Enter The Stranger
We’ve reached #7 in our 13 top 10 episodes of Chuck! That means Chuck vs. Santa Claus is in the middle of our list!
You remember how it was that holiday. Friends, good friends and lots of Christmas cheer. Just then, a perfect stranger, Nathan (Ned) Edward Rhyerson (played by Jed Rees), comes barreling into the Buy More at about 60 mph and up-ends more than counters and displays. He’s got a dull, semi-dazed expression on his face, seems to be confused and more than a bit scared. Otherwise, he seems harmless enough, even if he is running from the California State Patrol and carrying a loaded gun.
In his short career as a spy, Chuck thinks he’s seen worse, but he hasn’t. He doesn’t realize that it’s just a disguise. What Chuck sees is a convincing face that Ned is putting out there for the benefit of his audience, the Buy Morons and a few others there that he thinks are also in disguise. Ned’s right about that, more right than we are when we think we know these characters. They are wearing disguises.
Big Mike’s got his Santa suit. I understand that Ebenezer Scrooge made a less convincing St. Nick once, but it was a close contest between the two! Morgan, despite his protestations, makes a convincing elf.
Then there’s Sarah.
From the beginning it seems like Sarah made a decision long ago to put on some sort of face – a disguise – especially around the holidays. It’s been a mask in the truest sense, protecting her from the prying eyes of strangers who need not know about the traditional Annual Salvation Army Con-job way of celebrating the Christmas.
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on
You’re probably saying to yourself “Self? Surely Chuck is not wearing a mask or a disguise. He’s the most transparent guy around!” We’ll get to him, but if you’re thinking that, I’d like you to consider Devon first.
He and Ellie come early to the Buy More that day, even before Ned arrived. Awesome is all happy because he’s already bought Ellie’s Christmas present to him from her. Heh.
Devon: Yeah, yeah. I took it upon myself since you never know what to get me.
Ellie: Well, that’s great! What did I get you?
Devon: Weekend sky-diving trip with the boys in Crested Butte, 10,000-foot free-fall. Awesome!
Uh, right. Ellie’s present to him is a one-way ticket to death. That’s nice. He’s so brave, after all; it’s the mask he likes to wear. Just moments after Casey has his toe blown off, Devon tries to convince everyone he can that it’s time to man-up. This guy, Ned, has to be taken out before anyone else gets hurt. Ellie disagrees, to say the least. Her preferred mask is “mama bear”.
Devon: You guys work at a Buy More, but I’m a doctor. Okay? I take risks every day. This is a matter of life or death. Someone needs to man up and take action. Someone needs to be a hero.
Ellie: No, they don’t Devon. Being a hero is being alive to take care of your friends and family.
Maybe it’s time to wear a different mask. Chuck, our deliberative hero, is considering just that. Which mask will he don today, and which part will he play? Is it the time to be bold or is it the time to be cautious? Of all the character-types in this little drama, Chuck’s the only one who knowingly chooses his own. The others are much less aware – Santa, Santa’s helper, Doctor, Hero, bear, fiancé, girlfriend…
We’ll see their characters revealed. When Ned allows his hostages to call loved ones, Jeff calls his mother in Chowchilla, and Johnny-boy calls his, as does Devon with Ellie. Ned himself calls his wife, we think. Lester calls… well, never mind. 😉
Don’t be afraid to try again
Everyone goes south
Every now and then
You’ve done it, why can’t someone else?
You should know by now
You’ve been there yourself
It was a moment to take off the masks, but it’s surprising how many resisted doing that. Sarah, the girl who doesn’t do Christmas, calls nobody. There was never a question about who Chuck would call.
Sarah: So, uh, Ned let everyone call their loved ones. That was pretty smart to call me. Protect our cover.
Chuck: Yeah, well, you are my girlfriend. Sort of.
Sarah: So does that mean your offer still stands for Christmas?
Chuck: See? I knew you could be heart-warmed. [Chuckles] I actually, um… I have something for you. I was gonna give it to you tomorrow, but considering the circumstances, I kind of want to give it to you today.
Sarah: Chuck, we’re gonna get out of here. We’ll be fine, I promise. [Sarah sees the bracelet.] Wow. That’s beautiful!
Chuck: It’s good luck. It was my mom’s charm bracelet. My dad gave it to her when Ellie was born.
Sarah: Oh, Chuck, I can’t take this. This is something real, something that you should give to a real girlfriend.
Chuck: I know.
It’s almost painful now, that Chuck and Sarah have to wear these disguises, these covers. Isn’t it? They may look like boyfriend and girlfriend, but they are not. They can’t be. Clearly, no matter how well they play the roles they’d much rather be the real thing. Both of them think they know precisely why they have to maintain the covers. It’s so Chuck and his family can be safe. It’s so Sarah can continue to protect him and Ellie and Devon and keep them safe from characters like…
Lt. Frank Mauser. Wow. It’s taken us this long to get to Mauser, played by Michael Rooker. He’s NOT a hostage negotiator, there to help resolve the situation. That too is a disguise. He’s the stranger whose come to reveal all the others and tear off their protective covers.
When Chuck has to face Mauser and the danger he represents alone in the Buy More, Chuck begins to ask all sorts of questions about the role he’s chosen to play. Maybe it’s time to be a hero instead of being the cautious one. Likewise, when Sarah is ushered out at Ned’s insistence, she starts to question exactly how that cover is helping her protect Chuck. Maybe it’s time to be the girlfriend instead of pretending. When she whispers “Trust me, I’ll never let anyone hurt you.” it’s the promise of a lover, not the words of a handler, and you can see the disguises are coming off.
Chuck is not a passive hero in this drama. His flash rips off Mauser’s disguise to reveal that Fulcrum is at the doorstep, ready to bunker him. They know about Bryce and Agents Walker and Casey, and now they know who the CIA has been protecting. Ned’s disguise as the confused, desperate man who only wants to buy his family a present for Christmas is dropped to reveal a trained killer, complete with a wheel kick that loops Lester. Needless to say, Morgan is not at all the pathetic wimp Anna thinks he is, but is heroic wimp Chuck knows him to be. Devon and Big Mike were always awesome, if a bit slow on the uptake.
Chuck, the one character who consciously chooses his role, is briefly the bystander. Mauser has him, and only some sharp-shooting (which sends the police van in which he’s trapped into a nearby Christmas Tree lot) frees him. Agent Walker’s there to save Chuck – again, and she’s up to the task, ultimately disarming the Fulcrum agent and leaving him defenseless.
But Mauser is not harmless.
Mauser: You may have beaten me, Agent Walker. But Fulcrum’s won. I know Chuck Bartowski’s the Intersect.
Sarah: Chuck’s secret is safe. And you’re going straight to a CIA detention facility, never to be seen or heard from again.
Mauser: Well, you go right ahead, Agent Walker. Arrest me. But say goodbye to Chuck. You see, I’m not like those other Fulcrum agents. They’ll do whatever it takes to find me. And when they do, every Fulcrum agent we have is gonna know Chuck’s the Intersect. It’s gonna be the end of his pathetic existence. So take me in, Agent Walker. I’m ready to go.
After one moment of consideration, she shoots him dead.
Once I used to believe
I was such a great romancer
Then I came home to a woman
That I could not recognize
When I pressed her for a reason
She refused to even answer
It was then I felt the stranger
Kick me right between the eyes
So was that the agent who shot Mauser, or the girlfriend? Because of the holidays, a writer’s strike and a presidential speech in prime time, it took a month for us to hear Sarah’s thoughts on the matter, and it wasn’t helpful. Sarah convinced herself that Mauser was enough of a threat that she had to do what she did to protect Chuck and his family. For my money, that’s not the calculated, deliberate decision an agent would make. An agent would consider execution under these circumstances (Mauser was unarmed) to be “above her pay grade”. Let others worry about the fallout – that’s their job.
A girlfriend considers it to be her job, and she’s willing to pay the price. The problem, of course, is how this might appear to Chuck. Would he understand? Sarah is rightfully unsure about that, and stumbles when she realizes the light in his eyes may go out the moment Chuck learns the truth. It’s a legitimate fear.
Well we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger
Though we share so many secrets
There are some we never tell
Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger
Did you ever let your lover see
The stranger in yourself?
Sarah has to be questioning herself. Just who is she, anyway? Is she the kind of person who doesn’t do Christmas, kills enemies and is very alien to Chuck? Is she at all “normal?” No matter which decision she made about Mauser, no matter which way she turned, Sarah Walker is not “normal.”
Morgan: Let me ask you something. What do you do when you see your girlfriend do something so horrific it gets permanently burned into your brain?
Chuck: I don’t know, buddy. But I know exactly what you mean.
Small wonder Sarah decides to cover herself once more and lie to Chuck. It hurt like hell to watch her do it, and you could understand that it hurt her at the same time. It wasn’t Ned and Mauser who were the strangers in the room. All they did was act as catalysts. They brought out into the open someone nobody recognized, someone who had been locked away for a long time – Sarah Walker. What will Chuck think of this person?
You may never understand
How the stranger is inspired
But he isn’t always evil
And he is not always wrong
Though you drown in good intentions
You will never quench the fire
You’ll give in to your desire
When the stranger comes along.
There’s about 50 different episodes of Chuck that I place in my list of top ten favorites. But this one definitely belongs there, even when you get very picky and discerning. It’s a watershed, with tour de force acting from the guest stars, the supporting cast and from Yvonne and Zac, just like we’ve come to expect. It has to be – each character plays a dual role as their natures are revealed.
It’s true that we all love the bracelet scene and what it represents. Chuck is showing Sarah exactly what she means to him, and by accepting it, Sarah privately and personally – but not yet publicly and maybe not even to herself – becomes his girlfriend. The cover remains, but it is filmy white gauze that fools nobody but them. Sigh.
On top of that great scene, though, is the dark tragedy of Sarah lying to Chuck, leading to his haunted nightmares. It’s the stuff of Shakespeare. It makes it easy for us to cherish those scenes and place them high in the canon. But the contrast between the bracelet and the lie also draws our attention away from the important decisions that Chuck and Sarah made in this episode.
Oh, there will be pauses and even backsliding. You know it. There will be obstacles and heartaches down the road. But here, in Chuck vs. Santa Claus we have both Chuck and Sarah on the precipice, about to decide how much they are willing to reveal to each other.
And it’s still amazing to watch. Prepare to be heartwarmed!