Well, there’s no doubt I don’t care for this episode much. That may be a horrible way to start a post, but I just can’t find a more neutral way of putting it. And you all know I loath season three anyway, so I guess there’s little point in being more diplomatic about it.
But that does leave the door wide open again for alternative ways of telling the story. There is great potential in the story of Chuck becoming an actual agent. And while there are many details I could nitpick, it is primarily the problems with the central relationship that sink both episode and season. So let’s look at this part of the story; and once again see if we can find a way well of telling it that would actually not make Chuck look like a jerk, Sarah look stupid, and have some entertainment value for more of us. So after the jump, we’ll try to make a good parts version of Chuck vs The Mask.
I hate to spend too much time on the episode itself. As I’ve said before, it’s just not worth it. My quip usually goes that they redefined rock bottom a few times during the season. And there are seven episodes I just won’t ever re-watch. But we get three of them in the main arc here that I feel special contempt for; Mask, Fake Name and Final Exam together make a sort of “Dark Age” for the show (Pink Slip equals those three in a way, but its also different from the rest of the conversation. And the other three I won’t re-watch I don’t hate quite as much!). Now I do get that some people will like that sort of darker story. But I don’t, and commentary since the time the season first ran has made it clear a significant number of viewers share my views on this. Mask is where things really come unglued, and that pretty much comes down to the last ten minutes. Two things particularly stand out; Chuck being a slime ball for getting involved with Hannah, and Sarah starting to get friendly with Shaw even though it looks like Yvonne isn’t buying a second of it. As always, the only finger I care to point is directly at the writers. There is no way this story ever should have even been pursued. It makes Chuck and Sarah both look terrible, thereby robbing the show of its greatest strength. I could have maybe bought into half a season of estrangement for them (and for the record, if we accept the split at Pink Slip, we’re now past the point where they need to be reconciled) but another round of tiresome love triangles? No way. They’ve already done this theme to death. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have liked estrangement without the triangles either, but it likely wouldn’t have left me still steaming mad three years later.
The execution was pretty horrible too. Brandon Routh as Shaw never comes across as likable or sympathetic; which reflects pretty poorly on Sarah, who had been the favorite character for many viewers. But Mask and Fake Name are more about making Chuck look like a cretin. The damage here is severe enough I will never quite have the same affection for the title character that I did in the first two seasons. It doesn’t help that after Chuck being a total jerk for a couple weeks, we see Sarah be stupid for quite a while longer. This isn’t ever about if their actions can be explained or justified; its about entertainment choices. Nothing in fiction is a forgone conclusion, it can be written any way it can be imagined. Sure, some story-lines, twists or resolutions may ring false, especially if the characters are disrespected (which is exactly what many of us feel happened here), but there is literally and infinite number of ways this story could have been told. And whether any single reader likes these episodes or not, the bottom line is, somewhere around a third of Chuck fans despised them. Our polls at this site actually indicate a slightly higher percentage than that disliked the main arc (41%), but of course its only from 156 voters, and we couldn’t measure those who had already quit the show. This just makes for a very discouraging period to be a Chuck fan.
Which brings us to “Chuckpocalypse”. Mask first ran before the Winter Olympics in 2010. It ended on such an uncomfortable note, that Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak were taken to task by a large number of Chuck fans. They initiated some pretty obvious damage control that ran all through the Olympic break. I won’t go into all the details here (but really, feel free to address whatever you want in comments) except to mention it was pretty obvious TPTB knew they’d screwed up pretty bad. Not only was this a terrible episode, it was an even more terrible place for a break. At a time when many of us just wanted to get this arc over with, it was being dragged out even further by scheduling demands.
So what could have been different? At this point, I have to address that in two different ways. The entire S3 canon is a burden that is seriously weighing down every episode to the end of the season. So I feel the need to go back to 3.01 again and just say the whole season needed to be different. I can imagine Mask being quite a fun episode if Chuck and Sarah were in a secret relationship at this point. With Hannah and Shaw both getting more aggressive in their pursuits, secret Charah could have been very entertaining in several ways. Starting with trying to rebuff advances without an obvious good excuse. Its especially easy to imagine Sarah having to keep the real reason she’s “not available” quiet. And of course Chuck, never wanting to cause offense, would be very awkward trying to escape Hannah. I could imagine him constantly trying to set her up with Morgan, without looking like he’s just trying to get away. Of course Ellie could be complicating matters too, trying to encourage Chuck to “move on”. Bonus points if Devon has been dragged into things being the only one who knows Chuck and Sarah are seeing each other. Or I wonder if a double fake could work? Maybe Devon knows about the spy life but not the relationship, while Ellie is still in the dark about spy world but knows Chuck and Sarah are together! Hmmm, but then why would Ellie think they are faking being broken up? I don’t know, this may require further thought later. Add in a little Sarah jealousy as she thinks Chuck is being way to nice with Hannah, and I think it all could have been an amusing mess.
That’s all sort of “the long fix”. If we only tinker with Mask itself, that becomes “the short fix” (I may use those conventions again for coming Alternative posts). The most obvious thing is just that the talk in the hallway has to go different. I’m actually not thrilled with much of the episode. But that last Charah talk I think has to be the focal for making amends. It seems so loaded with things not said. I can easily imagine it going a little differently. As Chuck was still the source of Sarah’s grief, he needs to initiate their reconciliation. Maybe picking up on Sarah’s “I have a type” line. “I used to hope that included me” is only a little pathetic, and not too terribly different from how Chuck actually does broach the subject in Other Guy. Anything to trigger an actual open discussion between them would have been an improvement. We are well into the period now when Chuck and Sarah’s inability to talk with each other is stupid and ridiculous. This could have been a great place to stop it. Its one of those small things that could have saved a season.
So how has Mask been served in fan fiction? The first piece I have is KateMcK again. Chapter six of “Chuck vs The Fight” is devoted to this episode. She lets the show itself play out as shown, but Chuck and Sarah finally have a heart to heart at their beach just afterwards. Once again, Kate provides a pretty satisfying resolution.
Another fix to the show’s canon comes from Wepdiggy in “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You“. This starts shortly after the episode with an awkward date night where Chuck and Hannah end up at the same restaurant as Sarah and Shaw. From that horrifying set up, comes the mandatory resolution. This also makes for a fun read.
Many other stories make use of story elements from Mask, but the vast majority of those have Chuck and Sarah in a better place going in to it. Really its kind of funny, I cannot think of many fan fiction writers who have chosen to draw the relationship drama out this far. They mostly seem to share my view that things just needed to be better by this point. There are a few writers who have taken a far darker view of things, but I’ll never recommend any such thing. And of course quite a few stories will come that “fix” things after a later date, we’ll cover many of those in turn. A lot of other writers launched stories at this point. Just like discussion traffic at this blog, the Olympic break became one of the most intense periods of activity.
This could easily be an angry discussion. I know myself, and many regular commenters here still have a degree of anger and bitterness over what was done on the show. But let’s try to play by our usual rules; keep language civil, and don’t question the character, motives or integrity of individuals. That means both fellow commenters, and those involved with the show itself. We can have strong feeling about content, but let’s play nice with each other!