The Micro To Clean Slate’s Macro
I’m getting a very season 3 vibe lately. I should probably have faith, and Faith, to keep me from the dark place, but I am getting that sense of Deja Vu. I loved Chuck Versus The Balcony, and thought it one of the best of the season, like Joe, and Thinkling, and Faith. And there is a part of me that is wondering why others don’t see what I see? But then a part of me sees what I think they see and keeps them from seeing the genius that I see. See? After the jump…
Another Ernie and Faith (epic) production.
Ernie: I’ve been reading the board a lot lately, a few boards actually, Castle Inanity (CI) among them, and I’ve been a bit mystified. I saw one of the most awesome (sorry) and epically crafted (sorry again) and game changing (yep, probably lost you) episodes of the season. While I don’t want to dismiss complaints, some legitimate, some matters of taste, I do want to point out a few things to those complaining of OOC moments, WTF moments, unexplained shifts in behavior, doormat moments, or whatever else you want to bring up. And I have a lot of confidence that we’ll work this out at great length, right up until the next spec and reaction thread which is why I’m posting this late afternoon Sunday.
I’ll say this right up front, the motivating force behind this post was a post at CI. For the moment I don’t want to get into specifics, though I’m sure that will come, in comments, but to me there was a huge disconnect, something that made me want to question if we’re all watching the same show?
I won’t say that the folks at CI don’t have a few good points. I will say, as I said in season 3, that a lot of the complaints that are being aired are about things that have been there since the very beginning, and complaining now, and using them to highlight the decline of the show strikes me as puzzling at best, and disingenuous at worse. Not that I’m accusing the CI folks of this, it was more a season 3 thing. I’m going to highlight this with what I see as one of the most jaw-dropping breaks in both plot and character for the sake of a cool scene the show has ever known. It happened in Helicopter.
Lets set the scene. Casey and Sarah both think the other is, while perhaps not a double agent, bent on cleaning the operation and procuring the intersect for themselves after having murdered the good Dr. Zarnow. By circumstance they both end up at a casa Bartowski dinner party, where Chuck is left to try and keep everyone from eating a poisoned soufflé. So, absolutely hilarious scene with the tablecloth, the soufflé in the bathtub, etc. Then Sarah, the rogue assassin working with Bryce bent on stealing the intersect, says she needs a moment alone with Chuck in the bathroom, and Casey walks away and waits patiently for them to finish as he hears sounds he knows very well aren’t coming from makeup sex. Un-freaking-believable.
But it was funny.
So, you on-board with that scene? OK then, we’ve set the bar for suspension of disbelief this show requires from episode 2 onward. Lets move on.
I started going on about the genius of this season some time around Aisle of Terror and First Fight, but I started to see this season 3 disgruntlement, the desire to find flaws at every turn, long before that. In Aisle of terror however, one of the big complaints was a hanging curve ball. How did Frost know Chuck had on a vest? The answer was simple, they showed you. Were you paying attention?
This is where I find it necessary to depart from the writer’s perspective we often get stuck in. It all starts with the writer and the story, and we are communicating in a writers environment, but television is not a novel, it is a visual medium and writers do not tell the whole story. They don’t write so much as script a show. A lot is left to the actors, the director and the editors to fill in, and blaming the writers, or giving them full credit for what works and doesn’t is, again, disingenuous. Granted, if the story and script isn’t there the chance of pulling it off is slim, but the same is true of the acting, the editing and the directing. In the example I cite, and the infamous turn of events in Barstow, there was no dialog involved, yet we all took something from the latter while a lot of us ignored the former as one of those Helicopter-ish things we needed to give them and others called it a huge plot hole. It was neither. It was one of those genius touches I’ve been talking about. How did she know he had a vest? She checked.
If you demand a certain level of detail and explanation you need to watch closely, not casually. Sometimes you need to watch obsessively, repeatedly, and with every revealing moment, scene, and turn for the character from each episode in mind. If you do, usually the payoff is there and the season is genius. If you want to watch casually, well then, you probably aren’t reading this.
As a quick aside I’ll be saying genius a lot, but to make it up to you dear reader, I’ll lay off the epic and awesome for this post.
Faith: You bring up a great point. Television is an entirely different medium from novels and even films. See in novels you have an insight into the characters’ internal and external motivations and thoughts at all times; in television the viewer has to draw conclusions often on what is given. In Shakespeare you can have a long monologue, sometimes even in film (Lois Lane’s “Can You Read My Mind” in Superman I comes to mind) but in television it’s virtually impossible and unheard of. But this isn’t a bad thing, it adds to the suspense and suspension of disbelief (remember that phrase) that is necessary to enjoy this medium. When you write to make sense of everything you get bogged down with details and what is a fun hour turns into a learning hour. Not fun. Exposition is key but it is one of the toughest and most unentertaining aspects of television. Therein is where the actors, directors and cinematography comes in to make it as painless as possible. There’s a scene in Balcony that contrasts just how painful that is that I will get into later. It’s also important to note that television has the distinct advantage (or disadvantage if you’re a cynic) of being the only collaborative medium. What is shown is not always the one intended. Actors make interpretations on the script, often they make changes by imploring writers to stay true to their characters or playing certain scenes a certain way. What makes the best scenes are the ones closest to the character’s essence and what makes the best actors are the ones that understand that (and their characters).
Having said that, I don’t know what television is for you but for me it’s purpose is to make me feel something. It’s entertainment at its core. Whether that means making you feel dirty, devastated or uplifted it’s meant to get that reaction out of you. Where Chuck stands above the rest is the manner at which they go about that. Season 3 excluded (sorry Ernie), storytelling on Chuck hasn’t been disingenuous, it’s consistent to the characters they’ve made and the story lines they’ve cultivated. More, they expand on and develop the characters (character growth is key) and the universe. Do they get a rise out of its viewers for the sake of getting a rise? Not often. Chuck is not Bones. The progression, intent and motivations are always illustrated to the best of their abilities (again, a tough one in this medium) and they do a very good job on drawing from what we know and what we have seen to crystallize current trends and events (more on this later). Therein lies the distinction between telling a story and mismatching scenes to piss off the viewers. If they really wanted to piss off the viewers, they’d have had Sarah take off (contrary to her character growth), after breaking up with him because she fears she might not make it back from rescuing Mary from Volkoff. That’s conflict for the sake of conflict, and not germane to the characters or the show. So does Chuck make me feel like an emotional yo-yo half the time? Yes, because that’s what it’s supposed to do. But where I will accept it and enjoy it from Chuck is the knowledge that they’re doing it for a purpose, with enough background and foreshadowing (more on this later as well).
Ernie: Back to the genius. Here’s the thing about that famous shoulder rub. No, don’t go screaming, I’m talking about Linda Hamilton and the one in Aisle of Terror. Yes, that one. It wasn’t just a throwaway shot to fill in a plot hole or set up a piece of insignificant dialog meant to explain or justify a character’s actions, even if it was meant to be. Because writers, actors, directors and editors, none of them tell the whole story. The story is what the viewer experiences.
That simple shot, combined with the scene set up one of the highlights of the season for me. The bar has been raised for Chuck and team B. We’re not in Burbank anymore. Even if we’re, you know, in Burbank.
The full payoff didn’t come till the end of First Fight, at least for me, but Carmichael’s chemical weapons buy gone awry set up so much for the Volkoff and Frost storyline and characters. Here is an agent who has to be the master deceiver, to play fast and loose and ad-lib at a moments notice. Here is an agent who has to take huge risks just to maintain cover. Here is an agent who has to so completely focus on the mission that she must be able to shoot her own son in the chest or blow up the home she raised him in with her husband. You see where we’re headed? Frost was created in that one simple scene, and a simple shoulder rub was a huge part of that.
Faith: I’ll add one more. Driving at what I can only assume was at illegal speeds on the freeway, Frost had her gun pointed at Chuck at all times–while driving competently. This is a detail that may or may not be in the script (it probably was) but it’s a detail that gives you an insight into her character, and the life she has had to lead. Subtle, but powerful. As viewers we aren’t told (they can’t tell us) exactly what has led her to this point (not yet anyway), but we’re given a gem into her motivation: survival. We’re made to draw conclusions on that one shot, that one scene that the life she has had to lead has not been easy. And we didn’t even need to read her mind for it, because well, we can’t.
Why Balcony is one of the best
Ernie: Now that I’ve established the context and given my point of view I want to talk about Chuck Versus The Balcony, about the show I saw but in, as Faith so appropriately defines them, the micro, as opposed to the macro. Joe, Thinkling and I have all talked about the emotional component and the larger story the episode gives us, and I may bring in some of the story elements the episode covers or some of the character elements developed over the course of the season, but for the most part I want to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of the episode. Every element is there for a reason and every scene has a purpose. If you watch waiting for a specific event or determined to see a character in a certain light you may be disappointed. If you watch with a mind open to seeing what they are showing, and have been showing all season, you might just agree, it’s genius.
So on to the opening, the real one in the restaurant. Chuck and Sarah are sharing a romantic dinner, and as often is the case Chuck seems out of sorts. Chuck wants to talk, he always wants to talk, about everything. After Volkoff, his mother and everything Chuck tells Sarah he feels he’s dragged his feet (cold feet?) about, well, their lives together and what it will be like. Sarah seeks to re-assure Chuck. This is the new Sarah the Girlfriend that they’ve been building since Suitcase. Sarah the girlfriend knows Chuck has some issues and that her silence only makes things worse. She saw it in the weird unpacking thing that made Chuck think she had one foot out the door. She nipped it in the bud with the baby thing freaking her out before it could lead to a full-blown Chuck mope, and they’re working on their crappy communication skills. But she and Chuck, they’re in it with both feet, for the long haul, so Sarah isn’t worried about a proposal. She wants Chuck to feel safe and at home with her. Sadly another of her quirks freaks Chuck out. A casual mention of her poor history with proposals and his near spit-take on a glass of wine makes that evident. Time for Sarah the girlfriend to fix things.
I’ll interject for a moment here if I may. Well I will anyway! Heh. One of the boons of television (and Chuck in particular) is that we may not always know what characters are feeling or thinking but we’re given a window to them through actors’ emoting. Want a clue into how this proposal will turn out and how Chuck feels about how important, how meaningful it is for him to propose to her, the love of his life? Watch his face as Sarah tells the story of her parents’ proposal. It’s an illustration of abject humor, mostly at himself and his luck. Sarah finishes the story with, “please, take your time, no rush.” Sounds like foreshadowing to me.
Now revisit that same scene and really listen to the dialogue. Like Ernie pointed out Chuck is stressing this proposal because he hasn’t been. He’s been too concerned about his mom and to hear Sarah tell it it’s been literally hanging over their heads for weeks. Don’t disregard the lame exposition into what has gone on before this scene (see what I mean about it bogs down the film but is necessary?), but also take away from it the emotional component, the humor. That’s what television, more than any other medium does best (in my opinion). There’s this guy that is trying so hard to just propose to the woman he loves and he gets thwarted, but he’s a guy that loves so he wants to make it right. Ask yourself, is the intent (not the actual scene itself but the intent) of this setting and scene consistent to the guy we have grown to love? The big romantic who as Thinkling pointed out covered his sister’s apartment with red rose petals for romance? Yes, it is. Finally and more importantly, take note of the surroundings and the setting, and ask yourself if this proposal was the right one for Chuck and Sarah. The people, the couple we have known them to be. See unlike a written medium where we can read thoughts like, “it just didn’t feel right coming in and it went downhill from there” we have to be shown it, and that we were.
One of the problems still hanging over Chuck and Sarah is Sarah’s clean slate courtesy of Chuck. Chuck STILL knows almost nothing but the broadest strokes about how Sarah grew up and how it affected her. Kind of like us. And god bless him, he wants to make it better. He wants to fix it and to help her and to hold her and tell her that it’s alright if she’s not normal, he loves her no matter what. Kind of like us. But Chuck, poor Chuck, sometimes feels like he’s trying to navigate a minefield in the dark because of that same clean slate he wants to give her. And Sarah, well while she appreciates the clean slate, she’s starting to see how much it taxes Chuck and how often one of her quirks or some undiscovered bit of her past can poke at his deepest fears. Sarah the girlfriend is starting to take over when it comes to Chuck. And Sarah, god bless her, knows what some of us have forgotten or ignored lately. Chuck has been through a lot these past few months. From losing his father at the hands of her former lover to being emotionally blackmailed into quitting the job that made him feel he mattered by his distraught sister (the only person in his life other than Morgan who never let him down and Sarah is self-aware enough to know where she falls on that list, at least in her mind) to having to go back to hiding his life from his sister, to finding his apparently evil mother and being betrayed by her, again, and again, to losing the one thing that he felt made him special, to nearly dying and losing his mind and sanity to once again bringing an evil presence into the lives of his friends and family… Well, it’s a miracle he isn’t on the couch eating cheeseballs or getting bedsores playing Golden Eye. And there he is, worrying about neglecting her.
Context: it’s very important. We may only be shown the actions, but we’re told the intent. You’re right Ernie Chuck has and has had a lot going on but through it all he retains his heart and worries. About this, about her, about their future. Though I do take exception on what Chuck knows or doesn’t know about her (it’s yet another distinction between film and print in that we’re left to draw conclusions)…I for one believe that he knows a lot more than we think, but that’s another topic.
A valid point Faith, we don’t know how much Chuck knows about Sarah, but we are specifically shown there are enough gaps that her mentioning a bad history with proposals comes as a bit of a shock. So, the proposal: of course it’s over the top and wrong for them, and I emphasize them. This is a proposal that has to work for both Chuck and Sarah. and Chuck realizes that even before the family story, but he tried for the save right up until he saw why it was wrong for them. And might I remind those that say this sort of a big proposal isn’t something Chuck would think of, remember this is the guy who started planning a proposal that involved several race-cars and a wild stallion as an adolescent, even if the revisions had it ending in the perfect spot for Chuck and Sarah. The reason Chuck’s adolescent fantasies don’t fit with reality is that there is an actual girl involved now, and Chuck and Sarah are about small intimate moments. So are these characters out of character? Sarah the sharer, Chuck the planner and Morgan sidekick who isn’t always the best guy to go to for romantic advice? I say a win on all counts. Chuck dreams big, but is grounded. Morgan gets carried away and brings out the adolescent in Chuck. Sarah is still learning about this communication thing, but she’s trying.
The comedy of shutting down the proposal. Absolute win for me.
So on to the Mc Guffin, er mission of the week. Recover stolen blah, blah, blah… Never mind, we’re talking about how they move the story forward. Another seemingly insignificant line gives us the next bit of exposition. No, not every criminal works for Volkoff, but what happens the next time they are called on to take one down? Chuck revealed that this is weighing on his mind and that he just dodged a bullet. Sarah knows Chuck, Sarah the spy and handler knows a bit how Chuck’s mind works when it comes to his friends and family. Sarah the spy knows the situation with Volkoff is unstable and it’s only a matter of time till they’re ordered after him or he decides to use Mary’s family as leverage. So Sarah decides to do something. Why alone? Because it can’t be Chuck. If it’s Chuck Volkoff will go after the family, feeling the truce was broken, and he’ll be ready for Mary. Why not talk it out with Chuck? What is to be gained? Sarah knows what Chuck would say, and that she’d do it for him anyway. You don’t discuss stepping between your partner and the bullet with his name on it, you don’t ask permission, you do it. Totally in character.
I find that most of the questions people asked with regards to “why Sarah” could be summed up quite simply. And again, in this episode in particular, we’re only given so much because a. it’s only an hour, and b. there has been enough background and breadcrumbs to lead us to some conclusions. I’ve mentioned some of these but it probably bears repeating. So why Sarah? Let’s take away for the moment the fact that she didn’t tell Chuck that she talked to Beckman about wanting to do all that she could to bring down Volkoff and bring MamaB home and just focus on the why her. Sarah has been a spy for a very long time. We know this, we see this. Volkoff is not and will not be easily fooled. The man is a brilliant strategist, a master of deception, and a competent charades player. He’s not just going to wake up one morning and say, “huh, Chuck Bartowski is now going to go rogue, I accept this. Welcome to the team Chuck.” Not even on Chuck (little jab at the gravity of the show we all love). But it’s perfectly plausible for Sarah to get in there (for whatever reason they will give us, and give us they will) and join ranks with the bad guys. See in television there are often unwritten rules. Like an active team never exceeds 4 participants (Beckman isn’t really part of the team, she’s a figurehead) or that an idealized hero would never fully embrace the bad side, just like a main character would never sully themselves to the point of no return. Even in…ok I won’t go there but it was close! So why Sarah? Well apart from the plausibility, there’s also the chess match. Volkoff (the bad guy) is now holding all the cards. He’s got Chuck where (he thinks) he wants him. Remember this is a story about Chuck’s journey, his rise to heroism. So Sarah goes to “save” MamaB for him, but I think we’ll find that Chuck is the true hero. Just like he was in Colonel when he bravely (stupidly) left the car and tried to sabotage Fulcrum’s intersect as to prevent an army of intersects, bad intersects running around. We’re back to the micro-and macro. Chuck saves the world, Sarah saves Chuck. That’s what it comes down to. And in this one misguided(?) attempt at heroism, Sarah has essentially given Chuck his moment. And more this is consistent to the Sarah Walker we have known and grown to love these past 4 years. Chuck is her guy and she would do anything for him.
So off on the mission, and a few words about Chuck the spy. He’s been mostly great this season. From Anniversary on through Aisle he was the man with the plan and the leader of the team we always knew him as. He was confident, responsible and focused. Did he have occasional doubts? Sure, but he’s still fairly new to the business. On this mission with the sub-mission we see that Chuck is back. We get a bit of comedy, a bit of action and a drunk Sarah flirting and employing her heels as a deadly weapon once again. I don’t think anyone objected to any of that, so I’ll just note that once again Chuck is a competent spy. As Chuck tells Morgan, he remains focused on the objective and his team. If he happens to find the right time to pop the question, well, bonus, if he doesn’t, c’est la vie. Chuck the boyfriend however found the perfect spot. He watched his girlfriend drink it in and he wanted to make her perfect moment a reality on the spot. C’est la vie.
It’s been brought to my attention that people are dwelling on Chuck’s lack of heroism thus far this season. The word regression has been bandied at several times. My answer? Chuck is still the hero, he’s just not doing it at nearly a large-scale as he did in American Hero and there’s a reason for that…which we will get into a bit more in-depth in a different piece but for now, just recognize that although Chuck Bartowski isn’t saving the world by sabotaging the intersect, he’s doing heroic things. Let’s return to Balcony for a bit. So Sarah rescues Casey, heroic. But who accomplished the mission? Who singlehandedly not only recovered that which needed to be recovered but also protected it in the process? In our attempt to look for what we want, or what is obvious, we’re ignoring the subtle cues in his growth as a hero and the maturity in his personality. Chuck has been a hero all throughout this season (with ups and downs I’ll grant you), and he’s doing it on a much larger (world, as opposed to Burbank), albeit subtle scale.
Back at Castle, Chuck the boyfriend, is moping a bit. He’s still prone to that you know. He wanted so much to make this special for Sarah the girlfriend. Things just never seem to go right for Chuck. Well one thing in Chuck’s life is more right than anything, and that is Sarah. Sarah the spy may be taking the lead on the submission and turning Cobra into a double agent, but it’s Sarah the girlfriend who is doing it, for all the right reasons. Could Chuck pull it off? Yes, of course, but each delay and hitch in the proposal weighs on him, and Sarah doesn’t want his desire to make something special for her to be something that weighs on him. She understands his need to feel like a guy who can give her that, so she does what a good partner does, she helps him. I suppose she really should have discussed it with him first though.
I never had a problem with Sarah taking control of the proposal. But here’s where I go back to details and intent. “What, wait, Chuck was planning on proposing to me at the restaurant?” Watch her face, this momentary and poignant window into the woman beneath the spy who hates surprises. She was, against herself surprised and overjoyed. And she finishes off the scene with, “we’re going to make this proposal happen, for Chuck’s sake and for mine.” Now go back to the initial intent, Chuck’s initial intent. Is it any different from hers? “For Chuck’s sake, and for mine.” See these two are so in love they don’t realize that half of what they’re doing is for the other, and for themselves. So when we get to peek into the internal its breathtaking: “I’m nervous…I don’t get butterflies.” Keep in mind that this is TV, we’re not often privy to their thoughts and feelings and this window within is all the more compelling because of that.
A quick word about Morgan. Morgan is a vehicle for exposition. He is getting so much screen time this season precisely because we were despondent from the lack of exposition last season. We needed to know how Sarah was feeling or Chuck was feeling, but since TPTB had always given Chuck and Sarah those roles for each other and were determined to keep them apart someone else had to take on that role. I’ll just quote Sarah. Shaw? Really? Yeah, that worked out. Morgan doesn’t look so bad now does he? For the most part Chuck and Sarah have those roles back, but Ellie can’t play that role for Chuck while he’s keeping secrets from her and Casey has, well limited use for Sarah on that front, though they tried (poor Casey). So Morgan is both a sounding board for Chuck and Sarah’s Jiminy Cricket on occasion.
Why not Ellie? I’ll do what Ernie hates and draw my own conclusions into that. Apart from the fact that they’ve communicated enough times this season that Chuck so badly wants a separation between Ellie and the spy life (something she feels strongly about herself), it just doesn’t work. And yet, logically it does. I’ll explain. Remember American Hero? The team of Morgasey sets off to help Chuck get the girl and fails, in comes Ellie and wins. I postulate that Ellie wasn’t involved because this proposal, proposals, plural were meant to fail. But that’s just Faith’s little romantic quirks. Let’s take it in terms of actual logic and not fate: Chuck is a spy again, with the intersect. I’m not sure how far into the planning he could actually accomplish with Ellie considering that he’s spending most of his times on missions and on finds. “So hey, Ellie, I was in this balcony in France in between missions and the moment was lost. So how do I get it back?” But fret not, all is not lost. Not even Ellie taking on a future role in this milestone, though it would have to be fountain related (win!).
So it’s back to France for a mission with a sub-mission and a double agent. Heh. Both Chuck and Sarah’s spidey sense is tingling throughout, and we know why, but before we get to that, the proposal. A lot of people wanted there to be a proposal this episode. There was. Some wanted a small intimate moment befitting the kind of couple Chuck and Sarah are. They got it. We all got Chuck and Sarah the boyfriend and girlfriend – lost in the moment. The only thing we were missing were three words; “marry me” and “yes.”
Ah, yes the proposal to end all proposals. Or was it? The moon was shining, our heroes in their finest attires, the lines poignant. But wait, weren’t we told nothing is, or will be as it seems? Almost “too easy.” NO! Say it ain’t so. This was the moment, the one. Through all the hand wringing and the planning we’ve arrived at the right moment. But it wasn’t. Ask yourself throughout the 4 years, when Chuck has gone into his (although always touching) word vomit where has it been? And then ask yourself if a balcony in France is the perfect setting after all? It feels like (logic out the window) Chuck, the spy was proposing to Sarah the spy. Ironically he mentioned James Bond but wasn’t that exactly what you’d picture James Bond would do? Propose at the most romantic spot in the world, complete with the moon? But this is Chuck and Chuck is about home and heart. Now listen to the song; the song was about trying repeatedly. “And there are so many questions, that I just never get to learn and there are so many questions that still burn.” Then imagine this same moment (poignancy at least, not setting) when MamaB is saved and Chuck and Sarah has yet another “it is real” moment. That’s epic.
And Faith has tossed me that hanging curve. But I want to talk about Lester. Yeah, Lester, the anti-Chuck. That is a whole other post, but bear with me briefly. So Lester, somehow through birth and upbringing ends up with the gift of all gifts, the flawless “12” hinjew who actually seems open to the idea of marrying him. Poor overcompensating Lester. It never does enter his mind that he might, as Lester, have something to offer. So Lester, poor overcompensating Lester, pretends he’s someone he’s not. Well that first approach doesn’t work out, does it? So Lester, poor overcompensating Lester, tries to be someone he aspires to be, but never will. If he were happier being Lester he might just have a better life, with the girl.
So why isn’t Chuck Awesome? Why didn’t the proposals happen? Why is it Sarah protecting Chuck and not the other way around for a change? Chuck isn’t and never will be James Bond, Sarah knows it, but she fell in love with Chuck Bartowski who is great on his own.
Why didn’t Lester get the girl?