Week Two of the Misery Arc. Three Words presents an interesting duality all by itself, an episode that manages to both great and terrible. Does this inspire great ideas? How great was this episode all by itself? We will also hear from a special guest who was motivated to start a classic Chuck epic after Three Words. After the jump, we’ll have another discussion about hopes, ideas, and might have beens.
I’ll follow the same outline I introduced last week; brief impressions of the episode, my thoughts on what could have been different/better, and tie-in fan fiction. This outline will likely morph some over the course of this series, and I do have one alteration this week, a guest commentary that sort of falls between points two and three.
For the episode itself, I leave the most detailed analysis to the main post. Ernie and company are having a great time with the actual episode. For myself, I’d have to say Three Words was potentially a great episode. I liked it a lot that first night it ran. It set things back on a positive footing after Pink Slip. Some really awesome scenes stand out; from Chuck’s drugged explanation of his utter stupidity to Sarah, to the intense bo training session in dojo, to the climax at the fountain, to Sarah hearing the recording at the end. Probably nothing could have made me like Pink Slip, but Three Words nearly fixed the worst feeling of it. Aired back to back with the premier, this episode left me with a more optimistic feeling than I had after the first hour. I was actually quite excited heading into Angel of Death the next night. The problem is, it was all a lie. “Maybe we can clean up this mess” may have been the main take-away I got, but they won’t. They won’t really even try. After leaving the romance of the show mostly ignored for the next two weeks, they will drop into the abyss afterwards. This potentially great episode now rubs me wrong on nearly every level. Sadly, I don’t really even enjoy a couple of dynamite performances by Zach and Yvonne, because the foreshadowing we see is such a bitter lie. But for now, I’ll save my most intense anger for a few weeks, the worst is truly yet to come.
So what would I have liked to see different? Ironically, not much for this episode, at least if we consider Pink Slip an already done deal, this was as good a make up as we could reasonably expect. In fact, I think if the big “do you love me” moment had come quickly, like maybe right after Operation Awesome, this might have been one of my favorite episodes of the series. I can imagine a modified version of Other Guy right after the Awesome Arc that really might have made for a wonderful story. Although if we’re allowed to alter Pink Slip I have some bigger ideas. As I mentioned last week, the idea of a fake break-up or secret relationship could have been a lot of fun. Back in Winter of 2010 we were all kicking around these ideas too. This is nothing new, I think for so many of us it is what we so desperately wanted to see. In many ways the show would never recover from the direction chosen. There are just so many ways this could have been more entertaining, and most of them center around Chuck and Sarah trying to figure out how to face new challenges together; instead of the lonely, character destroying arc that lies ahead.
Obviously my feelings for this arc are pretty intense. It is impossible to measure how many fans felt similarly, or varied only slightly in degree or detail. Based on surveys done here (specifically “Was it Worth it?“) I would guess about a third of viewers would generally agree with me. There’s the usual host of disclaimers that come with using a survey drawn from our own fairly small following, but I’m comfortable with drawing broad conclusions from it (like”about a third!”).
One Chuck fan, many of you will recognize, was immediately inspired to start work on his own version of what was happening in season three, and he started work promptly at the end of Three Words. So I asked NinjaVanish if he could share a little about how he started his “Chuck and Sarah” series.
So, the reason why I started writing what would become a huge, sprawling, nearly 500k word epic trilogy can be summed up in a single word: Delusion!
Okay, I’ll elaborate.
When Season 3 started, I had literally just finished a Season 2 marathon. (I timed it out so that I’d finish vs the Ring ten minutes before the premiere started.) So vs the 49B was fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t believe Sarah would be careless enough to hatch a runaway-from-the-CIA plan in a CIA base well known for its truly stupendous number of surveillance cameras. Footage from which, I might add, had been used just a couple weeks earlier, to attempt to reassign her for being emotionally compromised with Chuck. Did she and Chuck both lose their short term memory and half their IQ between seasons? The old adage ‘show don’t tell’ would suggest yes. We’re told they’re both intelligent people. But it’s not shown in their actions. They don’t even mention they might be on camera? Or just overheard by the dudes in the same room as them, packing up all the Castle gear? Okay, maybe the cameras are already disabled, and we’re supposed to a assume that? Still, it costs you two seconds to have Sarah start that conversation with. ‘The cameras are down…’
Chuck and Sarah’s thought process in the first couple chapters of ‘vs Themselves’ echoes my own reaction to the first few episodes of canon Season 3. I literally could not believe what I was seeing, and thus, I had to formulate an alternative hypothesis for what was going on. I began predicting a secret relationship reveal for the end of Chuck vs the Mask, which was, IIRC, the episode right before the break for the Winter Olympics. Anyway, I enjoyed the first few episodes of Season 3 immensely, because I was seeing things. Awkward ‘just friends’ handshake in the known-to-be-under-surveillance Orange Orange? Evidence! Awkward ‘just friends’/’Devon’s been kidnapped’ hug? Evidence! Was I grasping at straws those few weeks to feed my delusion? Yes. Was I feverishly writing my first fanfic, detailing just how such a secret relationship might work? Also yes.
Still, I was ready and waiting as Mask unfolded, to have my socks knocked off. Just anticipating how awesome the reveal was going to be had me on the edge of my seat. (Half a season of angst, followed by the awesomest reveal in Chuck history seemed about right, given the roll the show had been on at the close of Season 2.) Any second now, I thought, right up until the closing minutes of the episode. Chuck’s gonna get a mysterious text on his phone, and go to some out of the way diner or something. Boom! Out of nowhere, Sarah makeout-tackles him. Or pulls him into one of those instant photo booths and we just see the pictures come out the little slot of her mauling him and then they fall out of frame. Even just a quick kiss and a checking of their watches to determine their little tryst has already run out of time. Then, flashback to other stolen moments ‘behind the scenes’ of the other first few episodes. Then of course, roll credits, followed by extended break for the Olympics. Fandom goes wild with glee! As an added bonus, ninjaVanish can stop writing fanfic and go back to his gradschool homework!
But then instead… my delusion was shattered. I had to admit that the showrunners and I had different ideas about what the show was about in Season 3. If I wanted to ‘see’ that version of event’s I’d have to take matters into my own hands and write it myself. And so I began planning out how to stitch my still nascent, rambling series of brief scenes into a cohesive story. And along the way, I got bitten by more Chuck/Sarah adventure story ideas.
At that point, over the Olympics Break, I almost went back and restructured the first couple chapters of what I was already calling ‘Chuck & Sarah vs Themselves’, to mirror what I’d been expecting out of Season 3 those first few episodes, even down to keeping the secret relationship a secret from the reader until the last moment. But I decided against it, for the simple reason that I wanted my break from cannon to be readily apparent to my readers. Because I was paranoid about losing my audience given the way the fandom was reacting to Season 3.
That and the fact I didn’t want to be actively posting a Season 3 replacement while the show was going over the same ground. I wanted at least a little breathing room, so I could incorporate cool things if they happened. Or twist them to my own ends, as I would do with several things throughout Seasons 3 and 4.
Which is why the middle section of the story, ‘Chuck & Sarah vs The Bunker’, was posted first, even though much of what would become ‘vs Themselves’ was already taking shape. Even some of the stuff with Sarah teaching at the Farm in ‘vs the Recruits’, was written before I posted word 1. Like I said. Feverishly writing from pretty much as soon as the 2-hour season premiere ended.
The events in ‘vs the Bunker’ were safely far enough down the timeline that I could backtrack and fill in little tidbits from season 3 where applicable and still tell the story that was rapidly swelling in my brain to take the place of what I always saw as the lost opportunity of Season 3. The whole romantic tension of Seasons 1 and 2 was Chuck and Sarah can’t be together, but have to pretend they are together. I Imagined a Season 3 where that’s flipped. Chuck and Sarah still can’t be together, but they are anyway, and have to pretend they aren’t. Of course that’s much too complicated for ‘the average TV viewer’, that mythological being that network execs seem to believe can’t think his/her way out of a paper bag. But that’s a different discussion altogether.
Here’s an amazing fact. NinjaVanish was not a visitor to this site back in 2010. He, along with many others in the fan fiction community and elsewhere across the Internet (and presumably a number of more casual viewers who have never even considered reading about the show), had already drawn conclusions about what would have been a fun story that were quite at odds with what we were seeing. I don’t ever mean to say that’s all bad. Even an outstanding episode may inspire a lot of “What Ifs” (Marlin, Colonel and Santa Claus all inspired a lot of fiction too). But no doubt, season three of Chuck left a lot of people wishing for something different. Over the years I’ve recommended everything NV has written for this fandom. But this might be a great time to review the start of “Chuck and Sarah vs Themselves” and see one, particularly creative fan’s recreation of the start of season three. Only catch is, you may not be able to stop. I started my own re-read a week ago with the idea I just wanted to re-familiarize myself with how that great epic tied into the start the season. Yeah right. I expect to finish it (once again) this week. Not only is this series an appealing alternative to season three of canon, but I think NinjaVanish is the best action writer in this fandom.
So now that I’ve clearly moved into the fan fiction part of this post its time to say a little about KateMcK. Kate started her Chuck writing after season three was complete (here, apparently it was running behind for her). But one of her early, defining works is all about re-writing that season. We will re-visit “Chuck vs The Fight” several times in the weeks ahead because Kate set out to make the season a little better, one episode at a time. Chuck vs The Fight will eventually “fix” ten episodes, and Kate wrote other stories relevant to season three that we will discuss in turn too. So Kate’s writing will be a recurring feature as we work through the season. Kate has a way of writing that is very easy for a Chuck fan to invest in, she likes to start from canon and then start making changes. Usually small changes that snowball into something great. The first chapter I linked above, starts with the bo training scene, but makes just a few changes to arrive at a more encouraging end. By the end of the season we’ll have over a dozen (from several KateMcK stories) different fixes, several of which could have started whole new AUs all their own.
Let me recommend another complete season three AU here too. Crumby was a very active commentor at this site during the run of the season, and she wrote a very satisfying alternate called “Chuck vs The Rogue Spy“. This goes AU from the very start, and only over-laps S3 in a couple of details. But it is a very well written, very exciting story.
Next week we get into an episode that really was a lot of fun.