Chuck Fans vs. Season 3
I thought I’d start the Readers’ Digest Review this week a little differently. You see, for almost three years now we’ve been shying away from (and almost discouraging) discussion about Season 3, and that’s where I’d like to begin. There was a good reason for shying away: we didn’t like it. We didn’t like The Ring (not as much fun as Fulcrum), Daniel Shaw (nowhere near as charming as Bryce Larkin), we didn’t exactly like the Intersect 2.0 (the writers made it too easy for Chuck to do anything he needed to do) and it was dark – very dark, starting with the assassination of Emmett Milbarge. There were all sorts of technical reasons too, ranging from the pacing to the choice of separating the leads, the use of Jeffster, stuff we could (and did) argue about endlessly. And when you get right down to it, we weren’t exactly sure about Chuck and Sarah any more either.
Huh? What’s that you say? We did not like Chuck and Sarah???
You must think I’ve gone insane (and that would be a good reason for me to shy away from the topic).
I mentioned (and in my last post kept at it until your eyes bled) that everything changed at the end of Season 2. But nothing changed so much as Chuck and Sarah. He went from being a simple nerd wanting a simple, normal life to being a novice James Bond, wanting to do “something really important” with his life. Those aren’t scare quotes: that’s what he said. Then we watched Chuck go from Spy In Training to a bum, and we watched him burn an asset that was exactly like himself, sending a (relatively) nice guy to exactly the fate from which he had begged to be saved. After that, we watched him lie. And lie again. Then he lied some more, to Ellie and Devon, to Morgan, to Hannah and even to himself.
And who’s fault was this? Why, it was Sarah Walker’s, of all people; that’s why I left her off that list. Sarah was no innocent in Chuck’s transformation, and was quite aware of that fact. We saw her encourage Chuck to do this, and discourage him from doing that, and we noticed that each step she took was deliberate. So did she.
But was she sure of herself?
We were in love with the character, but Sarah went from Agent Walker to Sam. We weren’t sure what was going on in her head, because Stephen, and fate itself, interrupted her exactly as she was about to tell us what she wanted. And then she clammed up. All we saw was that Sarah kept asking her friends (especially Casey and Carina, but even Ellie), if they ever thought about living a normal life and we never saw her move in that direction. To the contrary, throughout the first half of Season 3, we watched her lead Chuck away from being normal.
As early as The Ring (Pt. 1) We saw Sarah making a decision to run with Chuck, away from the CIA and away from danger, only to see her second guessing herself later. We saw her struggle with Chuck’s decisions throughout Season 3 and then come to a decision herself about “her type” (again, not scare quotes), which also seemed tentative, confused and the result of second-guesses.
The decisive, determined and intelligent Agent Walker became indecisive, wishy-washy and confused. We watched Sarah confess to the wrong person that she was forgetting who she was, and could only say to ourselves “What is she thinking???
I’m watching Chuck disappear and the further he gets from who he is, the…
…well, the more I want to remember who I am, who I was before all of this.
Yeah, she didn’t know either. Those were good reason to not like either character much, and there was even worse news. The only person who was helping them in those struggles was – (appropriate evil sound effect here) – Daniel Shaw. Intolerable. Forget the Ring. He was the big, evil bad-guy this time around (like we knew that from the first flip of his cigarette lighter), and he was the only one helping Chuck. He was helping Chuck become a spy. He was helping Sarah forget Chuck. Since Chuck was turning into an emotionless killing machine right before Sarah’s eyes (especially when he was on Laudinol), it’s not clear to me that this was a bad thing.
But here’s the punch line. After re-watching Season 3, I have to confess – S3 is on the verge of becoming my favorite.
“I Hope That Your Lies Keep You Warm At Night”
Oh, you betchya. No, I did not enjoy watching Hannah tear Chuck down. I did not enjoy watching Shaw do the same to Sarah. But there is a certain satisfaction in seeing both of them face certain truths about themselves. “Chuck, you are not a nice guy,” Hannah told him, and she was right. “You never seemed like a Sarah.” Shaw said. And if the woman before him was the near-helpless near-waif we saw in Fake Name, he was right too.
But that’s not Chuck, and that’s not Sarah. As I watched, I realized that I was really entertained by Chuck trying to become a spy without losing himself, failing, and discovering that his emotions were the key – that Sarah was his key. Chuck would never be a “skin-covered robot,” not if she was around. I enjoyed watching Sarah struggling to understand that, yes, her emotions for Chuck were dangerous for both of them, but it didn’t have to make her less effective. It only made her more human, just like Chuck. If Graham and the CIA had turned her into a robot, she could be that no longer. Not when Chuck was around.
But wow, that was close. If Sarah’s beating heart made things even more complicated than with Bryce, then it was amazing to know she had a heart that beat for Chuck still, even after seeing him burn an asset and seeing the cold steel in his eyes as he held a man murderously by the throat. After all that, he was still her Chuck, and we got to see them rediscover each other in S3.
I enjoyed even more watching Chuck discover that he had to talk to someone – Morgan, Ellie, Sarah – to be whole. I enjoyed watching Chuck gain skills and be an effective partner for Sarah. I enjoyed Morgan growing up as much as Chuck and I enjoyed Casey starting to reclaim his past. I even liked Jeff and Lester proving their stalking skill were useful! Go figure.
Most of all, I enjoyed Chuck and Sarah discovering life together on a train in France and finding that it was no less complicated than in Burbank.
One Mission At A Time
By the 14th episode of S3, I was a happy fan. And why not? Chuck and Sarah are happy as honeymooners, getting comfortable living together, getting some tutoring on being a spy couple from the best in the business, The Turners, and life is good. Especially for the fans, life is good as we enter into the home stretch of Season 3. There’s only a couple of things…
Chuck’s brain is frying because of the Intersect and Daniel Shaw is about to rise up like a vampire. Cool, huh? Now I finally come to the the final arc of S3, the Defeat of the Ring. And we’ll start with another sore point with the fans.
In Night of the Living Dead, Chuck has neglected to tell Sarah that the good Dr. Dreyfus (Christopher Lloyd) has not exactly declared him hale and hearty. Given Sarah’s reaction to his coming home, I’m not 100% sure I would have said anything at that point either. But the good news is that both Casey and Sarah trust him and his dreams now, enough to know that something’s up, and that something concerns Shaw. But what to do? They have no intel. Who knows Shaw more intimately than The Intersect?
Well, um… Sarah (blush). Oooohhhh – we didn’t really want to know that. Casey’s interrogation of Sarah about the events of Mar 22, when she went off-grid with said Nemesis, was a little uncomfortable for her, not to mention, for Chuck. And the fans. Did we need to go there???
I think now the answer is yes. Yes, we did. You see, we’re near the culmination of the season where Chuck becomes a spy. Look at Chuck in S1 and you’ll notice right away that his biggest obstacle, the thing most standing in his way, isn’t a lack of bravery or skills or even knowledge. It’s naiveté. Now that Sarah knows he’s no longer an innocent about what they do, how do you think she feels about Chuck’s perception of her?
No, Sarah would not want Chuck to be naive about her. And TPTB didn’t want us to be, either. Didn’t they want us to love the character, flaws and all? It’s hard to love an icon set high on a pedestal.
And You Thought Sarah Was Perfect!
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. You see, there’s another character here, who loves Chuck (and Ellie) just as much as Sarah. That’s Stephen. And he’s been summoned because Ellie is concerned and confused about all the weird stuff happening around her (and for “weird stuff”, read, “John Casey”). Ellie’s right to be concerned, and it doesn’t take Stephen, wizard that he is, long to figure out that Chuck is back with the CIA. Oh, he’s the Intersect (again) too. It takes him a little longer to understand that Sarah’s actually in love with Chuck for who he is, but that’s okay. At this point in our story, Chuck can barely believe it himself.
Chuck is still just a little insecure – just a little, and Casey’s interrogation didn’t help. It’s enough so that, as they’re rummaging through Shaw’s apartment looking for clues, Chuck can’t help but chide his girlfriend a bit about a “secret” password to the safe.
And that’s what we have before the Season 3 finale. Like Sarah, Chuck’s not perfect either. He’s still a little insecure, and he’s not quite over telling lies to his father and Ellie about what he does, and to Sarah about his mental health.
Not that his lies get him anywhere. Stephen sees through the lies pretty quickly, and despite the fact that he’s upset about Chuck still working for the CIA (It’s bad business!), Stephen makes a version of “The Governor” for his son – a pacemaker for the brain. That’s a nifty little toy and The Ring wants it. How does The Ring even know where Stephen is when Chuck doesn’t?
[An update to my original: I meant to say too that the CIA didn’t know where Stephen was and Chuck certainly didn’t. So it seems to be beyond the capabilities of ordinary spies to find him. But the Ring is not “ordinary”.]
No, it’s no plot hole. In fact, that’s a little key. That agent, who had been so tentative and wishy-washy, is more than pretty good at her spy-craft. She’s Sarah, and she can do anything, including locating Stephen’s cabin. How does she do that? There’s a major battle with The Intersect vs. about half a dozen Ring Agents. The Intersect wins, of course, but not without Agent Walker’s ax-throwing help. How does she do that? Stephen has to wonder and puts our question into his vernacular.
Does she have an Intersect too?
No, Dad. That’s all her. Hi, sweetie!
Welcome back, Sarah.
And What About Her Better Half?
With Stephen’s governor, Chuck will be fine. No need to trouble Sarah about it, right? Not exactly. Chuck, the living Intersect, almost died in that cabin. It was Sarah who saved him and this time he understood what it meant to be a spy.
[A]ny mission they go on could be their last. For every spy, there’s someone who cares about him. – someone who has to open that box, read that message and mourn their loss.
This is just a little bit of maturation for Chuck that got lost in the excitement of the renewal.
The Subway begins with an “All’s Right With The World” feeling that gives us our favorite Normal Couple doing normal things, like enjoying fresh strawberries at a farmer’s market. Then the Vampire walk back onto the stage, and the flash his voice induces makes Chuck’s head hurt. Mine too.
No, all is not right with the world, but there is some good news in the darkness. Stephen’s finished the governor and Orion (master spy that he is) quickly determines that Chuck is not crazy and that Shaw is alive and kicking. mocking.
I take it back. It’s all bad news. Shaw is mocking Chuck, soon he’ll be mocking Sarah, and before long, Shaw will have convinced everyone in the CIA that he’s infiltrated The Ring, that Chuck’s mind is Swiss cheese and that Sarah has become ineffective as a spy (and as a girlfriend too, I might add). He’ll do that and remind Sarah that Chuck’s been keeping secrets from her, too. General Beckman, who’s under review by the very committee that Shaw holds in the palm of his hand, is a sitting Duck! (Sorry, Ernie. Couldn’t resist!)
It’s satisfying, but Sarah’s sucker-punch to the back of Shaw’s head is an act of supreme frustration.
You Picked A Good One This Time, Walker
Stephen leads Chuck out of his cell, and he reaches a decision point. Chuck can stay and fight (like Sarah wants to) or he can run to keep everyone safe. That’s a decision Stephen’s familiar with, but running, as Obiwan Grimes reminds Chuck, is not the right one for him.
Chuck decides to fight, and with a little help from Ellie (who’s about to discover everything, btw), they find Shaw’s secret base. One of my favorite moments in the entire show is the moment that Shaw, Casey and Sarah discover that Chuck’s made this discovery. Shaw’s reaction? “Damn it!”. Casey’s? “Don’t know when it happened but our boy became a man. Bartowski’s a spy. Picked a good one, Walker. Finally.” Sarah is wordless, and her smile says it all, just the way her fans have come to love.
Chuck makes his move and it costs Stephen his life. It was good that Subway was immediately followed by The Ring Pt. 2, because I couldn’t have waited. Chuck is more than desperate – he’s despondent. Stephen is dead, Sarah, Casey and even the General are captured, and according to Shaw, about to be executed. No one is left to help.
Funny thing. Chuck said those words – “There’s no one left to help.” at the end of Subway, and I think every fan watching said something close to “…except everybody else.” Sure enough, Morgan, Devon and Ellie upset Shaw’s apple cart just enough to start the final ball rolling.
It’s not too much to say that The Ring Pt. 2, watching Chuck’s Perchik character and seeing “the plan” unfold, is just amazing fun – again. Chuck gets his chance to mock Shaw (Mua-ha!) in his own office, reminding the Vampire that his friendly neighborhood nerd-herder is ready to help him with his teleconferencing needs. The fans learned one more thing about Chuck and Stephen – that Chuck had long ago been exposed to an alpha version of the Intersect, and Stephen knew a lot about his son’s abilities.
Chuck was in a difficult position at the end of S3, we know. It wasn’t clear at all that the show was going to be renewed, and more than anything, we the fans needed a happy ending to justify the misery we saw earlier. We got that ending. The unmotivated, game-playing $12 an hour nerd-herder from S1 (who was afraid to meet the girls at his own birthday party) faces down his nemesis and is now a hero in the eyes of the woman he loves. Even more, he recognized the change in him. “I’ve never been so calm in my life.” Chuck said. The spy-game Chuck played in the stacks of Stanford’s library with Bryce was played for real in the Buy More against Shaw, and this time, Chuck won. Sarah, the ruthless spy trained by Graham to be an assassin, was, at same time, someone who cared. Chuck and Sarah lost nothing. They gained everything and had come full circle.
We called this arc “The Defeat of The Ring”, and so it was. But that’s only a small part of the story, because the defeat of Shaw was bigger. Chuck and Sarah’s mastery over their own lives – over themselves – was the biggest victory of all.
There was a little matter of the conflagration. Shaw had planted a few bombs in the Buy More and Stephen had planted a few himself, in the basement of Chuck’s ancestral home. We leave S3 with the Buy More burned to the ground, Jeffster taking the blame (and on the run), and Chuck’s story just beginning.