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Red Test: Chuck, Sarah, and Casey Find Themselves at a Crossroads on "Chuck"

"It's America, Chuck. Everyone has a choice." - John Casey

If there's one single theme for this season of NBC's Chuck it would be appear to be identity. How do we define ourselves? How do we let others define us? Does it matter whether Chuck is a spy, an asset, or a civilian? If you take John Casey out of the espionage world, is he still Casey? And are we more defined by the actions we take or those that we don't?

This week's episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Final Exam"), written by Zev Borow and directed by Robert Duncan McNeil, brought these issues to the forefront of the series, posing several questions about the way in which our three central spies see themselves in reference to the rest of the world and the way in which they view each other.

As Chuck prepares to take his final mission, the one thing that stands in his way is a final test, the last hurdle in his path to becoming a full-blown spy. But if he's willing and able to take that leap, it might very well destroy any chance he has with Sarah and forever remove any last vestige of his innocence. What happens when your heart's desires are at cross-purposes? Is there any way to win? Or are you doomed to fail no matter what you do?

So what did I think of this week's episode? Let's dive in.

I thought Zev Borow did a fantastic job with this week's episode, though I will say that the Subway product placement was extremely heavy-handed this week, bordering on the almost obscene as Big Mike not only chomped down on a Subway sandwich while his tailor measured him for a new suit but an entire scene was shot inside an actual Subway and Casey had to literally "break freshly baked bread" with Jeff and Lester (and take a bite of Jeff's "tuna-roni" concoction). Granted, Chuck couldn't have come back without the support of sponsor Subway and I appreciate everything that Subway has done in keeping this series on the air, but I wish that there was a way to tone down these moments without making them quite so blatant.

It took me out of what was otherwise a solid episode that featured some real shifts in the dynamics between the characters, but that's a minor quibble in an otherwise stellar installment. Several of the characters were forced to make decisions that would have long-standing implications within the confines of the narrative. Would Chuck follow orders and kill CIA mole Hunter Perry (guest star Kyle Bornheimer)? Could Sarah ever look at him the same way again if he passed his red test? Could Casey put aside his "John Crazy" persona and adjust to being an everyday civilian?

It's Chuck's decision which dovetails nicely with those made by both Sarah and Casey. Following the near-dismantling of the team last week (after Casey's treasonous actions), Chuck receives word that, if he passes his final exam, the team will in fact be finished. He will be stationed in Rome and given a cover as a billionaire industrialist (though how Chuck could quite pull off such an elaborate cover would remain to be seen), while Sarah and Shaw will be based in Washington D.C., where they will focus on counter-Ring operations.

While Sarah says that it looks like Chuck got everything he's always wanted, that's far from the truth. Yes, he stands on the precipice of becoming a "real" spy, one with a badge and a gun, it's not all that he's wanted. While he's become something bigger than his job at the Buy More, he wants it all: the spy job, the glamorous/dangerous thrill, and the girl. It's the latter that's presenting a problem.

I loved how Chuck brought along a stakeout kit, complete with Hall & Oates' "Private Eyes" on the iPod and the famous sizzling shrimp, both of which played prominently in Chuck and Sarah's very first stakeout. There's a nice sense of finality here, as though this could easily be their final mission together and both Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski play it brilliantly, evoking a solemn nostalgia and a sweet camaraderie that nearly culminates in a kiss between the two. (Until Shaw chimes in, that is.)

Would they be different people if Chuck had made a different decision in Prague and chosen Sarah over the job? Possibly but it's also in Chuck's nature to choose professional duty and selflessness over personal desire and selfishness. He also wrongfully believes that he's not worthy of Sarah's love because he's ordinary rather than extraordinary, which coldn't be further from the truth.

What has attracted Sarah to Chuck has been his innate innocence: the fact that he abhors violence, doesn't want to carry a gun, and prefers to solve his problems by thinking rather shooting his way out of them. Chuck believes that if he passes his test, they can be together because they'll both be equals. But that's a problem for Sarah, given that she's fallen for Chuck's sweet naivete and his inability to kill someone in cold blood.

If he goes complete his final exam--his "red test"--then Sarah believes he won't be the same person that he once was. She doesn't want him to be able to kill, especially because she has carried around the guilt of her own red test all of these years, a formative experience that shaped Sarah immensely and likely caused her to conceal a lot of her own emotion and bury it deep inside. Even as she shot her target, she wanted to be sure that the woman was reaching for a weapon and that she hadn't murdered her without justifiable cause. But it's a mystery that will forever plague her.

I had a feeling when Chuck gave Casey a gun from Castle as a thank-you present that this gift would have to come back into it somehow... and, sure enough, it did. I wondered if Chuck would be able to kill Perry if it came down to it, whether he would be able to pull the trigger if his or Sarah's lives were in jeopardy and whether Chuck would be pushed to action. (I also wondered for a split-second whether the entire mission--from Ivan Drago (ha!) to Perry murdering Anatoli to the train station fight--was all a set-up designed to see if Chuck would be willing to kill.)

Casey has seemingly always wanted Chuck to man up, to step into the role of spy and accept the full responsibilities of that job. Yet when it came to Chuck making the final step into that arena--into killing for his job and country--Casey fulfilled that part of the mission for Chuck, felling Perry with a bullet just as he reached for the gun on his ankle and preserving Chuck's innocence.

As Casey says later, given that he's a civilian, no one can know what he did for Chuck as it was murder, not a government-sanctioned assassination. But that presents complications for Chuck and Sarah's relationship. She can't be with him if she believes he pulled that trigger and he can't tell her that he didn't. While Casey meant to help both of them, he may have just created an even bigger obstacle to their reconciliation.

Special praise has to go to Strahovski, who once again managed to convey a real depth of emotion with little more than a look, a tilt of her head, or a teary eye. She's proven to be quite adept at choreographing a great deal of nuance with the smallest of movements and this episode was no exemption. The sadness as she looks back at Chuck at Union Station spoke volumes as did the painful recollection of her red test as she tells Shaw that it was the worst day of her life.

What else did I love about this week's episode? The use of Ivan Drago (a shout-out to Dolph Lundgren's character in Rocky IV); Chuck's stakeout kit (complete with bottle of champagne, glasses, and Chinese food); the callbacks to the gang's first joint stakeout; the knife fight in the Union Station restroom; Chuck's horror when he believes he killed Perry; Casey smashing Jeff and Lester's heads together; and the best line of the evening: "I am a naked spy!"

All in all, I'm extremely intrigued to see just where the writers take this storyline. This was the last episode I had seen in advance so I'm just as much in the dark as everyone else is right now. It definitely seems as though the team is splintering in more ways than one and their entire close-knit unit has been fractured, possibly beyond repair.

But I am curious to know: what did you think of this week's episode? What do you think will happen to Chuck, Sarah, and Casey? Is Chuck and Sarah's relationship beyond damaged at this point? Will Chuck come clean about what Casey did for him? Can he get on that plane for Rome? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Chuck ("Chuck Versus the American Hero"), Chuck has his pick of the best CIA agents for an undercover operation, but he has only one girl in mind for the job: Sarah. Meanwhile, Casey, Morgan, and Awesome join forced to help Chuck win Sarah back.

Comments

Isabella said…
I really enjoyed this week's "Chuck" episode! Yvonne Strahovski's performance in the episode was great, too. She was really able to convey what Sarah was feeling. I, however, don't know how to feel about *spoiler* her saying that she didn't love Chuck anymore. Either she was just telling Shaw that, really meant it, or was trying to make herself stop loving him. I was like, "What??" when that happened. :)

I can't wait for next week's episode! Oh, poor Chuck! What with telling Sarah he loved her and then after that (well, I'm pretty sure after. Those previews can be oh so deceiving) seeing Sarah and Shaw kissing! *sigh* I really felt bad for him.

All in all, I thought "Chuck vs the Final Exam" was a great episode and I'm really excited for "Chuck vs the American Hero."
Brian said…
I loved this episode - and didn't think the subway was too out of hand. It's amusing how they can work it in and how big mike has a foot long in hand more often then not.

I also am really curious where they'll take this next week, I've been a huge Chuck fan since day one - I really hope this is not a wind down to the end of the series.
Jay said…
I thought it was a really good episode, although I think last week's was better. I'm loving the buildup to the first 13 episode finale -- I don't know about anyone else, but for me this is very similar to the season 2 finale buildup where you know something definitive and game changing has to happen in both the spy and romance arcs. I'm very curious to see how the Casey-assisted killing affects things.

The Subway product placement didn't bother me. I didn't think it was odd that Big Mike would eat a sandwich (or a donut) while getting a suit. I also found it appropriate that Jeffster would try to get a free lunch from Casey. IMHO, the most worst example of Subway product placement was at Awesome's bachelor party. Seriously, who eats subs at a bachelor party?
Tume, Finland said…
Great EP, nice blog btw, first time around :) I dont really care about the subway placements, didnt they give out big funding for this season to become true anyways ? :O
J_J said…
I agree with your write up. The hotel scene at the end I found out of whack. Shaw clearly manipulated her to do his bidding and she knows it but she still opened up to him at the end. She seems to have a blind spot when it concerns him and I tend to agree with others that suggest that Sarah is Shaw's mark. What's your reading on that Jace?

The ep was very good and I enjoyed it. The cast did a great job but Yvonne needs a shout out for another outstanding job. She needs more work!

Thanks for the write up!
Anonymous said…
Never trusted shaw from day one, the whole love triangle think makes me hate the show that I used to liked. I can clearly see shaw wishes he had the intersect so he is making Chuck into a super spy so that eventually he can use him to find the ring leaders. To shaw chuck is a tool and sarah, a way to manipulate the tool. Sarah falling for another spy please this mean only disaster, look a bryce dead now. Shaw will eventually loose his composure if he finds the rings leader that ordered the kill of his wife. Shaw will die at the end as a hero leaving sarah alone.
phillymom2 said…
Great article Jace. I must admit that I had to digest last night's episode before reading your review. It was an emotional rollercoaster for me. My favorite parts were the stakeout kit, Chuck running around in a towel and looking very sexy but still manaaging to be dorky at the same time, seeing Sarah really smile at Chuck during the stakeout and finally, Casey doing the deed for Chuck and saying "you're not a killer Chuck." Worst for me was Sarah telling Shaw she doesn't love Chuck any more. I just don't get that. Well, have to wait and see what happens next week, my fantasy is for Superman to go bye bye and for fabulous threesome to be a team again.
jstew said…
At first Sarah saying that she didn't love Chuck anymore really threw me off, based on the fact that she seemed to realize earlier in the episode that she does in fact love Chuck. However, after thinking over it for a while, I really think that the timing of the comment is very important. She thinks she just watched Chuck kill Perry. I honestly think if Shaw had asked her the same question before he sent her to give Chuck his Red Test she would have admitted to loving Chuck. (BTW, I thought they were saying Bread the entire episode...red makes a lot more sense)

Since Chuck realized how different he was becoming and has worked to return to who he really is, starting with breaking up with Hannah, Sarah has been seeing the man she loved come back to life. She has been giving Chuck little tests since then to see if her Chuck is really back. For instance, he definitely got the smile of approval when he wanted to risk treason to rescue Casey. The Red Test gave her the ultimate opportunity to see if her Chuck was truly back. I think she sees Chuck's supposed killing of Perry as the death of the Chuck that she loved. Therefore, the "not anymore comment" about loving Chuck seems to have been a change that took place with that gun shot.

Here's what I WISH had happened. While Sarah's running around the train yard, Perry pulls a gun on her and Chuck is forced to kill him to save her life. That allows Chuck to get his first kill, save Sarah's life, repay her for all the times she saved his life, and teaches Chuck that sometimes you do have to use deadly force, much like Shaw's position on guns.

Besides, what better way is there to bring two spies into the relationship we've always hoped for. Watch out Brangelina, here comes SChuck!

I've really enjoyed all of the episodes after the Olympics. It seems like all of the things I love about the series have come back since then. I just wish they weren't killing us with crazy cliff hangers each week. It seems like they're in a competition with 24 to bring the most cliff-hanger-pain to their faithful. Oh well, I guess I'm a glutton for punishment!

Long Live SChuck!
Audrey said…
Honestly, I am not very comfortable about the darker side in which the show is delving in, but I find that it is this type of episodes that showcase the actors, and in this case especially Yvonne Strahovski.

I'm holding out for a real good payoff the writers have in store for us.
Ambaryerno said…
It's refreshing to see more positive comments about this episode. I think too many viewers are thinking with their Shipper Hearts and not REALLY watching the characters.

I've seen a LOT of complaints about Sarah's path this season, with a lot of people accusing the show runners of "character assassination." What I love about Sarah (besides the beauty that is Yvonne, and her unparalleled ability to give so much with such subtle changes of expression) is her complexity. From the beginning of the series I got the sense that she was a very damaged woman, and the more we get to know her the clearer that becomes, especially learning about her difficult time in school, but most tellingly the fact that Sarah never REALLY got to be "Sam." She was always who her dad needed her to be for his various con jobs: Jenny, Katie, Rebecca, and she's not even out of high school when she's dragged into the CIA and made to become Sarah Walker. As Bryce said in Season 1: She's not one that was ever good expressing how she felt, and the one time she DID trust someone she genuinely loved, he broke her heart.

The Prague Incident changed Sarah significantly. It was a chink in the armor she'd built up over her lifetime, and those defenses have slowly been crashing down around her. The writers aren't "assassinating" her character. The very IDEA of who she is is flying apart at the seams. As Sarah told Shaw, watching Chuck change has suddenly made the question of who SHE is, and who she WAS, very relevant. Sarah is crashing emotionally, and ALL of her actions since then are IMO far more believable than some fans want to give the writers credit for.

The man she truly loved shattered her heart, so she sought refuge in her old pattern with Shaw. Sarah has been falling apart, and it's a change she NEEDED to go through. I don't think that Sarah was in any way ready to be with Chuck at the end of Season 2. I think this is EXACTLY what was necessary: Sarah's sense of self HAD to be brought into question, and she had too many buried wounds that needed to be healed.

It's going to take her going through this collapse to put the pieces back together again, and I think we're going to see that over the next two episodes. She's going to realize that Chuck can be the hero she was always pushing him to be, but still be Chuck, and in the process that's going to help her learn to find her OWN identity again.
Anonymous said…
To be very frank, the resolution of this episode has me very pissed off at Sarah and how they scripted her - to be sure, the acting was incredible, but the character's actions I hated.

Your red test was the worst day of your life, but you are abandoning Chuck on the worst of his? He's calling you and you ignore him, when he clearly needs someone?

NOT ONLY THAT, but you put him in a catch 22: You won't be separated if he becomes a spy, but you hate him for doing the only thing that can bring you together?

I appreciate the drama and the thematic cohesion of tension and tragedy, but the unfortunate scripting of Sarah's lines makes her a ridiculously selfish and self-centered character.
Jay said…
I absolutely agree with Ambaryerno's comments above. As far as Sarah's character this season...my opinion is that the writers have been absolutely consistent with her character, and her actions have been based on her past emotional traumas, not due to selfishness.

Remember that at the start of this series, Sarah was an emotionally bankrupt character. Her father was in jail, her boyfriend (Bryce) was (assumed) dead and a (assumed) traitor, she moved from town to town during her childhood and was a loner in school. So, she:

- Other than her father and Bryce, she didn't have any friends
- She was left alone growing up because her father was thrown in jail.
- Bryce (supposedly) betrayed the CIA and her, and died (supposedly) in the process.

So, of the few emotional connections she had, she was either betrayed or abandoned.

Now, Chuck, who is the most significant emotional connection she's ever had is changing, from her perspective, in front of her very eyes -- abandoning her emotionally. With Sarah's past in mind, I would absolutely believe that Sarah would push Chuck away, in order to protect her already fragile emotional state.
Unknown said…
The whole "Red Test" just didn't ring true to me. I mean, you discover a mole, so you kill him? In what world does that make sense? It would have made more sense to have Chuck bring him in so they could interrogate him and find out what he has told, who his contacts were, etc. Killing him on sight just means they lose any chance of finding the next person up the food chain. The awkward way they put this together just really spoiled the whole episode for me.
Dacaria said…
I completely agree with Ambaryerno. In the episode, "Chuck VS. the Final Exam", when Sarah stated she didn't love Chuck anymore for "passing" his red test, it was just a knee jerk reaction. She's still trying to reconcile her feelings for Chuck, for who he was and who he's becoming. I think she took to Shaw so quickly b/c he was an easy rebound. He's already a spy, a killer, so she knows what to expect, no suprises. Chuck however has Sarah's emotions all over the place. After all this is the one guy she was going to leave everything for, but instead he chose the spy game, the life she wanted to leave. In the end, I think Sarah still loves him and this will win out. Spy Chuck or Non-spy Chuck, Sarah will ultimately pick Chuck.

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