I’ll let you in on a little not so secret secret. Chris Fedak knows bullet trains probably don’t have air ducts or crawl spaces large enough for a full-grown woman to crawl through and thus drop down through a suspiciously large vent on unsuspecting bad guys in the nick of time. He just doesn’t care. I don’t either. He also knows there’s no such thing as an instantly disabling tranq gun, an intersect, and that 6″ spike heels aren’t the most practical tactical footwear. But man all those things are cool. (OK Ladies, I get it, but Yvonne makes them look cool.)
There’s a well-known TV trope called “The Rule of Cool”. The definition, according to tvtropes.org is:
The limit of the willing suspension of disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to the element’s awesomeness.
In other words, if the result is cool enough, funny enough, or epic enough you can get away with almost anything. Hong Kong wire work, impossible car chases and the entire Die Hard franchise are all pretty much built on this trope. Chuck regularly lives and dies by The Rule of Cool. Last Friday night the Sarasect wiped the floor with the rule of cool.
This post initially started, as a few have, as a reply to one of our readers. At some point the reply was abandoned, but the ideas stuck around in my virtual scratchpad. I do this because you never know when they might apply. Some of this also comes out of a few BTS conversations with Faith and Joe last summer about the nature of Chuck and the way it’s presented. See Faith thinks I should be willing to be more critical, that I shouldn’t gloss over the occasional (or frequent depending on your POV) stupid stick moments or plot holes. They seriously don’t bother me, but I get her point, it makes it look as if I can’t be critical of the show, that I can’t see these problems at all. Or to the commenter who revived all this for me, Big Kev, it looks like rather than ignoring or accepting the flaws I’m defending them. I don’t think I am, though I do believe in the generous application of the rule of cool, especially when it comes to Chuck, but this bears some looking into, and I thought there was no better opportunity than while discussing Chuck Versus The Bullet Train. Oh, and since I brought it up this is what Kev had to say:
In general, I think there’s a difference between accepting the flaws of the show (which I try to do) and defending them (which I can’t do). Your defense that “the mythology has always been poor” is true – but it’s not a strong defence [sic]. And once you’re 5 seasons in, cracks build upon cracks and the mental gymnastics required to hold things up becomes harder.
The quick reply, I think there is a distinction to be made between the strengths and weaknesses of the show and actual flaws and who sees what as which. This is also something to consider about how we watch the show. And if I may briefly quibble with Kev (in the friendly traditional forensic manner) you’ve enclosed in quotes something I did not say, nit-picky grammar, I know, 😉 and mischaracterized my point, my fault I suppose since I didn’t clarify sufficiently, but my point was that what you call lapses (and in some cases I agree) and what I call an intentional decision not to bog the show down in unnecessary ways has been a part of the show since it’s beginning, and what has been forgiven in the past, and has been present throughout the series tells me that it is more about the paths TPTB have taken not returning enough “cool” to some of the fans for the rule of cool to apply anymore than any decline in quality. And that’s fine, for what it is, enjoyment is a personal emotional response, but if you want to be an honest critic you need to recognize your own biases. Calling strikes in the 9th inning that were balls in the first isn’t fair in my opinion. Your disagreement and contention that it’s a cumulative thing (no quotes) is noted.
To me one of Chuck’s great strengths is its broad multi-genre appeal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it, but it comes at a cost. For example, in Chuck the actors need to move between comedy and drama, sometimes the broader sillier comedic characterization or performance clashes with the dramatic appeal others like, so in any given episode the exact thing one fan likes will be the thing that annoys another. That’s just sort of a caveat for the rest of the discussion. It applies a lot. With each of the strengths that someone likes, the broadly outlined and intentionally ambiguous mythology allowing us to use our imaginations and allowing the show to stay nimble and move in unexpected directions, comes an inherent danger, the tendency of viewers to fill in a more detailed mythology that then may conflict, violently, with some future story or where the relationship between the old and new mythology becomes strained beyond the return for redefining the context of what we’ve seen in the past. Some fans will see something as a strength, others as a flaw.
Chuck Versus The Bullet Train, to me was the perfect time to examine this, before the finale. Just about any scene you want to point to starts with some TV trope or overused plot device. But here’s the funny thing. I don’t think that’s an accident.
Chuck is written by TV nerds for TV nerds, and they expect, even want us to pick up on the homages, references, the meta-humor, and the irony that infuses all of their uses of these conventions. While honoring them, for all the great fun they brought us, they also ever so subtly mock them for the obvious contrivances that detail obsessed nerds see them as. But they also deliver the awesome, and in doing so invite us to recover that innocence and that joy of experiencing the awesome for the first time. We may be watching Die Hard or Memento again via Chuck, but Chuck delivers on the emotional impact, even on re-watch, and that feeling is real every time. Not many of us get a second chance at virginity.
On the bullet train, Sarah and Casey, freed from their coffins pursue the “big bad” (qfe). Everything seems to go easier with the intersect, and thank goodness a real spy has it now. Sarah, the consummate professional, understands the potential and the proper use of the intersect. It isn’t for partying in Vail or thwarting convenience store holdups, it’s for missions, critical missions, important missions, like rescuing Chuck. There is no more important mission.
Bullet trains have crawl spaces and large vents, and Sarah apparently insisted Chuck’s wedding ring include something special, but Sarah is a show-me kind of girl, so instead of an engraving, it’s something from the heart. A custom lock picking feature. Considering their relationship, it seems oddly appropriate that “custom” wedding rings weren’t ready and twist ties had to suffice. Oh, but those rings are still special.
Don’t ever take Sarah Walker’s man away from her. This is reinforced in more ways than one. The baddies get an A** whooping with a capital A for doing so, and Chuck get’s a … OK, no better way to say it, a simultaneously slightly disturbing yet oddly satisfying lap dance from his wife. Oh, and for the record, I think TPTB played out the consequences of this scene perfectly. Those consequences being #sexytimes. After initially dispatching the bad guy of course. All made easier by the intersect.
Chuck and Sarah are ready to move on, no matter how awesome the intersect is. But Casey is vulnerable in a way he has never been before. The characters, who they are, and who they’ve become, that story drives the plot, and the characters and their lives take center stage. Who are you John Casey? Faced with an impossible decision, your team-family or your blood-family what do you do?
Well apparently, as best you can, you let them know that while you’d shoot them if you had to, you want them to help you avoid that scenario. Casey’s betrayal is played perfectly. Totally believable, totally acceptable in the world our heroes live. Protect the ones you love. When in conflict, protect those who can’t protect themselves first.
The team is together, and all Casey needs is to know he has time and his team on his side. Loyalty was never the question, timing and opportunity was. But we also see the change in priorities in the aftermath. No blame is assigned, no recriminations, but each member of the team now concentrates on their priorities, understanding they don’t always match, realizing the others will help in any way they can, but that each member needs to protect their own first. There is a new entry in “God – country – duty – Corps”.
As most of you know the plot holds far less interest to me than the characters and the story. To me it is largely there to move from situation to situation where they can create a series of scenes that connect the audience emotionally to the characters and their story. When the plot and the story can connect, it’s magic, but not always happy magic. I like dramatic magic too.
So through a dramatic event we find that the tantalizingly close future is further than we thought. Sarah has downloaded a toxic intersect, she can’t control the flashes, and it could kill her. The time she thought she had doesn’t exist, it’s already run out. The explanation for the difference between Sarah and Morgan’s rate of deterioration is both simple and elegant, and well established from the Morgansect arc.
Casey has reconnected with his daughter, but it has made her a target and him a potential traitor. Sometimes character growth has a downside for the happily ever after, and considering the world they live in, kudos to TPTB (who made that world) for not ignoring that.
You don’t get out unscathed. This world will extract it’s price somehow before it is all over.
The intersect, and it’s legend is spreading. In no small part thanks to Morgan. But we’ve known this for some time. As early as the first season “The Intersect” was a widely known phenomenon amongst the top spies. By the second season it was actively sought and there were attempts to reproduce it by rivals. By the beginning of the third season, it was established, even if imperfect technology. By the end of the third season, it’d been hacked and reproduced. By the fourth season it had become government policy to deploy a beta version, complete with a more brain friendly architecture, courtesy of one Ellie Bartowski-Woodcomb, and tools for suppression and/or removal, and by the 5th season it is being bootlegged.
Seems about right for new technology.
But that’s just the technology side. We’ve seen before that the intersect offers something more. While I hesitate to call it a shortcut, the original version clearly wasn’t, it offers something very tempting and seductive. Call it the easy path, the dark side, it tempts and sways those who do, or could poses it. Is it the one ring, the dark side, or is it the sword of truth? Is it conceived by and created for evil, is it an ill-conceived shortcut, or is it something meant for “the one” to wield?
At this point my money’s on one of the first two. In a pivot that started with Chuck Versus Bo it seems that the last “big bad” will in fact be the intersect, the Bartowski family’s own Frankenstein, or ring of power. I now believe Chuck’s last heroic act is likely to be destroying the intersect. Quinn’s role, I think, is more that of Golum than Sauron. The intersect itself being unleashed on the world may be the biggest bad guy we get.
For now Sarah has the intersect, and Sarah won’t stay in the car. Did we ever think she would, any more than Chuck would? Once again we are treated to a glimpse of what it is that unites our heroes. And of how it can go wrong. Who these people are, the world they inhabit, the world they seek to escape, that is the source of the drama. It is a remarkably tragic and moving scene, to see both Chuck and Sarah watching the future that was so close torn from them, the longing and despair is palpable.
And it rests on the premise that a super-spy can be instantly disabled by a tranq in a moment of bravado.
In a way, somewhat appropriately, the Chuck crew creates memories and inserts them into the audience. They do this visually with the way the scenes are shot and they use music to heighten the emotional impact, and the ever-present musical montage helps to inform the audience what the characters are feeling, not just what they are saying in dialog or doing on the screen. When we think back on our lives or experiences we don’t see a continuous narrative flow, we see scenes and events, experience emotions and remember songs, places and what it felt like to be there, doing what you were doing. And if you think back on previous seasons or episodes of Chuck you likely see it the same way. It is a brilliant device, one I don’t think I can recall experiencing before. For all I know it isn’t even intentional, just a byproduct of the chemistry and the way they shoot, but it is why I think people will remember and re-watch Chuck long after other shows fade to obscurity. Does Chuck sometimes have problems with some shaky plots? Of course. I still think American Hero is a terrible episode largely because, while I eventually saw what they were trying to do, it was so poorly plotted and presented that it seemed like they were trying to tell us that Shaw had suddenly become the leading man and deserved the happy life with Sarah and she with him. Shaw was the true hero and Chuck would never measure up. The only way for Chuck and Sarah to be together was for Shaw, the self-sacrificing hero, to gracefully bow out, as the bigger man he was. So yes, it can go wrong and skew your ability to see the larger story. But it has it’s strengths when it works, as noted above, if you allow it.
Why didn’t Sarah just close her eyes? Well, they did present a premise, that once she started flashing she couldn’t control her body if the intersect kept flashing, and that what Quinn had was an intersect stimulant. A thin premise, but a premise nonetheless. But why not for the first flash? Well the bad guy was explaining for our benefit, not hers, so Sarah seems to hold the stupid stick, agreed, but an exposition weakness, not a character one, and something that should be familiar to fanboy-nerds. The bad guy always reveals his devious plot. Also I think it helps to ask what would addressing those complaints cost? What would having Sarah immobilized with her eyes taped open have cost that scene? First of all it violates Chuck’s third law, Sarah can not be made to look ugly, and taping open her eyes is at the very least unattractive. Second, we’ve seen Sarah tied to a chair and beaten a few times recently, but this time, with her life being ripped away while suffering agonizing pain, is clearly the worst and that has to be shown physically with her reaction. You lose the impact of the scene if she can’t react. For Yvonne, selling a scene means using her face and letting the emotion pour out.
It is the reverse of the rule of cool. When details and plot drag you down and destroy the impact, especially the emotional impact that a show like Chuck is built on, is it worth the cost? Isn’t the point, the story, worth it? It’s a personal decision, but I like to think they can take us to amazing places, both highs and lows, if we let them.
It’s for us to decide, on our own. But a bit of respect and deference among the fandom couldn’t hurt.
So the plot has holes and the stupid stick gets passed around on occasion, these are things that are largely the writers fault, I agree. The audience however, particularly the fans, also have a responsibility. Let them tell their story. Don’t force your preconceptions or desires or expectations into the story they are telling a priori. Watch, and then decide if it fulfills your desires, meets or exceeds your expectations or gives you something delightful or unexpected. If it does, great, go from there. If it doesn’t, fine, its a weekly contract. That’s just my personal take on how to go with the Chuck flow, others may not see it that way. But we have occasional flare-ups in the fandom with both the conflicting visions of what constitutes Chuck’s strengths and weaknesses, and when fans from the myriad factions start to attach objective quality or moral standing to their preferences for the show or it’s direction. OK, I think their loss, but a personal decision, but sometimes they are preventing both themselves and others from being able to enjoy the story, and not even intentionally, but just from their perspective that the backstory is as they’ve imagined or filled in, regardless of how sparse the canon is. So here is where the fan responsibility comes in, and points to what I’ve always thought one of my roles as a blogger was.
Don’t create problems where they don’t exist.
We do this constantly. I’ll give a few examples, from memory, so I’m not going after anyone personally if I use a pet theory or peeve as an example. As has become my habit, apologies in advance. I’m guessing this is where I get accused of defending the show’s flaws or weaknesses, and it’s probably partly my fault, but what I see myself doing is correcting misconceptions.
Let’s take the infamous Red Test as the first example. I recall a lot of discussion of how it destroyed Sarah’s timeline because she’d been a spy longer than 5 years, then when CAT Squad came out it was destroyed again because suddenly she wasn’t Bryce’s partner and she been a spy for two years before her Red Test. Contained in both those complaints is an assumption about the Red Test, that it’s a universal spy entrance exam. That assumption is the problem, not canon. The assumption doesn’t even survive the Red Test’s conceptual introduction. Sarah is shocked when Shaw tells her that Chuck is being given a Red Test as his final exam. If it is universal, where is the shock coming from, and why would Shaw need to keep it secret? She’d know it was coming, wouldn’t she? But Chuck isn’t a regular spy, he’s being fast tracked for the leader of an autonomous team. His training isn’t the normal path, it was decided upon by Shaw and Beckman. In the next episode we’re filled in on Sarah’s red test, and the concept is fleshed out. Take in to consideration the world Chuck’s spy world pays homage to, and subtly mocks. Casey is a public menace without a license to kill. Bond anyone? This is the elite of the spy world, trained assassins. Any good soldier or policeman can fire a weapon to defend themselves or others, or even snipe at an opponent who is a combatant in a war. It is a very different thing to kill on the basis of nothing more than an order to pull the trigger on someone you know nothing about, other than someone wants them to die and you are the weapon of choice. The Red Test isn’t the spy entrance exam, it’s the 00 entrance exam. If they’re going to give you a license to kill they want to make sure you’ll do so when ordered. In cold blood. It has the added benefit of sending a message to potential traitors and of eliminating the need to try to prosecute someone with government secrets as part of the evidence.
With one assumption you create problems with what is on the screen and canon, with the other it all makes sense. This is how I think you judge TPTB intent. Now granted, some of these skate pretty close to the edge and are not without basis called retcon, but I think the viewer needs to be willing remove their assumptions from show canon and to accept at some level the premise TPTB present before decrying the sloppy production and mythology. In any case you aren’t required to like it, but I think to be a fair critic you have to at least attempt to accept the premises TPTB lay out.
I’m not trying to defend problems, I’m trying to clarify what I see as the intent. I’m not trying to tell anyone they should or shouldn’t enjoy the show, I’m showing how I do. I’m not saying there aren’t problems if you are looking for a tightly plotted show with a detailed mythology, I’m just saying I don’t think that’s where they put their emphasis, and so I think it’s easier to enjoy when we don’t either. I look for the emotional connection and the characters and their journeys because that’s where I think TPTB put their efforts, and where I think the big payoff is to be found. I understand that’s my Chuck and my take, and it won’t be universal, but while the fandom is still alive and Chuck has an episode left to air I wanted to share my love for the show and what it delivers with the greatest fans in the world. So in parting I’ll just say this.
Let them tell their story.
Don’t create problems where they don’t exist.
Be awesome to each other.
Have Faith 😉 that the journey and the destination are both worth the wait.