Well finally we get to a truly dynamite episode. No more cheap angst or hand wringing. This is the episode where everything really turns around. Between a good main story with Chuck as the true hero, Sarah finally shaking out of her slump, and a completely satisfying “B” plot for the secondary characters this episode shows how good the show can be when its firing on all cylinders.
The realm of alternatives and fan fiction is as good here as at any point in the series too. Between Chuck and Sarah facing issues of Red Tests, and a possible reassignment to Rome, a lot is presented here to fire the imagination. After the jump, we’ll look at the penultimate episode of the front arc of Season Three.
I think the humor in American Hero is extremely well done. Especially the attempted reunion of Chuck and Sarah by ambush; Devon, Morgan and Casey all get their moments to shine. Later Jeff and Lester will be key to the story in a most humorous way too. This is the sort of thing Chuck so often does better than any other show. By giving us quirky characters we can like and root for, and putting a lot on the line, it is easy to invest in the humor and cheer along.
But of course my favorite element of this episode is how Chuck gets to be the big hero, for Sarah’s sake. He succeeds enough to get a sort of second hearing from her, and his declarations of love, along with what he’s learned about what really matters most to him is enough to finally break through the walls Zombie Sarah has put up over the course of the season. Sarah’s decision in the end, to run off with Chuck, may be an inadequate resolution in the full context of Season Three, but as a stand alone moment it is wonderful and satisfying to see. Even better when Casey puts her fears to rest, and satisfies Sarah she’s made the best possible decision. Tossing her gun on the bed may be oddly inappropriate given her life and future, but it was a wonderful gesture. Great moment, great television.
So I have a question. How many readers have figured out that Joe and I are messing with you? Neither of us have quite lied; but I think Joe, in the main post, and myself here, have just pushed our actual opinions of American Hero to ridiculous extremes. Joe wanted to me to post the following comment, to set straight his actual feelings:
Whooo! I was so glad to get that out of my system! Yes, that critique I wrote about Chuck vs. The American Hero contains my honest feelings about the episode and about S3, but now I must be honest with you. It wasn’t complete, either.
Now that Dave has explained how we swapped viewpoints (oooooh that was fun!) I want to add to my last line; “I finished American Hero feeling like a miracle needs to happen.” But like we’ve seen often in Chuck, the next episode starts at the very end of the current episode. Oh yes, that miracle is about to occur and starts with Sarah throwing her gun on the bed. She’s leaving something behind – her spy life, her old life. What’s there on the night stand is her future. It’s a picture – the picture – of her and Chuck. We’ll see it again.
For now, it’s only a subtle promise made by TPTB, and specifically, I think, by Chris Fedak. He’s asking us to hang in there; we’re moments away. In fact, I think it’s an apology for having taken so long. Sarah will appreciate the tank.
For myself, I would have to say in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t really like American Hero all that much. But I don’t dislike it as much as most previous episodes either. Some of that is just the relief of seeing things getting resolved in the end. But it still suffers greatly from the greater context problem of just how bad Sarah looks thinking she should be with Daniel Shaw. Even worse, she lashes out at Chuck in pretty ugly fashion and completes the abandonment she started way back in Pink Slip. As far as that goes, this episode finds another sort of rock bottom. But unlike most other misery arc episodes, American Hero finally ends on an up note, more or less. Sarah running off with Shaw at the end may be another of those gross manipulations we’ve complained about all season long; but Sarah has finally made an epic decision. And its one we’ve been waiting on almost since the start of the show (or at least since she made the same decision last season…); Sarah wants to be with Chuck, whether they will be spies together, or find something else. Those details will take the rest of the series to work out and go through several revisions along the way, but the big decision has been made. Next week, Chuck gets to find out about it. The story will move forward from here, no more wandering in circles.
One last thought about the episode itself; when Chuck first confronts Sarah in the episode he mentions how this is what he always wanted and now they can be together. To me, this really underlines the futility of the entire arc! It makes Chuck’s time with Hannah out to be the cheesy, shallow fling it seemed to be. I’ll go a step further and say it basically destroys much of the apologist position. If Chuck was really planning on becoming an agent to be with Sarah all along, it makes all the misunderstandings and heartache of the season that much more bitter and pointless. There truly was no real character growth (apart from as an agent, I do not mean to deny that) if the struggle and lessons learned of the whole season were just to get back to the starting point. Of course, that’s what we detractors were saying all along. It’s nothing but a reset. American Hero just puts a ribbon on it. Now I never mean to say any viewer is wrong to enjoy the show! But I think claiming great growth and great journeys from a circle is wrong too. In a way, all television may be a gigantic waste of time; except as entertainment. So if you enjoy the season that’s plenty enough reward. But when the show is no fun, and even its “importance” is suspect, the wastage seems even greater.
So what could have worked better here? I think the “short fix” really requires very little tweaking. That is, if we can make peace with so much of what’s come before. But mostly I’m just annoyed with how happy Sarah seems to be on her date with Shaw. Seems like a small thing. But it plays back to one of the major complaints with the whole misery arc, Zombie Sarah is barely recognizable from the character we knew for two years before. Shaw is a cretin and Sarah needs to recognize him as such. And even worse, she’s acting less zombie-like than we’ve seen. This really speaks poorly of her discernment if she can find happiness or contentment with Daniel Shaw. We can know she’s fooling herself, or trying to. She’s trying to find something in Shaw he doesn’t have to give. But we’ve seen all the evidence of this all season long, so Sarah looking like she’s making peace with it really doesn’t reflect well on her. It is just painful to watch as a viewer, and painful in the way of making our heroine look like an idiot once again. The decision she reaches in the end simply needed to be a much easier decision.
The “long fix” would be far more satisfying for this episode because of all the baggage we’re dealing with. More than anything, long fix has to mean Chuck and Sarah have been working together from the start. Of course that negates the value of a “getting them back together” story. Which is too bad in way, because it was so funny having the whole gang “helping” Chuck out. But I would happily give up one funny sequence to get a story that is more satisfying and appealing.
There are a few key things happening in this episode even if Chuck and Sarah are happily together. The first is Chuck becoming an agent. This could be a great moment. As seen, its a little underwhelming because of the huge Charah distraction. But I can imagine a story where maybe it means Chuck and Sarah could finally come out in the open. I like the idea of all the people they’ve “convinced” they weren’t really a couple responding now that they finally are. Of course some characters, like Casey and Morgan, were probably in on it all along. And perhaps Ellie and Devon had strong suspicions. While Shaw will feel like an idiot once again as he discovers that Sarah was resisting his charms in favor of the nerd. Could have been very funny to see a narcissistic super spy try to come to terms with that reality.
This also might be a fun place to play with the idea of Chuck trying to assure that Sarah will remain on his team. Perhaps Beckman and/or Shaw is still big on the idea of Chuck being a solo operator. While Chuck and Sarah are trying to convince them that Chuck needs a team. A combination of sales pitch and threats could be entertaining. Time for Charah to go on the offensive!
The last big thing is Shaw’s reveal as a baddie. Imagine a world where we all might have cared! That’s what I want to see. Chuck’s mentor, friend, and partner turns out to be so bent on revenge he turns on Sarah (and Chuck). With no love interest this could become a big story. So perhaps we loose a funny restaurant scene early in the episode, we could have gained so much more with different story-telling decisions. This will always be a huge lost opportunity.
So how has fan fiction dealt with this episode? As I indicated last week, this really is one of the great crisis points from Chuck canon. Many tales have spun off from the end of training/Rome assignment issues. Many of these stories are very well crafted and thought out, but, there is so much baggage from canon at this point, I’m not sure how many of them are actually better. One positive most do share, is the idea that more explanation/apology/redemption was needed from our main characters. My feelings are always mixed about drawing things out too long. As I’ve indicated many times, I don’t really do “dark”. With the show, I was just so pleased to finally get something I actually wanted to watch back on the air I was willing to over-look quite a lot. No doubt, I would have rejected a longer fix if it had wasted a whole episode or more. But with fan fiction things can be a little different. The written word is clearly better at introspection and complicated character stories than television usually is.
So with all that in mind, I do have a few very well thought out American Hero AUs. KateMcK is clearly determined to make season three better. She has tried twice on this episode. The first is “Sarah vs the ugly truth“. This goes back to Chuck’s first plea with Sarah to trust him; when Sarah says she doesn’t, Chuck reacts oppositely from the show. He decides Sarah is a tease who’s been playing him and determines to walk away. Not a fun start. But it does put Sarah in the position of pursuer. It does deal with Sham in a quick and painless way, and ultimately leads to a good resolution and end. Certainly more complete and thorough than canon.
Her second attempt is “Chuck vs the fight: New Year’s Edition“. I think this is really one of her very best efforts. It is set over six months after the events of an alternate American Hero and Other Guy. Yeah, that’s sort of a double episode AU. Finding out the “true story” in this alternate is half the fun. The ways it’s similar, and yet very different from canon are a lot of fun. It’s not a long read, be sure to check it out.
Next up is something much longer and more involved. It is “Chuck vs The Rome Assignment” by fogh (currently as a repost from Uplink2 as “foghreups”). First up, a warning. This story is not complete. Apparently fogh had a couple more chapters in mind that he never got around to posting. It currently ends with quite a cliff hanger and no clear way out. But the good news is, the things we would consider big issues with regards to canon are dealt with in outstanding fashion. Fogh takes on a much more involved and painful journey, Chuck and a team are assigned to Rome; a team that pointedly does not include Sarah. But this is the sort of story that will reward patience. Sarah and Chuck will work through many issues, including some great scenes with Ellie and Orion. This is really one of the great stories of this fandom, and one of the very, very best that was never finished.
This is the last of my long alternate posts. I think I’ll put a short one up next week with Other Guy, and occasional short alternate posts as we continue the re-watch. As always, be sure to include your own ideas for other ways of telling this story, and I think this discussion could be very satisfying. For many of us, the misery is now over.