So where’d all this drama come from?
Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start. (All apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein) Sarah saw something in Chuck, something different and something she liked. Sarah decided not to let Casey drop Chuck into padded cell before heading out for pancakes. Sarah hasn’t been the same since. Chuck’s had a few adjustments to make too. Even Casey has had his share of … challenges. But that is where we started, and the story is still the same. So did Sarah choose to save Chuck, or did she just react? What was it Sarah saw in Chuck? Sometimes the best way to see where your going is to look at the trajectory you’re on. So let’s start at the beginning, with the usual caveats about cannon and the problems with season 3 retcon, writing your own story or giving TPTB too much credit. This is gonna be a long one, so if you dare, join me after the jump.
What do we know about Sarah Walker? Raised by a con man father on the road, a different name in every city, probably no friends; she might need to leave them within a few moments. Not your average childhood. According to Casey in DeLorean her father had been in and out of jail her whole life, so we could assume Sarah had occasionally been a ward of the state or sent to live with relatives in addition to her regular moves with her dad. We can probably assume that those walls we see were erected early and reinforced often. At the age of 17 her father was taken from her again, and the CIA became her adopted family. Graham may have been a mentor or father figure or a combination of both. The CIA apparently looked after Sarah Walker, got her into Harvard, perhaps paid her way, all the while grooming her for a spot she was practically made for, a top agent. She’d lived the spy life since she was a child. Trust no one, everyone is a possible mark, don’t get close, don’t fall in love, be ready to leave it all behind at a moment’s notice. Yeah, probably has some abandonment and intimacy issues, but she’s tailor-made to be a spy.
At the beginning we see Sarah Walker, the confident spy. She has her mark, she has her mission. She’s there to clean up Bryce’s mess. Losing Bryce was tough on her, we later learn. Not just his death, but his betrayal. One more in a long line of men who let her down and abandoned her. But Sarah Walker was used to it. Bury it, back to work. Deal with it later.
Chuck does not have a normal life, he has a normal-ish life when we meet him. Though Chuck has suffered many of the same problems of abandonment and intimacy that Sarah has, it doesn’t seem to have done as much lasting damage because Chuck had people in his life who cared and helped him. Chuck’s mother left when he was 10, and from then on, with a distant father, he and his sister and his adopted brother Morgan (who it seems clung to the first team B due to his own loneliness) learned to rely on each other. Instead of erecting walls Chuck learned to open up and reach for the people he loved when he needed them. You get the impression that when papa B left, while it left Ellie in the difficult spot of raising Chuck from 15 on, it didn’t leave the same scar that losing their mother did.
Chuck and Ellie managed and moved on. Ellie to UCLA and med school, Chuck to Stanford as a scholarship student. At Stanford Chuck blossomed. His natural gifts as a student and his outgoing nature made him, Bryce aside, the king of the nerds. A lot of us have had a friend like Bryce, the cool guy that sees the goodness and potential in the guy that could be so much more. The friend that introduces you to the cute girl you think is out of your league, or includes you on his intramural football team where it turns out you aren’t half bad, and all the other guys like you. At Stanford I imagine Bryce is to Chuck as Chuck is to Morgan at the Buy More and High School. You can imagine the worst day of Chuck’s life, Bryce’s betrayal, when he lost everything, and the aftermath that we see him still living with at the beginning. Perhaps Chuck has lost some of that trust and innocence, but he’s still Chuck.
Piece of Cake.
So here we are at the beginning. Sarah walking into the Buy More. Piece of cake. Chuck is pretty aimless, but apparently happy. Sarah saw something in Chuck, and so the story begins. This is Chuck and Sarah’s story, where they started, where they met, and where they are going. That is the heart of the show. Spy stuff? Hero’s Journey? All plot devices to move the story of Chuck and Sarah forward, whether that’s what TPTB intended or not.
At first Chuck was Sarah’s assignment. Sure she liked him and wanted to protect him. Sarah did see the truth about Chuck, a complete innocent caught up as a pawn in someone else’s game. Betrayed by Bryce, as was she, he didn’t deserve life in a padded cell for being a good guy. So Sarah had her mission and did it the way she’d always done it. Keep Chuck at arm’s length, but interested, scold him, encourage him, just keep him cooperative. Sure it wasn’t nice, but it was for his own good.
At first Chuck was a little scared of Sarah. He realized she’d saved him, and later in The Helicopter that she was the only thing keeping him out of the padded cell in an undisclosed location. He had to trust her. He needed her. Then came Carina. She has a habit of shaking things up. Sarah seems to be enjoying settling into Chuck’s life, so much so that she starts to let her guard down. There’s a saying among grifters; you can’t con an honest man. Chuck is the honest man. He doesn’t hide his attraction to Sarah, he apologizes for not trusting and thanking her, even though he’s being used and played, and when he wants to know more about Sarah he just says so. Sarah tries to con an honest man. Sarah invites Chuck to ask her about her past and her life, and Chuck zeroes in on her weak spot. Bryce. Sarah has just found out that though friends in the past everyone in Chuck’s life, Chuck included, hates Bryce and holds him responsible for Chuck’s years in limbo. Caught between a lie and upsetting Chuck, and perhaps diminishing his attraction to her, Sarah lies. Carina uses that to manipulate Chuck and get the diamond, but in the process Chuck’s trust of Sarah is damaged, and Sarah realizes, maybe for the first time, this isn’t going to be a piece of cake.
So why the walk down memory lane? Because this is I believe the point where Sarah started to realize she wanted what Chuck had. But what was that? A normal life? Chuck’s life hadn’t been normal from the moment Sarah met him. A family? Sarah was welcomed into the Bartowski clan with open arms and that was real. Though she couldn’t tell them the whole truth about her or Chuck, neither could Chuck, and it didn’t change the way Devon and Ellie treated her; like family. Sarah wanted the family, the love, the normal part of life that Chuck had of course, and she had some of that through Chuck, but what Chuck had that Sarah lost, or never had, was integrity and people who needed him. Chuck knew who he was, didn’t lie about it, and knew who mattered and did everything in his power to make sure they knew how he felt, and to protect them. Something that even then Sarah saw she was taking away from him. But something else was happening to Sarah. Chuck needed her, and wanted her, and he didn’t need her to open up. He gave her a life and a family, and a purpose and asked virtually nothing in return. All the sudden Chuck is very hard to play. You can’t con an honest man. Dangle the possibility of a relationship in front of him, he’ll ask you outright, and then act on your answer. Chuck was certainly not a mark anymore, and handling him got a lot harder.
One final event puts Sarah into new territory, maybe for the first time in her life. The kiss. As we’ve discussed before the kiss at the end of Hard Salami, when Sarah’s mask slipped and the Sarah who needed a man she could trust and who wouldn’t ever leave her, no matter what, found that guy. The guy that wouldn’t let her down, even if it meant death. Game over. She knew it. Bryce was a complication. A big complication, granted. Sarah had a real choice. She knew she’d blown it with Chuck. She’d never get that distance back. And Chuck being Chuck would force the issue, he’d just plain ask her feelings. Another lie? Could she manage it? Could she make it convincing? Bryce was a way to escape, but it meant never seeing Chuck again. Could she walk away from Chuck? At the end of Nemesis it appears she was ready to do so. But then Chuck called. Apparently Chuck still needed her, and wanted her. So what did she decide? More to the point DID she decide? Did she Choose to be with Chuck? Or perhaps, as we saw Sarah standing poised between the two, the clock just ran out and she ended up with Chuck by default.
The way she treats Chuck in Crown Vic it sure looks like the later. She is making Chuck pay for her inability to make a decision or a clean break, and she’s in over her head. Chuck is far stronger than her emotionally; Sarah is outmatched. Worse, both Sarah and Chuck know Chuck did nothing wrong. Worse yet, Chuck knows that Sarah knows he did nothing wrong. Her last-ditch effort to make it about Chuck, accusing him of faking a flash out of jealousy ends with Chuck confronting her about the kiss. When Sarah kissed Chuck. In the end the only thing that saved her was that she trusted Chuck when it mattered most, when he needed her to help him save Morgan. Chuck needed her, and she responded, and a bit of trust was restored. But there was something else. Call it what you will, but Chuck took a stand at the end of Crown Vic. Mistletoe? Not for Chuck. Sarah’s characterization of the kiss as a mistake that would never happen again still ringing in his ears, it was Chuck that opted for a bit of distance. Friends and a dance was the best Sarah Walker was getting. A line was drawn, you don’t get to beat me up for your mistakes. Chuck was forcing Sarah to do something perhaps a bit alien. Own up to what you did, and fix it or live with the consequences. Show some integrity. Be a real person, not a spy.
We really get a sense of how much Sarah has been changed in Marlin. Crazy in love Sarah, ready to commit treason to be with Chuck Sarah, and it’s Chuck that has to talk her down. Really, watch the scene. Chuck starts to beg Sarah, but stops abruptly, sizing up the situation, realizing what will happen if he dares ask Sarah to save him. Chuck steps up, and talks Sarah down. Now it’s Sarah that starts to need Chuck.
We’re better as a team.
Sarah is a bit defenseless as we start season 2. She can’t even turn down a real date. Imagine that, Chuck with the confidence to ask, Sarah admitting she wants to, and will. While season 2 has its ups and downs, this is the pattern, they both admit to themselves, and each other they want to be together. How is the problem. Too close doesn’t work, and it’s Chuck who has to re-establish some distance in The Breakup. But in Cougars Sarah needs Chuck again, and they settle into a partnership, momentarily disrupted by Jill. But with Jill you see Sarah’s pattern. She wants to be with Chuck, but understands being who she is that she can never be as close as she and Chuck both want while she is a spy and he’s an asset. Complications of course ensue. For Sarah the fake(real) relationship is enough, perhaps all she can handle. She gets to be with Chuck, she has a purpose. Chuck needs her, both for protection and emotional support. She is his best friend. She encourages him and helps him through the spy world, all the while trying to protect the sweet innocent guy she loves from the worst aspects of it. Chuck for his part sees the situation as temporary, something to be endured until he can find a way out. Chuck being Chuck keeps looking for closure, or an answer. He had his answer, little did he know.
Sarah: Look, tell them we’re taking things slowly, and that while we enjoy each other’s company, we don’t really feel the need to label it, and who knows what the future holds for us.
That is pure truth from Sarah. Chuck doesn’t quite pick up on it, and pushes one step further.
Chuck: But that’s just another lie, right?
Chuck takes Sarah’s silence as confirmation. It isn’t, it’s the part she couldn’t say (as we find out in Broken Heart).
So now we have Cole. Cole offers Sarah her next escape. An exciting life, some pleasant company with someone who cares about her. And a kiss. Cole kisses Sarah, and Sarah responds. But in the end Sarah chooses Chuck. Or does she. Sarah, it seems to me didn’t make a choice, she stuck with the status quo. Chuck was still there, and still needed her, and his jealousy made clear still wanted her. Chuck, his neuroses and need for closure aside was still the guy who wouldn’t let her down or leave her.
The new normal is re-established. Chuck and Sarah, the real/fake couple, making do the best they can. The final arc tests their loyalties, and they both pass the test, until at last freed of obligation and surveillance, just Chuck and Sarah alone, the dam breaks in Colonel.
I shan’t rant again about the reset, therefore I’ll just leave it at this. Sarah finally made a choice, to run away and be with Chuck. Chuck made a choice, to be a spy. Complications arise from these two choices.
I acted impulsively…
Chuck makes choices, both good and bad and lives with the consequences. Sarah rides the tide, and lives with the outcome. This is where things go wrong. Sarah doesn’t make a lot of decisions. She reacts to events. Did she choose Bryce? Bryce was her first partner. It seems to me that after being assigned to each other it’s likely things just developed. Did Sarah choose Chuck? Yes, she did in the end, and she paid dearly for that choice. I once said that before Sarah finally opened up she’d have to see the consequences of her silence. She didn’t know it, but losing Chuck to the spy world was the first. Thinking she was gone, thinking he wasn’t the man he needed to be to hold her, this was a part of Chuck’s decision to re-intersect. Taking to heart all that Sarah had told him, he decided to be that guy. This is where we open season 3, with two decisions leading to heartbreak and disaster for Chuck and Sarah.
Sarah did open up, sort of, but too little too late. She didn’t so much decide to be with Chuck as react to the possibility of losing him again. Her decision to run isn’t so different in character from her attempt to do something in Marlin or run at the end of First Kill. It is more of a reaction to events than a decision.
Chuck understood the consequences of choosing to be a spy over Sarah, losing Sarah. Upon re-connecting he tried to make it right, at least make her understand his choice wasn’t a rejection of her, but a decision to serve something other than his desires, something he though he learned from her. But from all we know, did Sarah Walker ever make that decision, or did she just ride a tide of events that put her where she was?
Our heroes are right back where they started. Chuck is Sarah’s asset, she can’t disclose everything to him and has to walk a fine line of loyalty and duty. Chuck being Chuck isn’t going to pick at scabs, especially after the Bo incident. No cover dating, but they still can’t talk. And Chuck begins to change. At first he’s still Chuck. Chuck still needs Sarah, both her protection and her emotional support. Even as late as First Class he still relies on Sarah, and needs Sarah.
Something changes at the end of Nacho Sampler.
Sarah: Do you want me to handle it?
Chuck: Yeah, I would. But I have to do it.
Chuck, realizing he couldn’t become a spy if he let Sarah handle the dirty work forever steps up. To Sarah, watching Chuck deal with it by drinking alone, it means something different. He doesn’t need her anymore. He’s becoming a spy. Is that a good thing?
For much of The Mask it is. Chuck saves the day more than once, and faces the ultimate test, would he let Sarah die if it meant innocent lives would be lost? Well I think TPTB fudged that one, but I won’t quibble. The real importance of The Mask is the last ten minutes, much as you hate to hear it.
Chuck is becoming a spy. The training wheels will come off soon. Chuck is told that his team is going away soon, and that he’ll be a spy, minus Sarah. Sarah chases after him in the hallway, wanting to make sure he’s OK. (Please Chuck, still need me). He says he is. Yes, Chuck is clueless. He used to know when Sarah needed to hear she mattered, like in Best Friend. But Chuck has fooled himself. He thinks he’s over Sarah, and she him. Thinking he’s doing the magnanimous thing, he bows out. Sarah says goodbye to Chuck.
Did Sarah choose Shaw? Let’s look a bit deeper at that one. Chuck was gone. Sarah has always stepped aside when she thought she was holding Chuck back from being happy. She didn’t think she had the right. But she learned something from Chuck. Integrity. Treat people as people, not marks. Be a person, not a spy. But now Chuck is gone, and Shaw is there. Once again Sarah doesn’t so much choose as allow events to do the choosing. Shaw pursues, and she allows it to happen. It’s Cole without Chuck as the default. Shaw becomes the default because she doesn’t think she can be alone again.
Sarah falling for the guys she works with starts to make sense. Sarah doesn’t choose so much as accept. Bryce might have been a good fit, Chuck, well obviously, Shaw… well… But here’s the thing, Sarah doesn’t choose. Sarah doesn’t decide. Sarah wants Chuck, Sarah needs Chuck, Sarah needs to CHOOSE Chuck. Chuck made his decision, we saw that. Has Sarah made hers?
Yes, she was going to meet Chuck. We know this. But consider.
Cole: Just close your eyes and say yes.
Chuck: I don’t want to have to convince you, I just want you to show up.
Both are telling Sarah what to do, what they want her to do. In the first case doing nothing means Chuck. In the second, she has to do what he says, but it means Chuck. So Sarah prefers Chuck. I still think Sarah needs to choose Chuck. Why? Well seconds before she left Shaw showed up, told her what they had to do, and she went with him. Sarah is still letting her choices be made by events. She needs to make her choice drive events. This might be tricky. How does Sarah choose Chuck. How is Chuck not just reverting to safe old Chuck, or slightly edgier but safe Chuck. Sarah is going to have to choose Chuck in an unambiguous way. The full Bartowski is my theory, and I’m stickin’ with it.