Yet another comment that has turned itself in to a post.
As many of you know quite the discussion on the episode Chuck Versus Santa Clause, and specifically the ending and its execution (in both senses) has developed on Dave’s Episode of the week post. I had some comments in mind. Apparently a lot of comments. The comments eventually constituted a post. And so here we are with another post on Chuck Versus Santa Claus. But you should also read the episode of the week discussion. Go ahead and catch up if you haven’t read it. Then join me after the jump. I’ll wait.
First, while the discussion on Dave’s weekly episode post inspired this I do want to touch on a few more aspects of the episode than just the ending. For one thing this is one of those episodes that flows organically from the last, with the closeness we saw developing between Chuck and Sarah continuing, then hitting a speed-bump in one of what I find to be the least contrived and best executed pull-backs in the Charah express.
Chuck Versus Santa Claus is in the middle of an arc originally meant to end a 13 episode season with Chuck Versus The DeLorean, Chuck Versus Santa Claus, Chuck Versus The Best Friend, and Chuck Versus The Third Dimension, in that order. When they storyboarded the original 13 episode season that’s the order they intended and how they structured it. when they started production on these episodes, that was the intended order. They did however know early in the writing process that the backorder was pretty much a done deal, and then that the episode order would need to be changed to air the 3D episode the Monday after the Super Bowl. But you can see that a lot of the structure of the original storyboarding still remains in these episodes. The end of Third dimension is almost an exact copy, though more comedic than dramatic, of Chuck Versus The Ring, with Chuck making a conscious choice to become a spy (or at least to join the team on missions when he was given a chance to opt out) and “To Be Continued” flashes on the screen. That is preceded in both cases with an arc, or at least a few episodes of Chuck chafing against the spy life and his and the team’s role in it.
Now obviously the season break and the desire to get the 3D episode on after the Super Bowl made some changes a necessity, and many of those changes were well done, some less so. For instance the notorious charm bracelet as a symbol of their non-spy relationship is fore-fronted in Santa Claus and Best Friend, but absent in 3D. Chuck Versus the Third Dimension has the excellent nightmare sequence and Chuck’s jumpy on edge stressed out cereal pouring, but also a pretty nonchalant (in spy terms) morning greeting from Sarah, and a fairly easy-going rapport between Chuck and Sarah for the most part. But in both cases, even with the fixes, a lot of the narrative is still there. My guess is that the original intent was to make the Mauser resolution a part of the conflict over having to betray Morgan where everything comes to a head over Morgan and Chuck throws Mauser in Sarah’s face. Resolution is essentially him seeing what his apparent death did to Sarah and we have the sweet moment watching Jeffster in the Buy More, with that kernel of doubt still there between them, but Chuck choosing to try to understand she still needs him, despite his doubts and misgivings. That would have been an organic, not overtly dark, but with enough dark and doubtful undertones to properly serve the drama and the impact of the decision to go with Mauser.
OK, they didn’t do that, I know, but they did something similar. They adapted 3D to serve as the best friend controversy where Chuck is chafing over what he has had to do and what Sarah does. They knew by the time they were writing these episodes that they had the full season so could move up the “To Be Continued” without worry and adapt 3D and best friend as more stand-alone episodes. They would after all get to revisit Chuck’s choice even over still lingering doubts about Sarah.
So here is what leads up to Chuck’s reaction to Sarah’s execution of an enemy agent.
In DeLorean Chuck learns something about Sarah. That normal high school girl he thought he learned about in Cougars was in fact a con man’s daughter who grew up as a career criminal and was also repeatedly betrayed by a father she adored. She’s pretty messed up emotionally, just like him.
Christmas is a pretty depressing time for Sarah, we see this as the episode opens. Chuck is determined to become a surrogate family, and this is his first mistake. An emotional Sarah, especially when it comes to Chuck, often acts rashly.
While there are many great moments in this episode there are two that give the most context to the Mauser scene. The first is the bracelet scene. Sarah is walking through the Buy More alone as everyone else calls loved ones. It’s reinforced again, Sarah’s isolation, and how it hits home this time of year for her. Chuck’s gift, and nearly explicit statement of his feelings and her place in his life and family, while wonderful and thoughtful and true, is made under duress of a sort. He gives her the gift and tells her his feelings while they are held hostage. They are both confident of the outcome, but Chuck is still under a lot of stress, and as we soon learn nobody is taking the threat seriously enough. The second is Sarah’s promise that she will never let anyone hurt him. One of those charming lies we all make to those we love when we know they need to hear them, very much like “I’m not going anywhere, and neither are you.”
Before knowing the stakes Chuck has pushed Sarah in to a level of emotional commitment she’s unfamiliar with and uncertain how to process. Before knowing the stakes Sarah has put not just Chuck’s safety, but his freedom and her place in his life above anything else.
While everyone is waiting for the crisis to resolve itself so they can get back to their holiday plans Fulcrum has been methodically walking them all in to a trap. Within a matter of minutes Chuck is separated from his protection and his handlers, and taken hostage, along with his sister by the very organization everyone sought to keep his identity hidden from. It is probably the most sinister and effective Fulcrum has ever come across to me. Certainly the enemy has rarely hit so close to home for either Chuck or Sarah and Casey.
And here is where we get to another aspect of Chuck, and perhaps Sarah’s reaction. While there is a big part of Chuck who wants nothing to do with the spy world and does his best not to think about it, there is another part that resents being shut out by the rest of the team. A part of him fees left out, even if he knows at some level he doesn’t want to be involved with a lot of the things Sarah and Casey do, as an honorable man it bothers him that others have to do these things on his behalf. In his name as it were…
So once again, Chuck is isolated with the enemy who knows exactly how to get to him. Don’t threaten him, threaten his sister. It has always been immediately effective with Chuck. He will not let someone else take the bulet meant for him. So untrained and alone with a pair of hardened Fulcrum agents who make it perfectly clear they mean business and will brook no delay in his compliance Chuck does what he usually does and metaphorically jumps on the live grenade.
Sarah and Casey of course put things together in the nick of time, but not in time, unfortunately, to keep Chuck’s secret. The daring escape, the deadly cat and mouse game in the trees (is there something about LA that everyone wants 7″ tall trees?) and Sarah has sent Chuck on his way so she can neutralize the threat.
And Sarah was right to do so, and Chuck was right to obey. Sarah alone is more than capable of taking care of herself. Sarah worried about Chuck as a hostage, or Chuck as collateral damage or losing Chuck does rash things. But Chuck is an honorable man, and leaving his girlfriend to face a deadly enemy agent alone is not something Chuck can do. And so the stage is set for Sarah to do something she’d rather Chuck not see, and for Chuck to see a side of Sarah he tries not to think about.
Yes, Mauser goading Sarah is a trope, setting up Sarah’s action as being the only choice. But think of it this way. Sarah had just captured the highest ranking Fulcrum agent they’d ever encountered, or so he claims. And he gloats that in the end he’ll win because there is nothing Fulcrum won’t do to get him back. And you see the conflict, the resignation, the decision, the determination, and the execution, as does Chuck.
We don’t know exactly what Chuck or Sarah are thinking, but the visuals again let us know generally what is going on with the focus on the bracelet as the focal point for the emotional connection they’d just made. Sarah isn’t ready to risk Chuck in any way, even to the point of executing a surrendering man for goading her about taking Chuck away from her. And Chuck, I get the feeling he is thinking several things. One is probably “How could Sarah do this?” Yes, he has flashed on Sarah doing some pretty unseemly things like a live assassination of two men, or poisoning a bunch of French spies, but that woman was a spy. This is Sarah, a woman he has come to know and consider a friend, and possibly far more. A woman he knows and who is emotionally vulnerable, and who he just invited in to his life. And she has just executed, in cold blood, a man who represents no immediate threat who was attempting to surrender. We know that in Sarah’s world such a thing isn’t black and white, as does Chuck. But Chuck looks on that world with disgust on a frequent basis and tries to forget that it is Sarah’s world. A world where she needs to shut down and bury parts of herself so that she can execute a defenseless man. For him.
That she can do so, and then, walk into the Buy More, bury her guilt and disgust and go to Chuck all sweetness and light and lie to him just might be worse. Shutting him out of some of the unscrupulous aspects of the spy life is one thing. Keeping the costs of what is done for him, of what his freedom and protection cost others is a different matter.
There is one last part to the scene, one that I think often goes unnoticed by most. After Sarah has told Chuck everything will be alright, when Ellie and Awesome have come over to say Merry Christmas, and while Ellie is admiring her brother’s gift to his girlfriend, their mother’s bracelet and an obvious invitation to join the family and Sarah is responding in kind, a look of disgust mixed with horror mixed with betrayal slowly overtakes Chuck’s face as he looks on. Sarah steals a look at Chuck over Ellie’s shoulder and her smile is gone in an instant, and she swallows hard as she holds his gaze for the briefest moment, and then looks down as she can no longer look him in the eye. She can’t meet his gaze. And in that final moment, when Sarah has to look away, we see their larger problem in a glance. He knows what she did, and what she does, and she knows she can’t hide that part of her from him, nor can she shut it off if they are to survive, and being his girlfriend in a real relationship makes it that much harder, perhaps impossible, to be the Sarah he wants and the Sarah she needs to be.
Chuck and Sarah are in an unstable position. They are each caught between two worlds, their own, and the one they are pushed toward or drawn toward. Something must change before they can ever move on with each other, and the change may just be that they need to let each other go rather than trying to pull each other into their world or push their way into the other’s.