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Losing a Sense of Self: Fake Names and Identity Games on "Chuck"

"I hope your lies keep you warm at night."

What is in a name? At its core, it's our truest sense of self, a reflection of our identity, a label that we apply to ourselves to sum us up at our most basic and individual level.

But for spies like Sarah Walker, a name is just a cover story, a new identity in a series of never-ending lies that she puts on as easily as most of us do our clothes in the morning. Spies are in the business of lying and Sarah's done a bang-up job at lying to herself for most of her adult life, allowing her true self to slip away amid a cascade of lies both small and large.

She's kept her true name to herself for the last three years, not even trusting Chuck with her true identity, her true sense of self, the name that conjures up both the kick-ass superspy she is today but also the tomboy teenager and the child whose innocence was so brutally ripped from her.

This week's episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Fake Name"), written by Ali Adler and directed by Jeremiah Chechik, dealt head on with the notion of identity in a world where the concept is fluid at best. While Sarah and Chuck continued their dance with other partners this week, Sarah noticed that Chuck's own identity was slipping away from him too as he became further and further entrenched within the espionage world.

So what did I think of this week's episode? Let's discuss. (And, if you need a reminder, here's my advance review of the next four episodes of Chuck, including this week's episode, but I'm keeping my comments restricted just to "Chuck Versus the Fake Name.")

I thought that Ali Adler did a fantastic job at dealing with the latest complications in the ongoing romance between Chuck and Sarah, allowing Sarah to express her own concern about getting involved with yet another partner and falling into the same traps and patterns in which she keeps ending up. By allowing Sarah and goodfellas Matty and Scotty--via a hilarious exchange about will-they-or-won't-they couples--and the Buy More staffers to outwardly explore the thoughts, fears, and concerns of many viewers, Adler subverts our own expectations about television couplehood.

Yes, it is "complicated" and it's only going to get further complicated as the series goes on. It's clear that Chuck and Sarah have deep feelings about each other, emotions that are becoming further conflicted by recent developments. As Sarah attempts to hold onto her sense of self, Chuck is becoming less and less like the man she fell in love with: an ordinary Everyman who was more prone to bumbling through missions than forcibly extracting teeth during a mission.

As Shaw put it so eloquently, Chuck is living the lie and that scares the hell out of Sarah, who has made a profession out of doing just that. The ease with which Chuck now lies to Hannah, to his sister Ellie, to his best friend Morgan is shocking when you look at how our hero could barely keep it together in the first season. He's changing before our eyes and Sarah isn't sure that she wants to be with someone who can lie so callously. (On the opposite end, Devon seems to be coming apart at the seams from lying to Ellie about what's really going on with Chuck... and even Ellie has had a hard time lying to Chuck about how awful his chicken pepperoni dish really is.)

Chuck's transformation into an adept liar is especially felt during his dinner with Ellie, Awesome, and Hannah, a dinner that he didn't prepare at all. There's a sense that the entire scenario is manufactured, a tableau set up to woo Hannah and conceal what he was really doing all day, which was pretending to be a dangerous assassin in order to discover The Ring's next target.

That Target happens to be Daniel Shaw himself. But that's not the shocking turn of events that leave Chuck reeling. It's the fact that he overhears Sarah tell Shaw her real name--Sam (a perfect name for the real Sarah if there ever was one)--and it's a sense of deep betrayal that he can't shake. Why would Sarah tell Shaw and not Chuck? Why would she trust the enigmatic Shaw with this information and not him, after all they've been through?

Answer: Sarah wants a real moment, an honest experience with someone who is willing to be honest with her and Chuck is changing in ways that even he hasn't realized yet. Names have power and Sarah's withholding of her true identity to Chuck is a means of keeping her true self from him for now, to hold on to something secret in the face of someone slipping into a series of lies. Kudos to Yvonne Strahovski for portraying a real sense of anguish and hurt when Chuck throws her true name back at her; you could see that she knew how much she had injured him with this knowledge.

The most honest thing that Chuck does this episode is to tell Hannah the truth about his feelings regarding Sarah and that there are things in his life that are keeping them apart. Hannah says that Chuck is the best liar she's met and Chuck realizes just how good he's become at spinning lies, a tragic epiphany that really seems to strike a chord with him. Despite Chuck's honesty here, I do wish that he had chosen a more opportune time to share his feelings with Hannah, one that wasn't (A) the day after they had slept together and (B) minutes before he was supposed to meet her parents. Yes, Chuck knows that he loves Sarah and that he can't continue to lie to himself about his feelings and lie to Hannah about himself, but badly played, Chuck.

I will say that I thought that Zachary Levi did a fantastic job in the guise of international assassin Rafe Gruber. It was nice to see Chuck rely on skills that had nothing to do with computers or Intersect-derived abilities and instead had to come from deep inside himself. (He did claim, after all, that his acting background extended to playing Perchik in a high school production of "Fiddler on the Roof.") And, given the uniqueness of Rafe's name, I can't help but wonder if it isn't a shout-out to Chuck writer (and former Survivor contestant) Rafe Judkins. My favorite line from Chuck-as-Rafe: "I want to kill him, not some secondary infection." Right before he yanked out Casey's tooth. Ouch.

As for Casey, he proved that he's one hell of a badass, one of five people in the world capable of hitting a target more than a half-mile away, just like Rafe Gruber. Which makes me wonder if we didn't learn Casey's true identity in this episode as well? After all, Matty (Tony Sirico, here reunited with former Sopranos co-star Louis Lombardi) thought he recognized Casey and believed that he was a military sniper named Alex Coburn whom he had served with. Given that Chuck flashed on the name but was unable to see anything in the file should be making people curious whether Casey's true identity is that of Alex Coburn... and just why his files would be redacted in that way. Hmmm...

As for Sarah and Shaw, it does seem like they are now romantically involved, despite Sarah's reservations at the beginning of the episode. Bringing Shaw a crockpot from the Buy More and some Chinese takeaway, Sarah allows herself to be vulnerable with Shaw, in a way that she hasn't been with Chuck in some time. Residual feelings of betrayal from what happened in Prague? Or something far less tangible, like a sense that Chuck is losing the very innocence that made him attractive to her in the first place? Only time will tell.

All in all, I thought that this week's episode offered a fantastic return to the world of Chuck, ended the Chuck and Hannah relationship in a realistic and painful way, and further set up the playing field for future developments, offering one final chance to catch our collective breaths before next week's dramatic and status quo-altering installment.

What did you think of this week's episode? Is Sam a perfect name for Sarah? Think Casey could be Alex Coburn? Was Chuck right or wrong to break up with Hannah? And just what do you predict will happen in the next few weeks? Discuss.

In the meantime, here's a link to the most recent Chuck Vs. the Podcast, where I talk to host Gray Jones about "Chuck Versus the Mask," this season, and upcoming episodes.

Next week on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Beard"), Chuck discovers that he cannot flash and is left behind when Shaw, Casey, and Sarah go on a mission, but Chuck gets into a sticky situation back at Castle.


Jimmy said…
It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be but there was enough warnings from some critics and others that probably will keep the complaints down.

The episode was quite enjoyable in some parts and not so much in others. The BM was spot on and I enjoyed it. The big name reveal was forced and devastating to Chuck. I wonder if Sarah will realize that Chuck heard it.

The Shaw/Sarah PLI continues to vex me since they don't share much of a presence together and the ending...don't get me started since the whole Sarah/Shaw thing vexes me!!!! I don't see what they see in each other since whatever screen time they have shared there isn't much talking going on.

OldDarth said…
Very good episode.

Sarah got her Chuck confession in 3.02 and now Chuck has his Sarah confession here.

Much tighter plotting and motivations supplied for the characters to explain their actions this time.

The ending is left ambiguous so the viewer can decide whether Sarah and Shaw sleep together. I'm fine with either outcome ie whether they do or not.

The ending was all about what drove Sarah to that moment that matters. And everything she felt in 3.08 can be traced back to one source.


And that is the only point that matters.

Casey is BADASS!
Jeff C. said…
I hope you feel better soon, Jace.

I mostly enjoyed the episode--Chuck's impersonation of Rafe, his interactions with Paulie Walnuts, the awe with which the Buy Morons regarded him. I really did not like his treatment of Hannah at the end. Even if ultimately he was right to end the relationship, that was a hell of a time and place to do it.

Regardless, it's great to have "Chuck" back, and I can't wait for next week.
CJ said…
I liked this episode. It wasn't my favorite of all time, but it is clearly sending things in an interesting direction. This show, perhaps more than any I've ever watched, features significant character evolution. And this episode showed all of their evolutions very well.

Some people had a problem with Sarah's name drop, but I really didn't. It seems clear that she is trying to force a connection with Shaw because she feels like she's lost Chuck. There is nobody else in her life for her to run to. So I think she feels that revealing such a personal secret to Shaw will somehow create a connection that isn't really there. Same thing with the food at the end of the episode. It seems like she was just trying to make something be there that wasn't.

Also, to one of the previous posters, Sarah knows that Chuck heard her real name. Chuck says it when he confronts Shaw, and Sarah looks shocked and a little embarrassed. Also, I need to give a shout-out to Yvonne Strahovski's acting. She has been lights out this season.
Sheila said…
Awful. I won't ever rewatch the past 2 episodes. To have Sarah tell Shaw and not Chuck her real name made no sense and assasinated Sarah's character in the process. It was a shot through the heart of the Chuck and Sarah relationship. Her pursuing Shaw after telling him at the start of the show that she wanted to keep it professional, made Sarah look weak and was weird, wasn't at all consistent with the Sarah of the past 2 seasons. They have not set up a believable basis for Sarah and Shaw and it keeps getting worse. My complaints from last episode remain--the arc feels rushed, Sarah and Shaw have no chemistry and they have not established why she would be interested in this guy, and 2 people who start the season prfessing their love to each other in different manners wouldn't move on so fast and be so blatant in front of the other. Chuck and Sarah have always seem connected and that connection isn't there now. They have taken everything heroic about Chuck and destroyed it as well. He's a jerk. They want the fans to "Have faith" that when the characters do yet another 180 degree turn we'll be happy. I feel like I won't believe that either now which sucks because I loved the Chuck and Sarah partof this show.
The CineManiac said…
Sheila - One you have to remember the season was originally only 13 episodes, so some things may seemed rushed, but in order to tell the story they wanted within the 13 episodes, some things had to happen quickly.

Personally I loved the episode. I understand where Chuck and Sarah are coming from. Yes they love each other, but Sarah still feels betrayed after Chuck left her on the train platform after she spilled her heart to him. Shaw and Hannah are rebound relationships, it happens all the time in real life, why not on a tv show?
The relationships happened fast because they were looking for someone to comfort them after their heartbreak, and in the end the relationships will be meaningless. I honestly don't see why people are so up in arms, it's ridiculous.

Loved Casey egging Chuck on to pull out his tooth and his look of disgust when he tells Chuck he's proud of him.

But my favorite part of the episode was Chuck's assuming the identity of Rafe, it was great. And I like Sarah/Sam was wondering where this new Chuck came from and when he got so good at lying.

I also felt bad for Hannah, she deserved better. Chuck even looked a bit shocked when she said they slept together then he breaks up with her a day later, I don't think that had even passed through his head. Sad to see Kruek go as I thought she was a great addition to the cast.
The CineManiac said…
Now that you're full review is up I wanted to add to my comment:

I too thought Casey's true Identity was revealed at that moment. Why his information has been redacted though is one mystery I can't answer.
Doug Kirks said…
Liked the episode, and after I download it off of iTunes, I'll probably pick up on more stuff.

I my mind, Sarah didn't "reveal" her real name to Shaw - he had read her full record including her nomadic background as revealed in an earlier episode - it would be there since Graham knew it in the flashback in "C v. Cougars".

Agree it feels rushed, (esp. Chuck & Hannah at the end), but this was my one disappointment when they were talking about "losing some fluff" when the word came down about fewer episodes. After re-watching the first two seasons *a lot*, I liked the slower flow that more episodes provided.

Gotta admit that I thought Casey's reaction was the same as the time when Chuck mentioned "Sugar Bear"... and I'll leave it at that.
gringo Chuck fan said…
3.08 - Was Very Good!
But you can't expect less from a cast with this much talent - and a show with so much entertainment potential!
That said - I think its about time for Bartowski to stop being a tumble weed... he has been the victim of circumstance and the consequence of events happening around him for 2 1/2 seasons!
Chuck needs to grow a scotum -
and start taking control of his own destiny... to start to make things happen - to be a take charge guy - especially with Sarah...[ if its not too late]
I would have liked to see the fight between Shaw and Chuck escalate into something much more on a personal level. What started as a way to play out for the bad guys - should have quickly slid down that slippery slope
where Chuck embraces the dark side!
Shaw would clean his clock all the same - but Chuck needed to hurl himself into the fray with a little more raw emotion... even anger. The outcome would still be in the same place - but Sarah and Shaw would have witnessed that side of Chuck... passion and heart - rather than stumbling to find the words to describe his feelings and emotions.
Chuck is growing up - but not quite all the way there yet.
Amanda said…
I wish that they could have kept Hannah around for a couple more episodes so that her storyline with Chuck had a little more room to breath but, as many have already stated, they originally only had a 13 episode order so I can see why they were trying to move things along quickly.

Overall, I thought this episode was a lot of fun and I loved the discourse between Matty and Scotty about tricky relationships. Hilarious!
Jay said…
As the Cinemaniac mentioned above, the original order was for 13 episodes. So as far as Hannah's exit and the Sarah/Shaw thing goes, I'm willing to overlook the rushed pace of this season for sake of moving the plot along.

I always thought Casey's first name was really John. I remember in the Christmas hostage episode from Season 2, he calls his mom and refers to himself as "Johnny boy"...I guess that's assuming he was actually calling his mom.
Jace Lacob said…

Yep, I spoke about the original thirteen-episode order having a lot to do with the pacing on the most recent Chuck Versus the Podcast. Definitely think that's played a major role in the pacing this season so far.
Barbara said…
Thank you, Jace, for a wonderful, thought provoking review. You took the best parts of the excellent script and dissected them into true gems to ponder...Thank you so much. I really enjoyed reading your analysis. And by the way...The dramatic acting by Zachary Levy in the end was heart wrenching and will haunt me all week. What he does with facial expressions cannot be matched.

John said…
Two things that bothered me about the episode, and they had nothing to do with whatever may or may not be motivating Sarah to hook up with Shaw...

First, it seemed all four agents were quite careless around Rafe, using each other's names in his presence, dropping a telltale Buy More pen (although, that hardly seems like it should be enough for Rafe to leap to the correct conclusion). Shouldn't everyone be addressing Chuck as "Carmichael" around the deadly assassin, at least?

And, more importantly, what kind of crappy software do these guys use, that announces in huge red letters that a target has been "loctated"? Is this some fancy spy term that means both "found" and "producing milk"?
Anonymous said…
Great review, Jace. Really loved the episode. The emotion, the realism, the acting by all, the humor, the story, everything worked for me. Still enjoying the show in a big way, and want more. Go Chuck!

Unknown said…
In Season One Sarah wouldn't tell Chuck her real name, but she did whisper it under her breath. I don't remember what name she said, but I don't think it was "Sam."

So, was she lying to Shaw, or lying in Season One, even though no one could hear her then? Makes more sense that she lied to Shaw.

I also dislike the Shaw/Sarah storyline, because it is not believable at all -- there is no chemistry and it just doesn't seem realistic that she would do things with him that she wouldn't with Chuck.
Unknown said…
Never mind, did some googling and it was her MIDDLE name that she revealed in seasone one, and it was Lisa.

But Sam Lisa, or Samantha Lisa, doesn't really sound like it goes together, so I'm still wondering if she lied.

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