Viewers have polar reactions to Bryce Larkin based on his behavior towards Chuck and Sarah. Some viewers think he is a great guy who always does the right thing, no matter the personal cost—he sacrifices his friendship with Chuck at Stanford to save Chuck’s life, he backs off when he realizes Sarah has real feelings for Chuck, he hands himself over to Roark to save Ellie’s life. Other viewers wonder what show other people are watching because they see Bryce as an egotistical spy who does Chuck one disservice after another—he makes decisions for Chuck at Stanford and ruins Chuck’s future, he tries to steal Sarah from Chuck with his Omaha code phrase at the end of 1.10 Chuck Versus the Nemesis, he distrusts his friend Chuck’s abilities when even Sarah and Casey trust Chuck, a stranger, with defusing the bomb in 1.01 Chuck Versus the Intersect. They take Chuck vs Bryce quite literally.
How is it possible that viewers who watch the same show can have such polar reactions?
The reason is that the viewers in the latter group let their emotional reactions cloud their understanding of the story and the characters. They inject the way they would react in those situations instead of reading Chuck’s and Sarah’s reactions to the events and instead of understanding the rules and tropes of storytelling. Now, their emotional reactions are perfectly valid and could constitute the basis for some interesting AU (alternate universe) fan fiction, but it has nothing to do with our understanding of Chuck’s canon.
What do I mean by that?
Consider this. The story itself steers the viewers’ emotional reaction in the direction it should go.
In this case, how do we know in the first place that Chuck feels betrayed by Bryce and Jill? How do we know that Chuck resents Bryce? Because the characters tell us several times in the first seven episodes. That is how we know—Chuck, Morgan, and Ellie tell us again and again in the first few episodes.
Well, if we feel that way about Bryce because of what the characters say, what we should also feel about Bryce after the revelation at the end of 1.07 Chuck Versus the Alma Mater should also be driven by what the characters say, should it not?
And what do the characters say about Bryce from Alma Mater on? What is revealed about Bryce to the characters? How do they react to this new information about Bryce?
How does Chuck react when he finds out the truth about Bryce’s actions at Stanford? Is he upset? Does he think Bryce was a jerk who did him a disservice? Does he think Bryce ruined his future?
And how does Sarah react? Is she upset? Does she say that Bryce should never have done that? That he should have given Chuck the freedom to make his own decisions?
Not at all. Nothing could be further from what we see on the screen.
What we are shown instead is that Chuck finds out that Bryce did what he did at Stanford to save him. Everything in Chuck’s words and demeanor in this scene tells us that he is shocked. He suddenly realizes Bryce didn’t betray him at all.
Bryce’s betrayal is the episode’s Chekhov’s Gun; the setup is the scene at Stanford when Chuck tells Sarah and Casey that Bryce betrayed a lot of people. Listen to the dialogue:
Chuck: …Leaving as Bryce stood there. Said I brought it on myself.
Sarah: Why do you think that Bryce betrayed you?
Chuck: I don’t know. He’s had four years to call and set the record straight… You know what? Forget it. Bryce has betrayed a lot of people, hasn’t he?
And the payoff is the scene at the end of Alma Mater when Bryce’s video does set the record straight after four years. Again, listen to the dialogue:
Chuck: Bryce framed me for cheating… to save me. Why didn’t he just tell me that to begin with?
Sarah: He couldn’t. They had already recruited him.
Chuck: Well, if he had a good reason for getting me kicked out, maybe he had a good reason to break into the Intersect, too.
Sarah: And maybe he had a good reason for sending it to you.
Chuck: I just wish I could talk to him. It must have torn him up to not be able to tell me.
Chuck’s attitude about Bryce flips, and his conversation with Sarah is about the good reasons behind Bryce’s actions, and Chuck’s only concern is about the repercussions of the situation on Bryce himself, “It must have torn him up to not be able to tell me.”
Sarah is also very emotional about this revelation.
She holds onto the disc with Bryce’s video as a memento of Bryce, also wishing she could talk to him.
By the way, the Stanford video at the end of Alma Mater is mirrored by the vault video at the end of 3.02 Chuck Versus the Three Words, when Sarah also finds out through a video that Chuck did what he did in Prague because he loved her. Prague is Sarah’s version of Chuck’s Stanford. She thought she was betrayed by Chuck, but she finds out seven months later that she was not, that Chuck made in Prague a self-sacrificial choice out of love, just as Bryce did for Chuck at Stanford. Season 3 swaps Chuck and Sarah’s roles so that they can experience things from the other’s perspective.
The next scene in Alma Mater shows Chuck fishing the picture of him and Bryce at Stanford from the trashcan where he had thrown it earlier in the episode, while the song “Don’t Look Back in Anger” plays in the background.
Could the redemption of Bryce be any clearer?
Some viewers would point out that Bryce’s actions at Stanford ruined Chuck’s future. Again, this point is not raised in the scene at the end of Alma Mater. We should remember that people do run mildly successful software companies without completing college (see Bill Gates and Steve Jobs). Chuck’s reaction to Stanford was Chuck’s own choice. Sarah even tells him something to that effect at the end of 5.06 Chuck Versus the Curse when Chuck goes into his fatalist mode (“It’s the Bartowski curse”) and Sarah reminds him that things happen because of the choices we make. Even after finding out the truth about Stanford, Chuck still tells Sarah that he still has the Buy More (in 2.01 Chuck Versus the First Date) and still works at Buy More after receiving his Stanford degree in 2.05 Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer.
As for Bryce, Alma Mater is not even the whole story. In every Bryce episode, he is redeemed.
In 1.10 Chuck Versus the Nemesis, when Bryce does come back (he was only “mostly” dead), he and Chuck have a conversation in the Buy More:
Bryce: You know, I didn’t mean to offend you last night about living with your sister.
Chuck: And you’re still the super spy, right?
Bryce: It’s nothing. I got one friend in this world. You got a home and a store full of them.
And they shake hands over it while Sarah watches their interaction from afar. Everything in Bryce’s tone and demeanor speaks of respect for Chuck and stoic acceptance of his own lonely spy life.
In 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up, Bryce tells Chuck that he sent the Intersect to him because Chuck is the only person in the world he could trust with it. In other words, when the mission went sideways, Bryce considered Chuck the only trustworthy person in the world, the person who always does the right thing. And that is the reason he trusts that Chuck will also do the right thing with Sarah, whose real feelings for Chuck are a liability that puts her life in danger (until she learns how to master them and turn them into an asset, as shown in 2.18 Chuck Versus the Broken Heart).
Some viewers argue that Bryce is trying to separate Chuck and Sarah here because he wants Sarah for himself, but this argument does not hold water for a host of reasons—it is not the theme of the episode, and it makes no sense for a secondary character to successfully separate the hero from the heroine only to then disappear for 18 episodes. Also, look at Bryce’s face in the scene above. Does this look like the face of a person who has successfully achieved his dastardly plan? Or does it look like the disarming and honest look of a true friend?
Finally, in 2.22 Chuck Versus the Ring, Bryce tells Chuck that he always looked out for him because of a promise he made to Orion.
Bryce: You are going to give them me.
Chuck: They think you’re the Intersect.
Bryce: The cube can’t fall into the wrong hands. I made a promise to Orion.
Chuck: You knew.
Bryce: That was the deal. Your dad knew I protected you at Stanford. He was the only spy he would trust.
Chuck: I can’t believe you’ve known this whole time.
Bryce: He wanted to keep you out of this. But I knew you could handle the Intersect. I knew Sarah would find you, and most importantly, you deserved to know the truth about your father. He’s a hero.
Are these the words and looks of a self-serving and self-aggrandizing spy who does not care about Chuck? Or are they the words and looks of a friend and a hero ready to sacrifice himself to save Ellie from Roark?
Bryce then graciously bows out when Sarah chooses Chuck over the spy life. And he then heroically dies to protect the Intersect from the Ring. Bryce’s sacrificial death for the greater good propels Chuck to finally accept his hero’s calling and re-intersect. And upon finding out that Bryce is dead, Sarah lets out an anguished scream.
Finally, it is revealed in 3.05 Chuck Versus First Class that Sarah went all the way to Lisbon to spread Bryce’s ashes because that was the place of their first mission. Would Sarah do this for a self-serving and self-aggrandizing spy who ruined Chuck’s life?
And in 5.12 Chuck Versus Sarah, Sarah takes care of the DARPA Intersect room guards in a way that mirrors Bryce taking care of the guards outside the Intersect room in the pilot episode. Talk about a homage to Bryce.
Bryce is a tragic hero who always has Chuck’s best interest in mind. Sure, he is a flawed hero because he never rises above the cardinal rule (“Spies don’t fall in love”), but neither do Chuck and Sarah until almost the end of season 3, when they reject the cardinal rule.
Bryce is a great guy.
Bryce ruined Chuck’s life at Stanford. Well, as Chuck himself says at the end of 1.7 Chuck Versus the Alma Mater, Bryce framed him for cheating to save him.
There was no guarantee Chuck would be selected for the Omaha mission. Untrue. Fleming says in the video that Chuck “is in, no matter what.” And Bryce adds ominously that they will turn Chuck into a… The writers frame the conversation in a way to leave Bryce no alternative, and we can see in the scene that Bryce’s only concern is for the life and safety of his friend.
There was no guarantee that Chuck would die in the Omaha mission. Chuck would have most likely died. Bryce was right to think that Chuck was not cut out for the spy life at Stanford. Let’s think about what happens in 3.11 Chuck Versus the Final Exam. Chuck, who wants to become an agent and has the dream of being with Sarah as further motivation to achieve this goal, still cannot kill Perry on government orders and almost gets shot. If season-3 Chuck cannot kill on government orders, do we think that college Chuck was cut out for the job? He was not.
Bryce steals Chuck’s future. Bryce saved Chuck’s life. There is no future if you do not survive a military operation.
Bryce makes decisions for Chuck. Bryce only makes the decision to save his life at Stanford. Chuck is thankful for it and forgives Bryce on the spot. The whole scene at the end of 1.07 Chuck Versus the Alma Mater is about Chuck’s forgiveness of Bryce.
Bryce tries to steal Sarah from Chuck. Untrue. In 1.10 Chuck Versus the Nemesis, Bryce does not know Sarah and Chuck have feelings for each other. Even at the beginning of 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up, he does not yet know when he gently hits on her in the Orange Orange. When Bryce does find out, he backs off and concedes that Sarah is in love with Chuck.
Chuck would not have treated Bryce like that. Likely untrue. Prague is Sarah’s version of Stanford. If Chuck does the same with Sarah by leaving her at the station without giving her an explanation, he would have with Bryce as well if it was a matter of saving Bryce’s life. In fact, Chuck withholds the truth about his spy life with Ellie and his friends to keep them safe.
Casey and Sarah trust Chuck with the bomb defusing in the pilot while Bryce could not trust Chuck at Stanford. This is a false analogy. Casey and Sarah only trust Chuck with the bomb in the pilot when there is no other alternative (and it is Sarah who trusts Chuck; Casey trusts Sarah’s call). They were going to leave him in the hotel’s lobby, away from the bomb. It’s Chuck who runs to the room with the bomb. When Bryce has no other alternative about who to send the Intersect to, he also trusts Chuck and only Chuck.
Bryce didn’t have to send the Intersect to anyone. If he hadn’t, the Intersect might have fallen into the wrong hands. When Bryce realizes it is a Fulcrum op and starts running, he doesn’t know who to trust, so he sends the Intersect to the only person he knows he can trust. That’s Chuck.
Bryce took Chuck’s mojo. Bryce saved Chuck’s life at Stanford. Dead people have no mojo. Chuck’s decisions after Stanford are his own. Ellie never blames Bryce for Chuck’s Buy More life and always encourages him to do better. Sarah does the same, even after Chuck finds out the truth about Stanford.
Bryce never told Chuck the truth. He couldn’t because he had already been recruited. This is specifically mentioned by Sarah after She and Chuck watch the Stanford video at the end of 1.07 Chuck Versus the Alma Mater.
There was a multitude of things that Bryce could have done. Yes, this is called fan fiction.
Bryce ended up sending the Intersect to Chuck anyway. Yes, this is explained by Bryce himself at the end of 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up and at the end of 2.22 Chuck Versus the Ring. He says he did it because (a) Chuck is the only person he could trust with the Intersect and (b) because Chuck deserved to know the truth about his father.
Bryce tries to control Sarah’s life. Untrue. He makes advances because they had a relationship. Once he realizes that Sarah has feelings for Chuck, he backs off like a gentleman. Sarah is always the master of her own relationship fate. She is no man’s puppet.
Bryce manipulates Chuck to break up with Sarah because of Sarah’s feelings for Chuck as a liability. There is no manipulation whatsoever. Sarah’s feelings for Chuck are a liability in 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up, just as Chuck’s feelings for Sarah are a liability in 3.02 Chuck Versus the Three Words. In 2.03 Break-Up, Bryce wisely points out to Chuck that he must do the right thing to keep Sarah safe. Look again at the picture below. Is this the look of a cunning manipulator? Or is it the look of a real friend encouraging Chuck to do the right thing?
Besides, we can read the early script of 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up and see that Sarah herself admits to Casey that she hesitated with the Fulcrum lady because of her feelings for Chuck. This is, of course, the payoff of the episode’s Chekhov’s Gun, while the setup was the beginning scene with Sarah and Bryce in Colombia when Sarah killed the bad guy with his gun to Bryce’s head without hesitation. The two scenes are there to highlight that Sarah’s real feelings for Chuck are a liability that affects her performance and puts her life as a spy in danger.
Bryce is in Sarah’s room at the end of 2.02 Chuck Versus the Seduction. Bryce is shown in Sarah’s room when Chuck gets there with the rose because, if Bryce is not there, there is nothing stopping Chuck and Sarah from making love, which is too soon for the writers and the story they are telling. In other words, Bryce plays the same role as Morgan’s condom IOU in 2.21 Chuck Versus the Colonel and the same role as Prague in 3.01 Chuck Versus the Pink Slip, and the same role as Carina in 3.02 Chuck Versus the Three Words. They are all there to stop Chuck and Sarah from getting together too soon.
Bryce makes his move on Sarah because he knows Chucks likes her. Bryce is spotted by Ellie at the Orange Orange with Sarah before Bryce knows that Sarah has real feelings for Chuck. It happens at the beginning of the 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up episode. He is Sarah’s ex trying to resume his spy relationship with her. His role in the episode is the same as Carina in 3.02 Chuck Versus the Three Words (since the two episodes mirror each other). Their narrative structure is exactly the same but reversed.
Bryce’s role is to notice Sarah is in love with Chuck, and this love breaks the cardinal rule (feelings as a liability for spies). This is clearly articulated in the episode. Bryce has not one but two conversations with Chuck on this topic; the second time Chuck gets the memo.
Bryce kisses Sarah in Chuck’s room. Bryce is testing Sarah because he does not know who to trust. Sarah’s reaction tells him he “doesn’t have her,” and they pull a gun on each other in the next scene in Casey’s apartment. Bryce even has his finger on the trigger.
A good friend treats his friends as equals. And Bryce does. First, he saves Chuck’s life at Stanford, then sends him the Intersect because Chuck deserves to know the truth. This is in their conversation in 2.22 Chuck Versus the Ring, as reported above.
Bryce is incompetent. He only faces Roark with one gun. That is the wrong way to interpret fiction. First, at one point or another, every character in this show is incompetent by “real” standards. Second, in this particular scenario, Bryce is not planning to take Roark and all his men Rambo-style during Ellie’s wedding. He is merely planning to lure Roark and his men away from the venue; therefore, he cannot go there fully armed. Third, spies like Bryce, Cole, and Shaw are supposed to be spy gods, worthy of a spy goddess like Sarah, and Chuck will become a spy god like them (see picture below). Finally, this scene is meant to be the payoff of the episode’s Chekhov’s Gun. The setup was when Casey told Chuck to call him if he needed help, The payoff is Casey’s team crashing through the ceiling to save the day.
Bryce diminishes Chuck by calling him a kid. Let’s remember that the writers are making a point. When they diminish Chuck through Bryce (“Let the kid go”) or Cole (“This is pre-torture?”), it is not because we are supposed to think that Bryce or Cole are condescending and douchey. It is because Chuck is a kid compared to them at that stage of his life. Sure, he has qualities that they do not have, and that is why Sarah loves him. But he does need to grow up to be worthy of Sarah. Sarah is a spy goddess. Chuck is an adorable normal nerd. He does need to become an adorable spy god to be with Sarah. And he does in season 3 by overtaking Bryce, Cole, and Shaw. So, in the end, it is not really Chuck vs Bryce. It is Chuck because of Bryce (and Cole and Shaw)—they are his spy mentors.