Chuck Versus The Mask is an odd beast for me. The first time I watched it I liked it a lot, despite some slightly clunky aspects that had been showing up in season 3 episodes with regularity. It was an amazing episode for Chuck’s growth, and in odd ways Sarah’s too. With the Chuckpocolyps it became harder and harder to watch this episode. We were marinated in Shaw hatred for weeks before there was any movement or resolution on a storyline started in this episode (with a few seeds sown a little earlier). But as the years have passed I’ve come to notice something. I like this part of Chuck and Sarah’s story. I first noticed this a few summers ago when I purposefully took a month off the boards and discussion. Then I re-watched season 3 in one block of about a week. I loved it. Without constantly hearing complaints or criticism of this or that I was free to lose myself in the story they were telling. Yes “this and that” were still there, but they receded into the background, present, but not my focus, and what was left was a touching and heartbreaking story of how two wounded souls found each other, changed each other, and found their way back to each other. After the jump.
If last week was about the costs of the spy life to both yourself and those around you this week is more about the feeling you get from the big win. Last week had Chuck opening his eyes to some harsh truths about himself and Sarah and the choices he’s made, and dealing with it in a new way for him, with Sarah either unequipped emotionally or realizing she can’t fix this for Chuck, he has to find his way as she found hers. This week has Chuck finding his footing in his new world, saving the day, and a few more hard truths hitting him. It also features what is simultaneously touching and heartbreaking scenes of the season, and an extra dose of pathos thrown in at the end.
This episode isn’t without it’s share of season 3 problems. Most notably the shoulder massage that started a war, but in hindsight those problems are not disasters, they’re of a piece with what we’ve already seen. TPTB are rushing stories that need time and delaying ones that need motion in a season planned out for a series climax of a particular kind.
Let’s start at the beginning. Chuck wants to be a spy but he also wants his real life, and in real-life-land the Buy More suddenly isn’t so bad when that cute, smart, funny and charming woman you met on the flight to Paris is there to help pass the time, wherein lies the problem when Sarah walks in with that look on her face. The one that early on could turn your blood to ice and cut you off mid-sentance. The super-hot blonde with the heart of ice is back to let Chuck know play-time is over.
Here is where things get problematic. See your ex-girlfriend handler needs you to go on an impromptu mission to save her not-yet-boyfriend but budding confidante, but you just promised your cute new not-yet-girlfriend that she could come with you next computer emergency. (I guess technically she said install and this is an emergency repair, but the details don’t seem to matter to her at this point.) And so here you are, middle of a mission, and she shows up.
No problem, you’re a spy now, you can handle this seamlessly. It’s a computer job, use Hannah’s help, perfect cover for the mission, though communicating with the team does get problematic at times.
Mission accomplished, with a job (and cover) to be there for the grand opening. Integrating spy-life and real-life? It’s a cinch.
A lot of people are noticing things that seem off lately. Shaw is noticing Sarah’s nervous tics and how she likes her coffee, Sarah is noticing, and resisting Shaw’s attraction to her, and Chuck and Casey both noticed the look that passed between those two when Shaw decided he and Sarah would play a couple at the opening.
Ellie and Morgan are noticing Chuck doesn’t seem to be himself.
I just noticed Sarah actually sort of joking with Shaw in the checklist scene, and at least a bit of tension on her part, but at this point it’s the “you aren’t as charming as you think buddy” sort. And it doesn’t pass unnoticed that Shaw is a bit of a d-bag even if Sarah is a bit flustered by his attention.
So mission time means Hannah finally gets what she came to burbank for, some alone time with that hunky charming guy she met on that depressing flight to Paris. At least something good came out of getting fired.
It seems both Chuck and Sarah are a bit starved for affection and companionship. It’s been 6 months since either has had even the “cover” affection the could have with each other, and that wall between Chuck and Sarah doesn’t look to be coming down anytime soon. So Chuck allows himself to succumb to Hannah’s advances. It is charming that he seems surprised, but then he had to hear from others that Sarah loved him to believe it too.
Back to people noticing things that are off. Hannah notices Chuck’s “ex” Sarah with a tremendously handsome date, leading Chuck to notice that there is a ring agent coming to the party. Chuck ducks out to warn Sarah and Shaw which leads to Hannah noticing that Chuck might not be “totally 100%” over Sarah.
On the mission Chuck and Sarah can’t help noticing the other seems to have an amorous co-worker after them, noting (since they’re totally over each other no reason to be jealous, absolutely none) what a cute couple they make. Punctuated by Sarah noticing that Chuck’s gotten close enough to Hannah to be wearing her perfume.
And then everything goes to hell. Hannah tells off Chuck, Sarah tells off Shaw, the Ring captures Hannah and Shaw releases the nerve agent, exposing he and Sarah and locking down Castle with the mask inside.
Don’t worry, we’ve got Chuck Bartowski.
Some quick thinking on a plan and it is a very confident Charles Carmichael who faces off with Vasillis in the museum. One flash later and Chuck has the counter-agent and the Ring agents are scattered. Only one problem. No, not that Casey didn’t get to blow something up, they’re out of time. Chuck needs to get Hannah out of the vault and Casey may not have time to get the antidote to Sarah and Shaw. That’s the problem with being a spy. You sacrifice yourself, your team, or the love of your life so that people like Hannah can continue to live safe and unaware of the ugliness, violence and evil that surrounds them. Thanks to Shaw calling an audible and going to the antidote rather than waiting that eventuality is avoided. But Chuck sees a very couple-y looking Sarah and Shaw. The range of emotions that play over Zach’s face capture the moment perfectly.
Which leads us to that scene. No not that scene. The shoulder rub and the theater room make-out session are an afterthought, a parenthetical after the main point, and the main point is played out in a hallway between Chuck and Sarah.
I won’t write out the dialog, I’ll just link to .
The scene encapsulates the very nature of the CRM. Neither Chuck not Sarah thinks themselves good enough for the other, and so they try to change or try to get the other to give up pieces of themselves to fit into their world when all they need to do is fight for each other. Decide to be together, and then take on whatever challenges that entails, together.
But both are too insecure and afraid of that rejection that Sarah felt, for a time, at the beginning of the season before she understood that it was once again events – Chuck downloading the intersect before she could bring herself to tell him of her choice – rather than Chuck rejecting her as not enough for him. But she still remembers that pain, and Chuck never lost it. And Shaw’s presence is the closing parenthesis on Cole, telling him every day, you aren’t that guy, the guy who can be the man Sarah needs. And once again, though Chuck did the heavy lifting, it’s someone else who saves Sarah.
They don’t fight for each other. They step aside once again to let the other move on with that far more suitable mate. Worse, they’ve endorsed those choices this time, Hannah is great, Shaw is a hero, you are perfect for each other. This from the one person (in both cases) whose approval means more than anything else.
It’s heartbreaking to watch, once more the miss the point, miss-communicate and slip away from what could have been the moment they understood to a moment that separates them further. But it is an honest portrayal of where they are.
I’ll end on this note. In a weird way this is the episode that saved 3.0 for me. With all the discussion and analysis and speculation about big retcons and head-fakes it forced me to look at the show honestly, absent my preferred narrative and letting go of my preconceptions of what they “should” be doing. It made me understand that much of what was happening was that the show was not the same one we saw in season two, it was reinventing itself from a premise that had played out to one that had the potential to cary it forward, but on less budget and with less production time. The production values decline became evident to me by First Class, and the scripting problems manifested themselves in this episode. My favorite show was struggling and the magic I saw in season 2 wasn’t a standard I could fairly apply. I needed to let go of those expectations and accept the show on the terms it was presenting itself to me NOW, not in seasons past. It was a tough thing to admit, and to do, but it made all the difference in the world.
Season 3 was a transition, and a tough one, and this was the toughest part of it, but ultimately, for me, these are the episodes that saved Chuck, because they did the nasty unenviable work of moving Chuck from what it was to what it needed to become if it wasn’t to become a sterile procedural using the same used up jokes and situations, going through the motions just to get another lame, but popular season.
I’ll quote the great Lloyd Dobbler:”I’m looking for a dare to be great situation.” It didn’t work so well in the short term, but paid off in the long term. One more tip o’ the hat to 80’s rom-com and Lloyd Dobbler.
Diane Court: Nobody thinks it will work, do they?
Lloyd Dobler: No. You just described every great success story.
But the mountains and the trees
Are they what you perceive?
Or are they less than what
You’d expect to see?
I’m in an odd state thinking about Chuck vs. The Mask, Ernie; all over the map about it. Even after three-and-a-quarter years there are too many questions. Worse, it’s possible that for each question, there are too many answers. When I saw it the first time March 8, 2010, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode. I rated it right in the middle of nearly all the episodes I had seen when I considered the humor, adventure, the music and even the romance (Not bad. Not bad at all) – right up until the last five minutes. Then my gut started hurting. Now, after seeing it for about the sixth time, I enjoy aspects even more, really. And my gut is wrenching even harder.
Before going any further, let me give the quick synopsis of the story:
Chuck is a full-fledged spy now and seemingly in control of his emotions and the Intersect. He owes that, not to Sarah, but to Shaw, who put him on his first solo mission. For her part,
Sarah’s come to realize that things are different with Chuck now. In her mind, it’s possible that Shaw was right; she was holding him back and Chuck is truly a spy now. That thought doesn’t make her happy.
The episode opens with a ninja attempting to steal a golden mask from what seems to be a museum. He fails, and the room where this happens is a deadly trap. The ninja is forced to reveal (to the audience) his identity in order to ask for help; It’s Shaw, and he needs the Intersect. He needs Chuck. Oh yeah; Chuck really is a spy.
Chuck saves Shaw (go Chuck!) but the mission is a bust. Why is the CIA interested? The mask and other artifacts are being used to smuggle items through Customs, items which are of interest to The Ring. Shaw and the CIA want to know what those items are, and they may be inside items like The Mask.
…Which means the CIA goes to plan B. In his not-so-secret identity as a nerd-herder, Chuck will man the computers and Casey will do surveillance while Shaw and Sarah pose as a couple to steal the mask from the museum and replace it with a fake. Complications ensue when one Vasillis Nikos appears, a Ring Agent with whom Shaw has had previous dealings. The whistle is blown; a substitute player must come into the game for the star player and that substitute is – Chuck.
Shaw’s team succeeds, but Vasillis identifies two of the people on the mission – Chuck and his persistent assistant, Hannah, who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. She’s Chuck’s weak link now, and by entrapping the newest nerd-herder, Vasillis forces Chuck to return to the vault to exchange the real mask for her life. As this is going on, Shaw and Sarah discover that the real mask contains a canister of deadly gas, which is released inadvertently into Castle. Sarah and Shaw have about an hour to live, which is about the time that it will take Chuck to get to the museum, find the antidote and return to save them. It leaves no time to save Hannah.
It seems time enough for Chuck to be clever (like he usually is) and do both (like he usually does). But it’s not.
That synopsis hardly tells the story, does it? It’s great to see Sarah easily resisting Shaw, and something that I didn’t see at first, but should have seen, is that Chuck is more than in control of the situation, in the Buy More, with the spy-stuff and with Sarah. It’s very clever in how Chuck is shown to be in control of his emotions now.
It’s a set up for suckers like me. By the end of the episode, Chuck and Hannah are kissing passionately (much to Ellie’s relief and delight) in the home theater room of the Buy More. Sarah willingly accepts Shaw rubbing her shoulders after a hard day and has told Chuck that she’s okay with his moving on with Hannah. Chuck’s told her he’s okay with Sarah being with Shaw. He is a hero, after all. They’re really saying they’re ready to move on, and the fans are upset.
They are upset by more than just the new romantic pairings. Shaw has been revealed to be less than a stellar spy – it’s his fault that the original mission failed and his fault that poison gas was released into Castle, so Shaw-as-hero gets no credence from the fans. Sarah spends 85% of the episode belittling, berating and putting off her would-be suitor, yet turns around seemingly on a dime. Her What can I say? I have a type! line is amazingly uninformative and shows a surprising lack of self-awareness. Chuck displays a despicable OOC lack of (romantic) loyalty to Sarah that seems to come out of nowhere. The idea that the Ring is after a canister of poison gas (even if it is one of many) is clearly a weak motive for any of this, and the whole “Sarah is dying but Shaw rescues her with his last breath, so he’s a hero” idea is nonsense on stilts.
At the same time, by the end of the episode all that seems almost trivial and unimportant compared to the real irritation; Sarah being attracted (at all!) to Shaw. At the end, that’s what is burned into our memory.
You’d almost think it was intentional. Wouldn’t you?
If the fans had not heard the terrible word “trapezoid” in the months preceding it’s airing, I’m starting to be convinced we would have thought Sarah’s “fling” with Shaw was going to be very temporary. We would have been happy after this.
Shaw: Morning, Walker. [Places a coffee down on Sarah’s desk]
Sarah: Okay. We need to talk.
Shaw: About last night?
Sarah: About everything. About professional boundaries. About you bringing me coffee to work every morning and noticing I like to chew on my swizzle sticks. You’re embarrassing us both. We are just colleagues and that is all we are ever going to be. So please keep your coffee and your cheesy come-ons to yourself. Okay? You got that? Good. Now let’s get back to work.
In fact, both Chuck and especially Sarah show signs of extreme, lime-green jealousy, signs that make any rational fan confident that they are only getting closer. Shippers like me had no reason to be unhappy with anything here until those last few minutes. But I confess. I was more than a little uneasy.
Maybe I was just misreading the story? That’s a question, not a statement. If that’s true, then someone did a bad job. What was I supposed to see? That too is a question. But if someone (the writers or the actors) did a bad job, then why was I so happy with the first 35 minutes (without commercials)? Why is it so clear that I was supposed to be whip-sawed by Sarah’s turn-around and by the change in Chuck? Was that the intent?
I’ll repeat my first words: I’m in an odd state about all of this and there are too many questions.
Penny To Leonard: “Don’t Overthink This”
Chuck vs. The Mask isn’t awful and it certainly isn’t genius. But oddly, it seems to go two-thirds of the way to both extremes. It’s unsettling. There’s always the option of resorting to looking at what’s obviously on the screen; Shaw the Hero, Sarah the leading lady, Chuck the lonely heart and Hannah, come to show Chuck where his heart truly lies. We can always believe that it’ll work out shortly, and we can always say that this episode was just executed poorly.
But there’s a small pearl to be found when hearing the lyrics from Astair. It’s sung just as Chuck and Sarah are trying so hard but failing to explain anything to each other – “Give me a reason that I let you down.” We long for explanations that are not being given.
That pearl is buried so deep that could barely see it. It’s hard for me to say it’s awful when the feelings I experience are this sincere and vivid, even after three years. It’s hard to say that wasn’t their intention, and success in conveying their intentions is one of the most important things. Always.
What was the intention?
First, there’s ominous “Ring music” playing when Shaw rubs Sarah’s shoulders. Did we hate Brandon Routh’s version of Shaw as a good guy? Be of cheer. Shaw is not a good guy. It’s obvious that a threat is coming from his direction and I know I missed it. I have an excuse – the threat doesn’t appear again for several episodes, and then, ambiguously. If that’s a problem with S3 (and I contend Shaw is), it’s not in this episode.
And when finally we hear Matt Costa’s Astair and take the time to look at the words, it’s impossible to not think something important is being said. They were telling us to be patient. No more, no less. A small pearl.
But the mountains and the trees
Are they what you perceive?
Or are they less than what
You’d expect to see?
And if you’re leaving well come.
Give me reason why I let you down.
Before you turn around now, now
Before you turn around.
– Astair Matt Costa