It seems fitting that our summer rewatches of Chuck Versus the Intersect and Chuck Versus the Gobbler came back to back. Gobbler revives the theme set forth in the Pilot — the contrast of Chuck’s two worlds. Trying to operate in both worlds and still keep them separate is an ever present tension in the lives of our heroes. Perhaps no episodes show us the chasm between the spy world and the real world better than the Pilot and Gobbler. Watching them back to back, we realize that the pilot showed us only the tip of the iceberg … a small part of the dangers that we, like Chuck, couldn’t see or imagine.
The invisible spy world, always just below the surface, to one degree or another, holds Chuck’s real world hostage. Every once in a while the barrier is breached and the dangers of the spy world threaten to destroy Chuck’s real world: Marlin, Santa Claus, Colonel and Rings I&II … Leftovers, Balcony, Gobbler, and Push Mix … Agent X, Last Details, and Cliffhanger. Aha! I think I see a pattern. Each season raises the stakes and presents greater dangers which our heroes must vanquish in the final arc … or lose everything. Gulp.
It is here, in the undertow of the spy world that Chuck gives us its best drama. S4’s mid-season final arc (which might have been the series final arc) gives us the very best of Chuck … strong drama, interspersed with comedy, action, family, romance, and heart. Classic Chuck.
Leftovers sets the stage for the final arc. In order to protect her family, Mary spent the last 20 years of her life struggling to maintain the barrier between the spy world and her real world. In Leftovers, the darkness of her spy world irreversibly spills into her real world when Volkoff discovers Chuck’s real identity and all the pertinent details of Mary’s family. Sarah, more than anyone, understands their new reality.
“Your mom can’t come back, not until Volkoff is destroyed. He knows too much. She’s the only thing keeping us safe right now.”
Volkoff holds all the cards. More menacingly than ever before, the spy world holds their real world hostage.
Fast forward a few months to Balcony, the first act of the final arc. Nothing has changed. Chuck’s real world is still held hostage by Alexei Volkoff. As Chuck tries to ignore the undertow of the spy world and move forward with his life, he plans the perfect romantic proposal to give Sarah a clean slate from her past. Sarah, ignorant of his plans, is determined to wipe another slate clean.
“General, I know why Chuck was asking about Volkoff. He’s concerned for his family and friends, and I want to make something absolutely clear. I will do anything in my power to help bring back Chuck’s mother and to eliminate Volkoff and his organization.”
Meanwhile, we revel in the romance and the couple’s happiness as they move toward the perfect proposal … until the barrier is breached, in an act of remarkably abysmal timing, and the spy world threatens to destroy them … again.
Balcony was a fun, lighthearted episode, with romance and squees aplenty, and some say an unnecessarily angsty ending. But for the purposes of telling the story, and potentially acting as the coda for the entire series, it was, to me, nearly perfect.
We establish a mood immediately, romance, a couple, a relatively easy straightforward mission, and all the hope and possibilities ahead for Chuck and Sarah as they start their lives together. But we also see immediately, the spectre hanging over them. Volkoff. Or spy life. Take your pick. Volkoff however is the perfect personification. We also see the other spectre, Sarah’s past.
In another one of those lovely parallels Chuck does so well we see the minor issue, Sarah’s past, pushed to the front while the major issue, Volkoff and the need for a clean slate, is played under the surface for the duration of Balcony, only to intrude just as they are about to start their lives together, again. It is the latter that will be driving the final arc.
The clean slate. Chuck and Sarah have always sought to do what they feel is best for the other. Usually without ever discussing it. Sometimes, and Chuck is usually the more guilty party, they seek to “fix” each other. To make right some perceived wrong done to them. On occasion, like with a Stanford diploma, it is a touching and wonderful gesture. Other times, like a father’s location via government computer or a spy team reunion it has unforeseen, and at least temporarily dangerous consequences. In this episode they both decide the other needs that clean slate. This is often where trouble starts, even if it is for the best in the end.
Before this becomes a review of Balcony let me move on to an important question Joe and Faith asked. Who was the proposal for? The simple answer from me is this.
The first was for Chuck, the fulfillment of his adolescent fantasy where he’d be publicly seen as the grand romantic he was and charm the girl off her feet.
The second was for Sarah, on both their parts. For Chuck it was to give Sarah the clean slate. To “fix” her past, just the two of them, alone and private in a spot Sarah loved was perfect. On Sarah’s part it was to allow Chuck to feel like he can be “that guy” again, to let him “fix” her, even if she doesn’t want or need fixing, so that they can move on with their lives.
The third. The real one, in the final act was for them. When Chuck and Sarah try to be what they think the other needs or wants or give the other what they think they need or want they risk losing themselves, and consequently the very thing the other loves. When the simply let it go, accept themselves and the other without question and choose to be together, it works.
For now they are still trying to fix things. On to Gobbler.
Sarah has had to go back to being her old self, to fix things for Chuck, and as we see in the opening Chuck has had to go back to being his old self, a bit naive, and trusting, despite all he knows, that Sarah Walker can do anything. He needs to believe because, as we’ve seen since season 1, he can’t let her die, or lose herself for him. He believes because he needs to believe that Sarah, his Sarah will come back to him before life on a mission changes her the way it changed his mother.
Meet the new Sarah Walker, or the new old Sarah, or, well it’s complicated, but Sarah is back in full spy mode fully immersed in the spy world. She knows she’ll be playing a dangerous game. For now though we can still have some fun. We love it when Sarah kicks butt, and so does Volkoff apparently.
Sarah Walker, meet Alexei Volkoff, again. Once again I get the feeling it’s the grownups playing, and the spy game is elevated. We see the spy game not through some convoluted plot or twist or mission, but, as Chuck does best, through the players. Now, we start to see Mary’s dilema through Sarah’s story even while we see the dangers Sarah faces in through Mary and her situation.
Volkoff knows Sarah, and knows her weakness. While he doesn’t trust her, he takes a perverse joy in the opportunity to control her. His complete knowledge of everything she has to lose and the position it puts her in both makes Sarah the perfect mole, and makes her uniquely vulnerable. Sarah knows she (nor Chuck) can’t remain a spy, loyal to the country and true to her calling while Volkoff knows and can threaten Chuck and his family. Chuck is in the same position (as we saw in Balcony) which is why she volunteered for the mission to begin with. But Sarah is also uniquely vulnerable, as is Mary now that Volkoff knows her secret, and her weakness. Neither can’t afford to have Volkoff doubt them. She knows Volkoff knows, and she knows he knows she knows. A very knowledgable bunch. But Volkoff can have some fun. He has Sarah, and Chuck, and Mary right where he wants them. He has hostages. Everybody.
The Heart of the Story
I just have to say that the contrast of worlds is brilliant in Gobbler. The dark spy-world is shown in negative parallel imagery with the sunny real-world … like the negative of a photograph. In the real world, Chuck’s friend falls in love, and his sister picks out baby names. In the spy world, disappointing the boss is fatal, and world domination isn’t a board game. Chuck may inhabit the real world, but his heart and soul are with Sarah. The reverse is also true. Sarah inhabits the spy world, but her heart is with Chuck, and her mind is on taking down Volkoff and bringing Mary home.
I will always love the image of the all-new, old Sarah Walker striding into Volkoff’s office and everything that follows, especially the move she puts on the three guards. Sarah tells Alexei the truth, pretty much. She did ask Chuck to run away. They are trapped in a CIA run world, and she is indeed trying to buy a future with the man she loves. (Little does she know that the man before her really will help her cash out and build a life apart from the CIA.)
As Ernie said, we see Mary’s dilemma through Sarah’s story. Sarah herself cites the parallel, in such a way that Volkoff and Mary both hear what she needs them to know. “Your actions did serve as a sort of inspiration.” Volkoff hears that Sarah, like Frost, is betraying the CIA to come and work for him. Mary hears that Sarah is still one of the good guys, under cover to take down Volkoff and protect her family.
Ernie and I draw the line in a different place between what Volkoff knows and what he thinks he knows. I think Volkoff believes Mary is loyal to him. His shock and anger at her betrayal in Push Mix is genuine. Yeah, he’s a psycho-control-freak, so he never fully trusts anyone. But she comes closer than anyone to being a person of trust. That’s why she immediately pulls Alexei aside to tell him that Sarah will betray him. Mary protects her cover by feigning loyalty to him and closes the deal for Sarah by challenging his need to control people.
Wherever you draw the line between what Volkoff knows and what he thinks he knows, one thing remains far beyond his knowledge. Love. He only knows how to control, so he is blind to their strength. He cannot fathom their indomitable heart and unyielding love.
Back to Mary’s dilemma and Sarah’s story. Mary’s love for her children has kept her tethered, however tenuously at times, to the side of the good guys and to her primary goal of keeping her family safe. The group she cares about and wants to protect has grown by one, and that one has just risked everything to join her.
“Mrs. Bartowski, I came here to help you take down Volkoff and to get you the hell out of here.”
Mary now has something she hasn’t had in 20 years … an ally … and hope. Finding Hydra is the key to taking down Volkoff, and finding Yuri is the key to finding Hydra. Working together, they may be able to pull it off. Besides sharing a mission, Mary and Sarah also share a dilemma. As much as she welcomes Sarah’s partnership, if Mary could choose, she would spare this young woman, the woman her son loves, the heartache that’s sure to come.
“Sarah, I need you to realize that going undercover in a place like this can require certain difficult choices. … You might find yourself becoming someone you no longer recognize.”
Sarah is all in, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.” Unyielding love.
Heart. Chuck is a show, we say, that has heart. We see it in the sweet moments and tender scenes. It makes us smile and sigh … and squeee. Sometimes it makes us cry. This episode is full of heart, nowhere better depicted than in this scene that shows caring and kinship, grit and determination … and indomitable heart.
An alliance is formed. A bond is forged. There’s an enemy to defeat and a challenge to survive. Finding Hydra? Yes. Bringing down Volkoff? Yes. But more than that there’s Sarah’s challenge of maintaining her cover and not losing herself. This is the story. It was Chuck’s story in S3 … becoming a spy without becoming a different person. It is Sarah’s story in Gobbler … going back to being her old self (nothing but a spy) without losing the real person that she has become with Chuck.
Sarah has advantages that Mary lacked: a partner on the inside, partners on the outside, active ties with the CIA, and Chuck. But when tests come, each challenge is hers to overcome.
The other side of the story is how Sarah’s dilemma affects Chuck. Ultimately Sarah’s biggest advantage will be Chuck, himself … and his unyielding love and indomitable heart.
Volkoff doesn’t stand a chance. He thinks he holds all the cards, but he’s definitely not playing with a full deck … in more ways than the obvious.
I’ll pass it back to Ernie to look at dilemmas and changes and tests … oh my.
Back in Burbank, life goes on at a leisurely pace. People eat breakfast, fall in love, go to work, and have their spy base invaded by … wait, what was that?
Meet the new, new Sarah Walker, employee of one AlexeiVolkoff. Sarah looks, well…different. Has she changed? Well hair color and tailors at the very least, but she still seems to be Chuck’s Sarah, albeit apparently a bit more mission focused than usual. Hey, who doesn’t love a good suicide mission?
So the mission is set, break out The Gobbler and see if he leads them to Hydra. Chuck and team have the tough part, I mean you didn’t want a literal suicide mission did you? Subdue the Gobbler, distract security, help Sarah move a 300+ pound man into the delivery truck. You get the point, she still needs her team.
So as Chuck says, see you in prison, where the closer you approach, the bigger the Gobbler gets. I must say I like that even with the intersect Chuck finds himself either evenly or outmatched on occasion, and still relies on a bit of brains to win his fight.
The Gobbler secured it’s back to their temporarily separate worlds for Chuck and Sarah. Sarah’s, where as Thinkling points out the price of disappointing the boss is death, and Chuck’s where world domination is a game, not a business model.
As Thinkling said, we come down perhaps a shade or a hair apart on Volkoff’s trust of Mary. I think he trusts her loyalty, to a degree, because he trusts in his ability to control her. More now than ever since he knows her weakness, her family.
We’ve seen that at times, according to Heather Chandler, Mary is always at Volkoff’s side, like when setting up a weapons pipeline for a superbomber. Other times, like selling nuclear weapons to Costa Gravas, she’s merely heard of, but never seen. Clearly, as with Hydra, Volkoff keeps his cards close to the vest even with Mary. But he also has his psycho sense of fun and whimsy, and it is in the scene in Volkoff’s office that we start to see the man’s nature.
Volkoff is the devil. Yes he’s evil and all, but more than that, he’s a tempter and a seducer. He knows what Mary and Sarah are after. Hydra. While simultaneously securing the database by downloading it, and whetting their appetites with some explanation of its importance, he tempts them. He dangles it in front of them, the one thing that could free them from his control, practically daring them to make their move, and then he snatches it from their grasp. Not today, not yet he seems to be saying, now you do something for me, take another small step to prove your loyalty. Compromise yourself just a little more.
Along with the carrot is the unmentioned stick. Well mentioned in passing to Phyllis, whose job it is to clean up the bodies. Disappoint me and you and those you love will pay.
Volkoff is the devil. Really? Shiver. And let’s never forget that he has a hard time with disappointment. Great line, and TD is perfect in this horrifying scene. Unhinged … a bit boyish … and completely diabolical.
Since I hold to the theory that Volkoff thinks Mary is loyal to him, I’m not wholly convinced that he knows that Mary and Sarah are after Hydra. Maybe, but I lean a bit in the other direction. I think his arrogance blinds him to the possibility that Mary might be disloyal or that Mary and Sarah might pose any real threat.
Whether Volkoff backed up Hydra and destroyed the eye for Mary and Sarah’s benefit, or just because having all his eye balls in one basket is a bad idea, he now feels smug and in control. Ahh. Now it’s time to have some fun with his newest acquisition … time to bend her to his will. Alexei Volkoff doesn’t inspire loyalty. He doesn’t even demand it. He imposes it and takes perverse pleasure in doing so.
Kill Casey. That is Sarah’s final test. In an eerie callback to last season’s Final Exam, once again one of our heroes is pushed to the brink of what they are capable of, tested with the no-win situation. I still cling to the idea that Volkoff values his control over others loyalty, and while perhaps only metaphorically the devil, he does want his people to join him in his own personal hell.
Sarah and Mary dare not lose Volkoff’s trust, or run. And while he knows that, he controls them. Sarah’s and Mary’s dilema is straight out of Godfather 2. In seeking to protect your family, can you lose them? Can you become someone they can no longer love? Can the distance between you make you strangers? Volkoff obviously delights in this game of his as Chuck, perhaps as he hoped, arrives just in time to see Sarah’s test.
Chuck, you’re just in time. There’s a particular moment when an agent makes the decision to stop pretending and to take the leap to join the other side. It’s a game-changing step. Your mother made it all those years ago. And now, if you’ll come with me, we’ll see if Sarah’s going to make the same step. I think she will. Come on.
Volkoff has manipulated the situation perfectly. Sarah can not fail, knowing the consequences. Volkoff wants not just a show of loyalty and her admission of his control, but to sever the last ties to any world other than his. Sarah is tested, and the question is explored. At what point does your cover become your reality? What if Sarah has no home and hope to return to, as perhaps happened to Mary. Is Mary really one of the good guys anymore? Will Sarah be able to remain one? How far can you go in selling your cover before you really are working for the other side? Chuck sees this. He sees who his mother has become, whatever her original motives. She stays with Volkoff and does his bidding to protect her family. At what point does her moral compromise become Chuck’s problem. How far is he willing to let Mary, or Sarah go to protect, or to “fix” him. How can he ever have that clean slate if it costs Sarah who she is?
And how far are Sarah and Mary willing to go? How much distance can they put between themselves and those they seek to protect before the connection is lost? As perhaps once happened to Mary, Sarah cannot afford to fail this exam, to disappoint Volkoff and have his disappointment taken out on her or her new family to be. But completing his assignment is unacceptable. Once again Casey is there to help out and take one for the team. Once again, one of our heroes, seeing only part of the story, is left to wonder, alone, how much the love of their life has been changed by a determination to to fix things so they can live in that space they try to carve out for themselves between two worlds.
Maybe there is a reason spies should never fall in love.
Gee, Ernie, thanks for leaving me holding the questions.
Gobbler is a heavy episode, yet still Chuck-like. It weaves Chuck’s main dramatic theme — the delicate balance of opposing worlds — with comedy (funny! Ellie), action (Sarah and the Volkoff goons), family (Grunka/Clara), romance (the Castle rendezvous), and heart. Despite the heavier tone, it’s a win for me. It explores questions that have been lurking about, ever since Chuck’s mom dispatched Volkoff’s men at the end of Anniversary. It shows us light and dark: the dark side of the spy world and the danger to the real world when the barrier is breached. Maybe spies shouldn’t fall in love, but Chuck is about our favorite heroes beating the odds. Gobbler reminds us of the odds.
Mary’s dilema. Gobbler shows us the world Mary inhabited all those years. You can’t just walk away. Failure is not an option. And whatever you do, never ever disappoint the boss.
Mary survived. She remained loyal to her family and succeeded in protecting them. Despite some of the things she had to do to survive, she never sold out. She’s still one of the good guys. The woman Chuck remembers is still in there, held hostage by her own love for her family and her determination to protect them. The spy that Chuck never knew, but was always in there … that’s the only side of herself Mary can show, until she brings Volkoff down.
Being able to survive, keep her family safe, and still be one of the good guys is only part of her dilema. The personal cost to herself and her family is the other part. The cost to Mary and her family was incalculable … heartbreaking.
Now Mary’s dilema is Sarah’s dilema, only with an elevated risk because Volkoff knows everything about her family. Volkoff is Mauser on steroids. Tomorrow, next week, next year … they can’t know when, but one day Volkoff will mess with them again, quite possibly destroy them. Until then, he holds the entire Bartowski family hostage and controls Chuck and Sarah and Mary. They are useless as agents, because any CIA aggression against Volkoff is a threat to Mary’s life. Any misstep on her part is death to her family. Hence, Sarah’s offer to General Beckman and her willingness to follow through when it would be easier and happier to take the ring and stay. Unyielding love. Indomitable heart.
Now that Sarah has inherited Mary’s dilema, what is our assurance that her story … Chuck’s story … their story will turn out differntly? That’s the question left hanging at the end of Gobbler.
Well, I don’t want to leave it hanging, so I’ll give just a tiny preview of the good things to come in the final act. Push Mix wipes all the slates clean. Sarah helps Mary complete her mission, and Mary makes sure Sarah doesn’t follow in her footsteps. Chuck completes his father’s mission. Clara is the clean slate for Mary and Ellie, and of course Chuck and Sarah get their clean slate.
The final showdown — Volkoff v. Chuck/Sarah/Mary — answers the question Gobbler left hanging. Volkoff’s arrogance is no match for their unyielding love, and even he can’t control their indomitable heart.
~ Thinkling and Ernie