“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 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.  

A Clown World: Why the Buy More?

Buy-Moria National Flag by Fritters

One way of thinking about comedy is to think of it as typically progressing from disorder to order, from a state of disquiet and unrest to one of rest.  The scene of the disorder can be a place–a city, a home–or it can be a psychology, whether of one person or of more than one. When we rate Chuck a comedy, part of what we recognize it not only that it is funny, but also that it is marked by this sort of progress.  In individual episodes, there is often progress of this sort (often the disorder begins with a flash of Chuck’s and the order by the triumph over some particular bit of bad-guy-ery).  Sometimes the progress take several episodes.

For example, in the Jill arc, Jill’s appearance destabilizes the precarious stability that Chuck and Sarah have reached in S2, and underscored in the scene at the end of vs. Tom Sawyer in which they gaze at the stars, each obviously trying to chart a future that has them together (“Don’t let’s ask for the moon.  We have the stars”).  Of course, a larger disorder is the disorder between Chuck and Sarah, the fact that they are together and yet not together–but that disorder never gets completely ordered until the end of S4 when they marry.  But the largest disorders of the show are the disorders internal to Chuck and internal to Sarah:  each seems at long last to have reached order at the end of vs. the Baby.  But then the final episodes throw everything once more into disorder. (It is this fact, that the order reached in S5 gets disordered, that accounts for much of the irritation many feel about the end of the show.  It is as though the show suddenly decides, at its end, that it is not a comedy after all. It is like the world’s slowest bait-and-switch.)

There is a lot to say about that, but I have already said some of it in the book, and I will not  say any more about it now.  I mention the point about comedy to allow me to pursue a different issue:  why is the Buy More present in the show in the way it is, from the beginning of the show until its end, and why are the Buy More characters, especially Big Mike, Lester, Jeff and Anna, so much a part of the show?  To answer this question, we need to consider another typical feature of comedies, namely their divisions into three groups of characters, fay characters, clowns and lovers.  I won’t go into a lot of detail about this structural feature, but I will anchor it by noting its presence in Shakespeare, and there most clearly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The three groups are clearly marked in the play–the fay include Puck and of course Titania, Queen of the Fairies, the clowns include Bottom and his friends, and the lovers include the central pairs, Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius.  I assume the play is familiar enough, so I won’t recount its plot.  Instead, I want to look very generally at the way the three groups work and interact.  Let me start with the lovers, since they are central.

The lovers must take a journey, make a forced venture in the dark.  They hope for their desires to be fulfilled, their wishes to come true; but they cannot count on either.  They face various obstacles, some external, some internal.  And, if they are really to get what they hope for, they will have to make changes in themselves, moral or intellectual or both, so as to make themselves new.  That is, what they hope for is something that requires self-transcendence, although they typically do not understand that or at least do not understand it completely or repress their understanding of it.  We take the lovers to deserve the love they find, and to reveal that deserve it in suffering painful changes for the sake of their love.  The clowns are, as their title suggests, comic relief–but that is by no means all that they are.  They typically do not have the freedom to change that the lovers do.  They may have their own hopes–but they are usually hopes for something inappropriate or hopes born in mistake, and so are not hopes with which we fully sympathize.  We do not normally understand them as deserving what they want, even when we rate what they want as appropriate or as not wanted mistakenly.  But the clowns also take part in plots that parallel the main plot, offering a point-counterpoint commentary on the main plot, and sometimes it is the clowns who are gifted with the most visionary moments in the entire plot, a rare kind of intuition that allows them to see things to which the lovers are blind. The fay are powerful beings, supernatural, who can wreak havoc on the lives of the lovers and of the clowns, who can punish or reward each. They are figures now of harm, now of help.  They threaten and they praise.

It is easy enough to see how this structure is realized in Chuck.  Chuck and Sarah are the central pair, the lovers, but that group includes more than just the two of them.  It also includes Casey and Awesome and Ellie–and it includes their parents.  The fay are General Beckman and the other higher-ups at the NSA and CIA.  The clowns are the Buy More employees.  (Morgan is a special case; I will come back to him.)

Let me focus on Jeff, using him to stand for the rest of the crew.  Jeff at times seems hopelessly substance-addled, beyond help.  At other times, he seems creepy–deviant, a stalker.  He seems racist and sexist, a harasser.  Yet at other times, perhaps most often, he seems pitiable–lost, lonely, half-asphyxiated.  He is the Bottom of the Buy More.  But, like Bottom in Midsummer, Jeff is also visionary.  At the low point of S3, when Chuck is with Hannah, and Sarah with Shaw, it is Jeff who recognizes that Chuck loves Sarah, and at a time when only he can see it.  Later, when Chuck and Sarah are about to marry, it is Jeff who makes the video that captures Chuck and Sarah and reveals them as the couple they have really been all along.  The guy who cannot seem to get anything right manages at crucial moments to see what others miss.  Later, after he stops sleeping in his van, he is the one who finally notices what is happening at the Buy More, the one who realizes that something spy-ish is going on.  And, earlier, in an explicitly visionary moment, after prompting from Lester, he automatically writes that the strange force affecting the Buy More is ‘C-I-A’.

One reason to have a character like Jeff is that he incarnates the future that Chuck fears will be his own.  This is especially true in the early seasons, when Chuck has not figured out that he wants to be a spy, when he has not come to understand that Sarah does love him.  As Chuck clears those hurdles, the show no longer offers Jeff up as representing Chuck’s possible future. But for two and a half seasons or so, that is Jeff’s primary symbolic role.  The vs. Tom Sawyer episode matters in this regard because, beyond throwing Chuck and Jeff together, it reveals that Jeff’s past and Chuck’s share some general geekiness and some specific interests, like Missile Command and Rush.  That similarity in their past then forces Chuck (and of course the viewer) to speculate on Jeff’s life and whether Jeff’s present might be Chuck’s future.  (I thank Brian Lewis for getting me to reconsider that episode.)

When, toward the end of the show, in a remarkable reversal, Jeff gets healthy-clean again (by taking Awesome prescription), his transformation then provides a kind of parallel to Chuck’s:  Jeff’s potential is not as great as Chuck’s, and he has not used his time as well, so of course his transformation does not reach the heights of Chuck’s, but it does force us to see again and again how far Chuck has come.  Jeff keeps us wondering at how much Chuck has grown and continues to grow.  And, of course we feel good about Jeff’s growth too–about his more positive Flowers for Algernon life. (Jeff is shown reading that book in vs. the Business Trip.)

Since I have mentioned that book, I want to make a brief aside; it will actually help me get to where I want to go.  The epigraph of Flowers is from Plato’s Republic:

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eye are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye.

Plato’s book is a book about light and darkness, about vision and blindness, about remembering and forgetting, about reality and appearance–in a phrase, it is about the bewilderments of the eye (whether of the body or of the mind).  So, too, is Chuck.

Jeff is the character on the show who is most obviously visually bewildered.  It is not for nothing that a word like ‘addled’ leaps to mind when we describe him in the early seasons.  Jeff spent the early seasons in darkness, having come out of whatever light had been available to him when younger.  He gropes in darkness most of the time.  Toward the show’s end, Jeff, despite seeming less bewildered is actually still struggling–but this time he is going into the light.  His apparent shift in feeling for Lester, his by-the-bookness, is part of his eyes adjusting to the light. Suddenly seeing clearly can be blinding; too-bright things come quickly to confusion.  So I do not think that the new Jeff of the late episodes is really quite what he seems (punctilious, officious) but is flailing a bit in the light.

I mention this because it also serves as a subtle parallel to Chuck and to Sarah, who are themselves still adjusting to the light of their open and acknowledged love of one another, who are still adjusting to the light radiating from the Mystery of Marriage.  Just as Jeff has to adjust to living in the light, so do they.  Their decision to refuse Beckman’s offer to rejoin the CIA, their desire to start a different version of Carmichael Enterprises, are their way of refusing the darkness of the spy life and of trying to inhabit the life of real love. But it is worth bearing in mind that moving into the light can still bewilder the eye.

This takes me to Morgan.  Morgan is the rare clown who gets promoted to lover.  This happens in comedies, but it is a tricky matter, since it can damage the template or structure I am describing by blurring the difference between the clowns and the lovers.  (Consider Jeff again.  He never gets promoted to lover.  He clearly develops, progresses, moves.  But it is from the bottom of the clowns to the top, not out of the clowns.  His progress does not blur any lines.)

One reason Chuck manages to promote Morgan without blurring the lines is that the show, like Shakespeare, has a world for each group.  In Midsummer, the lovers are city folk, royalty.  They are at the center of civic life.  The clowns live on the periphery, as it were in the suburbs, neither in the city nor outside of it, but liminally.  The fay live in the green world, in the forest.  The groups stray into one another’s worlds–the lovers and clown go to the forest–but the fact that no one moves from one group to the other makes the mixing of locations safer and easier to manage.  But, setting aside the discovery of Castle by Jeff and Lester–and notice it is a drug, somewhat like the one Puck uses in Midsummer, that keeps them from genuine, full discovery of it, since they cannot remember it–Morgan is the only clown who moves from the clown world to the lover’s world.  (This is part of the significance of Anna leaving and of Alex eventually replacing her.  Anna is a clown (her makeup, her makeup) but Alex is a lover–and if Morgan is to be a lover, he must eventually be paired with a lover.  Carina foreshadows this change, since she too is a lover.)

We all realize, even if we don’t quite experience the full symbolism, that the moment of Morgan’s discovering Castle in S3 is a major moment in the show.  It is so important that it competes with, although it loses to, the soon-to-happen coupling of Chuck and Sarah.  (Think what you will of S3, but despite its imperfections, it is the axis of reference of the entire show.  S1-2 make sense as moving toward it; S4-5 as moving from it.) Although it will take the call from Beckman to put the official seal on Morgan’s promotion to lover, it is clearly accomplished when Chuck tells Morgan what has really been going on–that is the moment Morgan becomes a lover and no longer a clown.

The show can make this happen because it so rigorously enforces the separation of the Buy More and Castle, the clown world and the lover world.  The clowns and lovers do mix occasionally at the apartments, but the apartments do not represent the full reality of the lover world.  Only Castle does that, only there is Chuck’s appearance distinguished from his reality.

Morgan’s promotion to lover is one of the most satisfying aspects of the show, and a tribute to the writing of the character and the writing of the show overall.  That Morgan has the stuff for such a promotion is hinted at as early as the pilot, when, for example, it is Morgan who has the quick courage to try to face down the ninja stealing Chuck’s computer.  His courage is short-lived, but is real enough during its short life and it will reappear in longer-lived forms as the show goes on.  Morgan’s promotion to the lover world also changes–as it really has to do–his standing in the clown world.  He goes from mad work-avoidance skills to competent manager of the store. Etc.

So why is the Buy More in the show and why does it never leave?  Because it is demanded by the structure of the show.  It is a scene of silliness mostly–but of a necessary silliness.  It allows for comic relief from the stresses of the main story, it allows for separated parallels and commentary, it provides separated comparisons and differences.  It provides a world for the clowns.

Final thought:  Just in case you are unconvinced that this structure typifies comedies, consider very briefly a very different comedy:  Gilmore Girls.  The three groups are there, although the register of the show is different.  Lorelai’s parents–and the other members of their elite world–are the fay.  Lorelai, Rory, Mrs. Kim, Lane, Luke, Sookie, Jackson, Dean, Jess–they are the lovers.  Kirk, Taylor, Miss Patty, Babette, etc.–they are the clowns.  Since all the groups, excepting the fay, inhabit Stars Hollow, it is not very surprising that there is no Morgan-like character in the show who gets promoted.  Like Jeff in Chuck, some move a bit in rank in the clown world; none move out.  The interesting character in this respect is actually Lorelai, who chooses to leave the fay (a choice under duress, but still her choice) and who gets ‘demoted’ to lover.  There is a long story about the scare quotes around that word–but this was about Chuck, not Gilmore Girls, so I will tell that story some other time.

Introduction: Thinking about *Chuck*, Reading *Chuck*

[Here is a bit of the Introduction to the Chuck book.]

Thinking about Chuck, Reading Chuck

Chuck artfully grafts a spy thriller onto a romantic comedy.  It deepens the romantic comedy by including within it two complementary Bildungsromane, the story of the growth of the two central characters–their growth as individuals, as a couple, and as individuals because they are a couple.  Each tutors the other; their we tutors their I’s. The show explores trust and mistrust, belief and doubt, truth and falsity, and reality and appearance.  It also explores hope and despondency, love, loss and loneliness. Sarah challenges Chuck’s self-mistrust.  She gives him the will and confidence to become what he is (but cannot believe himself to be).  Chuck challenges Sarah’s moral imagination.  He quickens her sense of human actualities of trust, warmth and hearth.  Sarah models competence for Chuck.  Chuck models vulnerability for Sarah.  Chuck becomes a spy while remaining a human being; Sarah becomes a human being while remaining a spy.

Chuck achieves density and resonance.  It is a show of patterns:  of duplications, of symmetries, of echoes, of types and anti-types.  It is animately, virtuosically contrapuntal–like Bach. It speaks an elaborate language of images, events, actions, places, words and music.  It also speaks that language quite quickly and volubly, making serious demands on its audience’s attention and memory.  But it also rewards that attention, that active participatory recollection, by steadily ingathering meaning.

Density and Resonance

Let me clarify some of my terms.  What do I mean by ‘density’ and ‘resonance’?  By calling the show ‘dense’ I mean that in it many meanings are often carried by one image, event, action, phrase or word.  By calling it ‘resonant’, I meant that one word, phrase, action, event , place or image is often projected into or recollected in many other contexts.  Think of density as a many-in-one phenomenon and of resonance as a one-in-many phenomenon.

One interesting, complicated example of density is the word ‘date’.  The problematic meaning of the word between Chuck and Sarah (the central characters) is established in the very first episode.  They go on what Chuck takes to be a date.  Sarah takes it to be an opportunity to establish herself as her asset’s handler, i.e., as her chance to insinuate herself into Chuck’s life and establish control over him.  But one problem with going on a pretend date (of the sort they go on) is that it is very much like going on a real date (think how much like waving pretending to wave is).  Sarah gets dressed up, as Chuck does–except her outfit includes body armor and weapons.  He picks her up and takes her to dinner.  They talk.  They go dancing.  Chuck intends to go on a date and believes he is on one.  Sarah intends to develop an asset, and so begins the evening with intentions unlike those that normally are involved in an actual date, those like Chuck has.  But before the evening ends, her intentions have become unclear.  Maybe she is on a date.  It starts to seem–to her–like she is on a date. Eventually, she is on a date–although she would deny it if asked.  So did they go on a date or not?  Yes?  No?  Sort of?  Whether this is the right word, or at any rate what meaning the word has, will remain an issue between them. They will come back to it several times in the course of the show and even in the final episode.  For them, the word bears both an attenuated and a full meaning–say that it is appearance/reality ambiguous.  The attenuated sense is the sense of a merely apparent date, a pretend date.  The full sense is the sense of a real date.  Many of the words of Chuck are appearance/reality ambiguous, and thus dense in a problematic way.

Here are a couple of examples of resonance in the show (they will be discussed in later chapters):

Rings:  engagement rings, wedding rings (fake and genuine), ordinary rings, even an evil spy organization known as “The Ring”–rings appear and reappear throughout the show.

Trains and train stations:  many of the significant moments of the show take place on trains or at trains stations, a train station in Prague and Union Station in LA are perhaps the most significant.

Together, the density and resonance of the show make reading it (I will say more about this use of ‘reading’ below) tricky in specific ways.  Often, the full meaning of an episode will not be revealed until a later episode, but not because there is something unexplained in the earlier episode–say, something kept secret.  No, the full meaning of an episode will not be revealed because there is a word, phrase, action, event or image that gets projected into a later episode, and which deepens or widens or heightens the significance of the earlier one.  We can call density and resonance  ‘linguistic’ phenomena:  a language is marked by the way in which its individual words and phrases can simultaneously carry many different meanings and by the way in which its individual words and phrases can be projected into new contexts, contexts in which their old meaning remains part of their story, but only part of their story.  The words now have more to tell.  That is part of the reason I say of the show that it speaks an elaborate language.

Chuck strives for formal completeness.  It is not just telling a story that begins, has a middle and that ends.  Of course, it does do that.  But the story-telling is peculiar.  Put it this way:  the beginning of Chuck presupposes its ending as its ending presupposes its beginning.  The final episode presents the end of the events began in the pilot. But it does more than that. It retells the pilot episode, reenacts it.  By an instance of what James Joyce in Finnegans Wake calls “a commodius vicus of recirculation”, the end of the show takes us back to its beginning a second time, to a second beginning. When They Might Be Giants sing, “How About Another First Kiss?”, part of the fun of the song is the impossibility of what is requested.  But Chuck, because it has structuring principles other than temporal ones, contrives to make what is requested an actuality.

Understanding the show as linguistic, as speaking a language, helps to explain why I want to call what I am doing reading the show.  But I use that word to do more than to provide an appropriate description of my response to the show’s linguistic character.  I also use it because I want to situate Chuck in relation to various (other) texts–works of philosophy and works of literature.  By saying that I am reading Chuck I am insisting on the fact (I take it to be a fact) that the show can withstand sustained comparison to such works.  It can be read in the active, inward and sympathetic way that they can.  For example, I repeatedly appeal to the work of the philosopher Gabriel Marcel in what follows–I have used lines of his as epigraphs for the book itself and for some of its chapters. Marcel’s work clarifies the show, helps to bring its deeper concerns and its fixations into view and to make them easier to understand.

I realize that this may seem fantastic.  After all, a tv show, a network tv show, a long-arc romantic comedy network tv show? Surely, pairing Gabriel Marcel with Chuck staggers credulity.  I must be mistreating Marcel.  I can’t be serious.  –I am serious.  The show can survive such a pairing, and still others that will appear in the pages below.  The pairing does no damage to Marcel–in fact, it helps to clarify what he is saying and why he is saying it.

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