A Guest Post by Liz James
I’ve never known anything about Chuck Bartowski and Sarah Walker. At least not the Chuck and Sarah that TPTB showed us in Season 3. But I know something about the Chuck and Sarah from Seasons 1 and 2 that TPTB never fully understood.
Simply put, Chuck and Sarah are our future. Our best hope for what we claim makes America great. And, depending on your age, what you want to grow up to be, what you hope you are now and what you want your children to become.
That is a heavy burden for two fictional characters in an essentially silly television program that almost no one watches. But it’s what has kept me loyal to Chuck even when I’ve despised what I was watching this season.
For better and worse, all our tomorrows are in the hands of Chuck Bartowski and Sarah Walker. Where TPTB take them says a lot about how we see ourselves as a culture and a nation in the perilous decades ahead.
When I watched the Chuck pilot on that late September Monday in 2007, I thought it was an interesting concept, with cute and clever execution and two appealing lead actors. And then, in the last act, Chuck was given a startling moment: He realized that his possession of the Intersect gave him the power to control his own destiny. “You,” he reminds Sarah and Casey, “need me.”
Wow, I thought, this is going to be an average-guy-versus-the-government tale wrapped inside a spy story. It could be interesting.
Then came the tag. Chuck and Sarah on the beach. They didn’t talk of love. As the simultaneously bitter and beautiful “A Comet Appears” played underneath them, Chuck and Sarah discussed family and trust and duty and responsibility and what one had to do to keep the other safe.
Double wow, I thought. This is going to be an offbeat buddy tale. The normal guy is going to teach the government agent about real life. And the government spook is going to teach the normal guy about something beyond himself. They’ll save the world and help each other find their place in it, all while keeping a well-meaning-but-paranoid post-9/11 government at bay. This would really be interesting.
And it was. Listen to Average American Chuck talking to Dedicated Public Servant Sarah at the end of Helicopter: “Instead of not trusting you, I should be thanking you for saving my life and protecting the country.”
And listen to the On-Guard-For-Us Sarah calling for the greater nature of Patriotic American Chuck: “Some people want to be heroes and others have to be asked. So, Chuck, are you ready?”
He was, however reluctantly, and they were off. Average guy and superspy battle ivory-tower bureaucrats (Beckman and Graham) and a host of oddly human-scaled baddies: gun runners, drug dealers, money launderers, terrorists, data thieves, corrupt industrialists. And even when a larger-than-life organization of bad guys appears, as it must in all spy tales, it’s not an evil-for-evil’s sake threat like SPECTRE or THRUSH. It’s Fulcrum, homegrown Americans who believe they have a higher calling, but who are being manipulated by a smarmy, new-wave corporate tycoon.
Were the first two seasons of Chuck perfect? Of course not. But Chuck and Sarah almost always were.
Isn’t Chuck what we want of ourselves, our children and our fellow Americans? He’s honest and unassuming. He learns and he grows and he cares. He steps up when he has to and how he can because that’s what Americans do. He’s a hero because he’s needed, not because it matters to him or he thinks he can profit by the trappings of heroism.
Isn’t Sarah what we want of ourselves, our children and our fellow Americans? She’s smart and talented. She thinks and she nurtures and she cares. She does her job because it is her job. She’s a hero because she’s trained to be one, not because it matters to her or she desires the spoils of heroism.
I never needed Chuck and Sarah to be a couple, but the romance worked as it unfolded over the first two seasons. There were ghosts of lovers past. The chimera of lovers that never could be. The stresses of work. The pressures of duty. The fear and the panic, the doubt and the missteps. It was modern romance and it was … complicated. But, in the end, two incomplete people found perfection in, devotion to and adoration for each other.
Contrary to the belief of some Season 3 ret-conners, Chuck and Sarah were never innocents. They were never blind to each other’s flaws. In fact, they seemed to love and trust each other most when no one else would have thought to do it at all. I can’t speak for the sonnet writers or Father Rick, but that sounds like real, eyes-wide-open true love to me.
Chuck in Marlin, even as Sarah fails him: “You’re Sarah. You can do anything.”
Sarah in First Date, even as Chuck fails himself: “You can do anything. I’ve seen you in action.”
How could you not admire these two people? If you’re not yet their age, why wouldn’t you want to become them? If you are their contemporaries, how could you not emulate them? If you are old enough to be their parents, as I am, don’t you want your own children to be like them? As Americans, we can only hope that Chuck and Sarah are representative of the first generation of adults of the twenty-first century.
I have made no secret of the fact that I think Season 3 has been execrable. But not because Chuck and Sarah weren’t lovers from the start. Not because of the plot holes and the blind alleys. And not even because a poor story was so badly told that we couldn’t find a coherent strand from episode to episode–and sometimes from scene to scene.
I was repelled by Season 3 because TPTB decided Chuck and Sarah were not the heroes we know they are. As much as you can in a fictional tale, TPTB repeatedly lied about Chuck and Sarah.
No matter what else he ever wanted, Chuck would never abandon Sarah on that train platform in Prague without putting up a fight to keep her. No matter how wounded and scared she was, Sarah would never abandon Chuck to despair after burning Manoosh. Chuck would have found a way to stop Rafe from murdering Sarah. Sarah would have found a way to stop Shaw from blowing up Chuck. Neither would have permitted Beckman to strip Casey of his life’s work and his dignity. Chuck was never defined by what he did for a living and Sarah was never appalled by her work.
Chuck and Sarah matter. How they are portrayed matters. That’s because they are the best of what we are and what we hope to be, as individuals, as couples and as an extended national family. Our dreams are wrapped up in how they act, how they treat each other and everyone else around them. As Chuck and Sarah go, so goes America.
That’s why I believe Chuck and Sarah are better than the caricatures we were shown in Season 3. I believe that because I know my children are already better than that. I am better than that and so are you. And it is a shame that TPTB apparently never understood the inherent greatness, the baked-in goodness and the unflinching nobility of the characters they created.
But if nothing else, America is about redemption. We may not forget, but we will forgive. Chuck was right in Cougars. We don’t care who people were because we know who they are and who they can be.
TPTB have six more hours to show us that they understand who Chuck and Sarah really are and who they can be.
— Liz James