Chuck vs. Buffy?

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.   

 

“I’m Good Here” (Chuck)

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.”

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.  

S3 Question 1: Why Doesn’t Sarah Believe Chuck?

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.[1]  As she says, what she has with Shaw is different (she says this when they are on stake-out in vs. the Final Exam.)[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]  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.[5]


[1] 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.  

[2] 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).   

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.  

The Conversation in El Compadre (*Chuck*)

[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.]

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