Apart from this [probably] being our longest title, it’s probably also our toughest one. 6 episodes, all from the highly volatile, endlessly contestable season 3:
Chuck Versus the Final Exam
Chuck Versus the American Hero
Chuck Versus the Other Guy
Chuck Versus the Honeymooners
Chuck Versus the Role Models
Chuck Versus the Tooth
So, you and I, we have a choice: take the red pill (and read on) or take the blue pill (and pass on the review this week). The choice is yours, after the jump.
I made no secret about how I felt about season 3. I hated it when it was happening, I hated Shaw and I blame him for all the world’s problems (really, just google #IBlameShaw), and most of all I hated what our favorite characters have become throughout the season. I hated the choices they’ve made, the people they’ve become and I struggled mightily in trying to forgive and understand them. But I also got it. Or rather, with some therapy—lots of therapy (or as I call it ChuckThisBlog) I’ve come to understand, if not accept the premise of it. So in this starter post*, I’ll try to give you the same wisdom I’ve been given, provide I don’t fall down the rabbit hole of despair and contempt, like a nerdy Alice in CHUCKLand and regress. That wouldn’t be pretty, so let’s all hope for the best. I’ve come a long way from those days of despair, and hopefully some things have changed for you guys as well. Thankfully as these are arcs, with an eye towards the full story and the full journey, there needn’t be rehashing of minutia so it should be more tolerable if not more succinct (though I wouldn’t put it past Ernie to get wordy!).
So, we begin with Final Exam. Final Exam is one of those oh so lovely Kobayashi Maru situations. Kill or be expelled. I’ll save the *headdesk* for something bigger, but at its core, the episode’s message is simple: choice. They’re not only building towards Chuck having to make the ultimate decision (bang! Bang! Shaw), but also to reclaim the girl he gave up. That’s right, gave up.
Sarah: “Looks like you’re going to get everything you’ve always wanted.”
Chuck made the worst decision of his life in Prague (more on that later) and he’s paying for that choice. Or rather Sarah’s paying for that choice–uh oh there goes that dark side coming to get me, I must fight it! But Chuck did make his choice. Now he’s having to make another one: undo what he’s done and get his career and his life back on track. That tends to happen when one hits rock bottom, and Chuck’s butt hit beneath the pavement into the earth’s core. So he goes into the mission: woo the girl and ace the test. But there’s one problem, he can’t kill–because he’s still Chuck after all–though Sarah thinks otherwise. Still sizzling shrimp, “Private Eyes” and “In My Sleep” were nice touches.
What surprised me most of all in rewatch, was how much Sarah believed she was no longer whom Chuck wanted. She’s not unaffected, but she really did think he’s changed and that he no longer wanted her. She’s been there before (with her father) so she knows better than most the pain of cutting ties. It’s up to Chuck to convince her otherwise, which he does, in American Hero.
It’s hard to think about that episode without remembering how I felt when it was shown live. Specifically this:
There are times when the brilliance of this team just amazes me. Just amazing. We have now gone full circle…the journey has been hard and bumpy, we have taken some unnecessary turns if I may say so…but boy this feels good. It feels good because I get it. It feels good because they got it. Chuck loves Sarah. That’s it. They belong together, they’ve had misunderstandings, they’ve had challenges but in the end love prevails. Love triumphs. What Sarah felt and feels for Chuck overcame even her doubts, even her fears. Because SHE LOVES HIM. She’s leaving Burbank, leaving DC and she’s going to Mexico. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that is the case… That’s love. I’ve talked all week about the NEED for her to accept Chuck as a killer, she gave it to me. She accepts him as is, because they FINALLY HAD THAT ONE IMPORTANT CONVERSATION!…This conversation has been a long time coming. So long, but it was so worth it. Because even though she didn’t say much in the end it’s obvious to me that the people they were has returned, for the better in Chuck’s case (still waiting to see it in Sarah’s case frankly).. Because their priorities are set, their feelings exposed. Finally.
American Hero was the first episode that gave me my faith back. (Side note: when I grow up I want to be a secretary, complete with bun working for General Beckman). It gave me proof that the characters that I loved were coming back. More importantly, it tied together what was a tough journey into the bottom:
Chuck: “I know you think I’m not that same guy you met the first day at the Buy More and you’re right. That guy in the buy more hated himself. For not knowing what he wanted to do and how he wanted to spend his life. Finally now I know. I want to be a spy, and I want to be with you.”
It goes back to choices again. Chuck made the wrong choice in Prague but right or wrong it was an important step for him. Think back to Ring: when asked what he wanted to do with his life, his answer was a tepid: “dance with my date.” Beyond that, he maybe wanted to travel. The Chuck that needed to choose a font for his 5-year plan still hasn’t progressed beyond the question. He doesn’t know what he wants to be; he doesn’t know himself enough to know who to be. He’s still unwilling to fight, really fight for what he wants: her. And so he was seduced. He was seduced by the glamour, the façade of spying and he made the wrong choice. Beyond that he’s changed as a person too, more overtly heroic, less selfish. Sarah has always had to struggle between balancing the fate of the world versus Chuck but Chuck’s never really had to make that decision because she’s always had to, so it’s his turn.
So throughout the “dark” season, we saw Chuck live with his choice [in Prague]. He learned of the allure of the game, its dangers. He became someone else, someone he himself and everyone around him hated but in doing so, he learned finally what he wanted, who he wanted to be. Did he have to hit rock bottom to know who he is? Perhaps not but they say challenges are what shapes us, and Chuck was certainly challenged. He came out stronger for it; they came out stronger for it. That path has led Chuck to a fork in the road, a decision; this time the right one.
Ellie illustrated it best in Tic Tac: “I know, I know. But dreams change. And if there’s one thing I know is I want to be with Devon. It may require some sacrifice for us but one thing I know, he’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
How could Chuck do anything else? Yes, he still needed to prove to Sarah–for actions speak louder than words–that he was still the same man, her Chuck, and so he will/did. Even if it meant putting his own life at risk to save someone she cares about, he’s Chuck Bartowski and he’d do it for her. And when all else failed, Chuck Bartowski pleaded his case with perhaps one of the finest and sweetest scenes in all of Chuck:
Sarah, helpless, full of love, cannot refuse. Love always wins out in the end.
As an aside in Pink Slip when Sarah was asking Chuck to run away with her the song that was playing was, “Wait it Out” by Imogene Heap. Wait it out, and Sarah’s “run away with me.” Fast forward to American Hero and “Down River,” Chuck asks her to run away with him, “go don’t stop.” Full circle and right where we belong.
Other Guy: Kobayashi Maru rears its ugly head once more. Other Guy has less to do with the journey of the season, as it is the consequences of it. We learned of course that Sarah killed Eve Shaw, and Shaw is out for revenge. Mostly I was made into a big ball of fluff with all the kissing and the promises of them finally being together that I barely remember what happened within the episode. I kid, but not by much so I send this over to Ernie.
~ Ernie ~
While wishing to avoid the rabbit hole (that’s another post that still may happen) it is sometimes helpful to peer over the edge, especially since the themes of the season and the choices our heroes made back then will be revisited, and hopefully resolved. In deference to Faith and others who still struggle with the start of the season I’ll be brief. Prague was the first Kobayashi Maru, and while I’d agree that Chuck is coming to the conclusion that it was the worst decision in his life, both he and Sarah are lucky he made it, because as we will finally see in Honeymooners these two crap communicators just might get the life that suits them both because of it.
Chuck needed to prove himself to himself, and he wanted to get out of Burbank, out of the comfort zone he’d built for himself where after a catastrophic blow to his self-confidence and his future plans he became the unchallenged big fish in the small pond. Nothing tested Chuck, or pushed him, or gave him a goal or a feeling that he mattered, until the intersect, and Sarah Walker came into his life.
Sarah needed to slow down and see that the world had more to offer than the spy life and the abstract “greater good” she served. The greater good was people. Real people with real lives and friends and families they loved and cherished. A mission was just a mission, but the people she protected became real to Sarah, and the mission took on meaning. In learning that Sarah realized that a life without something to lose isn’t a life worth living, and so she needs to stay in Burbank and learn how to live life other than for the next mission.
While they are pulled towards each other, each as the others guide in the strange new world they’ve entered, their trajectories almost converge, but then lead them on different paths for a while. They each need to discover things about themselves and each other before their paths cross again. And here is where their paths finally cross again.
One last word about the season opener, and it also includes the last arc. We were fooled in that last arc. They kept telling us there was time, but our heroes were on a ticking time bomb, just like in Hard Salami, and just like in Hard Salami it would lead to some rash decisions, and some repercussions.
When Sarah sauntered into Buy More with an Obama Guava for Chuck, perhaps in a good mood after beating the 49B and admitting to herself she was in love, we thought there was time. Chuck knew better. It was only a matter of time till Fulcrum got their intersect, and he was obsolete. It’s only a matter of time till the bunker becomes a better option.
When Chuck and Sarah woke in each others’ embrace in a Barstow hotel room, we thought there was time. Time for them to come to an understanding, time to plan, or to talk, but even then the outside world was closing in on them.
When the intersect was out of Chuck’s head, and when he and Sarah stood in the courtyard, reveling in what was real, even they thought there was now time. But she was still a spy, and his handler, and when he turned down the offer to enter Sarah’s world, the clock was already ticking.
The government wanted their intersect because even though Fulcrum was defeated, there was a new bigger threat on the horizon, the Ring (just go with the premise that they were far scarier). Sarah was off to the next mission, and she’d run out of time. Time she needed to come to grips with how Chuck had changed her, and how she’d changed Chuck. In those last arcs we’d seen Chuck break away from Sarah’s control more and more. He wasn’t the same nerd who simultaneously loved, feared, and sought her approval constantly. He was a man with his own dreams, which included her, granted, but with a desire to make a life on his own terms.
So they ran out of time. We thought there was time at the second wedding, but larger forces were already moving the great game forward, and both our heroes were caught up in it again. There just wasn’t time.
Sarah never got to tell Chuck what she wanted, Chuck needed to be the guy she told him he could be, and so re-intersected Chuck was whisked off to spy school, with Sarah making a rash decision, take what she wants because she’s about to lose everything, just like in front of the bomb in Hard Salami, or the helipad in Marlin.
In Prague time catches up with them. When they come back together in Pink Slip and Three Words, when there was time, feelings were too raw, wounds too fresh. Now they are ready to talk, but once again they’re running out of time.
We start Chuck Versus The Final Exam with a new ticking clock. Chuck will be off to Rome, Sarah and Shaw off to DC, as soon as Chuck proves his mettle. But Chuck, seeing the end of his time with Sarah, and having tasted the spy life firsthand, is starting to have his doubts. Yes, it’s nastier than he thought when he was just Sarah’s asset. Burning assets and lying to people you care about, preparing to leave them behind, or seeing there can be no future with that sweet girl who seems perfect for you, that starts to wear on you. And when the compensation, seeing the world, means that you never even get off the plane on that trip to Paris, that the mission always comes first, that abstract “greater good” seems a bit hollow. It mattered more when he could share it with his team, but his team is gone and being a spy no longer fills the hole in his life where he used to have a family and friends like he thought it would.
For Sarah, that greater good is gone. She’s losing it all. She’s seen her relationship with Chuck’s family, and with Chuck waste away before her eyes, and she’s left with the one thing she thought she could make real, Shaw. Perhaps she thought she’d find a bit of normal in her world, maybe it was her second chance at finding love and something worth having in her life. He seems perfect. She doesn’t have to lie to him, he already knows all her secrets, she doesn’t have to explain to him the way things are, or wory about how he sees her when she has to lie or kill or manipulate a mark. But its different than with Chuck, all he does is remind her she’s a spy.
Chuck and Sarah finally are ready to talk, but to them it seems time has already run out. They’ve made their choices. So it is with a sense of nostalgia, and comfort in each others presence, that Sarah gives Chuck his mission, and tips the hour-glass on their time together.
But a few things have changed for our heroes. Chuck has decided that he loves Sarah and always will, no matter the future or his choice to be a spy, not loving her isn’t an option. Sarah has admitted to herself that she loves Chuck, and no matter how much his heartbreaking refusal to run away hurts, still, she understands why he did it. She also understands that nothing will ever replace what she had with Chuck, however limited and fleeting that was.
It is an amazing scene, the stake-date. Suddenly a season of confusion falls into place. We see why Sarah pulled away from Chuck and kept Shaw constantly by her side. She has no resistance when it comes to Chuck, and she doesn’t even try to deny it when it’s just the two of them. We see Chuck, confident in his worth and in Sarah’s genuine feelings for him, and his remorse for making the tough call that he still seems to think might work out for both of them, and we see Sarah acknowledging openly to Chuck that only he could break her heart the way he did, but that she still loved him in a way nobody else could ever match.
This is not over.
But for both Chuck and Sarah, it’s Kobayashi Maru, Part 2.
Don’t let them Change you. That was Jill’s cautionary tale from that final arc of season 2. She’d taken the easy path. When Fulcrum gave her everything, they could take it away, and that changed her. The government is about to offer Chuck everything he’s ever wanted, except Sarah, though in one final heart-wrenching twist, Shaw even manages to convince Sarah to dangle that possibility as the final carrot. Wealth, travel, excitement, and a sense of worth, a feeling that you matter, maybe even the girl. And all you have to do is compromise everything you believe in, and kill a man in cold blood.
The conflict in Chuck Versus The Final Exam worked for me, even if the resolution was a bit forced. You felt the despair of both our heroes, the sense that to move on they needed to destroy something of themselves, and something precious to the love of their life. Chuck needed to become a cold-blooded killer, and Sarah had to betray Chuck finally and completely. Don’t let them change you. Though both thought themselves frauds, Chuck for not passing his test, Sarah for ordering Chuck to kill someone, all the while telling knowing she never wanted him to face that choice, they both stayed true as much as they could. Chuck decided he wasn’t like the Ring or the CIA agents who killed on orders and never would be, indecision or hesitation when faced with a self-defense situation doesn’t change that, and Sarah, well she tried to take herself out of the equation. “You’ll be Chuck, and there’s nothing wrong with that”.
Chuck is a spy
You practically hear Sarah’s heart-break as she says those words. Suddenly, Chuck is the same as Shaw, Bryce, Cole, her. Suddenly, he’s just as compromised, as changed, as any of them, and any thought that she’d saved him, protected him, is gone. She burned him. She was the government’s weapon, the one thing that could destroy the man she loved, and she let it happen.
Do you still love him Sarah? Not anymore, she tells herself, because what she did to him can’t happen in a world where she loves him. She can’t possibly love a man and do what she did to Chuck. More to the point, she can’t be worthy of love after doing that. See Joe’s marvelous post Saving Agent Walker for a contemporaneous take.
American Hero was a tough one for me. After the stake-date epiphanies, I wanted to see how differently the drama would play out, but instead that growth seemed to be tossed on the bonfire of CRM for the sake of delaying, for one more week, any resolution to the WT/WT. After Sarah’s open admissions to the special place Chuck held in her heart I hoped for a better reaction. At least a little sense of remorse displayed, even if not to Chuck. I’d accept the ripping off the band-aid aspect of her anger at Chuck. I just wanted her to be a little more self-aware. Still love is rarely rational, and in a sense Chuck has left Sarah all over again. True, she put him in another impossible Kobayashi Maru situation, but once again he seems to have failed to be the man she wanted, or needed him to be.
But one of the things I’ve learned, and learned to love about our heroes is that self-awareness and rational thought rarely enter the equation when it comes to their love story.
Still, it was frustrating to see Sarah pull back from that openness she’d finally found. It was maddening to see Chuck include Sarah in the category of people who he couldn’t share the truth with and it was beyond tired to see Shaw pushed forward as the hero Chuck should be and who Sarah loved. We should have been past that after what we saw in Final Exam.
Eventually though something clicked for me. Where others have always given Sarah orders, or decided her fate, or their own, absent any consideration of how it would affect her, Chuck has always given Sarah choices, the opportunity to be who she wants and decide her future.
Chuck rescued Shaw so Sarah would have a choice. Chuck didn’t go with Sarah in Prague so Sarah would have a choice. Chuck didn’t tell Sarah about Casey and his red test so Sarah would have a choice. Chuck constantly took himself out of the equation, letting Sarah choose the life she wanted. Finally, Chuck put it out there, choose me, or don’t. But the one thing Chuck never did was tell Sarah who to be.
I’ll peek over the edge of the rabbit hole for a second to observe that Sarah seems to have sought external validation for a lot of her life. For a time Chuck provided that. When it seemed to a lot of us that Sarah was lost, and Chuck had abandoned her, I think what we really saw was that Sarah was learning that what she got from Chuck wasn’t the same thing she’d come to depend on from others. It was more of a challenge. Be yourself, and accept that I love you for who you are. Accept that who you are is someone worthy of love. For too long both Chuck and Sarah have sought to remake themselves to fit into each others world, thinking they had to be someone else to be with each other. In the end they just had to decide to be together.
Chuck feels like he has the chance to make right the worst decision of his life. Sarah understood what this life did to people. It breaks trust. Love becomes impossible, or a liability. Sarah is the most important thing in the world to Chuck. The greater good is an abstraction without Sarah. being a hero is nothing if Sarah sees him as just another spy.
The spy life will never allow them the time and space they need to be together, really together, so Chuck makes what he sees as the only rational decision available. Get out, just like Sarah said. But time is not on their side. Chuck now sees the cost of being a spy, and how it drives them apart, and would continue to do so, so he makes the best decision of his life. He wants to be with Sarah. The rest is details, but for both of them the baggage and the pain they’ve shared seems to come from the spy life, so Chuck offers, and Sarah accepts that this time they will run, together.
But time is not on their side, and neither is Shaw.
In an ending that echoes Chuck Versus The Ex to me, Sarah is off the grid and off with Shaw, out of contact, for what could be that dreaded “one last mission.”
Finally, after failing to kill Shaw, the Ring has decided to turn him, and once again we see the cost of love in the spy world.
An assignment Sarah just talked about at the end of Final Exam, her red test and the worst day of her life (till Chuck’s red test) cost Sarah her innocence, and Shaw his wife. We don’t know if Eve Shaw had turned, or if the CIA simply thought she did, or if the Ring used the CIA and Sarah to get rid of a troublesome double agent, but Sarah was the weapon they used, and it seems that’s all that matters to Shaw.
Chuck’s timely arrival and a fortuitous reflection on a monitor manage to save Sarah, for now. As Sarah sees Shaw advance on her, gun still raised, pointed at her, she knows something is wrong, something is off. And then Shaw lowers his gun, and explains. And lies. They used you Sarah, it wasn’t your fault. And Sarah wants to believe that she can be forgiven for taking the woman he loved from Shaw. Shaw is happy to let her believe it, for now. Chuck just sees the woman he loves in danger, and as usual responds appropriately. What girl doesn’t appreciate air support and a tank.
While we may know that Chuck and Sarah have made that fateful decision to be together, they are having a hard time letting each other know. Even for crap communicators like them the precious looks and whimsical makeups aren’t getting the point across.
Sarah is ready to run with Chuck, but it’s a bit tough to do when your boyfriend (who just forgave you for killing his wife) is bent on finding those responsible for his wife’s death and wants your help for that “one last mission.” I’m not so sure Sarah doesn’t feel she owes Shaw that much, given she pulled the trigger.
Chuck, he sees a man who must be in turmoil and a woman, his woman though he doesn’t know it yet, still in danger, and nobody is listening to him. Sarah meanwhile has seen that Chuck is indeed the man she grew to love, and more. He is the man she needs him to be, the one who can save her.
As in the start of the season we see Chuck take it badly. Whiskey now takes the place of the cheese-balls. But this time around he remembers to ask the important questions, eventually.
Sarah finally said yes, and that’s all it took. Sarah finally saw that her silence was costing them both the love and the life they yearned for, so when Chuck asked, she said yes.
Unfortunately there’s the issue of that “one last mission” that keeps cropping up before they can run away together. I don’t know if Sarah is looking for closure with Shaw, that she feels she can’t leave him with the debt she owes him without helping him get his closure by taking down the Ring, but she is unfortunately drawn back into his evil plan for revenge.
So Sarah finds herself back in Paris, where it all started, about to repay a debt to a man she once thought she could possibly love, or at least trust. And now the real question is brought to the front. Why does Sarah deserve the happy ending? Shaw also had love and a family, and she took it from him. Why does Sarah deserve Chuck after all the pain she’s inflicted, first as a career criminal by the time she was 10, then as an assasin for the CIA. Why does Sarah get the happy ending that will elude Shaw. Simple, Chuck shows up.
Chuck is in no small part the man Sarah helped him be, and so Chuck saves Sarah because Sarah saved Chuck from an aimless meaningless life, absent goals, ambition, or someone to share it with. Sarah’s road to redemption has always been her selfless love for Chuck and her willingness to do anything she could to give him the life she knows he deserves. And so on a bridge in Paris Chuck repays his debt to Sarah and saves her by selflessly giving up a small piece of himself and being who Sarah needs at that moment.
In a hotel room in Paris, Sarah awakes to her new life, and Chuck is there waiting for her.
Originally written as a series finale, Chuck Versus The Other Guy was the episode that would wrap it all up and give us closure. Until it wasn’t. We can argue over whether it would have been enough, the yes and that hotel room in Paris, but luckily, we don’t have to.
~ Faith ~
Ernie and I will probably never agree when it comes to Shaw. While he tends to see it as Sarah believing that she’s found something (something to make real), I tend to see it as Sarah hiding. Shaw wasn’t ever a chance at finding love, it was a chance to continue being who she’s been throughout her life: unaffected, unhurt, unloved. A spy. She said it herself, “it’s different, than with you.” Shaw was a friend, a confidant, maybe a lover but he would never get close enough to really hurt her, or love her or really make a difference in her life the way Chuck did and ever could. The way her Dad did. Shaw was like Bryce, someone she had a complicated relationship with that only touched the surface. Someone who allowed her to live half a life, and no more. In the end Shaw and Sarah are the same detached chameleons and had she chosen him over Chuck, she would have found herself bitter, confused and approaching old age having nothing to cherish or dream about. Much less love.
Though we do agree that Other Guy’s DYLM (Do You Love Me) scene is one of Chuck’s more important milestones. It’s amazing to think that though we’ve known it all this time, it wasn’t until that moment, 48 episodes later that it became undeniably clear: Sarah loves Chuck. No backsies, no evasions, just “Yes.”
There was a certain amount of idealism and naiveté in their relationship before this, so maybe they weren’t ready. They were two people playing at love, rather than living it. It was fun to sit side by side at the fountain and dream, but only until reality intervened. It was fun to dream about running away together, being intersect-less but what of life after the fact? The consequences? What they’ve accomplished in 13-hitting-bottom episodes were more than just growth, it was strength. The strength to face each other, without evasions, without lies.
Chuck: Sarah, do you love me?
A far cry from all of Chuck’s cute but indirect, “go out on a date,” “go on vacation with me,” “I will get this thing out of my head and I will live the life that I want with the girl that I love.” The latter of which marked its own milestone, but an incomplete one.
A far cry from Sarah’s non-answer to “but that’s just a lie, we will never really be together;” evasive answer to “our thing, under the under cover thing, is this ever going to happen?” And incomplete “Chuck, I don’t want to save the world, I want…”
For Chuck and Sarah it was easier to dream they were loved rather than ask the right question. It wasn’t until that moment, when they braved heartbreak could they ever really be together. No covers, no lies.
Now the question becomes, what of the life after happily ever after?
~ Ernie ~
We will never agree on Shaw, perhaps that is true, but to clarify, in the words of a wise poster on ChuckThisBlog, Sarah is pretty good at lying to herself, and I was only trying to highlight that.
ATCDave has graciously offered to take up part of the burden of this super-sized-arc, so now that Faith has cracked the whip and got me moving (thanks Faith!) I’ll leave it to Dave to see where that new dawn on that new day takes our heroes.