Chuck: “Chuck vs. the Final Exam”

The Importance of Being Chuck

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall

Mondays on NBC at 9/8

“Chuck vs. the Final Exam”
Written by Zev Borow
Directed by Robert Duncan McNeil

“I am a spy! I am a naked spy!” —Chuck.

For such a smart guy, Chuck Bartowski can sometimes be pretty dumb. This episode is a good example of why. Chuck is so desperate to fit in, so determined to succeed in something that he believes will make Sarah Walker admire him, that he nearly sells his soul. From Day One, he’s been bullied, threatened, and manipulated by the NSA and CIA, for the sake of what he carries in his head. From Day One, he’s been resisting the pull of that dark side, still clinging to his innate honesty and integrity, for the sake of what he carries in his heart. Never before has he been offered so stark a choice: Sarah, or his soul. And since this is a comedy show, not a drama, it gets “solved” in typical Chuck fashion.

Daniel Shaw has decided that Chuck is ready for his “final exam” in spyhood. He gives Chuck the relatively simple task of tracking down and identifying a mole who has been selling secrets to the Ring. Chuck, eager to show off for Sarah (whose ambivalence about his career choice is coming ever more to the surface), goes about this in typically Chuck fashion: he shows up at the stakeout with two suitcases full of high-tech gear. All of which he is expert with. Sarah shows up to monitor him, and Chuck breaks out his other gear—a picnic, complete with champagne, sizzling shrimp, and a host of cute reminders of their first date.

I love how Chuck’s character has evolved over two years, and yet stayed essentially the same. Here, he is very far from the gawky, ill-at-ease nerd of Season One. This Chuck has a lot more self-confidence, and quietly goes about telling Sarah how much she means to him. He’s as earnest as ever, but now with a solid self-assurance to carry the gravitas of the moment. Sarah is even more tortured, as this intelligent and much more mature Chuck shows his trust and respect for her, even as he is using her as the inspiration to take him down a road she really, really does not want him to go.

There is every reason for Chuck to fail this test. Apart from everything else, Shaw and the General tell him that if he succeeds, he will be assigned to Rome and separated from Sarah. Why would he not sabotage himself, to keep things as they are? Cleverly, the writers give him two reasons. The first is pretty obvious—he thinks Sarah wants this.

“If I pass this test, then I wouldn’t have to choose between this job and us. If I pass the test, we could be together.”

The second reason is more subtle, but equally important: Chuck needs to succeed at a difficult task, if only for his own sake. He failed at Stanford (being handed a phony degree by the CIA does not make up for that). He is still working a dead-end job unworthy of his talents. He sees himself as a nerdy loser, unable to bring to Sarah any honorable accomplishment, any achievement that will earn her love. He desperately wants to slay a dragon to lay at her feet, if only as an homage to his love for her. He thinks that they need to be spies together to be together.

Like most of Chuck’s assignments, something goes wrong. He is forced to track the bad guys from a sauna to a hotel room, demonstrating quick thinking and courage all the way. He climbs from one balcony to another, several stories up, wearing only a towel. He even loses the towel. But he keeps his cool. This is so not the terrified, uncertain Chuck of Season One. But he’s not entirely James Bond, however; at a critical moment, he uses a fake bird cry to lure his quarry out of hiding. Morgan would have been proud. So in the end, Chuck thinks he’s passed the test. He thinks he’s home free. He’s looking forward to a relationship on what he thinks is an equal footing with Sarah Walker. But Daniel Shaw has one more test—kill the mole.

Which is where the comedy comes to a screeching halt. I am very glad the writers did not play this bit for laughs. Murder, even execution, is a serious business. It’s the final barrier for Chuck, the ultimate sellout, the final surrender of what makes him Chuck. And Sarah doesn’t want him to do it. She has enough integrity, however, to not beg him or influence him, but lets him make his own decision. She does, however, let him know her feelings on the matter:

Chuck: But if I can’t do this, then what’ll I be?

Sarah: Then you’ll be Chuck, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Chuck does not yet have enough self-confidence, or self-knowledge, to hear the affirmation in that, so he steels himself to commit the final act of no return.

And Casey does it for him. In a brilliant rewrite of the pivotal scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Casey takes the shot Chuck cannot, and both of them allow Sarah Walker to think Chuck’s responsible. Her grief is all too visible as she tells Shaw that Chuck is now officially a spy.

Which is when I started wondering when Chuck was going to wise up to all this. What does he have that the CIA wants? Spy skills? Mad hacking skills? A better than average grasp of networking technology? No, he has the Intersect in his head. He’s the only one who has it. He has something the government wants, and the government has nothing Chuck wants. So why does he allow the government to boss him around, when Chuck is the one holding all the aces? All he has to do is say, “Hell, no” to their demands. So they threaten to lock him away—so what? His counterthreat is to say nothing to them at all, to make the Intersect useless. But Chuck is so used to being the odd man out, the powerless pawn of others, it never seems to occur to him that he’s got the upper hand here and could be calling the shots. Okay, he’s naïve, that’s part of what makes him Chuck. But what about Sarah and Casey? They are as cynical as any spies could be, so why don’t they tell him he can write his own ticket with the CIA?

All this drama could have dragged this episode down, but it’s lightened by a wonderful interlude between Big Mike and Casey. I’d never have imagined that Big Mike would be the one to civilize John Casey. As Mark Twain observed, clothes make the man—or at least domesticate him. Having assaulted Jeff and Lester, Casey is then put into the capable hands of a tailor, gets lessons on cool from Big Mike, and winds up apologizing to Lester and Jeff. I never thought I’d see the day.

Other golden moments include Chuck pretending to be a diesel train horn, Sarah’s earrings, the Chuck-fu, and the many visual references to movies like Mission ImpossibleThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Godfather, and Witness, Chuck wearing glasses and Casey in a double-breasted suit. I very much missed Morgan and the Awesomes, however.

Chuck came in at a 1.9/5 rating/share among the 18-49 demo, and a total of 5.43 million viewers. That’s pretty much what the show got last week. There’s no point in floundering around for more excuses; this show is not doing well. I think the reasons are not hard to find: Chuck is just too different from most sitcoms for most viewers.

Most sitcoms are based on putting ordinary people in ordinary situations and milking them for effect.CosbyFriendsTwo and a Half Men, it doesn’t matter what decade you’re in, the formula is the same. You establish some likable characters the audience can identify with, add a random sprinkling of slightly bent people to laugh at, and devise absurd situations for them every week. But Chuck is upside down. This is a guy most people don’t relate to—a smart, sexy nerd—who has a “computer” in his head. Click, there goes the remote control for half the viewing audience right there. Chuck is surrounded by people nobody could relate to—Morgan, Big Mike, Jeff and Lester. Even Devon is out of the bell curve for most people—he looks like a jock, talks like a jock, but has the heart of a hero. That’s going to be too strange for most people. Sarah Walker/Yvonne Strahovski will draw in a few viewers, but anyone wanting to see good looking women in skimpy costumes will be flipping over to Dancing with the Stars. There’s no one left to watch.

I’m not going to kid myself. I think the ratings tell the tale: Chuck is doomed. I can make up all kinds of reasons people aren’t tuning in, but what’s the point? They’re not tuning in, and that’s all that matters. Even if fans launched a “Save our show” campaign, I don’t think it would make a difference. I think we’re seeing the last season of Chuck, and I only hope the creators will give us a season/series finale that satisfies the few fans who are left.