Lavender table cloths shake and refold
Abandoned bouquets water and take home

The tent lights the night
Fans blow back the August heat

Revelry done, collect unopened gifts

Stray flowers decorate the ground
As if they would re-root
But life goes on
And life goes on
Sweet-sour sweet

Done is done

Drink what wine you may
With the rest honor the mysteries

Put the trash in the dumpster
On Debardeleben St.

Treasureless, go home to sleep

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Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Season 3 Q3: Change?

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Spoilers!

This is the last in the series of short essays I have been writing.  It is also likely to be the last Chuck-related essay I write for a while.  Other tasks demand my attention.  I thank those who have read and commented on these essays.

 

 

We cannot step into the same river twice.  –Heraclitus
We cannot step into the same river once.  –Cratylus

Change is hard for us.  It is hard to endure. It is hard to understand.  Each hardness hardens the other.  While we are changing, especially early in the change, we have a hard time knowing exactly what is happening to us.  We have a hard time putting up with it.  We have a hard time conceptualizing it.  While we are changing we are somehow in a passage and a transportation between two worlds which seem to have no real unity–a murky one behind, a brightening one ahead. But we cannot see clearly into either or see clearly during our passage. As we change, we are doing our undoing; we put off the old person so as to put on the new, but the new is not a ready-made.

Season 3 is the season of change in Chuck, the moulting season.  I do not deny that changes have been underway since the pilot.  I do not deny that changes continue in Seasons 4 and 5.  As Chuck says in vs. the Coup d’Etat, “change is inevitable”.  Still, S3 is the season of the most fundamental changes, the season in which Chuck and Sarah finally break free of the asset/handler relationship that has imprisoned them and find their way to a new relationship, a relationship in which each of them is renewed, changed.  I have addressed some of the central changes in the first couple of essays (here and here).  In this final one, I want to address some of the larger issues of S3 and of the series.

Abstractly stated, the problematic dynamic between Chuck and Sarah involves three things.

(1) Sarah is changing and wants to change, and she needs Chuck to help her.
(2) Chuck needs to change but Sarah fears him doing so.
(3) Chuck does not fully believe in the depth of the change in Sarah.

(1) Sarah is changing and wants to change.  She has changed enough to recognize that Chuck represents both the tutor of her change and, in some way, its destination.  She needs Chuck to teach her how to change and to be there as what she is changing for.  But this means that she does not want Chuck to change.  If he does, he imperils her education in change and the goal of her change.  One of the most unsettling features of S3 is Sarah’s despair over the changes in Chuck.  She despairs for him, first and foremost, but she also despairs for herself.

Sarah is in the midst of change, in the middle of her transportation between two worlds, when her tutor seems to abandon her and deprive her of the result of the change she most desires–him.  Sarah’s despair causes her to flail about wildly, even if it is hard to notice it given the amount of attention Chuck’s even wilder flailing draws.  Sarah ends up with Shaw as a slumping stand-in for Chuck; Shaw becomes her substitute teacher.  But he is about as effective as substitute teachers normally are, that is, not very.  While under Chuck’s tutelage, Sarah was oriented on her future–even her forays into her past are for the sake of her future.  Under Shaw’s tutelage, Sarah orients on her past; she starts trying to identify not the person she is to become but the person she was (Sam).  While Sarah wounds Chuck when she shares her name with Shaw, Chuck and Sarah will both eventually realize that it is not her name, not her real name.  It was Sarah’s name but is no longer.  Shaw educes nostalgia of a sort in Sarah (he is trapped in a different sort of nostalgia himself) but he cannot manage Sarah’s passage into her future, her transportation to a new world.

(2) Chuck needs to change.  Sarah fears his changing and takes it to be unnecessary, but it is necessary.  Sarah loses faith for a while in Chuck (and in herself as a consequence).  She is focused only on the way others–Beckman, Shaw, Casey–picture the result of Chuck’s changing.  She really cannot imagine anything else clearly herself.  Chuck is no help here, because he only knows he is changing; he cannot see clearly what he is changing into, and, adding to the confusion, he sometimes believes he needs to change into what Beckman et al. want him to become.  Chuck is a hero and has behaved heroically frequently enough for his heroism to be a settled feature of his character–Sarah recognizes that it is.  Because she recognizes this about Chuck, she sees his changing as unnecessary:  he is a hero; he does not need to become one.  But Chuck does not see himself as Sarah sees him.  He does not recognize what she recognizes.[1]

Recall the exchange in vs. the Final Exam.  Chuck, nauseated and unbalanced by the sudden assignment to kill the mole, asks Sarah what he will be if he is not a spy.  She answers that he will still be Chuck, and that is good enough.  Sarah means what she says–he will still be Chuck, the hero, and his not being a spy is inconsequential.  (That last claim fudges:  given how things stand between them, personally and professionally, if Chuck is not a spy he will probably not be with Sarah–and that is consequential, and Sarah knows it. But of course, to her credit, she is not really thinking about them at this moment, only about him.)  But Chuck hears her as sentencing him to the Buy More, as sentencing him to being (to use a later line) alone in Burbank.[2]

Although being alone in Burbank is preferable to being a killer, Chuck now knows what he wants to do with his life and who he wants to do it with–to be a spy with Sarah. He wants that so desperately that he is willing to entertain killing the mole, although he cannot will to kill him.  (This is why we see his trigger finger begin to squeeze and then release the trigger:  he cannot do it.  He cannot kill simply to realize his dreams.  But that he can so much as squeeze the trigger measures his desperation.)

Chuck needs Sarah to help him become what he wants to be, to help him to understand what it is he wants to be.  But they are in an impossible situation.  He needs her to make real his change; she fears his change and resists it–wants nothing to do with it. She feels guilty, regrets, that he even wants to change. He cannot explain and she cannot help.

(3) Sarah is changing at a depth that mostly eludes Chuck or is hidden from him.  Chuck wants Sarah to change.  He fears that the change he sees is either merely apparent or temporary or superficial.  It does not help that Sarah is not always aware of how deeply she is changing.  For example, at the end of S2, Sarah believes she can leave Burbank, leave Chuck, and go with Bryce to Washington.  She is conflicted; yet, she believes she can do it.  She cannot.  During Ellie’s wedding ceremony, Sarah realizes that her belief is false.  She can no longer choose to be a spy if choosing it means she will have to abandon Chuck. But Chuck does not know how deep this change reaches in Sarah.  –He lingers in unclarity about this, to lessening degrees, until S4. The ghost of this lingering helps make the end of S5 so unsettling–it is as if, at some level, Sarah did not change after all. –And Sarah’s anger and pain and hurt serve to mask the depth of the change in her.  Chuck cannot see that she does not want to choose the spy life if that choice costs her him.  She does not want him to choose it since she thinks that choice must cost him her.

****

I could say more about these changes.  I say some more about them in my book.  But, even though I could say more, I will finish here.  Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Chuck is the fundamental but believable and emotionally satisfying changes in its main characters.  Few shows have managed such changes.  Relatively few have really tried.

Change is hard.  Portraying it is hard.  As characters change, they go out of focus for themselves and, as a result, for the audience. But we can, with patience and with a disciplined imagination, bring into focus why they go out of focus.

S3 is messy.  It admits this near the end of vs. the Three Words.  To straighten up some of the mess, we have to remember that we can conceptualize change (to the extent that we can) only by contextualizing it between a past (world) and a future (world).  We have to see the changes as changes, as in passage or in transportation.  No still snapshot alone will make sense or help us to make sense. Now, I cannot straighten up all the mess of S3; I have not tried.  But if we keep in mind that fundamental changes are underway, we can explain some of the mess, excuse some of the mess, and, perhaps, ignore the rest.  We can face the changes.


[1] Besides, being a hero–unless you hail from Krypton or chance bites from radioactive spiders–is not exactly a career choice.

[2] Among the many challenges of S3 is recognizing just how different Sarah’s vision of Chuck is from his of himself, and recognizing the centrality of Chuck’s vision to what happens between them.  Sarah sees him as a hero, and as a man who can educate her in what it means authentically to be human.  He sees himself as a underacheiver, losing and losing on his way to being a loser.  –Is Sarah’s vision more just?  Yes. –Is it as efficacious as Chuck’s vision?  No.

As Chuck will tell Sarah in vs. the American Hero, he has hated himself for all his existential maundering–his (personal and professional) indecisiveness, caused by his inability to get over his failures:  his failure at Stanford, his failure with Jill, his failure to escape the Buy More, his failure to get out of his sister’s apartment.  (N.B., if this isn’t the only time Chuck uses the word ‘hate’, it is one of a very few.  ‘Hate’ is not one of Chuck’s words; but there it is, falling off his lips, characterizing his relationship with himself.  (One’s self is the one self one cannot fail to have a relationship with.  The only question is what that relationship is to be. Even failing to have a relationship with oneself turns out to be having a particular relationship to oneself. I am deeded to me.))  Chuck’s self-hatred nourishes the roots of S3’s darkness (as do Sarah’s hurt and regret). Acknowledging it and overcoming it is Chuck’s task.  So, despite the fact that Sarah’s vision of Chuck is more just, his vision of himself has more explanatory power, particularly in the arctic night of the first 13 episodes of S3.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Backwards Walk” begins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These two problems make clear the point of the lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

say Yes before I…

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

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

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


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

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

A Matter of Chance? *Chuck* and Jane Austen, and the Final Episode, Again

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.

 

 

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