I don’t think it’s a secret that I consider this episode a favorite. It’s where the momentum for the end of the season started, and where at long last the underlying themes of the season were openly addressed and the story could move forward. Finally Chuck is confronted with the ugly truth that his principles and his ambitions may be incompatible, and the choice will be the most important one he will ever make. Finally Sarah must confront the possibility that her influence on Chuck may lead to his downfall, that she has set Chuck on a journey whose inevitable end she can’t bear to think about, but can’t forget either. And there is nothing she can do to stop it. Join me to look once again at the pivotal episode of season 3, Chuck Versus The Final Exam, after the jump.
This isn’t likely to be a long review or recap. I’ve written about this one at some length, so you can read that review here. And if you haven’t you should read Joe’s definitive treatise on what we learn about Sarah at the end of this episode, Saving Agent Walker. But like the episode I want to get right to the point. This is the episode where Chuck and Sarah let each other down. Wait you ask, didn’t Chuck let Sarah down in Prague when he left her at the train station to become spy? Didn’t Sarah let Chuck down when she went running to that sadistic Jerk Shaw and tell him her real name? Haven’t they continually let each other down this season by not talking or not being there for each other the way they had in the past? No. They haven’t let each other down in the same way we are about to see. While it’s true they haven’t been there for each other that is because the nature of their relationship has changed. Sarah can’t treat Chuck like a pet anymore, and Chuck can’t keep trying to force Sarah to choose him over who she is. While the love has always been there the relationship has always been dysfunctional and possessive on both parts. Each has seen something of themselves in the other’s eyes and has sought to become more like that image. Chuck has worked to become the hero and savior Sarah sees and Sarah has tried to open up to the world and trust, or perhaps even try to love. Each has remained true to that image and with some difficulty has allowed the other to take their private journey without holding them back for their own sake.
And so Sarah let Chuck grow up and venture into the spy world without her because it is what he wanted, and Chuck let Sarah find companionship and trust with another more suitable mate. Until now.
Sarah betrayed Chuck and Chuck betrayed Sarah. Or at least they saw it that way.
As much as Sarah has depended on Chuck to anchor her in the real world and to give her spy-life meaning Chuck has depended on Sarah to anchor him in the spy-life, to show him that you can make a difference and do the right thing despite the compromises and sacrifices that are asked of you. She’d shown him that you don’t have to turn into John Casey to be a spy, you can still care for and fight for the people you love. That is why Sarah’s Mauser Moment was so devastating for Chuck. He knew Sarah had killed people, he’d seen her shoot people, but Sarah Walker didn’t shoot unarmed and defenseless people. We know that in reality Mauser wasn’t unarmed. He was the weapon, a cocked gun pointed at Chuck’s head, and he needed to be eliminated, hard as it was for her to do so. Chuck eventually understood that spies, even unarmed ones, can still be deadly when he burned Manoosh. But Chuck relied on Sarah not crossing those lines that take away your humanity, that she could navigate that world without losing herself completely to it, and that she could show him how. And now the only spy Chuck truly trusts with his best interests is telling him to kill a man in cold blood.
The price of his ambition is his humanity, and Sarah is the one telling him that everything he’s worked for and dreamed of can be his, for the cost of another man’s life. And it’s all a lie. Sarah has allowed herself to be used against Chuck, to convince him that he not only can, but should kill in cold blood. Her feelings for Chuck have trapped her into a mission where the only way she can be there to protect him is to use his feelings for her against him, and you see a bit of Sarah die in that restaurant with Chuck, and you can’t help but feel he sees it too. A little piece of his Sarah is gone.
And Sarah’s Chuck let her down. He was not the same guy she fell for, and it’s all her fault. He was supposed to be her shot at redemption, but instead she dragged him down to her degraded moral state. She feels toxic and unworthy of love or happiness because of Chuck and what he did for her when he is supposed to give her hope and happiness and a refuge from the cold and dark of the spy world, but now he embodies all of that, because of her and her presence in his life.
While we know Chuck isn’t lost to Sarah she can’t see past her own misery, which is why she sits in her room, declining Chuck’s calls and re-living the worst night of her life, until now. And we now see why Sarah seems lost to Chuck and why he needs to finally take control of his life for the sake of everyone around him.
We know the conflict, we know the struggles, and now we know the way forward for Chuck and Sarah, and painful as it can be to see Sarah at her Nadir and Chuck unable to help, we know that isn’t a permanent state of affairs. Chuck has a destiny linked to Sarah’s. Sarah needs to be Saved, and Chuck is now the man for the job.
P.S. I don’t think its passing should go un-noticed or un-mourned. Say good-bye to the Orange Orange and its associated uniform. Like the Weinerliscious before it we have seen the last of the O-O. No more cover jobs for Sarah.
The Only Time I’ll See You
This one will be a little different. There’s no recapitulation of Chuck vs. The Final Exam here and I’m certainly not going to try to convince you of some highfalutin’ deconstruction of this episode. Instead, all I can is tell you that, after re-watching for the – oh – sixth time or so, and after three years of thinking on it, this time was different. I can’t say that I understand. I can say something else, though.
This episode affected me. It never did before. It does now.
Before you read on, please hit the play button on that song. It’s the final piece used in Chuck vs. The Final Exam and it’s going to be hard to understand what I’m trying to say without it. Maybe with it, too.
Something funny happens to me at about the 2:08 mark. The song goes from being a soft, acoustic prayer to something that I think of as a power-ballad. That’s not to say it becomes a pop-tune. Not at all. If fact, as soon as I use a technical term like “power-ballad,” I realize I’ve missed something.
2:08 is the point where I join in, hitting the air-cymbals of the imaginary drum kit sitting where my desk usually is. It’s the point where I’m once again playing my Les Paul in the band I haven’t sung with in 15 years.
But that’s not all of it. It’s the moment when a person who loves music the way I do forgets that there is a wall between the artist who wrote it and himself and it’s the instant when he becomes the song. I’m literally lost in the music at 2:08; I am in a different place and I am different.
Even if you love music in a way that’s different from me, you may have experienced that same thing those times when something clicks. You’re almost forced to say “I get it” with conviction.
Yeah, so when I first watched this episode I had an inkling of the storm that was coming in the fandom. This one was not going to be liked. IIRC, I wrote on this blog myself that I had pretty much capitulated and given up on S3 (about two episodes later than everyone else, it seemed). It felt like everything I thought I knew about Chuck and Sarah was wrong and that redemption for them was not possible. Hoping that they would actually get together seemed like a fool’s errand and maybe not even worth the wait. Not if they were going to be different characters, it wasn’t.
I gotta say that sometime later, I said in a podcast I had a feeling season 3 would someday be my favorite. Even as I spoke the words it seemed unlikely, and really, in the three years since Final Exam first aired, nothing seemed to change in my opinion much. So I came to the uneasy conclusion that this was a necessary, if incomprehensible, interlude in the journey of my favorite characters, perhaps one not to dwell on.
But it happened this time. There came a point, just like in the music, when “I got it.” No, I agree with Dave. This episode is not entertaining; it’s heart-wrenching. Despite the comedic moments, it’s not funny. It’s not meant to be. The intent of Chuck vs. The Final Exam isn’t to make you satisfied or uplifted or energized, all those things we’ve come to experience and expect from watching this show. You are supposed to mourn and maybe even want to cry.
Chuck dies in this episode. Even more than in The Ring pt. 2, Chuck dies, overpowered by something much bigger than he is, and Sarah is left to mourn with us. The light goes out in her eyes and we, the fans, are supposed to lose all hope that it will ever come back.
We don’t even know, yet, that this is a tale of salvation – here, at the end of Chuck vs. The Final Exam, we are not left with that hope, because we don’t even know yet who it is who will be saved. Chuck? Sarah? both of them and Casey together? If you’re a real purest, you’ll know that Morgan, Devon and Ellie are also in peril and can’t be forgotten. Not by Chuck.
I felt three years ago that this, Chuck and Sarah refusing or unable to repair the damage done in Prague, was a story that had gone on too long. Maybe it really was just a timing thing, brought on by the weeks-long Olympics interruption. That, in turn, was caused by the scheduling change that started the season in January instead of the originally intended March. It was all a cascade of events, much bigger than anticipated.
Which sounds now, to my ears, like a description of the story itself. Even more-so, it’s an apt description of my reaction to it. I don’t think I was ready for it three years ago. Now, at this late date, I’m very much surprised at the depth of emotions and the very power I’m seeing in Final Exam. I know some of you disagree and even laugh at the idea. That’s okay. It’s the 2:08 mark and I’m carried away. It seems unimportant, right now, that this might be a very private thing.
I know I’ll see you
In my sleep
Yeah, I know what’s coming in Chuck’s apartment and in Paris and I know how soon. You see, the song is not about death, not even about the death of a romance. The one thing that’s not dead is the love. The song is only a good-bye.
What’s about to happen and what I know already just didn’t matter this time around. It’s only important for me to see every second of those episodes again. I’ve been set up perfectly, and it’s going to be that good.
Obviously we’re all here because we have a fondness for Chuck and so in some ways this will be like preaching to the choir. Chuck is a good show. It has heart, it has laughs and it has love. But when it nears its end (as in season finales and sometimes beginning) something special happens. It’s as if it becomes an entirely new show, usually far more vibrant in every aspect of its storytelling. The march to Other Guy is no exception and it starts with Final Exam. Ernie went over most of the salient points above, Joe, the emotion. Initially I was as high as cloud nine upon watching this episode, it was that good. At least to me. And while this episode doesn’t hold up nearly as well as others (the ploys are a little too on the nose at fifteenth watch), I still have fond feelings for it. Partly because I can empathize with the depth of emotion. I feel like we’ve gone through the wringer in just this one season (macrocosm) and this episode (micro) certainly didn’t let up. You can clearly see and feel the raw emotion behind all the goings on in the episode, that is its true strength. Kudos to both Zac and Yvonne for their performances. “In My Sleep” by Austin Hartley Leonard just caps it.
It’s not a coincidence that the episode was titled “Final Exam.” For a couple of reasons: first being they truly did feel this would be it for the show (can never forget how many series finales these guys were pushed into–a strength and a weakness). Second, Chuck failed his first exam when he let himself be seduced into the spy life and subsequently left his humanity for a cheeseball eating–girlfriend dumping after sex and in front of her parents–jerk to his family–who only cared about being a spy. This is his final test.
They tried to trick us (lots of trickery in this episode). They tried to make us believe the test was about Chuck’s future as a spy:
Sarah: “The final part of your mission is to kill him”
Chuck: “I can’t do that.”
Sarah: “Then you won’t become a spy.”
Chuck: “But then we couldn’t…”
Sarah: “No, probably not.”
Even this sounds familiar:
Chuck: “Sarah when all this started, I didn’t think I would have a chance to ever become a real spy. But if I can’t do this–then, then what would I be?”
Sarah: “Then you’d be Chuck and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Chuck failed that test the first time when he left her in that train station in Prague. He failed that test again when he went down the rabbit hole “Living a Lie,” leaving her anchorless only to hit rock bottom by Beard. This time? Well this time it’s different. He fails this and he loses her forever. Not necessarily to Shaw, but Chuck is quite literally being tested for her love, for her humanity. When last we spoke, I said Sarah needed saving, well this begins the ultimate test to her humanity. I think if she were to truly believe that she’s lost Chuck, if he were unable to convince her otherwise, “Sarah Walker” would have been gone forever and only the facade (Sam?) would remain, forever. No real emotions, certainly no love and the “real girl” would be vanished for an empty existence. Sad right? The stakes are high for Chuck, and he is tested (hence final exam!–see what I did there 😉 ).
Chuck is stuck between a rock and a hard place, the stupid stick seems rampant and Kobayashi Maru is out to get him but Casey said it best (in season 4, Balcony): “all you need’s the girl.”
It may seem as if Chuck failed the exam at the end of this episode (because Sarah thinks she has lost him, and may in fact have lost herself in the process), it may even seem that Sarah failed Chuck at the end as well (by not seeing deeper into the man that she loves and knowing on the inside he would never!), it may even seem as if they’ve failed each other and themselves but that’s just another trick. Listen to message in the song*:
“I know you will be
Holding me in my sleep.”
This time Chuck will grab ahold of love and damn the world. Question is, can he convince her his heart is true? Will Sarah let herself believe? All these are asked and answered in American Hero where it’s “Go, don’t stop.” Can’t wait.