Well Chucksters now we are finally down to it. We actually have the potential for an actual difference of opinion on an episode of Chuck. With all the sweetness and light and agreement so far we were starting to wonder if we all shared a common brain. Not really, we often found different parts of an episode to gush about. But Fear of Death was a reasonably unpopular episode among the fans. Mostly it seems because the stupid stick was passed around the CIA once again, and Sarah had to call foul when it was Chuck’s turn to hold it. But seriously, how can you hate an episode with a shirtless Chuck getting a massage from a lingerie clad Sarah? We’ll see if it’s possible after the jump.
Ernie leads off
So first things first. The intersect isn’t working (again) and there are questions about how and if Chuck can be a spy without it (again). It feels like we’ve been here before. This time there is a difference. Chuck and Sarah are together and Chuck is, and enjoys being, a real spy. It’s Chuck who wants the intersect back and working…Almost as much as Casey and his itchy trigger finger. While Sarah is off looking for Frost and Volkoff Chuck spends some quality time with the CIA’s finest watching YouTube videos, which oddly doesn’t result in the intersect working again.
After a month of trying to restore the intersect Sarah returns leadless on the Volkoff case to a Chuck who is clearly growing despondent. He confides in Jeffster? Has he really fallen so far? Sarah is there to provide some context. How bad can things really be when you get to go home with Sarah Walker. But there is an interesting thing going on between Chuck and Sarah. Sarah doesn’t seem as anxious to get Chuck back into the field as the rest of the team. We see that she’s more interested in Chuck her boyfriend than Chuck the intersect and spy. We’ve always known this to be the case, even if Chuck forgets it every so often. Like when he holds the stupid stick. Still, things are often tough, or complicated, for our favorite couple. The intersect malfunctioning is just another one of those complications couples need to deal with. Or maybe not. But one thing many couples do need to deal with is the outsider. Enter agent Rye.
We love Chuck and Sarah, and we know they love each other, but their relationship has never been a simple or traditional one. To an outsider it can look pretty dysfunctional. They may have only been dating for about a year, but they’ve been together a lot longer. Season 3 aside Sarah has a long history of protecting Chuck and hating the idea he would put himself at risk and get hurt because of her. And Chuck has a long history of relying on Sarah as his emotional support and his source of confidence in addition to now being his partner. They are a team, and when Chuck calls out for Sarah its to warn her, or to get her opinion or her help solving a problem. We saw this in the early episodes. They fought for and planned and helped each other. Now with the intersect gone Chuck is trying to hold up his end, and isn’t sure he can. Rye pokes at that spot because he misreads the relationship. It’s what makes Sarah’s rash declaration that Chuck isn’t a spy so painful. We know there is a part of her that still wants him to be her adorable nerd who helps ballerinas. Sarah is dealing with both their pasts and a bit of co-dependancy. Chuck is dealing with repeated blows to his confidence. He takes on the mission not just to get the intersect back, but to prove to himself he can be a spy. Sarah’s outburst and Rye’s judgement aside for most of the mission Chuck proves himself to be a good spy. But without the intersect he’s the last guy you want for a kidnapping and guaranteed fight. He doesn’t even carry a gun. It isn’t that Chuck can’t be a spy without the intersect, he just can’t be the kind of spy he wants to be and survive for long. Sarah knows this. Chuck does too at some level. Rye is clueless. He just sees a guy who counts on his girlfriend to bail him out and a girlfriend who tries to run his life for him. Dysfunctional.
Dysfunctional is good. It wasn’t that long ago that Sarah said to Chuck, “we are a real couple, we’re just a different kind of couple” (Sandworm) but how solid of a couple could they be when one measly little conflict such as the threat of returning to Buy More loser-dom and the “emotional rock” could fragment their bond? Although that’s the point right? In the end, it didn’t/couldn’t.
I should clarify, while I am not enthusiastic about this episode I still tried to see the episode as its own entity. Tried to understand the underlying logic (if there is one) about Sarah being the emotional rock holding down the intersect and Chuck once again taking other people’s words (in a desperate attempt to maintain his livelihood/confidence/self-worth) over those of his own team and his own partner (note: partner, not girlfriend). But then again fallacies aren’t exclusive to those two plot points. When an episode’s B plot supersedes it’s A plot you know you have a problem.
So before we tackle the issues head on, let’s rehash the good things:
– Loved the call back to Seduction in the early goings. Chuck, down in the doldrums, and a friend/co-worker laments on his good fate, that being Sarah. While it doesn’t quite pack the punch of “Do you believe in love” its enhanced by that fond memory; especially in light of the fact that now he knows it is a real kiss and not a cover kiss.
– As mentioned the B plot really worked. Summer Glau gave some much needed attitude to what is largely becoming a cameo role. Her line, “the only question is do you want to die with your wig on or off” still makes me laugh out loud after multiple viewings. Still don’t quite catch half the Firefly homage they claim to have inserted but all in all a fun outing. Jeff and Lester are not usually my cup of tea but in this episode they really worked. If forced to compare, I’d say their effectivity and entertainment value in this episode rivaled Best Friend. But perhaps most notable of the B plot was Casey’s role. It was lovely to see Alex give her dad some much needed human advice. It was saddening to hear him “prepare himself” but being able to acknowledge Alex’s wisdom that it’s better to treasure time with friends and family when one doesn’t know what the future brings, was fantastic. I haven’t always gushed about Alex’s (Mekenna Melvin) role on Chuck but the connection between her and Casey seems to humanize and add a deeper depth to his character, and hers.
– The ending act with Chuck kidnapped, Sarah overwrought, Aushua’s Hiding Place playing in the background is some of Chuck‘s best ending acts. As Sarah walks into their room, glances at their picture, anchor-less, you can really feel her heart break at being apart from Chuck and her resolve to find him at all costs. Then comes the “team” of Casey and Morgan to go with her, proving that she’s not alone, neither of them are (Chuck, Sarah). In a lot of ways it feels like the entire episode was written to build up to this, to bridge the gap between First Fight and Phase Three. Two very strong episodes, two very important plot points but the meat as it were was sour. Still the ending act was one brimming with emotion, high stakes and love. “This is all my fault, he did this to prove to me he could be a spy,”–powerful stuff.
I’m glad you mentioned the B-plot. This was without a doubt the best use of Greta and the Buy More’s new status to date. The clueless Jeffster pick the wrong person to stalk, and the culture clash is on. I had so hoped for more of this kind of use of the Buy More and the Grettas. Summer Glau didn’t disappoint.
As for what worked less well, I’ll leave that to Faith, who has I’m sure a long list. But before giving her the last word I wanted to cover a few things. For the most part I didn’t see the stupid stick as a big problem. It was a minor annoyance, as they’ve used similar plotlines before. The Rye character actually worked for me for the most part. His over the top ebullience and nerdiness was a good character for someone who could tap into a sympathetic part of Chuck and enjoy the thrill of the quest with him, even if the guy seems a bit clueless at times. It’s never fun to see the dynamics of Team B messed with, but let’s be serious, that’s where most of the drama and much of the comedy lies. At least this time the annoying interloper Beckman set up as the head of team B was shot and out of the picture after only one episode. And the Chuck and Sarah dynamic, I know a lot of people hated it, but I thought it was great. They both still have a little work to do, and I want to see them work it out realistically. Sarah needs to learn that she’s no longer running Chuck as an asset, in charge of his life and decisions about his safety, and Chuck needs to learn that Sarah does believe in him, she just needs him to understand how important it is to her that he not take needless risks. As we’ll see Sarah has bet everything on Chuck and it scares her a bit. He needs to understand that and let her look out for him sometimes. They’re both all in, but they still need to work out some of their own fears and problems, together. As Faith said there wasn’t a lot of new ground covered in the A plot, but for me it was enough to see this dynamic that will play such an important part in Phase 3 laid out.
Faith tries to make a pencil out of the stupid stick…
Ernie has a great point, the stupid stick is perhaps the best use of conflict in all medium. Ever watch the Christopher Reeve Superman movies? Superman spends almost 3/4 of the movie doing dumb things in his perhaps misguided belief in humanity but in the end that conflict serves to create a climax and an ending that only Superman movies can bring. But to get back to Chuck, there’s a problem with the logic. Namely, the logic is flawed.
Let me explain. Conflict: Chuck is intersect-less. A daunting task for sure. In fact it’s a solid one. Can Chuck really be a spy without the intersect? Let’s forget for a minute that he has spent 2 of the last 4 years being an asset and not a spy. Let’s forget for a moment the fact that they have never trained him as a spy because of the intersect and just focus on that one conflict: Chuck as a spy without the intersect. There are numerous indications in this episode alone that showed his spy aptitude: loupe, gemology class, bravery in the face of danger (ninja invasion), mission planning/leadership. All well and done. But can he protect himself without Sarah there to step in and take the “big guy.” Better yet, has he really had the opportunity to do so? No, not really. And the premise of the show as it is, if he ever gets to that point Casey in particular becomes a surplus. But Chuck is Chuck, as Casey so aptly phrased it, “but I know he’ll try.” And that’s something that Sarah will have to learn to accept (more on this later). So at its core, the conflict of intersect-less Chuck works.
Conflict: Sarah is the emotional rock holding down the intersect. Really?! Really?! I guess they haven’t been watching the same show we have been for the last 4 years. Sarah is the key to the intersect, she’s the key to Chuck. Not to mention this premise never worked to begin with because the exposition of the suppression of the intersect was missing a few key details and logic. I quote, “the intersect is a collection of memories, a suppression device hides those memories under what you might call a psychological rock.” So does that make sense to anyone? I understand that Chuck, all fiction really, requires some leaps of faith and oftentimes a leap of logic but this isn’t even close. From this Rye concludes that Sarah is the psychological rock hindering the intersect because she has always protected Chuck. The premise of wanting to measure up for Sarah works. It’s one that worked very well in Phase Three, in fact like I said this episode feels like it was written to bridge the gap between First Fight and Phase Three and to do that Sarah needs to believe that Chuck put himself at risk because she hasn’t ever told him she loves him with or without the intersect. But the very idea that Sarah is the psychological rock because she holds him back, does not work. Sarah has always been the person that has pushed Chuck to be more than he can be. Just ask Jill. “Ask yourself, are you a spy or are you a guy with a spy girlfriend.” Last point on this conflict: it seems the writers forgot that MamaB did something to the intersect! Something, I don’t know, mechanical as opposed to psychological. Something that we find Ellie was able to fix via her knowledge of neurology and computers.
Conflict: “No, Chuck, you’re not (a spy)! At least not right now.” JC often laments on how everyone else gets a free pass except for Chuck. There are no excuses for this one, Sarah made a grievous mistake. One she fully acknowledged, “this is all my fault, he did this to prove to me he can be a spy.” Yes she’s fearful of losing her home, yes (as Ernie brilliantly puts it) she’s fearful of losing her Chuck, and yes she really has no reason to believe he can handle himself without the intersect having had no precedent but she should know Chuck. She should know that none of that matters, that he is a hero, and that he will do what it takes. She should have enough faith in him to let him try to be her equal. Whatever reason he has for wanting the intersect back, no matter how misguided it is, she needed to be there to support him instead of adding to his aggravation and thereby directly causing him to put himself in danger. My issue with this conflict isn’t that it’s angst for angst sake—it’s organic actually—but that it undo’s what was resolved in First Fight. I mean wasn’t that the point? “Really believe in me, even when you think I’m wrong.” Although one can argue that she never answered his statement. Then again you have to call into question, so how would you bridge the gap between First Fight and her kick ass speech in Phase Three? You can’t. But then again the bigger issue isn’t whether or not Chuck knows she loves him with or without the intersect, it’s the fact that she’s still standing right in front of him instead of with him.
Conflict: Chuck once again takes the word of an outsider over his team. This one is unsavory only because it’s shades of First Class. Chuck is such an eager, trusting guy (it’s one of the qualities Sarah fell for) but at times like this it can get grating. He accepted that Sarah was the psychological rock to the intersect because Rye said so and it’s puzzling. He should know better. It doesn’t help that Sarah put those doubts in his head with her outburst, but Chuck should still have trusted his team and his partner in this situation. The pain therapy was not working, Rye was not working. To go off half cocked just because he’s upset, is not trusting his team. There’s a reason it’s called back-up and there is a reason why the team might not trust him in certain situations because he gets himself in trouble with stunts like these (needless risks). Instead his only present partner was willing to let him hang hundreds of feet in the air only to fall into his own death. I’d like to know how the intersect could save him in that situation, but that’s another topic.
Conflict: Sarah calls, Chuck answers, Rye hangs up. This conflict is the most typical of all stupid sticks and an acceptable one. We know that Chuck has to be kidnapped—ok we didn’t know that but now we do. Without this Sarah wouldn’t have had to raze Thailand to find him and therein is where this conflict works. Remember that Superman reference? Fairly typical use of conflict and not one that is nearly as bothersome as the rest.
Finally, this isn’t a conflict but a character: Rye. In a season full of winning guest stars (yes even Stacy Keibler was entertaining in her own way) Rob Riggle just fell short. He was overbearing and pompous. I don’t think the character was meant to be that but rather eager and unconventional. I don’t know if it’s the portrayal or the way he was written but he just did not work. I’m still trying to figure out why Chuck was so cold in the vault but Rye seemed unaffected; it must be the beard.
All in all Fear of Death wasn’t one of the better Chuck episodes (for me). In a closely tied arc it really should have done a better job transitioning us from First Fight to Phase Three with its own strength in storytelling, instead it only served to give us bare strings and frustrating ones at that. There was enough within the episode to make it work, but much like Nicholas Wootten’s last outing: Cubic Z, it fell short. But don’t let this episode and this review fool you, season 4 remains genius.
Ernie is REALLY bad at giving Faith the last word.
Faith raised some real problems and I want to address how I saw them. And people ask me why our posts go on forever. The main conflict, the purpose of the episode (or more correctly the arc ending with Phase 3) was to deepen the established connection and understanding between Chuck and Sarah. The additional purpose, the bonus, was to re-visit and fix one of the things I mentioned as problems that were likely to arise from the season 3 love interests, particularly with Sarah. A lot of season 4’s genius for me comes down to the ability of some of the new writers (who came to know Chuck and Sarah as we did, by what we saw) to tell a story about the character’s continuing growth, but to simultaneously take some of those problems, acknowledge them, and proceed to fix them. Sympathetically. I am also working on a larger post on the GENIUS, so I’ll be brief here and get in to the rest later. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first new pair of writers, Rafe Judkins and Lauren LeFranc gave us Suitcase, to be followed by Nicholas Wootton and Kristin Newman giving us Cubic Z and Coup d’Etat respectively. We are in another Judkins & LeFranc, Wootton and Newman arc, and once again Wooton seems to be writing a transition episode that is in some sense a bottle episode exploring a character and her hopes, fears and motivations.
Sarah never fell for Chuck the guy, she fell for Chuck the spy. Before you howl in protest remember how season 3 played out. Yes they tried to finesse it with Sarah wanting to run away with Chuck, in essence to cement the season 2 Chuck and Sarah as something real and meaningful, and then toss it aside for some more angsty fun (heh). Most of us agree that didn’t sell particularly well. The problem was that by the time Chuck got around to winning Sarah back, to saving her, he had proven himself a more competent spy than Shaw, Cole, or Bryce, and a man confident enough to simply give Sarah the ultimatum she needed to hear to break her out of her Shaw induced stupor, or accept the consequences, even if it might have taken a night or two of whiskey and gaming and one really important question to come to terms with them. That was the Chuck who finally won Sarah over. That was shown on the screen. And Sarah? She never did get around to dumping Shaw, did she?
Sarah had to choose Chuck the regular guy, without the intersect, who wasn’t a confident superspy and needed to be saved rather than saving her. We needed to see it, and Chuck needed to see it, on the screen, not implied in a few throw away lines. We needed to recover the Sarah Walker who would draw her gun on another agent or take Chuck off the grid. The problem is balancing all that with the need to keep Chuck a sympathetic and viable hero. He can’t regress too much. It’s a tough task, and that it relies on the stupid stick doesn’t surprise me too much.
So now we get to the part Faith brings up as the one conflict that I agree, makes a loud clang as it hits the floor, and one other conflict that, while not great, does its job. First things first.
Sarah is the emotional rock holding down the intersect. Really?!
As Rye says, no not really. For one thing I don’t think Chuck ever completely buys Rye’s story. For another I think, or hope, we will get a slightly better explanation of that particular Mc Guffin at some point. It was poorly done mostly because while the intersect has always been a plot device and a Mc Guffin at some level the intersect mythology is now tied in with both Orion and Frost’s actions and history. Returning to the season 3 standard of the intersect works or doesn’t without real explanation depending on the needs of the plot rankles. It now feels even more random and contrived. With the new writing teams I’m hoping that gets fixed, or at least addressed. But the Mc Guffin was necessary for the other aspect of season 3 repair that while somewhat clumsy ultimately worked for me.
Chuck never had to choose between the intersect and Sarah. He sort of did, but not really. At the end of season 2 we saw Chuck make the choice to be a hero, before he knew all that it meant giving up. That Chuck chose to follow through and become a spy wasn’t the same as choosing being a spy over Sarah, or choosing Sarah over being a spy for that matter. By the time Chuck and Sarah ended up together both were spies and the intersect was working flawlessly (for the time being). As much as NBC tried to promote season 3 as a love or duty question for Chuck in the end he and Sarah both simply chose “have it all”. They talked about the choice, and about giving it all up for each other, but even then the crap communicators seemed to be on the verge of glossing over everything until a third party managed to fill the therapist role for them. Chuck needed to unambiguously choose Sarah over his gift and presumably the ability to be a spy, so enter Rye and a poorly done McGuffin. I let it pass for a few reasons. One, the outcome was important. Two, they sold Rye’s assumption that Sarah was the problem as a conclusion based on the dysfunction and apparent co-dependancy he saw in the relationship. Three, Chuck wasn’t really convinced in my opinion. He was ready to wait for Sarah, and had he all the information he needed he would have. But Chuck, the normal guy called on to be a spy (remember that theme from season 2?) was focused on the mission, and doing what he needed to be “that guy” that Sarah loves.
Hey it’s not a Faith and Ernie post, (Ernie and Faith’s?) post if it doesn’t go on forever. Anyways, Faith responds…
Correction: Sarah fell for Chuck, the hero. It’s what initially created the spark (ballerina), it’s what cemented the passion (Thailand-but from Seduction) and it’s what made her realize he was still her Chuck (tank). All the guys she “fell” (sarcasm) for were not heroes so much as spies. They were all doing what they were doing for something more than doing the right thing but rather for their own reasons. The scariest thing about Chuck wanting to be a spy so eagerly wasn’t that he would be in danger, though that is one of Sarah’s greatest weaknesses, it’s that the glamour and espionage will wile away his humanity, decency, and at the core heroism. In the past this might have been the issue to Sarah’s over the top reaction to Chuck wanting to be a spy but in this episode it’s less that and more about her fear of losing her home, her salvation, her future.
It always seems to go back to Crown Vic: Sarah to Casey, “do you ever want to have a normal life? Have a family?” The question then as it is now is does Sarah want the normal life and the normal guy for the sake of normal or did she want that normal because of Chuck? Honeymooners and even Pink Slip strived to show us that it’s the guy, not the dream. Just like in this case Sarah’s greatest PFOD is Chuck dying.
Getting back on FOD though, this is really where Ernie and I have a difference of opinion. He thinks they sold the conflict well, I disagree. The end result isn’t the sum of the whole, the transition is just as important. Do we get Phase Three without Fear of Death? No, but only because as mentioned, as frustrating as it was, it had enough within it to tie the arc together. But it should have done it better. I wasn’t convinced that Chuck didn’t doubt Sarah’s role in his problems and although there is a point in the codependency aspect (remember one of the themes is to be equals), it’s one that Chuck, the smart guy he is, should have seen and never considered. Just like there should have been more done in the exploration of the “intersect suppression,” but instead we have the stupid stick passed around. The first rule of writing is to sell conflict, show, don’t tell and they did neither.
One last point, yes they’ve never really had to make a choice. Just like Beckman has never verbalized that Chuck is a spy even without the intersect (one of the best things about Leftovers). The American dream isn’t just working hard and accomplishing whatever you shoot for, it’s also having it all. Amongst all the roadblocks, having it all, so in that sense Chuck and Sarah’s attempt to have it all is lovely. How often have we been told, “spies do not fall in love.” Obviously that’s a fallacy because spies fall in love plenty but the issue isn’t that they don’t, it’s that they can’t make it work. But Chuck and Sarah are a different kind of couple, they find a way.