This week I’ve volunteered to step in for Dave to spare him the re-watch. I hope to be able to keep to the schedule as well as him throughout the front 13, or if you prefer, The Misery Arc™, and start some interesting discussions as well, but I think this works out well in another way. Of the two of us I am far more invested in the things season 3 concentrated on, serialized drama, conflict, flawed characters hitting bottom and then finding their strength and moving on. But most of all this season is about conflict.
I want to talk about conflict, but hopefully without causing too much. In every fictional account ever written, be it a comedy or drama, there is a central conflict that must be overcome. It forms the basis for the characters actions and reactions and its eventual resolution is typically the climax of the work. Conflict breeds strife and loss and confrontation and adversity and triumph. All the things that make for great drama. And with everything else it is, Chuck is also a serialized drama and a love story, despite what we may wish. Conflict, strife, failure, adversity and inevitable triumph will be a part of Chuck. The highs are much higher when you’ve seen the lows, and there is no triumph or growth without the failure or shortcomings to be overcome being presented as real.
In Chuck conflict is metaphorically the DNA of the show, represented by every episode’s title. Chuck Versus MacGuffin of the Week. Something that must be overcome, be it the consequences of a Tango or a Seduction, or Sarah’s high school re-union. Conflict is also one of the show’s central themes. How do you resolve conflicting visions of your future, conflicting loyalties, conflicting world views? With a basic structure other themes have been added that run throughout the entire series. I’ll get in to some of those later, but for now let’s stick with conflict.
I know this episode and review is likely to cause some conflicting emotions and opinions, but I want to delve into it anyway, because upon re-watch I am seeing the end run of season 2 and the start of season 3 as a lot more linked thematically than I ever realized. Some of you may not like the way this new view changes the context of things or changes our view of the central characters in the serialized drama part of this, because both of them may be seen in a negative light at times. If this bothers you I’d prefer you not read this post. I don’t want to be the source of something that upsets any fan. While I admit that season 3 and this episode have their problems, I won’t dwell on those aspects. I’ve done them to death and have absolutely zero interest in revisiting them. If you feel it necessary to comment on them, fine, but comments that talk about TPTB’s bad choices rather than how those choices play out for the story are just another round of re-writing the show you wanted as opposed to seeing the show we got. This re-watch was to revisit the series in it’s entirety, with the full knowledge of the entire journey and see how the context changes and how we see things now.
I know I see things very differently now, especially regarding these early season 3 episodes. There are hopeful moments and epiphanies and some great Charah developments even in the dark times. But still I say this with a bit of trepidation. Join me for another look at Chuck Versus The Pink Slip, after the jump.
I think readers can rightly accuse me of being an apologist for season 3. In traditional terms an apologist is a defender of something he believes in against what he perceives as baseless or irrational attacks. In this case I don’t think the attacks are irrational or baseless, I think the attacks go to far and too deep into trivialities or misread what we’re shown or told. They also come from anger that the show you wanted was not the show they made, and while that anger is legitimate and understandable it removes the one from real serious criticism of the storytelling. If you reject the very premise you will never make sense of what follows. I intend, in this and subsequent episodes of the front 13, to concentrate on TPTB’s intent to the best of my abilities, in the context of themes we’ve seen come out of this and previous and subsequent episodes, without passing judgement on those choices.
Each time we go through this there is a chorus of “but they didn’t have to go this route,” and yes that is true, but it is a tautology, entirely true, yet meaningless in discussing the way they did go or why. There are always other possibilities, but for some reason TPTB felt this was the right way to go, and after that the second guessing adds little to the discussion of how we see these episodes now.
I fully acknowledge there were real problems with this season. Some were just taking what had been clever plot devices and using them past their shelf life. They relied on TV tropes that no longer had a place in the story, like my least favorite, each member of the romantic pair must sleep with someone else first, necessitating not only potential, but real love interests for both. Worst of all, to me, they let the plot dictate the pace of the story to the point that any progress on the story was stalled without adequate explanation or exposition as to why, waiting for the right week in the plot to be allowed to move again. When the exposition that gave context to the delay came, it was a bit to back loaded, almost too late for it to re-contextualize what we’d seen. To do this they ended up using some sometimes clever, sometimes heavy-handed and disingenuous plot devices. The most notable being Daniel Shaw. But there was a lot to work out to make a relationship begun out of deception and developed through manipulation, lies, threats and rejection seem not only plausible, but right, and heart-warming.
In Chuck Versus The Ring TPTB pulled a Chuck. They snatched the edge of the tablecloth and pulled it out from under everything, and what you thought was the foundation, the thing everything rested on wasn’t there, but everything was still in place. Well, except when he pulled out that tablecloth a few things had shifted a bit, and were a bit wobbly, and all it took was one little nudge and you’ve burned the soufflé and ruined the dinner party. And that metaphor was the easy part of this intro. Because now I have to make my case that they didn’t, even though they did. In my earlier posts on the end of season 2 I’ve tried to make the case that the seeds of this episode are being sown as early as Chuck Versus The Beefcake and shift into high gear around Chuck Versus The Predator. While by the end of this episode Chuck and the gang will all be in very familiar circumstances there has been a fundamental change in who these people are and what they want from life. Familiar situations now seem foreign, circumstances once accepted as part of their worlds disturbing, and established relationships, while continuing, inexplicably changed. Chuck is breaking free and will no longer let others tell him what life to live, and in the last few moments of season 2 seizes control of his own destiny. To do so he ripped that control away from the person who’d had it for the last two years, Sarah. That has changed everything.
As they say, how’s that workin’ out for you?
Back in the day I wrote a few pieces that were pretty harsh on the decision to so completely split up Chuck and Sarah in this and subsequent episodes. And I didn’t write a third. The first two were Geometry 101 and Chemistry 101. The third that I didn’t write was Physics 101. I sort of did a version of that here, where I talk about the seemingly inexplicable change in the momentum of the relationship between Chuck and Sarah, likening it to a near collision between two bodies in motion that are mutually attracted. The mere attraction can draw them toward each other changing their trajectories, but they don’t necessarily come together on that first close pass. I’m glad I never did the full post, because I never would have been able to properly see or explain how that apparent shift fits with the show until I saw those final moments on the beach where Chuck and Sarah reconnect against seemingly impossible odds.
The theme, present throughout Chuck, that plays out in Chuck Versus The Goodbye, and most particularly on that beach is that we both change and are changed by the people we love. I have to credit Mo Ryan for putting it down in writing so that I could knock my head and exclaim YES! Thank you! I’ll wait till we get there to fully dig into it, but on the exact same beach where the journey started we again have one of our heroes scared, confused and facing an uncertain future, and we have the other strong, confident and caring enough to tell the other it will be alright, that they can count on each other to make it through. Suffice to say it is a very different Chuck, and though she and others may not think it, a very different Sarah on that beach than the first time.
We both change and are changed by the people we love, sometimes in inexplicable and confusing ways. Sometimes those changes can seem like we’ve lost something, even though it’s still there, and sometimes those apparent losses blind us to what we’ve gained. That is a theme that will run throughout the season. But in this episode, we see the consequences of the changes season 2 wrought.
In Chuck Versus The Ring, perhaps without full knowledge of the situation, Chuck made a choice about his future. We saw the process. It was made quickly, but it was a considered choice. Much of it was about how his whole life others had sacrificed to protect him, Bryce, Sarah, his father, and how time after time he chose to turn his back on those who asked him to be a hero, either unwilling or unaware, allowing their sacrifice, but selfishly refusing to do so himself. A lot of it was probably about Sarah, the last snippet we see as Chuck makes his decision looks in retrospect and from Chuck’s point of view, surprisingly like an invitation to join her team and come with her. A decision he makes without knowing that Sarah had decided she wanted to stay with him and try “normal”.
The next time we see Chuck he appears to be a very different man. Beckman is in the role of handler as Chuck works to retrieve a briefcase. While this time through we know what is up it’s still important to look as if we are seeing the story for the first time. It is how we see the questions TPTB want us to ask, the ones they will then answer. We very quickly learn that Chuck is still in training and things aren’t going so well, oh yeah, and he’s still Chuck. Albeit a more ambitious Chuck who embraces the chance he’s been given… until he flunked out. He sacrificed his chance for nothing. And he lost Sarah because of it.
And then we see Sarah as Chuck always imagined her, with a man worthy of her, and we are given no indication that this is a mission at first. Did Sarah leave the spy life, land the big fish (or allow herself to be landed) and opt for a different sort of love than Chuck and his very normal family offered?
With a slight digression to a wallowing cheese-ball addicted Chuck (and I still find those scenes funny) we quickly find that Sarah is still a spy, and Chuck did the right thing, horribly. She was going to give it all up for him if he’d let her.
Here’s where it gets fuzzy, but I think there’s a through-line. Chuck made his choice. He made his choice to stop letting others sacrifice their lives for him and to join the fight, fully aware that he needed to accept the consequences. Chuck steps up and takes control, once again becoming that guy. He’ll be drawn back into the spy world, and Sarah may have just quit based on what Bryce said. He makes his choice fully aware that he may or may not have Sarah to help him this time, but hopeful that it is the right thing to do for both of them. Remember, Chuck got conflicting stories from Sarah and Bryce. Sarah said she was leaving, Bryce said she wasn’t coming with him. Sarah had ample time to tell Chuck she was staying with him. Conclusion? Sarah is conflicted and Chuck knows it. Sarah may have been willing to quit, but based on their conversation in the morning of the wedding it clearly wasn’t something she was completely ready to do. And Chuck has seen that Sarah needs someone in her life, a partner who can protect her and help her. It was to be Bryce, but Bryce is gone and Sarah will need someone, so Chuck decides to be “that guy” for Sarah.
Chuck then is given another choice. Sarah’s phrasing is important. “I’m ready to be a real person again, with you.” So yes, given the chance to finally be with Sarah, he says yes. But here is where things change for me. I can see exactly why Chuck says no, and little else. And I’ll agree it is a selfish choice, with a caveat. Chuck has seen Sarah’s penchant to run when she fears she is going to lose Chuck, and now knows she has genuine feelings for him. But Chuck doesn’t like himself and doesn’t feel worthy, and here is where Beefcake plays into his choice. How long would it last?
For two years Sarah ran Chuck’s life and looked out for him. Remember, protecting and keeping Chuck out of the bunker was even more important to her than being able to be with him, even though her feelings were, as Chuck now knows, genuine and real. But she sacrificed having either the exciting spy-life he imagined or a real normal life for his sake, and in Barstow, he got a glimpse of what she was proposing would be like. They could be together, but neither would be a spy, and neither would be able to have a normal life. Sarah would basically become his handler with benefits. He’d forever be dependent on her, and he’d forever feel like that jealous loser in Beefcake who wasn’t man enough to keep his girl. How long could it last till he started to resent her or she him as they did in Beefcake? Also, is Sarah doing this for herself or is she sacrificing for Chuck again? Does she want a normal life as a normal person and that is why she was (according to Bryce) willing to stay in Burbank? Was she ready to sacrifice her desire to be a spy to be with him? Could he live with himself if she did? Chuck has to say no, it is the only choice he has, if you buy the show’s premise that the two of them couldn’t talk out what they wanted and why, which at this point I do. They may not fully know themselves as we see played out in Honeymooners. At least this time Chuck is willing to step up and stop the both of them from making a huge mistake. It will cost him, but hero’s are willing to pay a price for doing the right thing. It also gives Sarah something she has rarely had in her life, a choice about her future.
Sarah has a choice that she wouldn’t have if they’d run. Decide the kind of life you want, not based on what you think Chuck needs or wants, but based on what you want. Chuck is giving Sarah the choice to choose him, the spy life, or neither. But it will be her choice, and not based on sacrificing herself for his benefit. He made his choice to make a difference because he had a gift. He made that choice fully aware that it was his alone and it could cost him Sarah. Chuck wanted to be a spy. He also wanted to be with Sarah, but Sarah would have to make that choice to be with Chuck too.
It is pretty clear we were meant to momentarily wonder what choice Sarah made as she tosses her phone into the pool, until we find out along with Chuck that she is still in Burbank, and what Chuck needs to do.
Sarah wants to be a spy (so far as Chuck can see), but she’s also had her heart-broken, by him. At the very least he wants to explain Prague. That he didn’t reject her because he didn’t love her, but because he loved her too much to make her choose him over everything she’s ever worked for. There is also likely a part of him that hopes he can win her back, but since she’s made her decision to be a spy it means he has to follow her into her world. Becoming a spy had been the right choice for both of them, and he was wallowing in defeat rather than doing what needed to be done. Both Prague and Chuck deciding to try to be a spy again was him re-affirming what he did in Ring. Make a choice to stop letting others decide your life, and stop letting others sacrifice for you.
What Chuck doesn’t know is that Sarah sees Chuck as her only chance at normal. Without him she’s just a spy. So while Chuck feels becoming a spy is the only way to give them both a chance to choose each other without asking the other to give up everything, Sarah sees it as a potential nightmare played out in front of her. Sarah has protected Chuck from the nastier aspect of being a spy, but she knows they are out there waiting for him. Without her to protect him this time he’ll learn of and confront the moral compromise and the painful isolation that are a part of a spy’s life. And Sarah knows it will change Chuck the way it changed her.
But as much as Sarah wants to protect and preserve “her Chuck” she needs to let him go and become his own Chuck if he’ll ever stand a chance of getting the life he wants with the woman he loves. It’s painful to watch her still trying to exercise that control in the kitchen at El Bucho.
Casey: Why’d you knock him out?
Sarah: It was a slap.
Casey: Mmm. Lemon’s got a glass jaw.
Chuck: I was caught off guard on an empty stomach, okay. I didn’t eat anything. I can take a punch.
Casey: You mean a slap.
Chuck: I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to screw anything up. I just came here to help out. Things went wrong in Prague, I don’t know why, but I know that I can do this. I can be a spy.
Chuck: Sarah, you know I can. Please.
Sarah: Get him out of here.
Even the two years Sarah spent building Chuck’s confidence in himself is now working against her, but she can’t take it back. She’s changed him, and he’ll never even consider staying in the car again.
About a year ago, out of curiosity and with Alan Sepinwall’s assurance that it was OK, I delved into The OC, Josh Schwartz’s breakout hit. I now see his fingerprints all over Chuck, but that is more digression than I want right now. My reason for bringing this up is that the season 2 to season 3 transition is so remarkably similar to Schwartz’s season 1 to season 2 transition in The OC. Throughout the preceding season people have stepped into and been exposed to each other’s worlds, and have formed a family because of that. They have changed each other in the process. But because of events they can’t seem to control, that family has been shattered and scattered. But that scattered family, and how they come back together, how they re-establish that family, even if tenuously, is, like in The OC, the story of this first episode. It was a lot of work for 43 minutes, and may not have been fully complete by the end, but it told the story of our heroes coming back together and reforming, whether they knew it or not, the most important relationships in their lives.
It’s a powerful storytelling tool, because it forces us to ask if the characters can still be a part of that family they formed under very different circumstances and as very different people. It makes that growth permanent, even if there may be lapses and regression. They are back together as new people, and the question, will that family, will that love still work, is paramount. The Sarah Chuck fell for was perfect and distant and unobtainable, she didn’t need him, yet somehow wanted him. The Chuck Sarah fell for was sweet and gentle, willing to take a back-seat and would never hurt her. Things are very different now. The same forces that drew them towards each other have also re-shaped them into different people and we have yet to see how, or if, those two people will make things work.
As for understanding the story going forward it may seem trivial but it needs to be mentioned. This episode is bracketed with Chuck zip-lining to get out of a situation. The first time, he fails. Is it because he knows it’s a simulation and that all he’s doing is unnecessarily risking his life? Is it because he’s without Sarah? The second he succeeds. Is it because there is real danger and lives are on the line? Is it because he’s with Sarah and she needs him? Remember also that the episode is bracketed with Sarah first failing to believe in Chuck and then trusting him to save them both. I’ll get into this more as the season proceeds.
In a way, while they have altered each others trajectories, the changes are still happening. Sarah has decided that being a spy isn’t enough. She’s experienced love, perhaps for the first time in her life, and has decided that love and family are worth the sacrifice. But she doesn’t fully understand that to really give herself to another she has to live with the consequences of vulnerability and devastating loss, like Chuck felt, more than once. Sarah is new to this and so her concept of how they could be in love was unintentionally selfish. Having missed her moment during the dance Sarah then asks Chuck to give up everything for her. In season 3 Sarah will try again to find something, a connection, and will fail spectacularly, because Shaw isn’t Chuck and is, like Sarah used to be, someone who lets his whole world be defined by the fact that he is a spy. But the lessons she learns are important ones. You don’t own those you love and you can’t ask them to remain the same for your sake if they need to grow for their own. Sarah wonderfully bookends this in Honeymooners. “I don’t want you to have to choose me over something you want for yourself.”
There was always a question posed by TPTB. Was it Chuck that Sarah wanted or Sarah that Chuck wanted? Or was it what they represented? A normal life, love, safety, a home. An amazing partner, excitement, adventure? Those questions were answered definitively in this episode, at least for Sarah, and I think that was the real purpose of such a heartbreaking breakup, and it is what ultimately saves it for me. Sarah’s heart has been broken, yet we see she still loves Chuck, and that puts to rest the question. Chuck has failed again and will have to fight to win Sarah over again, all the while getting the life he fantasized about, and while he may lose sight he does remember why he chose to start this journey. Each of our heroes answers the question in this episode, and this season. It is Chuck. It is Sarah. Now that we know, we just need to get them to that place. It may take a while.
In the end, the Physics 101 metaphor works. The attraction pulling Chuck and Sarah together was and is real, but they just weren’t quite lined up yet. Sarah has changed Chuck into someone who despite his protestations doesn’t want a normal life. He wants to see the world, be a hero, make a difference, he wants to matter. Chuck has changed Sarah. She’s realized that being a hero and saving the day doesn’t matter to her if it costs her everything, like a real home and real love and you are left as a shell and a tool of others, absent your own moral code. Each has taken on the idealized portion of the other that they’ve craved for so long. The reality needs to sink in for both of them. The trajectory that looked like it would bring them together was in reality a near miss, but don’t worry, they’re still bound, and will come back around even though their separation seems too long and too far for what holds them together to overpower what seeks to tear them apart.
Faith: Well I’m back, and perhaps a moment too soon. I say that because…well I love all of you, I love the show but all of this has been pretty tough to take. With season 3 ahead of us (in fact, it starts with this post), it doesn’t look to get any better.
Full disclosure on front 13: I didn’t care for it. Personally, as a matter of taste and as a matter of intent, it was not my preference (don’t you hate it when people open with that?). But through time, through this blog and through all of you I gained understanding and through understanding, acceptance. I feel the fatigue much like Ernie does, but where we differ is that I still see the possibilities of that lightbulb moment for any one of you, much in the way it came to me. Today, I can no more see the series without the front 13, than I can see the series without any stretch of any season. From a story-telling standpoint, I have come to accept (and in fact now insist) that a lot of what took place in this front 13 was necessary for the rest. More on that later I’m sure.
So, Pink Slip.
As emotionally wrenching scenes go, there are few that exceeds, or even matches Prague. Dave will tell you that it’s disingenuous, Ernie will tell you that it’s necessary–I’m somewhere in between. It was a painful, out of character and necessary event. Agree or disagree, it was powerful. The whole point of the scene wasn’t just to play an emotional yo-yo out of us, the fans, but to also illustrate the loss, the pain, the heartbreak (mostly for Sarah) and yes, disconnect. For Chuck, it was a choice.
For too long, we’ve seen Chuck go with the flow. Sarah dictated their relationship for the bulk of the 2 previous seasons–rather Sarah’s non-actions dictated their relationship. I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t want to be a spy, I want–” (Ring) is a choice by Sarah. Indeed, it is a choice, an incomplete one but a choice nonetheless. The romantic in me fills those words in with “..to be with you. I want to be with you. (Damn you, Stephen Bartowski!)” What that entails then becomes the issue going forward. That is after she heals from being anchorless.
As for Chuck, he has never really fought for her, never really went after her until the last 6 of the Orion arc (conveyed best with his “I’m going to live the life that I want, with the girl that I love,” from Lethal Weapon). When he was finally given time, and some space, the best he could come up with was that he wanted to travel with her (weak!). And so Chuck, when push came to shove made the wrong choice. He made the wrong choice–the selfish choice, the heroic choice, however you want to see it–it was the wrong choice for what was for him (at the time) all the right reasons. This is built on in American Hero, more on that when that episode is up for discussion.
So what are we left with? Clearly emotions were cemented in season 2, and with emotions, intent. But what of the extent and the future? Do they…spend their lives as spies… go on as they were? Do they run away together? What do they do? Again it goes back to choices. That’s what season 3.0 was about (to me), choices. The underlying theme in an otherwise thematically dark and painful season, the ultimate in all of humanity: free will. Ernie will of course argue and say it’s destiny but we know how much he enjoy’s the hero’s journey (just kidding Ernie). Choices are hard, and in true form, the season was too.
Pink Slip for the most part was the characters reeling from Prague’s choices. Sarah made her choice. Perhaps most painful for those of us who associate with Sarah Walker–she finally put herself out there, after a lifetime of distance and covers, she put herself out there. She let herself be vulnerable and was rejected. Though her choice was reverting to form in one aspect (she always feels the need to run), it was still a departure for her as this time she thought she was running with someone. Later on, this will evolve into something healthier, something far better in that she is running towards someone/something. First, the pain before the healing.
In general I thought the episode was pretty dark, almost mean (again goes back to emotions and personal taste). It’s as if it is served to punish Chuck for the choices he made, and it wouldn’t let up but that’s sometimes the consequences of free will. As Ernie mentioned above, conflict. True heroism, true character builds from conflict and Chuck started the healing with Pink Slip. More, Pink Slip and the subsequent episodes served to humanize our heroes: make them vulnerable, capable of major mistakes, capable of inflicting pain towards one another. The idealized characters we have grown to love are no more, and in time I’ve grown to love these ones just as much. You may be wondering why, well because they’re you and me. In some ways they’re more honest because they’re real and they come from a deeper place within all of us that we may not acknowledge but is part of the human experience.
Finally as an aside, the machinations outside of the story/outside of the plot should never be far from our minds. In theory, whatever changes one enacts is done with the overall outline in mind but life and television is far too tenuous for that. Especially Chuck. So always remember, season 3 was a reboot in so many ways for so many reasons. To TPTB’s credit, they tried. Whether they succeeded or failed is obviously up to the eye of the beholder.