When Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak decided to let Chuck out of the car by re-intersecting with version 2.0 they set themselves quite the task. The show has always hung a lot of the comedy, drama and appeal on Chuck as both a screw-up who ruins a mission through his naiveté, innocence or inexperience, and then often saves the day not through traditional spy-craft, but through his quick wits or empathy or nerdy tech-savy outside the box solutions. Make him too much of a traditional spy and those hooks, and that appeal, are gone. Keep him in the same place, he becomes a stale premise for the mission of the week as a pure procedural. The trick is to let Chuck grow while keeping him Chuck. To their credit, and in their inimitable “meta” way they managed to turn their dilemma into Chuck’s. Both the show and the character. Can Chuck be a spy without losing his Chuck-ness is the central conflict of the season for both Chuck and Sarah.
Last week’s Chuck Versus Operation Awesome managed that problem by showing us that while Chuck is still Chuck to his team, to an outsider he’s kind of an awesome spy. This week that theme continues with, sadly, Team B still doubting their titular leader, but still pulling together to support him as he ventures tentatively out into spy-land alone. Chuck needs to get some respect, both from his team and for himself. This episode is all about earning it, with a little help from your friends. After the jump.
One of the things delightfully evident with the way Chuck is written is that Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak grew up bathed in the pop culture of the ’80’s and love to toss in every homage and reference they can. From Tron to the copious Star Wars references to the background props and the cinematic feel to each episode, Schwedak take a nerdy delight in helping some of us re-live our childhoods through the show. Also Schwedak know the plot devices those movies used and the numerous tropes by heart, but they have a way of both using them with a wink and a nod evident in their use and a way of turning them into something far more meaningful than a trope or a plot point.
Everyone celebrates and gushes over the role reversal in the Chuck and Sarah pairing, but they often refuse to carry it into the romantic aspects of Chuck. In one of the more typical rom-com plots the well-intentioned but slightly clueless man must be humbled in order to realize that he has been holding back the remarkable strong woman from realizing her value and her full potential. Once he accepts her on her terms as his equal they can be re-united in a stronger more mature love, even though that initial love never really died for either of them. Reverse the sexes and Chuck is that plucky hero who has been unintentionally held back by Sarah’s need to protect and mother him and keep her Chuck from changing. Now of course this is Chuck so it goes deeper than that, but in essence that is Chuck and Sarah’s dilemma. He needs to feel he’s Sarah’s equal, she can’t seem to let go of her Chuck long enough to let him grow into the man who can both love and protect her the way she needs, admit it or not.
On a superficial level that is all you need to know to understand that there is no problem with Chuck and Sarah. Chuck has his problems and Sarah has hers, and it will be after Chuck gets over his and Sarah gets over hers that they will see that the only thing keeping them apart was themselves. I bring this up because in Chuck Versus First Class we get our best look so far at what did and will, for a time, keep Chuck and Sarah apart, and how someone other than each other will be the catalyst that helps them see their way back to each other. In rom-com terms they each need to experience their supposed ideal mate and see how that supposed ideal falls short of the flawed other they truly love. In the process they can also discover what it is they really give to each other and how they really fit as opposed to each of them trying to drastically change their lives in an attempt to fit into the other’s world. Or worse, trying to get the other to give up everything they are to fit into theirs. In addition it is a way to let them walk in each other’s shoes for a bit, to gain a deeper understanding of each other.
This Chris Fedak penned episode is the beginning of the process for both Chuck and Sarah. After re-establishing Chuck and Sarah in their “season 2” mode, friends and potential lovers with a barrier keeping them apart for the time being in last weeks Chuck Versus Operation Awesome, this week begins the process of their individual journeys. Sarah starts to let go, and Chuck starts to grow. For Chuck the journey to discover himself while remaining Sarah’s Chuck will be quicker but more painful to watch for Sarah. Sarah’s journey seems more like she’s simply adrift, falling back into old patterns, trying to regain that connection she had with Chuck but never quite managing to do so, then apparently giving up, until we see in sharp painful detail why Sarah has been unable to let Chuck follow his path.
Let’s start with the B-story. Morgan needs some respect, and some help. The BuyMorons still see Morgan as one of their fellow losers, but Morgan has decided to up his game, to run with the big-dogs, and his disruption of their fight-club has Lester and his evil cabal battling for supremacy. Morgan’s natural position in the Buy More pecking order has always been just under Chuck, but poor delusional Lester just doesn’t see it that way. And while Morgan has usually amused himself at the store’s expense by sitting back and letting events unfold, he clearly knows the ropes. Not to say that Lester doesn’t have his moments.
Chuck has bigger things on his plate, so sorry Morgan, and kudos to Chris Fedak for the first foray into what will become perhaps the show’s second best odd couple pairing (yes I’m counting Chuck and Sarah as #1) as John Casey of the infamous volleyball event joins forces with Morgan Guillermo Grimes to defeat the insurgents and bring peace to BuyMoria.
Chuck needs some respect. While Sarah doesn’t toss him under the bus, she doesn’t really show him much respect. In keeping with a theme that started in season 2, as much as Sarah tries to be supportive and help Chuck, she can also make him feel pretty inadequate at times. The start of this episode is one of them. Chuck has embarked on his mission to become a man who Sarah can not only love, but respect and admire. Someone who can protect her when he needs to. A suitable partner in every sense. But through her actions, borne out of good intentions and a desire to protect him, she undermines him in front of their new boss. This is the dynamic Chuck seeks to escape by becoming a real spy. How can you be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you?
If Sarah’s reluctance to see Chuck go on a mission seemed like a lack of respect, and it was, we immediately see the source is fear. Raw fear for Chuck’s safety without her there to protect him. And it isn’t hard to see why. Chuck’s very Chuckness seems to invite trouble that spills out in unexpected ways. Some of those ways seem benign, like chatting up your neighbor on a long flight. Others, like attracting the bad guy’s attention by repeatedly clicking your malfunctioning tranq pen or hiding in the first place the bad guy is likely to look are potentially very very bad. So I’ll cut Sarah some slack for the disrespect in front of Shaw.
And on to Shaw. He actually works very well for me this episode. He has a clearly defined role to play and Routh does it pretty well. He’s the mysterious, and slightly dangerous new spy brought in to shake up the team that puts the fun in dysfunction. He has no history with the team, so he sees things very differently. Sarah and Casey’s well founded fear of sending Chuck out to do dangerous things without them is not only holding him back, but making him doubt himself, and so he sets up a mission that should be relatively straightforward to start the process of toughening Chuck up and letting him feel some sense of what a mission without team B is like.
But on every mission unexpected things happen, and Sarah knows this as much as she fears it. To Shaw the only way Chuck will ever learn to survive in the spy world is to be able to handle the unexpected without needing to call on his team. To Sarah any one of those unexpected things could kill him, and she’s not ready to face the possibility of life without Chuck. When Sarah begs Chuck not to go now because he needs more time the subtext is that clearly she’s the one who needs more time.
As for Chuck, yeah, he does need more time. Chuck may want to be a spy but he doesn’t yet understand how much that requires him to give up. Awesome hinted at it at the end of Chuck Versus the Angel de la Muerte. He has to learn to wall off hip personal life at all times. Give up on relationships with civilians. Be suspicious of everyone who approaches you, and never ever let your guard down and drink that drink that just seems to have showed up.
So all the way to Paris and he couldn’t even get off the plane. Chuck is finally starting to see that the spy-life may not be all he imagined it would be. There are a lot more gut punches and a lot fewer Parisian vacations than he’d likely imagined. But there just might be a girl, maybe just not the one he thought.
I like this episode a lot more on re-watch, though to be fair I liked it a lot initially too. At this point both Hannah and Shaw are working as potential partners for Chuck and Sarah. Shaw is mysterious and dangerous and even somewhat sympathetic as he and Sarah do battle over Chuck. Sarah seeing wisdom in Shaw’s method and commitment to Chuck’s safety, but not at the risk of leaving him unprepared for what he will face as a spy works as a reason for her to pull back, which compounded with her lack of respect for Chuck as a spy gives Chuck a reason to think it might be time to move on, eventually.
Morgan: I need you. Okay? Please help me. I don’t know what they’ll do next. The mute – Lester and his gang. They’ve taken over the store, they set booby traps for me everywhere, I’m going crazy here. I can’t fight them by myself anymore. They don’t follow any rules.
Casey: Insurgents! I hate insurgents!
Morgan’s getting no respect from his fellow Buy Morons. What about Chuck? Is he getting any respect from Beckman? No, and not from Casey, certainly. But ask yourself if he’s getting respect from Sarah. That’s a more interesting question.
It’s easy to think that Sarah does respect Chuck because we all know that she loves him. Of course she does. But Sarah hasn’t told Chuck, yet. She hasn’t been close to admitting it to anyone but her private log so far. In fact, Sarah seems to be actively fighting the idea, thinking that she should stay un-involved for his own good. They are, officially, friends. But is she showing him respect?
Maybe not. Sarah doesn’t believe that Chuck is able to handle himself alone on a mission. As far as she’s concerned she has to be there to guide and protect him or he’s liable to do something very Chuck-like. And you know how the nerd is. When he does something Chuck-like, it usually causes no end of difficulty.
Yes, Chuck would find some bone-headed way to screw things up and only then find some absurd way to make it all right. “Well, better than all right,” Sarah would say to herself. But still, it would be part skill, part shoe-string catch and part luck. Even if she loves him now, you can see how Sarah’s mind can’t quite get over the hurdle of Chuck not needing her, at least, when he’s on a mission. That’s something she’s just not ready for.
There is someone who respects our boy, though. Shaw thinks Chuck is ready to be out on his own. Not only has Chuck already been on more missions than most agents dream of, he’s got a unique talent too. As a boss, Shaw’s got something over Sarah and Casey – he recognizes Chuck’s value as a spy and there’s no reason for him to “stay in the car” any more.
Shaw: I’m right, aren’t I? I should tell you, I’m always right. It’s annoying, but true.
Sarah: Why don’t you tell me what you’re right about so I can tell you that you’re wrong.
So with that, Chuck’s off on his first solo mission, flying first class to Paris.
We should not be surprised that Chuck trusts Shaw here in First Class. He has no reason not to, and every reason to trust him so far. Saying that, I don’t think we, the fans, trust Shaw at all at this point. The man’s got nervous habits (flipping that lighter) and he’s got secrets. But face it; to Chuck, Shaw is actually a good mentor. In fact, despite Sarah’s fears and concerns, the only way that Chuck is going to be the spy he wants to be is to do exactly what Shaw says he should do. Chuck needs to take the training wheels off the Intersect-bike and ride solo for a bit. That’s not a bad plan!
That is, so long as Chuck survives it’s not a bad plan. It’s too bad that Shaw lies to Chuck (and to Sarah and Casey) about the mission in Paris. It’s not in Paris at all – The mission is on the plane. Chuck has to find and retrieve a high-tech cipher key from a ring agent on the plane, who’s known to be a master of close-quarters combat, one Hugo Panzer (Steve Austin). At the goon’s appearance in the cargo hold (where the key is hidden), Chuck reverts back to his pre-intersect, girlish screams. Maybe Chuck isn’t ready after all. It’s a shame. The mission would be enough for Chuck to prove himself ready for the spy life. To Chuck, that’s enough to prove himself worthy to Sarah, too.
Sarah: [angrily] You should have told me!
Shaw: [calmly] This is why I didn’t.
Sarah: Chuck is not ready for Paris. And he’s certainly not ready for a mid-air mission. I mean, we can’t even go in and help him!
Shaw: Well, now we find out if your asset is a real spy.
Sarah: [looking incredulous] Who are you, Agent Shaw?
This is the exact moment when Shaw refuses to let Sarah help him. It’s Casey who tells Chuck to flash or die. Don’t think that’s important? For the first time, Chuck, when he needs to, flashes without Sarah’s help and that’s a milestone.
It may not be enough to complete the mission, though because the Ring does not send out it’s people alone, at least, not muscle-bound egotistical drones like Hugo Panzer. Backing up the muscle is Serina (Josie Davis, who surreptitiously plays stewardess on Chuck’s flight and ends up poisoning him. Chuck is a dead man.
Only one thing stands between Chuck’s demise (the end of the show!), the failure of the mission and salvation. It’s not Sarah this time, and it’s not the Intersect. It’s Shaw. He recognizes Serina’s MO and has the authority to marshall the resources that save the day. If it’s a matter of trust, Shaw has proven himself to someone who didn’t trust him at all at first; Sarah.
There’s one other danger on board that no one anticipated; not Shaw, Sarah and certainly not Chuck. There’s someone on board who knows nothing about Chuck’s spy life yet seems to know everything about him, someone who looks into his eyes to recognize that he’s never been to Paris before and doesn’t think it makes him unworthy. This is someone who respects him, and reminds him very much of the women he’s known before.
Why is Hannah a threat? It’s because just at the moment when Chuck has learned to control the Intersect, just as he’s about to become a real spy and just as Chuck as proven to himself that he can have his dream of being a spy, Hannah can give Chuck a his normal life. It wouldn’t be one or the other; spy or normal life. With Hannah, he can have both.
Shaw has lost an operative once before to The Ring, it seems. In an admission that was hard for Sarah to hear, she finds out that Shaw’s wife was killed five years earlier by one of their agents. Shaw’s borderline obsessiveness and secrecy actually has an explanation, one that she finds adequate.
Sarah’s been keeping secrets of her own. Sometime after Prague she dropped off the radar and was spotted in Lisbon, apparently following Chuck. If you’re wondering how much Sarah trusts Shaw now, consider that it’s enough for her to confess that she was taking care of Bryce’s last wish; to tend to her late partner’s ashes at the site of their first mission together.
Chuck vs. First Class was not an easy episode for me to watch again. That’s not because of the story (which, IMHO, leads us well into the rest of the season) or because of the acting. This episode makes me uneasy because of what’s coming, not because of what’s here.
The look on Chuck’s face as Hannah waltzes into the Buy More smiling tells us that Chuck too is uneasy. He’s at a major cross-roads, and knows it. The problem is, Chuck doesn’t want to make a decision between being a spy and “having the girl.”
When Hannah walks into the Buy More, it may look like he’s decided to take the road that leads to Hannah. But don’t be fooled. Chuck thinks he have both worlds. He’s decided to not decide.
That seldom works out.