This season is a bit funny for us bloggers here at ChuckThis. We all agree on everything, or so it seems sometimes. For this next episode Thinkling and I team up to do some digging into Chuck Versus The Cubic Z, set up wonderfully by her and Dave’s excellent recap of Chuck Versus The Suitcase.
Chuck Versus The Cubic Z is what insiders and enthusiasts call a bottle episode. It is a lower budget episode that takes advantage of limited and existing sets and concentrates on character development. What surprised me on the first watch was the character being developed. In retrospect it shouldn’t have. This is a Sarah-centric episode in a Sarah-centric arc. The return of Heather Chandler obviously points to Chuck Versus The Cougars, where we get a bit of Sarah back story. I liken it more to Chuck Versus The Delorean, which explores not just Sarah’s back story, but who she is, who she thinks she is, and who she wants to be. You could also add in (though few will want to) Chuck Versus The Fake Name and Chuck Versus The Final Exam as episodes that explores similar themes. Who is Sarah Walker, and what does she want? Does Sarah even know?. Your intrepid ChuckThis bloggers Ernie and Thinkling will take on the big question, after the jump.
I always learn things from Ernie. Who knew there was such a thing as a bottle episode? Although considering all the duct-crawling and Chuck’s complaint, canned might be more apropos. Before we actually crawl into the episode, I’d like to think back and provide some context for Sarah’s night in the guts of the building.
The Girl On The Inside. … Sarah’s words to Dick Duffy in Chuck Versus The Cougars: I’m still the same girl on the inside.
As we unpacked Chuck Versus The Suitcase, we saw what a small life Sarah had lived, first as the daughter of a con-man, then as a spy. Finally with Chuck she is unpacking everything. Among the things that kept getting stuffed into a corner of her suitcase, was her identity.
We are relational beings. Relationship is the laboratory of self-discovery and the canvass of self-expression. Who we are is experienced, expressed, and tested in relationships. Hustled from one town to another and one name to another, Sarah had little opportunity to figure out who she was. She was a prop for her dad’s cons. She was the new kid in school. She was invisible. She lacked the roots and human connection necessary to develop or give expression to The Girl On The Inside.
Langston Graham sums it up: The question is who are you? In San Diego you go by Jenny Burton. In Wisconsin it’s Katie O’Connell. In Cleveland it’s Rebecca Franco … (Chuck Versus The Cougars)
But Graham didn’t give her the opportunity to answer the question. Like her father, he gave her a new name and turned her into someone useful to him — a spy and his wild card enforcer. And the Girl On The Inside never had a chance at being a real person.
Who – Are – You? The question was shoved to the bottom of her spy suitcase with no thought of being answered. Until Chuck. For the first time someone saw her, the invisible girl, and cared enough to notice even the little things: no olives on her pizza, extra pickles on her cheeseburger, and her favorite flower. (Bryce ordered half the florist shop, but not one gardenia.) Chuck connected with the Girl On The Inside and drew her into a real life of love, affection, and belonging.
We come to Chuck Versus The Cubic Z with Sarah having found her home in Chuck, the person with whom she can be herself. Everything is perfect … until Chuck starts thinking about having kids … out loud … in her ear. Just as she is trying to treat the kids-issue with Chuck, her past, in the person of Heather Chandler, comes roaring back to taunt her and forces her to consider the question. Who are you?
This episode opens in an interesting place. Chuck and Morgan share a few moments of quiet contentment. Sarah has unpacked and for the moment Chuck’s fears are eased. But he’s done what he always does. A simple out loud contemplation of the next step has freaked Sarah out. As we’ll see laid out explicitly in Coup d’Etat Chuck’s instincts are always to move forward and change, to start thinking about or moving toward the next level. For Sarah her life has been movement and change and it’s always meant disappointment and loss. It’s been a long-standing dynamic that Chuck charges ahead looking forward to bigger and better things and Sarah tries desperately to cling to the status quo because it’s the happiest she’s ever been and is afraid of losing it. But the opening was a thing of beauty. Chuck is content and living in the moment, Sarah is freaking out about the relationship. But this time Sarah realizes that silent clinging to the status quo won’t work. In Chuck Versus The Suitcase Sarah seemed to finally realize, while he may do most of the heavy lifting in the relationship, Chuck has his own issues. She needed to unpack to make Chuck feel at home, and safe. Hiding the freakout will not work, and that Sarah realizes why, and that she knows she needs to take action is a tremendous step forward for her. Back to the problem at hand, Sarah and Casey lay it out. They know Chuck, the old Chuck, who would prod and probe until Sarah, the old Sarah, would freak out, leaving Chuck to mope and worry and withdraw. Before it even happens this time Sarah sees her silence will cost her, so in a moment of real growth, even though the romantic mission is canceled, Sarah decides to actually open up and share her fears and concerns.
I liked that Chuck picked up on the need to chat, but still didn’t freak out. I also liked the subtle hint of intimacy from Chuck. “There’s nothing I love more than a night, together, with you.” Just as Sarah seems to be moving forward we see we’re about to revisit some of her past when Heather Chandler turns out to be one of their overnight guests due to a prisoner transfer gone awry. At least it can’t get any worse. Right?
We open after the credits with Morgan also facing a figure from his past. Big Mike is back and wants to be Morgan’s daddy. Morgan thinks on it, holding the titular Cubic Z and Big Mike at least gets a job out of it.
Sarah and Heather, together again. Or rather Jenny and Heather. But Jenny-Sarah doesn’t seem to be as interested in revisiting old times as Heather is. It is a bit funny to see Sarah obviously flustered in the presence of someone who knows her, or knows who she was, but at the same time exuding a confident attitude. It’s Sarah Walker, and don’t forget it. Because the big thing that struck me in this Sarah-centric arc is how Sarah is finally coming into her own. Sarah is at last enlarging her world to reference Thinkling’s excellent metaphor. Despite the excitement and travel of being an ass kicking world-class spy, her life had very limited possibilities.
There would be adrenaline and lust filled romances that hinted at greater things, like Bryce, but she’d never let her guard down with another spy, or stick around long enough for anything to progress too far. Eventually she’d end up dead, or a burnout. It was only when she met Chuck and had to slow down for a few years that she started to think about who she was, who she wanted to be, and what she wanted out of life. First it was a fantasy, then a role she played with Chuck, then as it seemed about to be real it was snatched away. But now it’s back, and Sarah Walker’s world is expanding in ways she never dared imagine.
It’s the past however that Sarah must deal with first. Sarah doesn’t do normal well. She doesn’t even seem to know how in a lot of ways. That’s why we see her freak out over the possibility of kids. She doesn’t know if she can be who she thinks Chuck wants her to be. That’s why we get the occasional freak outs, still. You can almost hear it when Sarah asks in Suitcase if Chuck thinks its weird she hasn’t unpacked. What she really wants is some re-assurance. Tell me I’m normal, or if not, tell me I’m worth loving. It’s those very insecurities brought back to the forefront that have Sarah so flustered trying to deal with Heather. Taking a bit of the role reversal forward it was absolutely hilarious to see Sarah the one to get emotional and give away the game for a change.
The rest of this episode is mostly just fun. Heather poking at the caged lioness, two great fights, including cage match! Are you freaking kidding me? Zach Levi doesn’t quite reach Yvonne’s heights at looking convincing in a fight, but in his cage match I thought he pulled it of wonderfully. Even though he lost. And lets not forget automatic weapons fire aplenty. Seriously, what’s not to love? Well the Buy More was kind of meh for me. The riot was funny, but it seemed a bit forced. But I can live with it.
My only other complaint is a quibble about Nicole Ritchie. She’s not a professional actress, and occasionally it shows. I can usually ignore it because she sort of embodies the part and brings a wonderful stuck-up girl vibe to it. But on occasion, like delivering her final speech to Sarah, the strings are showing. Some of it is the content of the speech doesn’t seem to fit her character, and some is delivery. That’s OK, the final speech and Sarah’s talk with Chuck are the best exposition to date on where Sarah’s head is at. She’s not that person, nor does she want to be. She’s Sarah Walker, and Sarah Walker is not all spy. Sarah walker can have things like love, a life away from the deceit and treachery, a family… But Sarah Walker is in a new place, and she needs to go slow.
Great summary Ernie. I really like Cubic Z (maybe more than a lot of people) on two levels: first, the identity issue, which intrigues me; and second, it left me plenty entertained and provided some memorable “Chuck” moments. I will never think of the supply closet the same way again. And who can forget tough-cop/silent-cop? “Remember tough/silent; do not let her get under your skin.” Mostly, it was just plain fun to watch Sarah (kudos again! to Yvonne) in her various moods: Brook no Discussion: “Sarah Walker. And don’t forget it.” Understatement: “I really do not like that women.” The Testy Lioness: “Sorry, foot slipped.” Smug and Satisfied, “That felt good.” And finally, I was amused and heartwarmed by Sarah trying to have her chat with Chuck, by her first painfully awkward attempt, then by the simple, honest delivery in the final act. What Happened? How did the topic that freaked her out all day and all night suddenly become so easy to talk about? … Sarah finally and definitively answered Langston Graham’s question Who are you?
Identity, Perception, Lies, and the Truth. Sarah’s perception of herself hasn’t caught up with the person she is becoming with Chuck. Old perceptions die-hard, and Chuck’s musings conflicted with Sarah’s long-standing perception of herself, “I’m a spy. I can’t even process the idea of having kids right now.”
Enter Heather, and Sarah finds herself trapped with her past and bombarded by the taunts and lies of the loveless person she might have become. “We’re the same … she’s all spy … white weddings, rug-rats and a mini-van — it’s not in her wiring.” It’s a lie, of course. But there was a time when it was true … and it fits her old perception of herself.
Chuck is the one who knows the truth, “You’re nothing like her.” He has always known her, “I don’t need to know more, not about who you were, because as much as you don’t think so, I know who you are.” That’s why Heather’s taunts don’t phase him. It’s only Sarah’s reaction that perplexes him. Why does this bother her?
Sarah knows who she is with Chuck, but the issue about kids has created self-doubt. Heather finds that sore spot and needles it mercilessly. The visual effects of the episode mirror Sarah’s inner struggle. The small gray spaces mirror her self-doubt. While crawling a maze of ducts, she navigates her own labyrinth of identity, perception, lies, and the truth. Then finally the fight itself … as Agent Walker fights to restrain her prisoner, Sarah battles to break free from her captor, a perception of herself that holds her hostage. And what about Chuck? He is her home and her life, her north star. He is with her every inch of the way, never wavering. Part of the physical fight and part of her inner battle is holding on to Chuck, not losing him to the maze. Sarah wins her battles, and it feels good! She emerges from the guts of the building to the expansive night sky, certain of who she is and what she wants.
The change is evident. In the contrast of the rooftop Sarah, “You’re not letting Heather get to you are you?” and the flustered interrogation Sarah, “Do not let her get under your skin.” In her speech to Heather and her trusting Heather. And of course in the comfortable trust and vulnerability during her chat with Chuck.
Sarah’s confessions of her life before Chuck bother us a little.
For a long time I was exactly like her.
I’m different without Chuck, and I don’t like it.
Without you I’m nobody. I’m nothing but a spy.
Could the Sarah we know have been Graham’s wild-card enforcer? Someone like Heather? Yes … and no. For a long time Sarah was who she was told to be rather than who she really was or wanted to be, and it nearly destroyed her.
It’s not so much that Sarah became a different person with Chuck, but rather the person she was meant to be, or could have been, all along. His love and acceptance freed her to be herself. In relationship with Chuck she hammered out her own identity, and the Girl On The Inside, finally found expression in the Sarah Walker we know.