So here’s the thing about this episode, it’s not really about a proposal. The proposal isn’t really even about, well, proposing. This season we’ve seen a lot about how Sarah’s past and Chuck’s insecurities keep haunting them. Chuck’s story is about his family’s legacy, and Sarah’s is about redemption. I know I keep saying that, but it was never more evident to me than tonight. Where Chuck and Sarah seem like two very different people on very different journeys they are remarkably similar when it comes down to it. Both were robbed of something precious and irreplaceable, their childhoods and their families. Both are looking for a sense of who they are and where they fit into the world because of that. Sarah, as we continually learn more, comes from a troubled and damaging past. It now appears that her parents never even married and she may have never really known her mother or her family other than through her father’s stories. Sarah has always had trouble opening up, and it now seems a childhood deprived of normal human relations is the cause. Chuck had love and family for a time, but no sense of security came from that as everyone he loved except for Ellie and Morgan either left or betrayed him. Both are looking for a sense of who they are and where they fit into the world because of that. They have found some of the answers in each other. Sarah’s story is about redemption and Sarah’s redemption is a sometimes difficult thing. She apparently (or so I think) felt she could gain some measure of redemption through life as a spy, serving a greater cause than herself or her father’s latest con. At some point it seems she lost herself in the spy world and became, or so she feels, no better than Heather Chandler. Chuck gave Sarah another path to redemption, so she thought. Chuck offered Sarah something she never thought she could have or deserved. A do-over. A clean slate. Sarah has learned that isn’t quite the same thing as redemption. After the jump.
Both Chuck and Sarah are looking for a way to overcome their past or their family legacy. They have found a path with each other. But what they give each other is more than just a sense of home and family, security and safety; they give each other courage and the will to be the Chuck or Sarah the other sees. Sarah sees a man destined for great things. Chuck sees a hero.
The funny thing is that Sarah doesn’t often do heroic things and Chuck’s greatness seems to be pretty tied to his family legacy. Hear me out before you object. Chuck was going to end up in the spy world one way or another. If we know nothing else about his journey, we know that. His family, Mary and Stephen, through their choices saw to that. By luck or providence Chuck was given the ideal guide to bring him into that world in addition to his perfect partner in every sense. But Sarah wasn’t a hero in the traditional sense. She is brave and skilled and does heroic things, but that is the world Sarah lives in. She didn’t give up or risk everything to cross into that world like Chuck did. Sarah had nothing and nothing to lose for quite some time before she met Chuck. Though she may have had a vague sense of the hole in her life, though she may have tried to fill it with adrenaline and passionate affairs with Bryce or wild times with Carina, it was only when she met Chuck and saw what he had that we see Sarah actually learning about sacrifice. She sees Chuck take on the role of hero at tremendous personal risk and cost, and she admires it. Actually she admires and loves him. He isn’t saving ballerinas or becoming the intersect because it gets him anything. He’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do. So we see Sarah doing something perhaps new to her. She does the right thing, protects Chuck, for the right reason, it’s the right thing to do. And it costs her something. Those walls and that hole in her life is now a part of her every day existence. She both sees and feels the pain, maybe for the first time in a long time, and a new Sarah Walker is born. But she still isn’t a hero.
Throughout season 1 and 2 Sarah does a lot of heroic things. She is brave and resourceful and self sacrificing, but on occasion the caged lioness slips loose and we see what else motivates Sarah. She’s found Chuck, and she can’t bear the thought of losing him. She will face down Longshore to keep her guy, or go rogue rather than deliver him to the bunker. Or in the end, she’ll run away with him rather than deliver him into her world. But in each case she acts to keep what she has, her newfound home. Often, like in Pink Slip, she really doesn’t let what Chuck wants or needs factor into it. Prague and season 3 showed us a lot about Sarah. A lot of it wasn’t as pretty as she is. Sarah wasn’t ready for Chuck was the story we were told starting in The Ring. For one thing she’s ready to leave the morning after Ellie’s wedding. For another she’s absolutely unable to open up to Chuck in any way, even when the professional barriers are removed and when Chuck tries to meet her in the middle. He doesn’t know yet what he wants to do with his life, he just wants her in it. She can’t even say she feels the same, even if it is complicated. So we get Prague. Some people think Prague was a giant mistake for Chuck and a grand romantic gesture for Sarah; that it represents her finally giving herself to Chuck. At best it was running away to Barstow or trying to stop Longshore from taking her guy away. At worst it was no different from her worst attempts at manipulating Chuck when he was her asset. Once again Sarah Walker dangled herself, or at least a part of herself, as the prize for Chuck doing what she wanted. This time however what she was asking wasn’t the right thing to do, so Chuck, as he always does, did the right thing rather than what he, or she, wanted. Without dwelling on plot contrivances or disturbing aspects of the story, Chuck was doing much the same, acting like a child and grabbing for something he hadn’t earned. Sarah took on the hard work of the spy life, Chuck never really did. Intersect 2.0 gave him a head start, but the hard work was burning Manoosh, losing his friends and family. Giving up Sarah. Watching his father die.
A part of Chuck, as we see again, still doesn’t think he’s earned it. He still isn’t James Bond enough in his mind. But he loves Sarah and he wants to give her something. He’s been offering it since Cougars. He doesn’t need to know who she was, he knows who she is. She may not be a normal girl, but she’s his Sarah, so he doesn’t ask for more. He wants to give her a clean slate.
A part of Sarah still doesn’t think she’s earned it. That she doesn’t deserve it. She got lucky. She got assigned to Chuck, and her perfect guy and her clean slate were dropped in her lap like a gift. But as she sees again she hasn’t really given herself, all of herself to Chuck. Each little quirk or fear she has or reveals pokes at Chuck’s insecurities and his neuroses. Once again she unintentionally makes him feel inadequate. She’s trying to do it right, she tries to share, to take the pressure off. It’s not as if either of them is in doubt as to what is coming and what the future holds. She knows he wants to give her that moment, and she wants to let him be that guy who can sweep her off her feet, to have that feeling that he’s good enough for her. He knows she’ll say yes, but he wants to give her that one perfect precious memory. He wants to give her the magic and the love that has been missing for so much of her life. The proposal is really about them each accepting themselves and each other as good enough, as having earned it. The problem is, as we saw on the balcony, even when you’ve earned it someone can still take it all away.
Sarah hasn’t quite earned it, redemption that is. And Sarah’s story is about redemption, not a clean slate and happily ever after. To earn redemption she has to not only face her past, all of it, she has to accept it and make it mean something. She also has to be a hero. That means she has to cross the threshold willingly and risk everything, even Chuck and her newfound future, because it’s the right thing to do. The Bartowski family lost a lot. Mary lost her children and her husband, Ellie lost her childhood and both parents and Chuck lost any sense of safety and permanence other than Ellie. The Bartowskis deserve a clean slate and Sarah can give it to them before she officially joins them. Everything Sarah was in the past has prepared her for this mission. If she can pull it off it is the last obstacle to giving Chuck what she feels he deserves, a future with her with no doubt, no fear, no Volkoff threatening to take it all away. It helps her too, because if she can do it, she’ll finally feel she’s earned it, that her past meant something and had a purpose. It’s quite a story.
There’s a reason I often talk about the story and the journey rather than the plot. The plot doesn’t always tell the whole story. Tonight was a fun and funny episode with a tremendous dramatic twist, and the first act of the original finale. This season is a lot different from last. Rather than backload the denouement for a shocking dramatic revelation the plot is laid out and built to a crescendo. We see our characters grow and change and struggle like real people, and we connect with them, and we invest in them. It still isn’t the same show it was in season 2, but to me it verges on, dare I say it? Genius?