Chuck: Chuck versus the Final Exam

“No, Chuck. Just you.”

How far is too far? At what point does patriotism become murder? Can a good man do bad things, if he does them for the right reason? Just when Casey is at his lowest point, reduced to exorcising his grumpy demons by threatening Jeffster, Chuck reaches the potential acme of his nascent spy career, and is forced to make a difficult choice.

Casey has sacrificed everything: first for his country, then for his past love and the daughter who doesn’t know him. He’s doing the best he can to defend the BuyMore from the threat of Nerf-wielding slackers—he hates it, but he does it. He’s a man of duty, which is how he defines being a man of honor. And he learned a few touching lessons from Big Mike, too.

Chuck, on the other hand, may be in the spy game for the wrong reason. He’s paid lip service to the concept of patriotism, but he hasn’t really convinced me that he actually cares. It seems like the allure of being a spy is also the allure of the perks: specifically, the possibility of finally getting together with Sarah, and not lying (well, less lying) to his family and friends. Chuck’s motives are murky even to him, I think—but when faced with his own personal Rubicon, he took the high road instead. (That metaphor works quite well, doesn’t it?)

The suspense of this episode wasn’t whether our heroes would discover the McGuffin. It wasn’t whether Chuck would get the girl. It was whether Chuck would kill: the teaser left that ambiguous, and we got the flashback, the lead-up to the moment of truth, and then the full reveal towards the end. I’ve had issues with this structure before in other shows, as it seems like a false creation of suspense: because the story has no definite narrative tension, the creators are forced to manufacture it by dangling a “how do we get to that place?” bait and making us wait to be reeled in.

For all of my narratological acumen, I did forget the most important rule of fiction: Chekov’s Shotgun Law, which dictates that if there’s a shotgun over the mantle in the first act, it must go off by the third. Casey was our sleeper agent this week, and the gun Chuck gave him struck me, at the time, as such a downright kind gift that his surprise entry into the boxcar chase (another topos that is just tired and overused) was a surprise.

It shouldn’t have been. For all the guff I give this show for its occasionally scary politics, Casey believes he’s doing the right thing, and he’s willing to sacrifice an awful lot to uphold his ideals, which is more than I do—that’s for sure. He killed the mole because it needed to be done, even though he gets nothing, and might lose what little he has, for that action. Chuck’s not willing to make that kind of sacrifice, because doing so would cause him to sacrifice something else: his inherently good nature. (Casey was the real star of this episode for me.)

And we’re left holding the bag. Chuck is a spy, but he’s a spy under false pretenses. Casey isn’t a spy, officially, but he still has a spy heart of gold. Sarah, meanwhile, is convinced that she has finally lost Chuck, even though his own shiny heart is just as pure as ever—well, maybe a bit tarnished by this new lie, but still gold underneath. Interesting, isn’t it: she’s forced to choose between Shaw, who would have no problem killing the mole, and Chuck, whom she might be rejecting because she thinks he did kill the mole.

I’ve watched some great TV this week: Dexter Season One, the Richard-centric episode of Lost, even the Dominic Monaghan sections of last week’s FlashForward, all of which had me riveted to the couch. (Literally—it was so painful. Note to self: I am not made of denim.) I also read a book that had a lot of promise but didn’t quite deliver: James Ellroy’s Blood on the Moon. Reading Blood on the Moon, I realized what my problem with Chuck has been for this season, because it’s the same problem that I had with Ellroy’s novel: both of them are telling interesting stories, but they’re struggling with not showing the seams of how everything fits together. If I’m reading a book for the first time, and aware of how a metaphor is failing or how a characterization seems hackneyed, then I lose the pleasure of losing myself, even if the story itself has the potential to be compelling. I’ve had the same problem with Chuck. Because there have been questions about consistency of character, I’ve been distracted by the good stuff as I get more preoccupied with the technique of it all: the score, the editing, the characterization, the structure.

Ellroy’s early novels feel…well, immature. His later books works out the kinks, and he’s more willing to let a metaphor hit you once and then retreat—no need to play “Badger in the Bag” with the reader. (If you don’t get that reference, check out the Mabinogi.) Chuck, on the other hand, is struggling not with immaturity but with growing pains. How to make this show grow up without losing its childlike innocence? How to keep our interest in these developing characters, without losing what we love? As this chapter of Chuck winds to a close, and if we do get a fourth season, I’m going to try to stay involved in the story and stop worrying about technique. Sometimes—ideally—a show just forces me to do that, as Dexter and this week’s Lost did. Sometimes I have to try to regain my viewing innocence, and start enjoying instead of evaluating. I’m working on it.

Bytes:

• Casey: “Together, you constitute a clear and present danger.”

• Chuck: “Without a license to kill, you are a menace to society.”

• Casey: “At the moment, I don’t have a better plan.”

• Big Mike: “I need to know that you can be strong like the reed, and not break like the Kit-Kat.”

• Chuck: “I can’t really picture what Shaw does for fun.” Well, Chuck, start with a cage…

• Chuck: “I am a naked spy.”

• Casey: “It was a thoughtful felony.”

• Casey: “You’re not a killer, Chuck.”
Chuck: “Thanks.”

And Pieces:

• The exploding laptop. Both times.

• Union Station is pretty. I’ve never been there.

• Why doesn’t the Intersect allow Chuck to flash on Russian language translations?

• Chuck is—don’t hate me—not a very good spy. He kept radio-ing in to Shaw for help, and doesn’t really seem to be the motivated self-starter that I imagine the CIA is looking for. And the distractions on the stake out: well, they told us where his real passion is, I guess.

• The Subway product placement was really intense. I didn’t mind too much: the lucrative Subway-sponsorship is one of the main reasons that Chuck got this third season, and I appreciate that a sandwich shop is doing what it can to support the arts in these difficult times.

• They did the jump-cut, sped-up camera work thing for the fight scene, just like last week. Repetition makes it less effective.

Two and a half out of four Nerfs.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

9 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Nice review, Josie. And I completely agree. There's something off about this season. Maybe they've left their comfort zone.

I loved the "thoughtful felony" line. And I loved the focus on Casey.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

My problem with this episode of Chuck is the same as the one I had with the two-hour season premiere: the portrayal of Sarah, for whom my hatred now burns like a thousand suns.

The character, once so much fun, is dragging feminism twenty years back Dawson’s Creek style. Here we have a competent, strong-minded super-spy, but because she’s a woman, she apparently can’t take an active role in her own personal life. Instead she places herself as a helpless judge of Chuck’s own personal growth. How hard would it be for Sarah to simply TELL Chuck that she doesn’t think his killing someone is a good idea for him? How hard would it be to say, “Chuck, I’m afraid you’re turning into someone lesser than who you used to be, and I’m worried about you”?

Instead she quietly puts Chuck to the test, sitting back as some sort of trophy that the man is to earn by making the moral choice. And now that she thinks he’s made the wrong one, instead of helping him through the trauma, as I would have thought someone who loves him would do, she abandons him because, you see, he failed to win her as a prize, and that’s more important than being a much needed friend to him. With a true love like that, who needs enemies?

It’s what Roger Ebert calls an “idiot plot”, a story that relies on two characters having a simple misunderstanding that could be resolved if one would just accept to talk to the other, but because one character (usually the female lead) is a judgmental idiot it’s going to take forever. I thought that ten years into the new millennium, we’d be past this downright reprehensible image of women as helpless trophies who can’t play an integral part in the main character’s personal growth.

It’s also intriguing that Casey (as well as Morgan in previous weeks) has a better understanding of who Chuck is as a person. He always knew Chuck never had it in him to go dark (furthering my theory that this season is more about the impression of losing one’s way than actually losing it). In fact, this season, all the men understand Chuck better than the women do, and it doesn’t feel like we’re celebrating male bonding here. It feels like we’re unconsciously denigrating women as empowered characters. Are the writers going through post-breakup bitterness?

Gah. Just gah.

Josie Kafka said...

That's an interesting idea, Dimitri. But I'm not sure I entirely agree.

One the one hand, you're right about Sarah. She's dragging things down, and part of that is the result of her having little-to-no life outside of Chuckville. We're forced to see her only in her interactions with our hero, and right now, she's not doing much for him, which makes her suffer, which makes him suffer...vicious circle and all that.

On the other hand, I'm not sure we need to see Sarah as standing for all women. Is Casey's hyper-macho stiff-upper-lip gun-toting cruelty setting back the small strides that have been made in understanding the complexity of masculinity? I don't think all female characters need to stand for all women, any more than any male character stands for all men.

Because Sarah is so underwritten, we can read a lot onto her character. The way I see it, she's not sitting back as a trophy, but sitting back as a teacher watching her student strike out on his own--and screw it up. She's also conflicted: she wants Chuck to be who he is, not who *she* is. Her love for Chuck is probably unconditional, but her willingness to be his girlfriend does have some conditions: no murderous impulses, for one.

I love the "idiot plot" designation. That's just perfect: props to you and to Mr. Ebert.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

Fair point. It is definitely worth mentioning that not every female character in the world of fiction is meant to represent Womanhood as a whole, though, to be fair, that's not exactly what I was trying to communicate regarding Sarah.

To clarify a bit, my frustrations comes from the fact that she is written this season the way women have been written in bad Hollywood movies for half a century, and I'd hoped we'd moved on from that. No, we can't take each female character and impose on her the responsibilities of a role model--you’re 100% right and thank you for clarifying a bit that I had clumsily glossed over--but at the same time if we isolated every character from their wider cultural context, we'd just blind ourselves from destructive cultural trends.

More importantly (for me anyway), this passive-whiney version of Sarah is inconsistent with the character I loved in previous seasons, and she's making it impossible for me to root for the couple. I like Chuck. I want Chuck to be with a good woman who's capable of saying what she feels and going after what she wants, who will help Chuck in his time of need instead of going, "Oh, when he was doing well he was my kind of man, but now that he has problems he's not even worth the courtesy of returning his calls".

If you reversed the sexes, there's no doubt that male-Sarah would be perceived as a turnip. Why is she still considered Chuck's puppy-dog Holy Grail here? I'm not suggesting Sarah should still want to be with Chuck if she thinks he's a killer, but the fact she won't even talk to him or be his friend at a time like this because he didn't pass her secret personality test... I mean, how far are we from irrational moth-hating Astrid?

As an aside, I actually do perceive Casey as a symbol for manhood, or rather for ridiculously outdated ideals of manhood that Chuck (and any man his age) may have naively clung to in his childhood or outright rejected as something of the past. He’s definitely meant to represent a vision of man that is no more. It’s sort of what makes him so funny. By the same token, I think Awesome is supposed to represent the great modern man that Chuck felt he could never be. The entire Chuck universe, for me, is populated with symbols about the modern transition to manhood.

Which is why, I think, I hold Sarah at a higher standard than that of a normal female character. As the ideal woman for Chuck the Everyman, she’s meant to represent the ideal woman for a lot of guys (not a role model for ladies though). That she would lose interest in Chuck as she did in previous episodes meant something for Chuck’s journey. I really dug where it was going. Her behaviour in this episode, though, is a completely different matter. It feels like the show runners are setting it up for Chuck to have to *EARN* Sarah, and I think that’s wrong.

Of course, I could just be insane. I’ve accepted that a long time ago.

Crazy moth-hating Astrid... Ah, good times.

Josie Kafka said...

I swear I responded to you comment with alacrity and good grace, Dimitri. You've made a really good point, and I think you've convinced me. (The original comment was much prettier.)

Daniel Halloran said...

I've only recently gotten into Chuck. What strikes me as odd is that we have two completely opposite characters trying to morph into each other. If you look at Sarah as someone who desperately wants to be Chuck, she has latched onto his innocence as a reflection of her own choices. Now in that light her actions make a lot more sense. The truly ironic thing is that Chuck is doing the exact same thing.

They seem to be laboring under the false assumption that that aren't right for each other as they are. Not that Sarah is trying to change as actively as Chuck. But she is looking at things through a moral lens, even if that lens doesn't apply to her own actions. This final act, his selling his soul for his goals, is the final straw. She can no longer look at him in the same way. I think she had to be certain that his actions were genuine and not based on her opinions (which would've affected his choice).

I think the problem with this season is that they have lost that divergence in personality between the two leads. As Chuck grows closer to becoming like Sarah, their natural chemistry is slowly ebbing away. Perhaps that is why they are drifting apart.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

Josie, your new comment has the word "alacrity" in it. That makes it more than pretty enough for me.

That's an interesting thought, Daniel. I think you and Josie are right about Sarah feeling like she had to be certain Chuck's actions were genuine and not based on her opinions. But that's sort of what bothers me.

It's a test, and if she truly believes Chuck would lose his soul if he killed someone, wouldn't it make more sense for her to try to save his soul before it's too late than to let the man go down a path of self-destruction just to judge whether he's good enough for her? I mean, she is supposed to care about him, isn't she?

I like the whole counter-purpose morphing take on the two characters though. I'll definitely be keeping all these different thoughts in mind when I'll be watching tonight, so thank you for that. It really does make TV so much more fun!

Remco said...

Wow, your analyses are so much smarter than the show! :D

It's been a theme for a while now that Chuck dreams of becoming a "real spy". That makes me think about the story of Pinocchio. Actually, that's probably intentional. ;)

So Pinocchio wants to become a real boy, but the real prize is to be reunited with his father Gepetto. In the same way, Chuck wants to become a real spy, superficially to serve his country. But subconsciously to earn his rightful place beside Sarah. In the process of fixing this inferiority complex, he ironically rejects Sarah in Prague when she clearly considers him an equal.

And now he's finally become the real spy he always wanted to be, but that actually pushed Sarah away. Chuck will now finally realize that becoming a spy was not what he really wanted in the first place, and will now have to work on getting Sarah back.

So what does that say about Sarah? Well, not much. She, like Gepetto, is not a real character. She's the prize Chuck will get after learning from his mistakes. That's not necessarily bad. The show chooses to focus on the story of Chuck, not Sarah.

ChrisB said...

Ditto what Remco said. The analysis and comments on this episode were better than the episode itself. Very interesting takes on the show.