Stooped beneath the
Arc de Triomf
Still undulating sidewalk
Unsteady steps to water
La Sagrada Familia
Long away from home, wet
I’ve been working on a new book on Transcendentalism, an attempt to think through Emerson and Thoreau in relation to Kant, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty. The book centers, unsurprisingly, on the concept of ‘experience’ and opens with an extended reading of Emerson’s essay, Experience.
What interests me in particular are the changes I take Emerson to ring on Kant’s concept of ‘experience’. While I take Emerson generally to agree with Kant that “the concept of ‘experience’…is not an empirical concept” (Royce), I do not take him to agree with Kant about how the details go, on what, specifically, the denial means.
When we take Emerson to be thinking of Kant — or anyway to be thinking as a Kantian — his opening question in “Experience” becomes even more arresting:
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes and believe it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.
The Kantian confidence that reflection will yield the extremes, show us the (our) limits, has been shaken. This shaken state is revealed in the Table of Categories Emerson supplies in the poem epigraph for the essay (he calls them “the Lords of Life”):
Use and Surprise,
Surface and Dream,
Succession swift, and spectral Wrong,
Temperament without a tongue,
And the inventor of the game
Omnipresent without name; —
Some to see, some to be guessed,
They marched from east to west:
What are we supposed to make of such categories, to ‘make’ with them? To what sort of completeness, if any, could such a Table pretend? What happens to the supposed a priori if it turns out that one of its categories is: suprise?
Does that make surprises more or less surprising?
It’s no secret that the end of Chuck was, for most of its fans, disappointing. It is not just that the ending can seem to leave the crucial question between the show’s central pair–Chuck and Sarah–without a definitive answer, it is that it does so without good dramatic cause. Nothing in the specific plot of the final season or in the overarching logic of the show ‘justified’ the ending. It is just there–apparently because someone fell in love with the idea of the finale at the expense of the show and its characters.
As I have argued elsewhere, the ending distressingly resembles the desperate gambit of the beginning writer who ends a story with “And it was all just a dream”. Such an ending can be earned, but it really must be earned, not just tacked on in a short-sighted attempt to be ‘deep’ or ‘artistic’. (The idea that art is ambiguous is a notoriously shallow one, as is the idea that happy endings are cheap or easy–they may be, but they need not be.)
Now, there is no doubt that (1) the Will They/Won’t They? was an essential feature of the show, part of its identity conditions, so to speak. But that feature of the show had its time and its time ended: They Did. One of the wonders of the show was that for over two seasons it allowed that to be so–allowed them to be together–while following their growth as a couple and their growth as individuals, the latter growth inextricably tied to the former.
There is also no doubt that (2) the memory loss finale is dramatic, heart-wrenching. Anyone invested in the show will find himself or herself swamped by the finale.
Finally, there is no doubt that (3) the memory loss finale allows for a clever device: Chuck and Sarah ‘live through’ a miniaturized version of their long, 2 1/2-year WT/WT? courtship, allowing the show to recapitulate itself in a way that is rewarding. But none of these except perhaps the third was something that could only have been secured by the memory loss idea. (And even (3) could have been managed without the memory loss idea.)
But it is not just that the memory loss idea is a bad idea, but it is also handled confusingly.
Consider (3) again. The recap should have been used not only to establish that Sarah did still have some memories of the previous five years but to have shown her falling for Chuck again more clearly than it did. I don’t deny that it does a bit of that, especially in the dance scene–but it also complicates it with Sarah’s later attempt to escape from Castle without Chuck. I take it that her attempt to escape is meant to echo her ‘running’ from her feelings for Chuck back in S1, but that is never made clear–and it renders murky the fact that Sarah has been ‘homing’ on Chuck all along, even in the finale, when she keeps coming back to him or to places that mattered to them (the beach). She had told Chuck in S4 that he is her home.
But maybe the worst error in the handling of the memory loss idea was allowing Morgan to suggest a ‘magic’ cure.
This is more complicated than it initially sounds. Let me explain briefly.
Recall how things go. Morgan suggests that one magic kiss from Chuck will restore Sarah’s memories. Chuck calls the idea crazy, but his response is not simply to scoff at it: he is also intrigued. He starts to mention it to Sarah yet stops when she is climbing the stairs out of Castle, but he will bring it up again on the beach.
Morgan is thinking, not only of Disney movies, but of the moment in which Chuck, his mind almost eliminated by a computer program, is brought back from the brink by Sarah’s tearful, impassioned kiss. (The end of the great S4 episode of the show, Chuck vs. Phase Three.) Call that a magic kiss. (The scientist overseeing the elimination of Chuck’s mind tells Sarah in effect that there is nothing anyone can do for Chuck, Chuck is too far gone (he is in ‘Phase Three’). So that kiss does seem like magic)
I take Chuck to think of that moment too, like Morgan–that is one important reason he is intrigued by the idea. (The viewer is meant to think of it, I’m sure.) So, it might seem like the magic kiss is a good idea, one organically tied to the previous episodes of the show. Perhaps one even justified by the general complementary structure of the show. (what happens for Chuck happens for Sarah and vice versa). And it is. But it was still confusingly handled.
At the very end, seated on the beach, after Chuck has told Sarah their story, he mentions Morgan’s idea. And then Sarah asks Chuck to kiss her. Now, while I firmly believe the right reading of that scene is that Sarah is asking for the kiss out of desire for Chuck, out of desire for him to kiss her, having her ask for it immediately after the magic kiss is mentioned obscures that, suggesting instead that the kiss might be a thaumaturgical experiment, not an expression of Sarah’s desire (I’m not saying it can’t be both, but…)
Here’s the crux.
Sarah’s line echoes her famous S3 line when she interrupts Chuck in mid-spiral and tells him to “Shut up and kiss me”. That command and Chuck’s obedience to it marks the beginning of their time as an official couple. The ‘shut up’ would not quite fit into the tonality of the final beach scene (Chuck is not spiraling there, really), but I take the writers to have expected the viewers to hear the echo even without the prefixed phrase.
In the earlier S3 scene, Sarah is obviously giving expression to her desire (she is inviting Chuck to join her in the Paris hotel bed), not running any experiment. (She has kissed Chuck before and remembers those kisses. She had told him before she left Burbank that it was all going to happen, him and her.) But on the beach, the possibility of the magic kiss, the possibility that this might an experimental kiss, obscures the echo, making it seem as if Sarah might merely be repeating her earlier words but not using them to give expression to the same (or a similar) desire. Perhaps she is not so much interested in kissing Chuck but just in the outcome of the kiss; she just wants Chuck to run the experiment–in the words of a Starflyer 59 song, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it don’t. Sarah just wants to find out which.
Now, anyone who watches that kiss closely knows it is no mere experiment. Morgan set no conditions on the magic kiss, features it had to have to do its magical work. The beach kiss is deep, grows deeper, becomes passionate. But if the viewer still has the magical kiss idea too much in mind, it is easy to overlook the passion of the kiss and to wonder–did the experiment work, did the magic kiss work its magic?
But that is the wrong question. If the viewer attends to the kiss, there is no reason to think that Chuck and Sarah have not been re-established as a couple there on the beach, re-established as husband and wife by the preceding events, by Chuck’s telling of their story, and especially by the kiss.
Maybe the kiss is magic: maybe all of Sarah’s memories returned en masse after the cutaway (we aren’t shown the result of the kiss). If so, great. But maybe it isn’t magic. Still, her asking for the kiss (out of desire) and her responsiveness to it makes it clear that the magic–while it would be cool and make things easier for them (no road to travel to memory restoration)–is in a way unnecessary: the real ‘magic’ is between them, and it always has been. And it has always been enough.
Put the point somewhat differently: the talk of the magic kiss causes the accent mark in the scene to seem to shift to the outcome of the kiss for Sarah’s memory (which we do not witness) and prevents it from falling clearly where it should–on the kiss itself and what it means (which we do witness). We are bidden, clumsily, to focus on the wrong thing.
Chuck fell for Sarah knowing nothing of her past. I see no reason why Sarah could not fall for Chuck knowing nothing (except what she has been told and the little that has come back to her) about their past.
Still, it would have been better, less confusing, for it to be clear that the magic was not necessary for them to become a couple again. I believe we see that happen on the beach; it is not left up in the air. What is left up in the air is not whether they are together, but only whether she remembers right then and there, or doesn’t.
However that goes (and I don’t mean to minimize that but rather to contextualize it), Sarah has found her way back to her love for her husband, whether we think of that as her having fallen in love with Chuck again–or as her remembering that she loves him (feeling it, not just believing it). The kiss works; the ‘magic’ between them works. Maybe the Morgan magic did too–sometimes the magic works, sometimes it don’t. That matters, but not for whether they leave the beach together.
Accented correctly, everything speaks for them doing so, nothing against it: in kissing Chuck, Sarah knows him as her husband, whatever the state of her memory after it.
Did a podcast looking back on this yesterday. (Link to come.) Hadn’t thought about it much in a long time.