Chuck Versus The Ring is one of those episodes. Actually it was probably the first of those episodes. Others would be Chuck versus The Other Guy, Chuck Versus The Ring II & Chuck Versus The Subway, Chuck Versus The Anniversary, Chuck Versus the Push Mix and Chuck Versus The Cliffhanger. Yeah, those episodes. The ones that are so packed through with events and changes and story and closing down some lines while opening others and all the while trying to make it the most epic, awesome and game changing episode of Chuck. Ever! Chuck Versus The Ring is definitely one of those episodes. Join me to relive the epic, awesome and game changing ride that is Chuck Versus The Ring, after the jump.
Chuck Versus The Ring is epic. We have Chuck freed from the intersect and a moneyed individual ready to move on with his life. We have Bryce’s return and death and Casey’s departure and return. We have Chuck leaving the Buy More, and Ellie and Awesome ready to start a new life together.
Chuck Versus The Ring is awesome. We have a wedding, Chuck’s sister threatened, an airborne commando assault on a reception hall and Jeffster. And that is only about the halfway point.
Chuck Versus The Ring is game changing. We have Sarah ready to leave, then deciding to stay, we have Chuck out of the spy life, then deciding to enter it voluntarily, and we have one foe defeated, only to have another emerge.
But was Chuck Versus The Ring a good episode of Chuck? I say yes, and clearly so do a lot of Chuck fans, given it’s place in the top 13 top 10 episodes poll. But in a way that I don’t want to ignore, Chuck Versus The Ring perfectly captures some of what is best, and some of what is most frustrating about Chuck.
Let me start with this. Season 2 of Chuck was awesome for so many reasons, but chief among them was that the Chuck writing team had established, very well, a few great lines of plot and story to provide continual dramatic and romantic tension. Chuck couldn’t trust the government, but they were the only ones who could protect him. Both the government and Fulcrum represented threats to both Chuck and his family. Sarah (and to a lesser extent Casey) was the perfect personification of that in that he wanted to believe in her, and did, as much as she let him. But he couldn’t help but see Sarah’s evasions, lies, and manipulation of him. Sarah wants to protect Chuck, and wants to give him back the life Bryce stole, but he is the intersect, and while her duty to protect him comes first for her, there is a professional complication. To the CIA, he’s an asset, until he’s a liability. Sarah is the CIA, until they decide she no longer represents their interests. Sarah needs to both keep Chuck working, willingly, and protect him. The two come into continual conflict. To let Chuck know the precariousness of his situation would lead to some very uncomfortable questions for Sarah. Sarah wants to re-assure him and build confidence, but doing so to keep him working and safe puts her job in jeopardy if she seems compromised. At the same time to allow the CIA, or her, to treat Chuck as a disposable asset is unacceptable. Because she’s falling in love. And so is he. They really haven’t come up with such a perfect no-win to constantly provide a dramatic pivot on a moments notice since. But to their eternal credit, they knew it had a shelf life if they wanted to keep their characters growing and sympathetic.
Season 8 of Chuck, who’d survived 8 years of missions still telling himself and Sarah he wasn’t meant for this, and this was just until he could get his real life back doesn’t work. A hero’s journey requires actual movement. Sitcoms don’t. Chuck, while a comedy at heart is not a sitcom. The Chuck team, bless them, chose to confront the comfortable and stable go-to world they’d written head on.
Chuck: “Why are you doing this…why are you here risking everything that you’ve worked so hard for?”
Sarah: “…because after everything you’ve done for this country, you deserve to find your father, to get the intersect out of your head, to have a chance at a normal life.”
Chuck: “What about when it’s not your job? What happens to us then?”
Sarah: “One mission at a time Chuck.”
They did it. They burned their entire premise to the ground. In Chuck Versus The Ring, TPTB confronted it head on. What happens when it’s over, when there is no mission, and both Chuck and Sarah are free to choose their own path? It’s a rough ride before we get to happily-ever-after, so buckle up, there’s turbulence ahead. The consequences of a relationship, however real the feelings, built on control, lies, manipulation and resistance and defiance were not ignored.
Was it the only possible path? No. Was it the only possible resolution? No. Was it the best possible? … Given what the writers may have known about both Chuck and Sarah that we didn’t, I’ll defer. I’m on record as having wished for a different path, but we may never know the constraints and requirements. Was it real? Yes. Why all the season 3 talk? This is Chuck’s first episode of season 3, and I will defend that statement to the last.
One Mission at a time Chuck.
Chuck’s last mission is over. His life is his own, once again. And his old life is no longer nearly enough for him. First order of business, buh-bye Buy More. You can see the twinge of guilt Chuck has as he makes his way through Emmit’s new Buy More. Sadly the BuyMorons will have to do without Chuck to overthrow Emmit’s reign of terror. He’s moving on to bigger and better things. Other than a nice champagne buzz and a slow dance with his date however, he hasn’t really figured out what. Well that’s not quite true. He knows it involves Sarah and for a change doesn’t involve guns and bombs and spies and lies. For Chuck, this is his chance to finally make it real with Sarah. The feelings are real, and acknowledged, and in the open thanks to a trip to Barstow. For Chuck, that’s the starting point. Now he just has to convince Sarah he has something to offer in exchange for her glamorous and fulfilling life as a spy. There may be some problems with Chuck’s plan
Finally, we can get out of here.
Sarah is leaving. Going back to Chuck Versus The First Date, the other bookend to this season, we see that was always her plan. She may have considered or longed for a future as a normal girl with Chuck, but it appears she never took it seriously. She clearly reveled in getting to play real girl with Chuck, and to feel something, but Sarah has always seen happiness as an ephemeral thing, and the happy time was coming to an end. Still, she did something good. She helped give Chuck back his life and now, the strong confident guy she always knew he could be could go on to do great things, and would hopefully keep a place in his heart for Sarah Walker.
Does a part of her wish it could be different? Clearly. The spark of hope she shows when Beckman makes Chuck an offer, join the team as an analyst, then the deflation when he turns it down. One more “if only” for Sarah’s baggage train. We come to understand later why Sarah is convinced at this point she can only be with Chuck if he joins her world. Sarah doesn’t do “real” real well, and she knows what real with Chuck would mean. Opening up, being truthful, and she knows the inevitable progression of events would eventually lead to where she was un-equiped to go. Perhaps if he’d taken that job, with time, they might have something real-ish, but Chuck made his choice to return to his world, and Sarah couldn’t leave hers. Chuck chose real over Sarah. It’s interesting to see the result of Sarah’s “decision” (since this is my interpretation and never clearly spelled out). Immediately she’s back where she was before she ever met Chuck, a spy with a mission and Bryce as her partner.
This Perfect Day
On this perfect day everyone’s dreams seem to be coming true. Ellie and Devon are about to have their perfect wedding. Chuck has his life back, and the government is about to have their perfect intersect, Bryce. Of course we quickly see that those stage managing all that perfection aren’t in control.
First we have Chuck. Finally, he has his life back, and while he doesn’t have it all figured out yet, he knows he wants his future to include Sarah. Chuck however has always felt himself a little unworthy of Sarah, even if recent events have shown him her feelings for him are real. So Chuck has a plan. Thanks to his newfound wealth, he’ll try to convince Sarah that normal and real life has something to offer. No guns, no lies, just the two of them, just like Barstow. But somewhere nice.
It’s a frustrating scene, there is a lot going on and frankly I’m not entirely sure I understand it now. Think of it as Prague before Prague. Sarah, for reasons noted above, feels she needs to leave and let Chuck live his life, but Chuck, ever the romantic, starts to lay out the possibilities, and Sarah starts to see that life she’s dreamed of, with them together, perhaps thinking maybe it is worth trying. Chuck’s “proposal” clearly has Sarah nearly breathless waiting for the question… wanna take a vacation?
Chuck and Sarah, as is often the case, are operating on different levels here. For Sarah it is an all or nothing, no turning back decision to be made within hours, and for Chuck it’s a natural process of the courtship they were denied for so long. Sarah has the additional burden of knowing what Chuck (and we at this point) don’t. The job that has been a barrier for so long is also Sarah’s excuse, a way to keep it from going to a place where she’s vulnerable and Chuck can hurt her. And that is why we get a dumbfounded Sarah, numbly re-stating that it’s her job, because in reality there isn’t a reason in the world she couldn’t take that vacation, and some time to see if she wants real, other than her own fear.
And so, on this perfect day, the one we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, Chuck sees that it isn’t just the job with Sarah, he’s not enough for her, and Sarah is afraid she’s lost that place in Chuck’s heart she’d hoped to have.
Oh, sorry, I forgot the threat part.
Ted Roark, one of Chuck’s better villains, is back. And I have to add, he’s brought a gross of stupid sticks with him for this next bit of plot. See Ted will kill Ellie, who, like the rest of the wedding party and guests are free to wander the halls unmolested if Chuck doesn’t go, unobserved and free, to his secret spy base to get the intersect cube, where instead of calling in a tactical team, or, you know, getting Ellie and/or the guests out, he brings Bryce, with one pistol, back to the church, where Sarah and Orion look for steak knives rather than maybe, I dunno, contact the CIA? Get Ellie out of the church? Set off a fire alarm? This firm grasp on the stupid stick is exceeded only by Ted Roark and his men, sitting calmly in the reception room, waiting for the CIA agent they set free to dutifully return with the intersect cube or they will kill his unobserved, free to wander the halls sister.
But it sets up the one of the most epic musical montages/fight scenes in Chuck history. So I’m cool with it.
Chuck Versus The Kobiyashi Maru
The un-winable fight, the impossible decision. That’s what we’ve been dealing with. Chuck was no longer a spy, but he and his family were still in danger. Sarah was still a spy, so she wasn’t free to follow her heart. Ellie’s wedding was destroyed because of Chuck, and his not over yet spy life. Her life saved, but her dreams destroyed, all because of him, and he couldn’t even tell her.
Sarah is an eerie parallel. Chuck’s life saved, but her dreams of something more were gone, and she couldn’t find a way to tell him either.
But this is Chuck. He doesn’t play by spy rules or real life rules. He plays by his own rules. There is no Kobiyashi Maru, unless you accept the rules imposed on you. Chuck doesn’t.
Time for one last mission?
It’s not what a normal guy would do. But then whoever thought Chuck was a normal guy. Other than him of course. Chuck sees it in a completely non-intersect flash of brilliance. Change the rules. Spy rules (lots of money, resources and pressure from the government) applied to a real world problem (how fast can you throw a wedding?).
And Chuck makes Ellie’s dream come true. And Sarah’s. Sarah has a problem with normal, and real. But Chuck, real as he is, will never be normal. And he wants her in his life. We don’t know the depth of Sarah’s fears and the weight of her baggage yet, but even on the first viewing it was clear. If there was one guy Sarah could risk it with, it’s Chuck. Nobody else would be as gentle, as understanding, as patient, and as unwilling to give up as Chuck. With Chuck, it just might be worth the risk, so even while we see their world being turned inside out again, Sarah is ready to take that leap, and Chuck is ready to become the man he always could be. See Chuck has Sarah, and Sarah has Chuck, and even though it may take a while, they make each other the best version of who they are.
Guys, I know Kung-Fu.
I’ve written so many times about how this episode was pivotal to both Chuck and Sarah’sjourneys. In a way it is where they start. It is real is the end of the prologue, and the beginning orf the struggle to make what is real permanent. Chuck’s decision, to embrace and own his destiny will test him, as will Sarah’s decision. But to me both were due. You can’t have a journey if you go in circles, and so by taking a risk and destroying that stable premise, that go-to canned drama and angst (good drama and angst, but still, kind of canned) TPTB launched what was a special show into its next incarnation.
It’s tough to review Ring, the reset, without acknowledging or commenting on what came after. Initially I had a lot more… a LOT more discussion of how the seeds of what was laid down in this episode bore fruit (some would say stunted and incomplete or rotten fruit) in season 3, and eventually 4. But in the end, I decided that it wasn’t part of this episode. This episode, like so many others, was about change, growth, possibilities, and about bringing the awesome by the keg. There may be another post out of all the parts hacked out, but for tonight, I just want to savor some of the best of Chuck, complete with stupid stick and frustrating hanging plot and storylines. All I can say is I’m glad the “To Be Continued” was true.
Oh yeah, The Ring is awesome
We were born in the desert
We were reared in a cave
We conquered in the sun
but we lived in the shade
Yeah baby we were savage
we existed to kill
Our history is damaged
at least it was a thrill
But Now We Can See
Gets the blood going. The song is an anthem. It’s bold and brash and can be sung only by youth who’ve come out on top with an early win and are feeling their oats. Think graduation. Think making the winning shot in the big game. Think getting your black belt. Think: “Just wait until real life hits you upside the head, kid.”
In The Colonel Chuck got through his test. He saved his father in time for Ellie’s wedding, he beat Roark, he got the Intersect out of his head and he got Sarah. It was all real. The next step, to the Buy More.
Chuck: Emmett! You don’t understand. I quit. No more Buy More. No more you. You can take your flag and your job and shove it.
When Emmett screams at him “What do you think you’ll do with the rest of your life???”, Chuck’s snide answer, under his breath, is: “Anything I want.”
Well, yeah. But exactly what would that be? You see, when the question keeps coming to him, from Emmett, from Beckman, from Casey, from Ellie – he still doesn’t have an answer and Chuck’s victory starts to sound a little hollow. After two years of thinking about it, isn’t it about time he came up with an answer? It’s interesting, Ernie, that independent of what you wrote above, I chose the same word – “frustrating” – to describe this. It’s interesting because, just like you said, this is an absolutely amazing episode on all sorts of levels, and yet, that same reaction, frustration, has been detected from many quarters. I want to discuss one of them, and it starts with this memorable little speech:
I’ve recently come into a little bit of money, so, any place you want to go, any place at all, as long as it’s sunny, with little umbrella drinks. What I’m getting at here is, Sarah Walker, will you do me the honor – of taking a vacation with me?
What the heck is that? Chuck came strutting into the Buy More and in one of most incredible, hilarious, poignant and powerful scenes in the entire show, told Emmett to shove it. Chuck the boy has obviously taken the reigns of his life and walked out of the creche. Yey!
Then he proposes to Sarah – NOT! It’s a vacation. It’s funny and it’s very Chuck-like and it’s precisely why that word – frustration – comes so easily to mind. It gets worse, too. In The Colonel, we left Chuck & Sarah at the fountain, holding hands, telling each other that “it’s real”, giving each other one of those precious, meaningful looks Morgan later tells them they do so well (for crap communicators…) Then Chuck quits the CIA, Sarah takes on the Intersect Project, Bryce reappears, Chuck gets paid off, and they couple of the century just seem to want go their separate ways. What just happened?
This wasn’t what I was hoping for either. Chuck and Sarah should have fallen into each others’ arms (or bedrooms, it seems) the night before, after the reception. And then, they should have… should have what? Ernie, I’m standing at the same spot you described. All I can say now is that sometime between the fountain at the end of Colonel and the opening of The Ring Chuck and Sarah should have changed.
It’s taken me this long to realize they did, just not in that obvious, made-for-TV way. They started with halting and tentative steps to grow up.
I’m not that good an observer; I did not recognize, at first, that the guy who (almost bitterly) thanked Sarah for coming to the wedding (Good for the cover.) and the girl who could not bring herself to tell Chuck what she wanted were any different from the angst-ridden romantic morons we’ve come to know and love. It’s not that they acted out-of-character. It’s that they didn’t act the way we hoped.
[For the life of me, after seeing the end of The Cliffhanger with the power-couple firmly grasping the reigns of their destiny (and after imagining little super-hero kids wearing capes around their house in the suburbs), I don’t remember why.]
The Fat Lady Sings
But have you noticed, I’ve only so far described the first 21 minutes of a 42 minute episode. It is the end of some of the most (if not the most) amazing TV I have ever seen. What happens next is something even more amazing, because it’s the beginning of exactly what I wanted to see. Even though Chuck and Sarah seemed just as angst-ridden and romantically bumbling as before, even though Chuck was as un-directed and Sarah as reticent as always, the next 20 minutes changed everything around them.
It starts with Chuck doing not doing something a normal guy would do. It starts again with a white wedding on a beach and Ted Roark smiling in his cell. It starts with Sarah silently indicating to Bryce her intentions to stay with Chuck, no matter what.
Just come on home.
They’re Not Different. The World Is
And oh, does it change. We discover Fulcum doesn’t matter; they’re just one part of The Ring. Chuck has the Intersect back, except the CIA has changed Orion’s base architecture. Even he doesn’t know what it can do now. It’s not a good day to be Bryce. It’s a bad day to be Ted Roark. Everything that did or did not happen after the wedding rehearsal dinner matters not at all.
There are two more things that are exploded in those last 20 minutes. With flashbacks of Beckman saying “It’s time for you to become a spy”, Chuck asking Sarah on the beach why Bryce did this, Sarah telling him “You can do anything – I’ve seen you in action.”, his own condemnation “I’m just Chuck Bartowski. I’m not a hero.” and Sarah’s answer “How many times do you have to be a hero to realize that you are that guy?”, the Intersect prompts him:
DO YOU WISH TO ACTIVATE?
It’s his choice. He’s decided.
The second is this. I finally was able to finish Sarah’s unfinished sentence. You remember.
Chuck, I don’t want to save the world. I want…
Sarah wants a normal life. Between that and shaking her head “no” to Bryce’s question, I understand now Sarah decided to give up the CIA and go with Chuck because he saved Ellie and her wedding even without the intersect. We weren’t going to know that for sure until Pink Slip, months later, and like Chuck, she’ll want to change her mind before it’s all over. But at the end of The Ring neither of them are going to give up on what they already have and both realize what they have is not complete.
At this point the only question is, will they still go after what they think is missing? We got our answer. Standing alone and aesthetically speaking, The Ring is simply a wonderful episode to watch. With the passing of time and two more seasons of Chuck now in hand, this episode only gets better.