Chuck vs. The Final Exam 3.11 ***
For the whole third season, Chuck has played a delicate balancing act between the dark and lightness of the show. For the most part, that balance has been maintained, but the argument could be made that bit by bit that balance was beginning to tip.
In “Chuck vs. The Final Exam”, written by Phil Klemmer, the tipping finally occurred.
I’m torn though. The last thing I want is for a show I enjoy to become tiresome and formulaic. On the other hand, you don’t want to lose what made the show so special in the first place. And while I don’t think they forgot per se, I think the creators laid on the melodrama a tad thick. So as an emotional, compelling episode it just really wasn’t for me.
Coming from it analytically, however, I must say that it’s incredibly observant about audience expectations and the relationship with spy touchstones that we’ve been inundated with since Bond versus Blofeld. The episode in a lot of ways is like a commentary on how pop culture view the spy world and its fantasy versus the harsh reality of the consequences of our hero’s actions. So we see familiar iconography like the Mission: Impossible Self-Destruct Video Recordings (talk about wasted tech) and Chuck’s formal wear. But we also get it in terms of attitude like Chuck’s uber-cockiness and uber-charm with Sarah like a wannabe 007.
There’s just one thing. Chuck hasn’t earned the right for such swagger, and what makes it worse is I actually sided with Shaw during the test portion. It bothered me how cavalier Chuck was being on his mission. And granted I always like to see Chuck and Sarah interact and for them to get their vulnerable on with almost-smoochies. But there’s a time and place. James Bond and Napoleon Solo can get away with that stuff. This is a test. Act like it. What is truly unforgivable is that the whole time I was watching my hero, Chuck Bartowski, berated by his superior, Daniel Shaw, a clear antagonist to Chuck just for Chuck being Chuck. A stick-in-the-mud robotic carbon-based star varsity quarterback with about as much personality as a stick-in-the-mud, robotic, carbon-based star varsity quarterback. And I agreed with him.
From a fanboy perspective, the test has its inconsistencies. Chuck flashes and puts the hurt on some baddies in a sauna–wearing a towel and nothing else for the fan girls. Yet, he couldn’t flash to some kind of Remo Williams-mode when it came to scaling a high-rise motel?
But regardless Chuck passes the test and gets evidence of a CIA spook who just switched his allegiance to the Ring. So a Jedi Spy he becomes.
In more mundane events, there was a nice subplot that deals with Casey’s integration in civilian behavior. Casey goes a tad too far with his playground discipline and Jeff and Lester vow that most heinous of vengeances…a lawsuit. So under Big Mike’s watchful Zen eye, Casey gets some behavior and wardrobe modification. As a test, Mike and Casey sit with Jeff and Lester over Subways to break bread. But Jeffster test Casey and humiliate him Luckily, the new Casey can take it–even a sandwich bitten by Jeff.
I hate seeing Jeff and Lester as antagonists so I didn’t really like the way this played out. But similar to the main story, intellectually I could kind of see where it was coming from. It’s actually pretty poignant that Jeffster finally resort to lawsuits to battle Casey. They’ve had to deal with Caseys all their lives, no doubt. Bullies who intimidated Jeff and Lester into submission and had no chance of recourse physically. Can’t stand up to them by beating them up and practical jokes only cause more beatings, more intimidation.
So it would have been nice for Casey to face them on the only battlefield they know: juvenilia. Casey plays a practical joke on Jeffster that earns their respect, perhaps similar to Chuck where a (very reluctant) friendship is formed. And when you meet someone halfway, that gets you more in touch with your humanity.
Because losing it seems to be on everyone’s mind. If the first half was about spy fantasy, the second half deals with the harsh reality and the tone change is disconcerting to say the least. Sarah meets a cool and confident Chuck and crushes it right quick when she gives him his new mission courtesy of Daniel Shaw. Kill the CIA traitor. Both Chuck and Sarah come at it from opposite wavelengths caught up in the ultimate Catch-22. Kill the guy , become a spy, but lose Sarah forever. Don’t kill the guy, forget the spy, and be forced to let go of Sarah. Because spies don’t fall in love.
When Chuck’s contact appears, Chuck’s test becomes much darker and violent. There’s a brutal confrontation in a bathroom that results in a sliced leg for Chuck. Even the Intersect is no help as he is overpowered. But Chuck eventually apprehends the CIA turncoat.
It all leads down an abandoned set of railroad tracks, Sarah tracking Chuck’s progress and the dilemma of whether or not Chuck truly becomes a spy through cold-blooded killing.
The last bit seemed to lay on the angst a bit thickly. It’s unrealistic for one to have Chuck not have to take a life at some point. We’re used to spies or men of action who kill their enemies. Maybe it was these preconceptions that had me kind of impatient with Chuck. Like man up, already. I wish we could have seen Chuck have to shoot the guy to save Sarah’s life but she isn’t aware of it so it damages how she sees him going forward. And Chuck gets kind of resentful and has it out with her in an emotional blowup later on. “What do you want from me?” kind of thing. But the way it played out seemed kind of contrived.
But we did get more insight into Sarah’s despair with Chuck becoming a spy as she reveals the details of her Red Test to Shaw. And now we know why she’s so scared for Chuck. Because according to Sarah it was the worst day of her life and an event that has shaped the full metal jacket around her heart ever since. And then this dorky lovable doofus comes along and not only gently takes that jacket off, but changes her heart as well.
Her heart has changed again and she’s got a whole new worst day of her life.
While Chuck’s new life as a spy is about to begin. Alone. Solitary. And desperately in need of Sarah. If only for the sake of his soul.
Even the sub par Chucks have a heart. Bruised and battered though it is.