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.

 

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.

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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.  

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