The good news is, this will be my last completely negative review. Of course the bad news is, this will be really negative. I find this not only bad, but horribly bad. Nothing like combining Stockholm Syndrome Sarah with a really offensive spy trope/cliche.
But I think the alternate/fan fiction outlook here is awesome. Final Exam and the set-up of American Hero provide one of the greatest crisis points from Chuck canon. Not only is the scenario loaded with potential, but the rather disappointing canon treatment of it has inspired many writers to try their own version. After the jump, we’ll see what kind of brouhaha I can get into.
To be fair, this episode didn’t start bad at all. In fact, it may be what sets Final Exam apart from episodes like Pink Slip or Fake Name is that much of it could have been quite enjoyable. Sarah all but admits she actually feels something for Chuck, unlike Shaw. And much of the early adventure is funny and entertaining. But the end is such a twisted horror story, I can only reject it utterly if I’m to continue watching the show. I really am so tired of the Red Test trope. I get that it is a staple of the spy genre. It always reminds me of the old story about how Japanese soldiers were taught in World War Two that American Marines were required to kill their own parents to finish their training. And even more terrifying is the thought that many of them apparently believed it. So it really ticks me off to think how many gullible television/movie watchers now believe CIA or MI-6 agents have to perform an assassination to complete their training. Now I do get that Chuck is comedy, and very few people will take what happens here seriously. But it still irks me that this story is told at all.
All that said, it does have a place in modern spy lore, and I can imagine ways this story could have been told that would be less offensive. But they top themselves by giving Sarah such a key role in the story. So the short version is, Shaw manipulates Sarah into manipulating Chuck into killing someone; then Sarah turns to Shaw for comfort afterwards. This still makes me steaming mad just thinking about it. I honestly can think of no other show that ever offended me so deeply that I didn’t just delete on the spot. Perhaps that’s why it leaves me so angry.
I really don’t want to go into it more than that. These posts have never been about deep analysis of the donor episode, I’ll leave that for the main post.
As far as my own wishes for an alternate story, I’d start by saying someone along the way just needs to say no! First and foremost that means Sarah. She has supposedly worried all season long that Chuck is turning into something she despises, and she blames herself for it. I think this would have been a very satisfying time for her to give Chuck a break of some sort. Either providing him with an obvious out like suggesting she will help him bring Hunter Perry in instead of killing him or talking to him in a little more detail about what his options might be. I could deal with the immoral CIA trope, its been there all along on this series, but Sarah’s role in this is just utterly unacceptable. I need a scenario where she is a little more involved in fixing what’s wrong and what its going to do to Chuck. At the very least, Sarah needs to be there for Chuck.
If we go back to some of the “long fix” ideas we’ve discussed in weeks past this could have been quite fun as a collaborative effort for Chuck and Sarah. If we knew Shaw was trying to break up the team or break Chuck’s spirit it might have been very interesting to see what might be done to undermine his efforts. What if Perry is really a risk because he knows Shaw is dirty? We could end up with Chuck and Sarah actually having to protect him instead of kill him. That sounds more fun to me right off!
Final Exam does set up a very exciting crisis point. We have Chuck being pushed to kill, Sarah completely abandoning him, and a possible reassignment to Rome (continuing the sequence of events into American Hero). This might be the single most written about period of time apart from the Pilot itself. Unfortunately, from an organization stand point, it can be hard to sort out some of these alternates as to which episode they really belong. So I think I’m going to take a pretty narrow view this week and only mention a couple stories that are clearly about Final Exam. Next week, when I expect the episode itself to be a little less controversial, I think I will list a few more stories.
So let me start with the last installment from KateMcK’s “Chuck vs The Fight“. This is the last episode she will address in this piece, and I think its easily her best effort. It is five chapters long, which makes it by far the longest too. This is truly how this episode should have gone. It is fun and satisfying on many levels. It is narrated entirely from Sarah’s perspective; and no doubt, Sarah is very hard on herself. But Zombie Sarah is nowhere in sight. She will come to terms with what’s really important to her, face up to her feelings for Chuck, what exactly Shaw means to her, and take the sort of action she needed to salvage this story, Throw in an entertaining and satisfying scene with Ellie and this is as good as it gets. Wonderful story.
The next story bridges that gap between Final Exam and American Hero alternates (just like most of what we’ll look at next week does!). It is “Spies, Secrets and Lies” by mia2009 but it clearly starts at the end of Final Exam and is well into alternate territory before it ever gets to American Hero. This is a more medium length story. It will deal with most of what was wrong with the show and provide an exciting resolution. It also sets up a more extended AU with two much longer sequels and a funny alternate-alternate. Go to mia2009‘s author’s page for the full listing.
I know this episode is easy for many of us to get very emotional about. As always, expect a sympathetic audience here if you want to vent, or even seriously critique. Just remember to keep it respectful of fellow commenters, and keep criticisms of the show professional in nature, not personal. Even better, I always look forward to alternates; how did you want to see this story go? What changes did you need to see? Or just where did your imagination take you? This series has been a lot of fun, and even quite satisfying to me. I look forward to everyone’s input.