After quenching my thirst for new Chuck episodes by re-watching the first three episodes, twice, I think my impressions are fixed enough to actually give some thoughts about where we are and where we seem to be headed. To avoid spoilers for those overseas who haven’t seen things yet the rest can be found after the jump.
We open the new season with a new Chuck, confident and in control, even in the bad guys lair surrounded and unarmed. It is clear very quickly that with this new intersect Chuck is more than a match for them. But it also quickly becomes clear that there is one thing that hasn’t changed with Chuck. He still doesn’t like guns. We see this makes his job a bit tougher than it might be, but Chuck manages to overcome the odds, carry out his mission, and escape with the goods he’s been sent to recover. Sadly, things just aren’t clicking with Chuck when he’s told he needs to flash. Fortunately it was all a simulation for training Chuck. Unfortunately it was his last. Chuck is summarily dismissed by Beckman, tranq’ed and shipped home where we find he’s also lost Sarah. We aren’t completely sure how this happens, but we see in flashback that Sarah was as keen to keep Chuck out of the spy world as she was to get out and have a normal life. Kind of a tough one to pull off given he’s the intersect again. All we know so far is that she wanted to take Chuck and run. A few thoughts at this point. First, this makes the big puppy kicking scene, the one that was supposed to reset the relationship, completely superfluous. Within the limited timeline of the Ring we now have Sarah going from “I’m leaving in the morning with Bryce” to deciding on staying but never getting to tell him until after he re-intersects, to (and this sounds harsh) giving Chuck an ultimatum, run with me and we can be together. She never says she loves him. She still can’t bring herself to say that, just that they can be together, if they run. So Chuck has gone from thinking Sarah was never more than his handler to hearing her say that she wants him to give up everything, family, life, everything that he spent two years trying to protect and get back to because she didn’t want him to become a spy and wants to be a normal person again, with him, on the run and hiding from the government. More on that later.
In an odd way it has taken us till the third season to get some back story on Chuck. He is an emotional guy, we get that. What we get now however is a glimpse of what the most traumatic event in his life (previous to this of course), getting expelled from Stanford and losing Jill, both due to his best friend’s betrayal, must have looked like. I didn’t hate this. I thought in addition to the pathos we could identify with it told us something about Chuck’s character. He can become emotionally paralyzed. Unable to move on until he resolves his current emotional state, moving from crisis to resolution of some sort. This is important for only one reason, Chuck’s annoying habit of always wanting to talk about his feelings in the middle of missions. This makes Chuck look like all the evolution and growth we saw, especially in last season’s last 6 episodes has been reset. This paralysis he suffers mitigates that somewhat. I have a theory. The only two living people with an intersect are both named Bartowski. We know that Chuck and his dad share a very special brain. Most people exposed to the Intersect images and information Chuck has gone through can apparently be killed or lobotomized. The resiliency and special nature of Chuck’s brain apparently comes at a cost. I wonder if this will be something that is further explored as the season progresses.
In the meantime we are treated to a montage of Chuck, slacker. Well a bit beyond slacker; Chuck, basket case. Even Morgan, who helped him through Stanford and Jill can’t seem to get him off the couch. Only one thing can. Cheese balls. I guess you can get popcorn and snacks at Best Buy, so a few Large Mart size containers of Cheese Balls might not be out of place at Buy More. Chuck obviously knows how far he’s fallen, not wanting his triumphal exit diminished by his return in the condition he’s in, but we see the Buy More has become a totalitarian state in his absence. (And yes, it does appear Triumph of the Will is playing on the TVs in the background). Emmet, the character we loved to hate is briefly re-introduced, mostly it seems to reinforce we hate him, and that he’s gotten worse. Much worse. The other purpose of Chuck’s visit, dramatically that is, not cheese balls, is to put him back in touch with Team B. Chuck learns that the Orange Orange is still an operational base, and decides to sneak in to see if anyone is still there, like perhaps Sarah? Chuck’s meeting with Casey is actually one of the better points in this episode for me. We now see the fully developed older brother/coach/drill sergeant dynamic these two have grown into. Most notably that Casey simply helps Chuck up and invites him back into castle. Casey doesn’t sugar coat it though, this is pathetic, even for you. And Chuck, hearing that from the man whose grudging respect he’d so painfully earned finally decides to do something about it. Seeing his chance at redemption Chuck suits up to become a spy again.
At first it sounds like his main goal is to fix things with Sarah, but oddly practically the first words to her out of his mouth are “this is not about us”. Whether he means it or not it clearly wasn’t what Sarah wanted to hear, that he wants her help and encouragement so he can prove himself as a spy. Still she does ask Casey to give him a second. So why from “get him out of here” to “Just give him a second.”? Why the kiss for that matter? She could have just slapped him, and that kiss did linger a little longer than a kiss that earns a slap should have. I may have a bit more on this later also. When I first saw this scene in preview form I got the vibe that Sarah was mad at Chuck and the dance, while perhaps to distract her mark was also aimed at punishing Chuck. We know Chuck hates seduction missions, and Sarah is going after this one with great gusto. It also seems clear she knows how she will affect Chuck.
In any case Chuck appears to blow the mission in his eagerness to protect Sarah, we of course know better. We don’t however know who the target was. I think we are to suspect it was Sarah’s mark, to eliminate someone who had knowledge of the Ring and who had been found out and infiltrated by the CIA. I’m not quite as sure. Still more to consider later.
Chuck and Sarah’s apparent last goodbye of course needs to turn into something else. A method of dispatching Emmet, a way to put them in danger, and a way for Chuck to save the day and prove himself, and the opportunity to finish the last flashback that fills in our back story on Chuck and Sarah. All of these things are taking on a far darker tone for the first episode. Emmet’s quick dispatch, Chuck taking a serious beating, last season even the torture was mostly implied, now it seems the violence and danger are being put right up front rather than implied or treated as, lets face it, almost comic relief at times. Think First Kill & Uncle Bernie (or the guy out the window for that matter), Casey taking on Fulcrum with a radiator and Sarah resorting to biting at one point in the Colonel, and of course the reception hall shoot ’em up in the Ring, these were great action scenes, but they were pretty much blood free and almost lighthearted.
Now we get the payoff. What happened with Chuck and Sarah. Well I now have a new least favorite angst scene, replacing Chuck’s “proposal” scene in the Ring as the most incomprehensible, out of character moment in the series so far. As others have said, I don’t want to put down the acting, or the writing to an extent. It was a good idea. Chuck turns toward duty, he’s been called to be a hero,and because of that calling, his answer of that calling he has to give up what he wants most, a “normal” life with Sarah. He goes ready to make the sacrifice, knowing he will hurt her, and that she may never forgive him, but in a way he is doing it for her. I think the execution sucks. It isn’t because of the one scene, or even wholly the way the scene is written. It is because of the way the characters and scenes are written as a whole.
The show not only invites, but practically demands we fill in the gaps of the characters off camera time, and not with boring every day stuff either. We are invited to speculate on everything from Sarah’s childhood , having grown up as a grifter and being continually disappointed by her father to exactly how did Chuck end up being dangled out the window by Colt holding on to the cipher at the very beginning of season 2. We see by episode 3 this year that they have even seemed to up the ante, Chuck arriving home via helicopter in a harness and body armor, exhausted and describing in the most general terms his latest mission. Yeah, let’s ignore that.
It believe this aspect of the show, the invitation to be a part of the show with our imaginations, is probably one of the things that makes it so good and so addictive to some of us. We’re invited into Chuck’s world to be a part of it, not just watch it unfold. Add in the fantastic cast and fully developed characters who make this world real, no matter how implausible, and make us care so deeply about these people we think we know, and I think you’ve got the makings of the best show on television. It probably makes it awfully damned hard to write for. Any writer is going to be faced with a hard core fan base that feels, and perhaps not without justification, that we know those characters better than they do. And we’ll let them know it. And so we’re left with the latest episode of puppy kicking. Pretty much a reversal of roles for the Ring. With Chuck being the one who can’t find any words other than “I can’t, I’m sorry”. Well I guess its better than “I’m leaving in the morning with Bryce.”
So cool calculating agent walker has three weeks to prepare, and hasn’t realized that she is making not only a rash decision, but asking Chuck to give up everything for her, his family, any sense of purpose, any hope of anything other than a life on the run, apparently trusting in the kind nature of the NSA and CIA not to try to get to him through his many friends and family, all for her, when she can’t even bring herself to tell him that she loves him. And Chuck, he has three weeks to contemplate the fact that Sarah has finally opened up to him like never before, and this might be tough for her, being ready to give up her life for him, and he’s going to have to hurt her, and it’s going to be bad no matter what. I’d hope he would start with Sarah I love you, and everything will be alright, but… Then there is the rest of it. Apparently no other words are ever exchanged, no phone calls before or after, no letters or follow up, no request from Chuck to contact Sarah when things are going downhill for him, because she calms him and helps him. I’m going to say right now, on its own, it is a beautifully written heartbreaking scene. Everything from the photography, to the costumes and set and the music, not to mention the acting, was just top rate. Each time I re-watch I hate it less, I guess that’s something. I think I am starting to see where this problems crops up, and how to an extent it may be unavoidable. And yes, I bought “Backwards Walk” on iTunes to add to my “slow Chuck music” playlist. One more song and I’ll just buy the album. It’ll be cheaper than buying them one at a time.
This brings us, somewhat breathlessly, to the final few minutes of setting up for the rest of the season. Chuck steps up and proves he can work, Casey helps save them, the return with a valuable clue, Team Bartowski is back together, Chuck is back at Buy More with the whole gang, Awsome and Ellie move, but not too far of course, and Chuck and Morgan are installed in their bachelor pad. One final thread, Sarah is once again told to handle Chuck. We’re given some hints that Chuck is more powerful or dangerous than we know. I’ll touch on this a bit shortly. Sarah goes to have a talk with Chuck by the fountain of doom (or fountain of youth, where previous season’s themes are re-born as new ones). I thought it a very clever bit that neither could say anything till Chuck started. Clearly they get their own foibles and can laugh at them. The talk however is a return to season 1 territory. Chuck starts to explain, but the moment he ventures in to the personal side of what happened, “It was never about you (and me?)” Sarah stops him at “you”. She doesn’t want to hear it, or at least is convinced she didn’t. I acted impulsively, it won’t happen again could have come right out of Crown Vic, except for one thing. Chuck had seen not just the mask slip, he’d seen Sarah, the real Sarah, wanting and needing Chuck to love her and come away with her. She can try, but she knows she’ll never get that armor back on when it comes to Chuck. Her last line, keep your feelings to yourself is an admission she can’t. Sarah can’t be around Chuck if she has to hear being a spy was more important than her, no matter his reason.
The only way this episode ends on a high note is with something fun. Casey and Chuck’s scene again highlights the change in their relationship. Casey is actually enjoying this, and not just because he gets to lay a beating on the nerd. He has wisdom to impart, and a willing student. Great final shot, so to speak.
To spark a bit of discussion I wanted to mention a few things in passing. First, I feel I was right about one thing, TPTB realized they could not show this episode alone as a premier, they had to get something hopeful and moderately upbeat out there quickly. Episode 2 was better, and ended hopefully, but I think I now understand why they wanted Angel of Death to follow so quickly. It wasn’t till Monday night that an old feeling came back. Man this show is great.
Sarah’s first kiss with Chuck didn’t really make a lot of sense to me till later, and it absolutely convinced me of something I’ve thought about since the Jill episodes. It actually started in Season 1. If you recall Nemesis and the thanksgiving dinner, it was a test, stated explicitly for Morgan, the subtler meaning was that Chuck failed by not trusting Sarah with Bryce. He passed the second test however. Both of them I mean. In season 2, the Graviton, Sarah is explaining to Chuck how a spy will test an emotionally vulnerable agent. She starts to demonstrate the kiss, and at the last moment stops. I got the feeling the secondary motivation was that Sarah was testing Chuck, to see if he still had feelings for her after Jill. After the train station scene I became completely convinced Sarah’s first kiss in the bar was her test to see if things really where over with Chuck. At the train station when Chuck seemed to be wavering Sarah kissed him, and didn’t get the kiss she expected. Did she get the one she expected at El Bucho? I guess time will tell.
Speaking of El Bucho, I think we’ll later come to find that The Ring is very interested in one Sarah Walker It may be because she’s known about the intersect and his identity, or because as everyone in the spy world seems to know she has an affect on him. I just thought that Javier was awfully interested in “the girl”.
I’ll leave you with one final thought to chew on. Chuck flunked out of spy school BECAUSE he dumped Sarah. She is the source of his strength and has been all along. The weakness comes when he grows arrogant, or turns away from her, or tries to test her rather than accepting her. This is classic Heroes Journey stuff. The hero abandons the goddess figure, and loses his powers and her favor. It’s in the playbook. I’m afraid however that this little dustup is going to last a while. before we really see what the intersect and Chuck are capable of.