The end is near, but not here.
Chuck and Sarah are both on a journey, more than one actually. They are both on their own journey, and on a journey together. It is that journey together that clues us into their individual journeys, and their end.
Chuck needs one more season, but only one more, where they know the number of episodes and have the end firmly in mind to finish the story in a satisfying way. A full season of 22 episodes would be about right, and coincidently get them to exactly 100 episodes and syndication. Done right, they can go out on the top of their game with potentially the best season ever.
I want to say upfront that this is a personal view. I am not claiming inside knowledge or inevitability, but I think I can say I think I understand the story they are telling. Even if TPTB haven’t always. The goal may be planned, but with four seasons of not knowing how many seasons or episodes they would have to reach the goal, it’s tough to tell the story you want. In essence you need to tell the story in a limited way every season, sometimes twice. With those smaller limited stories we can see the endgame, the happily ever after, even if they sometimes set up the next season that may never be by hinting at the next chapter. But how is it that you tell so many stories that are the same story, and all link together as the same larger story? If this all seems confusing, bear with me, or don’t, because I’m delving again into Heroes and their Journeys and the plots that tell the stories without being the story, after the jump.
It’s axiomatic that as the story progresses you learn things about your characters you didn’t know, and it changes your understanding of events and what they mean in a larger context. It also may inform you that what you thought you knew about a character wasn’t necessarily true, even though there could be some truth to it. In this way that same story you’ve told before can be re-imagined and re-told with another layer added to the story and the characters, and in this way you can make the story ever more satisfying, even as you are making up parts of it as you go along. Each element both closes off, and opens up possibilities for the story to come. In what some consider an annoying lack of focus in the writing and I consider a feature, the serialized elements of Chuck never seem to achieve closure. We always seem to be left wondering exactly how did Mary’s mission end up lasting 20 years, or what was the deal with the “intersect rock”. Or exactly what was that thing between Beckman and Roan. I think you might see where I’m going, but stick with me for a bit first.
Chuck’s journey is to fulfill his destiny and become a hero, and as we’ve learned the purpose of his becoming a hero is to complete his father’s legacy. Sarah’s journey is to become a real girl, to be redeemed from a future and a life she was cursed with through no fault of her own, but then chose to pursue. The end for both is happily ever after. Except for season one, which was sadly interrupted by the writer’s strike, we’ve seen this play out many times. Given the uncertainty in the seasons and episodes TPTB typically plan to give us an ending in episode 13, which usually gets slightly watered down or re-imagined as a story midpoint. I’ve talked about the mechanics of this before, in the context of Voegler’s Hero’s Journey structure. Seeing or knowing about the structure and realizing where you are in the story, either potentially in the case of a 13 episode order extended to 22, or actually in the case of a season finale, which then may have an extra bit of setup for the next part of the story tacked on, the endgame is given away repeatedly. The endgame is happily ever after.
Look at the 13th episode of each season (in the case of season 2 the originally intended 13th episode, Third Dimension). Again, season one displays less of this, but elements are still there. In each case, the potential season-ender had Chuck and Sarah happy together with a life changing event, a sense of completing something having happened. In Third Dimension Sarah learns to trust Chuck as a partner, and gives him his degree, she gives him his life back, the one he was denied by Bryce. In turn Chuck makes his wish, and we get a sense that just maybe Chuck and Sarah will find a way to make it work. Sarah said it herself, wish for what you want, it’ll be yours in the end.
In season 3 we had a Paris hotel room where the last of the barriers keeping them apart were gone, and Chuck and Sarah finally together and in love. In this case there is the added twist of them both potentially out of the spy world. Closing the computer on Beckman was symbolically equivalent to quitting, and again, perhaps watered down since they knew they had a back 6 by the time it was shot.
In Push Mix it was even more definitive. Chuck had completed the missions both his parents had dedicated their lives to, Sarah came home, and Chuck proposed to Sarah, making her a part of his restored family. Happily ever after.
Look at each season finale and you see a similar finality, but with the occasionally annoying cliffhanger hooks for the next season pitch tacked on the end. Season 2 could have ended at the end of Colonel, or at the reception in the courtyard where Sarah decides to stay and tells Chuck she doesn’t want to save the world anymore. But the rest of Ring I was the pitch and setup for the next chapter, or leg of the journey. The same is true in Ring II. His family safe, Shaw defeated, Chuck out of the CIA, and Sarah left just ambiguous enough to be able to believe she is out too. Then, again, the setup of his father’s final message and Chuck’s new mission and next season in the final scene.
Chris Fedak has said more than once that he prefers prologue to epilogue, hence the setups at the end of each season. But that doesn’t preclude happily ever after. It is its own prologue. The story doesn’t end, just the strife and the conflict, or the big threatening part of the strife and conflict, and our heroes have achieved, and can enjoy that for which they fought.
Which brings us to the Hero, and his journey. There are different kinds of heroes, and Chuck has shown us that more than once. In addition, heroes can evolve. In the Hero’s Journey, ala Campbell, the hero can have more than one fate. Not every end is happily ever after. Sometimes the hero, having mastered his new world, stays in that world.
Late in season one Sarah asked Casey a question.
Do you ever just wanna have a normal life? Have a family? Children?
She isn’t just asking that, although she is, she’s also asking and thinking about a lot more. It is our first real glimpse of Sarah Walker, not as Chuck knows her, a kick-ass indestructible hero, but as a real person full of the same doubts and fears Chuck struggles with. Is there more to our lives than this? Can we ever be more than what we are now? Did you ever wonder if you’re cut out for a life without anything else? That is what Sarah is asking herself, and asking Casey if he thinks about it too.
The choice we made to protect something bigger than ourselves…is the right choice. Hard as that is for you to remember sometimes.
Casey is a different kind of hero from Chuck. Casey made the decision not to return home. He lives in, inhabits, the spy world. This is the hero who “dies for our sins” so to speak. He gives up his life so we can have ours. Casey confirms it again in Undercover Lover, though he seems more than a little doubtful.
Casey: “It’s not like I want the wife and kids and the Little League practice and the minivan and the Costco runs.”
Chuck: “Yeah. Really? You don’t? It seems to me that you’d kind of be into the whole American dream.”
Casey: “No. I do what I do so all those other slobs out there can have it.”
Perhaps it isn’t doubt so much as regret. He knows love doesn’t last in his world, and Ilsa is a painful reminder of that. Having made his decision he’s left behind a part of himself that occasionally surfaces in rare moments of weakness. We see this in Sarah more often, the softness and emotion is more a part of her, she just suppresses it. But we have to wonder if she really is like Casey. Is his choice the right one for her, and how did she come to make it?
At this point what we see of Chuck, Sarah, and Casey is three different kinds of heroes. We see Casey, the man who has made his choice to live as a hero for others, and lives with the consequences. We Sarah who seems to have made the choice, yet yearns for something else, perhaps a return to the home and family. We don’t yet know enough about her to see if that is something she knows about, but she clearly thinks about it. Then we see Chuck, the reluctant hero. He wasn’t given a choice when it comes down to it, but he becomes the hero for his friends and family in addition to it being the right thing to do.
These same themes are revisited throughout the seasons, the choice to be a hero, who had one, who didn’t, and the consequences of making a choice to be a hero, even if it seems to be destined.
We also frequently visit the question of the two worlds and the rules unique to each. Here I want to say a few words about Chuck and the choices they make in how to present the show. Chuck is not a serious drama, though it includes dramatic aspects. Chuck is not an action show, though it includes a lot of action. At its heart, Chuck is a comedy, even if it strays from that at times. A comedy can explore serious subjects and can be dark or light, but at a certain point the producers of Chuck chose their overall tone, even if they seemed to stray a bit in season 3. This doesn’t mean that like a drama Chuck can’t include or visit elements that would make Chuck a darker comedy or a dark drama, they just have to be careful with how far they take it. One of the best examples of the potential pitfalls is how they treat the topic of seduction and sex.
There is a very famous deleted scene in season one where you can see the choice TPTB made, and perhaps understand why. In the Crown Vic episode, when Sarah is off to seduce Lon Kirk, Casey is teasing Chuck about what happens, but it goes further than the usual teasing we’ve seen in canon in the deleted scene. Casey basically lays it out that agents, and Sarah in particular, use sex as a weapon on missions. Not sexual attraction or the promise of sex, but sex. Even as an inference about Sarah’s reputation it opens up a very dark path. It’s a well trod path in a lot of fan fiction, but I think they made the right decision for the show. It is very tough to keep Sarah sympathetic or to maintain Chuck’s love and admiration if you go too far visiting those aspects of the spy world or take her character in that direction. Instead they do the right thing, they infer through another character, innuendo, and rumor. We need to see those possibilities and darker aspects to learn about the character and the rules of the world she inhabits, and the potential costs. From the beginning Sarah has been a woman who is capable of and wants love, but isn’t sure she can have it or deserves it due to the life she’s chosen, and had to lead.
Chuck does this in a lot of areas, and if you are a fan of the darker aspects of serious drama it may come off as a cheat sometimes, like Chuck’s initial red test, then pulling him back from ever having to kill. Overall one thing that seems to bother even the fans of season 3 was that they seemed to lose the previous deft touch they had for going just far enough into the darker aspects without going too dark or so deep as to make a payoff seem necessary. Some are expressing the same about season 4, or that it’s gone too light. I believe they’ve regained their balance for the most part.
Like an impressionist painting Chuck has managed to convey a feeling or a story minimally, allowing us to fill in the picture or the details from our own experiences, while the show itself manages to stay light and not get bogged down in excessive detail that takes too long to produce. But like an impressionist painting opinions may vary. Some want more detail, others may not like some aspects or will read something into it differently. Also, like any painting the more of the canvas you fill in the less room for interpretation or freedom. At some point decisions on the direction become permanent, to the joy or disappointment of some part of the audience.
Chuck is not a spy, he’s a hero. At some level we need to accept that. Chuck will never display the cool confidence under fire that Sarah does, or the easy ruthlessness that Casey does. They chose at some point to inhabit the world of spies, and accepted, at least for a time, its rules. We shouldn’t lose sight that at his decent human core, Chuck is unsuited to being a spy, however he manages to keep pulling it off. Many have complained about Chuck’s occasional or too frequent regression. I don’t see it as regression, I see it as re-affirmation that Chuck is a certain kind of hero. He and Sarah will never be Casey. They will journey through the spy world, but they will not inhabit it. They are both past that.
Sarah is different without Chuck, and she doesn’t like it. In Phase 3 one of the absolutely most ingenious twists, one TPTB must have worried about given the way people feel about Sarah, was that they showed us Sarah as Casey. The willingness to torture, brutalize and betray to accomplish a mission were all there, but were managed sympathetically because we understood and applauded the goal. And the motive. What Sarah did she did for love, the right reason, not for expedience like Casey killing Chuck in First Date would have been. Spies like Casey and Sarah as Graham’s wildcard enforcer who live in the spy world and play by its rules don’t have the luxury of a conscience, so they tell themselves it’s for the greater good. That can be a seductive path, the greater good. It relieves the burden of conscience and allows you to enjoy those aspects of your chosen life left open to you without worrying about the cost or consequences. For you or others. Carina can seduce Chuck or Morgan or others and enjoy it because she has a job to do, and a higher calling. Casey can kill Chuck when he’s no longer of use because Chuck’s sacrifice, even his unwilling one saves lives. Sarah used to be able to lie to Chuck and manipulate him through his attraction because she was protecting him and the country.
Chuck never was, and never will be a spy. One of the reasons I loved Fear of Death was because they showed us that. When Chuck kept risking his life, following orders, trying to inhabit that world without the intersect to level the playing field, he was doomed. Chuck doesn’t accept, in fact refuses to accept the rules of that world. He will not resort to deadly violence, he won’t carry a gun. When Sarah in her frustration and fear blurts out “No Chuck, you’re not!” to Chuck’s assertion he’s a spy it is her reacting to her deepest fears being played out in front of her. It is also what she truly believes, and she’s right. Chuck never was, and never would be a spy without losing himself or dying young. That was the root of Sarah’s fear in season 3. He’d followed her into the spy life, and he’d either play by their rules, or die. Either way she’d hold herself responsible for the death of the man she loved.
Chuck being Chuck has found a way, for now, of being an effective agent. His influence and method has allowed Sarah to largely escape those parts of the spy life that she’d lost her taste for, if she ever truly had one. For now, as in the initial part of season 3’s back 6 Chuck and Sarah are living under the illusion they can have it all. It’s a chance to lighten the mood of the show and have some fun, all the while establishing the dilemma they will face in the final arc. They are living in a world neither is really suited for anymore, and perhaps they risk losing themselves and each other along the way. The Turners were a cautionary tale whose fate Chuck and Sarah were sure they wouldn’t share. But the Turners quit when they came to close to losing everything. Chuck and Sarah have each other’s love and complete trust. They have friends and family, and a future together. Those are things we’ve seen and been told make spies vulnerable. Effective spies shouldn’t have them as we saw with Volfoff. The more they have, the more they risk.
Each season the risks Chuck and Sarah take and the enemies they face have grown and hit closer to home. Eventually they’ll decide they’ve achieved their goal and will leave the spy life for good and embrace the pleasures of domestic tranquility and family. Does it have to be at the end of this season? I say no. It would actually be premature. The risks they face are real, but the consequences of continuing to face them haven’t hit close enough to home yet. They came close last season with the death of Stephen Bartowski. They may try to get close at the end of this season, but in the end they need one more season to bring the story to a close.
Chuck’s journey is to fulfill his father’s legacy, Sarah’s is to be redeemed from her past. To bring things to a close they need to finally fill in the blank spots on the canvas. But it means no season 6. I’d be good with that.
Sarah’s journey is to be redeemed from her past, and this season they have finally started to set up that past and how it made her into Sarah Walker, spy. We now know that in addition to a childhood of crime on the road with her father, Sarah does have a mother who is apparently alive and known to her. We’ve also seen that Sarah’s parents union, if it ever was to the point of marriage, didn’t last. In fact it’s almost as if it were cursed, and the result of that union was likewise cursed. It is time we learned the nature and origin of the curse and how it drove Sarah to try to escape it. Given that, Sarah Walker’s journey will be complete when she breaks the curse by delivering a daughter into a loving and stable family.
Chuck’s journey is to fulfill his father’s legacy. That legacy is the intersect. Stephen Bartowski designed the intersect to help people. At some point the intersect drew him, then his family, into the world of spies. Then it became a weapon. This was not the legacy Orion intended, and it cost him his gift, his family, and his life. To complete their family legacy, because the intersect mythology is now so closely tied to the Bartowski family it must include Ellie, the two of them must deliver the intersect to the world, as a gift and a boon to mankind as Stephen intended, not as a weapon. With that done the spy world will have no hold on Chuck, or the Bartowskis. Any of them. The final symbol of this broken hold will be when Chuck and Sarah can have what the Turners never could. Children. A family of their own.
The fifth and final season has room for everything, including bringing back Stephen/Orion and Mary (and even Volkoff) in flashbacks and a fully fleshed out mythology. There should be risk and drama, and though some might call it angst, there should be the danger that Chuck or Sarah could die, or they could, like Stephen and Mary, or even the Turners, lose each other and what they have together. The union has now been established (and a wedding will finalize it) to the point that we know their future is together, so we can see the stress, and the risks fully explored and appreciate the drama rather than bemoan the angst.
Some have said that the Mary/Volkoff story never paid off. I say it hasn’t fully paid off, yet. The hooks and enough of the story is there ready and waiting, whether they do it this season or next. Some say the intersectless arc was without purpose, because they never paid off on the mythology of the Bartowskis, Mary and Stephen, and the intersect. Again, I say yet. They may plan to give us more this season, a limited payoff, but I hope they keep enough in their pocket for another season and a final payoff.
Like an impressionist painting there appear to be gaps where some detail should be, but if you stand back and allow your mind to fill in the rest, it can make you feel and experience something in a way a masterfully crafted and wonderfully detailed painting can’t. But like any canvas, there is still room left to fill in. We aren’t out of canvas yet.
In season one we saw Sarah apparently wide-eyed and overjoyed at suddenly seeming to be part of a family and to have someone who cared about her. In season 2 we saw her finally experience love and friendship, and we saw why it mattered to her so much. In season 2 we saw Chuck start to look for answers about his situation and the intersect, and his father, and we saw him uncover his family history and legacy for the next two seasons.
We saw the barriers that had kept Chuck and Sarah apart in season two and three weren’t so much professional as personal failings in both of them in Suitcase, and Cubic Z, and Coup d’Etat. At the end of season 3 part 1 we saw Chuck and Sarah seem to just happen, without much explanation, kind of like Sarah and Shaw, and it hurt. It seemed neither we nor they fully understood why it was suddenly so easy to be together. In season 4, we saw the hurt play out in Fear of Death and Phase Three, where Sarah feels the full consequences of her reticence to talk and open up hit home with Chuck’s doubts driving him to risk it all, including risking his life to keep her.
In season 5 we’ll see Chuck and Sarah realize they were fooling themselves in Bakersfield, again in Prague, again on the train, and ever since. The two of them together living a life of adventure either on the run or as spies would never be enough for either. One mission at a time isn’t enough for Sarah anymore, or Chuck, and a future without the promise of all they could have together never will be either. They will fight to overcome the last of the holds the spy world has on either of them and they will quit, Sarah having been redeemed and removed the family curse and Chuck having delivered his father’s legacy as a boon to mankind. They will start a family. And they’ll live happily ever after.
That’s a story I want to see.