Being Chuck: A 21st Century Hero's Journey

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Joseph Campbell, the great student of human mythologies, wrote the classic text The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949). That book articulates the path (through many diverse human civilizations) of the myth of the hero.

The path of the hero follows, Campbell argued, a common pattern of events.

In the introduction to the Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell outlines this heroic path:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The NBC prgoram Chuck (2006-current) is my favorite show on television. Chuck is a brilliant depiction of the path of the hero in the 21st century American landscape.*  For those interested, this post works as kind of mirror-image to my earlier article on Being Erica/Being the Ego. That post, in a sense, articulated a path of the heroine in the 21st century, with this one envisioning the hero’s journey.

WARNING: MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS ABOUND IN THIS POST

 

In what follows I will use descriptions of the hero’s journey from the wiki article on the subject.

Season 1: Departure

Call to Adventure

The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.

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When first we meet Chuck Bartowski (played incredibly by the Zachary Levi), Chuck is living with his more successful sister Elle and her boyfriend Captain Awesome (both medical doctors). Chuck is a genius-level computer nerd who was kicked out of Stanford University and now works at a Buy-More (the show’s fictional version of a Best Buy).

Unbeknowst to Chuck his ex-college roommate (who got him kicked out school) Bryce Larkin is a CIA spy. We are not sure at the beginning of the show if Larkin's a rogue agent or not (the show later reveals, Larkin is a good guy). Larkin steals a government database of espionage secrets and sends them (in a near death encounter) to Chuck via email.

Chuck is celebrating his birthday, wherein he strikes out with the ladies as he is still pining over his ex-girlfriend Jill (also from his Stanford days who just also happens to have been stolen from Chuck by Bryce Larkin). Chuck represents the $10/hour workers in the knowledge sector of the US economy. He’s the mid 20s, quarter-life crisis, playing video games, under-utilized at work, and lacking in his potential. This streak is what gives the show a small but rabid fan base as it speaks to the experience of Generation Y in particular.

The database Larkin has sent Chuck is known as the Intersect. It's an experimental database that is visually cued, with secrets encoded in random imagery. Chuck thinks he is receiving a birthday greeting from his erstwhile frenemy. He opens the email only to have the entire Intersect downloaded into his brain via a program embedded in the email. The original Intersect is destroyed in Larkin’s attempt to steal it, leaving Chuck as the walking, talking hub of the entire US national security state and all its information.

Chuck’s destiny is now set and everything sets in motion from that fateful email.

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Refusal of the Call

Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.

Chuck begins to have “flashes”—moments when the information encoded in the Intersect is triggered in his brain from some visual cue (e.g. seeing a person who has a file in the Intersect database). He does not understand what these flashes are. He eventually learns their true meaning. His first reaction is to run in shock. Throughout essentially the entire first two seasons, Chuck works with the government to help catch criminals but he does so on the assumption that they are working to extricate The Intersect from his brain and give him his normal life back. As he says, “I’m not a spy!!!”. In other words, “I’m not a hero.”

Supernatural Aid

Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.

The CIA sends Sarah Walker, a beautiful and dangerous agent to Chuck. She poses as a flirtatious customer at his store, eventually the two go on a date where Sarah gets Chuck finally to admit that he has the Intersect in his brain (a possibility even the government hadn’t considered). Sarah, along with NSA agent John Casey, become Chuck’s guardians.

       

Crossing of the Threshold

This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.

The first season of the show has Chuck defusing a bomb, flying a helicopter, taking on Asian drug lords, as well as dancing with a notorious art-smuggling murderer.  From the moment Chuck downloads the Intersect he is drawn into the world of espionage, crime, and heroism (including the pilot episode).  All the while Chuck is leading a double life. Sarah Walker is pretending to be Chuck's girlfriend (though the line between their fake and real relationship becomes increasingly blurred) and Chuck is still the one his friends (namely his best friend Morgan Grimes) and co-workers are leaning on. Captain Awesome gives Chuck his engagement ring to hold on to before asking Chuck’s sister for marriage.

The strain of leading his dual life (which he did not choose) starts to wear on Chuck.

Season 2: Initiation

The Meeting of the Goddess

This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely.

The Goddess in the Chuck-verse is Sarah Walker. Below is the iconic first meeting of the duo [embed video clip]. Morgan calls Sarah “Vicky Vale”, making Chuck Batman—a regular guy (Bruce Wayne) who is secretly a superhero (Batman) who relies not on any super power or abilities, but only his smarts and technology (Intersect). Chuck and Sarah’s relationship goes through many cycles of closeness and separation.

Chuck and Sarah’s relationship is what has driven the show. Their chemistry is unmistakable. The show’s plot unfolds as they themselves lose sense of where the line between faking being in a real romantic relationship (and actually being in one) begins to blur heavily.

     

Atonement with the Father (I)

In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it.

The Second Season of Chuck (particularly its second half) follows the entrance of Chuck’s father Stephen Bartowski. Stephen Bartowski is a scientific genius recluse played by Scott Bakula. Chuck begins interacting with a mysterious character named Orion who eventually turns out to be his father.

From the beginning of the show Chuck has a prominently displayed poster of Tron on his wall (to see my and TJ’s reviews of Tron: Legacy see here and here).** Chuck consciously evokes (most of any references) to the sci-fi/fantasy genre Tron. Stephen Bartowski we learn was the creator of The Intersect (he is the User in Tron’s language).

Stephen Bartowski (whom we have to this point in the series been led to believe abandoned Ellie and Chuck) returns to help save Chuck. Chuck learns the truth of why his father left his children at a young age (to protect them). Papa Bartowski eventually (for a brief period) liberates Chuck from The Intersect.

Apotheosis

When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.

The finale in Season 2 features Chuck having to make a fateful choice. The Intersect (and his spy career) are now--it would seem--behind him, but his friends find themselves in danger.  Chuck goes to rescue them and in the process is left alone in a room with a new version of The Intersect--his friend Bryce lies dead across the room.  The villains have captured Sarah and Casey and Chuck knows they are hot on his heels.  Chuck has been struggling all season (all series) with the question of whether he is a real spy or not (a real hero or not). In the climax, Chuck makes the fateful decision to download the new Intersect. Intersect 2.0 has a series of physical abilities in addition to the espionage secrets. Chuck in this scene, defeats the bad guys and quotes the great Neo in The Matrix, “Guys, I know kung fu.”

   

Season 3: Return

Refusal of the Return

Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.

Season 3 leaves Chuck with a fateful choice. Sarah has asked Chuck to leave with her, to go AWOL, abandon their lives in the spy (hero) world and become civilians. Sarah is convinced that Chuck will become tainted by the spy world he will cease to be the good man she has always known. The spy world is morally ambiguous and threatens a person’s sense of selfhood.

Chuck decides to remain a spy. Unfortunately Chuck fails in spy school. He ends up back on his sister’s couch, eating Cheeseballs—what his ex-boss calls “feral.” Chuck unfortunately is kidnapped along with Sarah.  He manages to regain his power, helps them escape, and ends up back working at the Buy More and back in the spy game.

On his first mission back, Chuck is caught in a vault with gas streaming from the walls—thinking himself dying he confesses his reasons for remaining a spy and his continued love for Sarah (unbeknownst to him caught on tape and given to Sarah by her spy friend Carina--for video of this scene, click here).

Rescue from Without

Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, oftentimes he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.

In Season 3 Chuck’s secret identity is revealed to his brother-in-law Captain Awesome and his best friend Morgan. Both help Chuck along the way.

Season 3 sees the entrance of the mysterious CIA agent Daniel Shaw (played by none other than Superman himself, Brandon Routh). Shaw believes Chuck can become a spy and pushes Chuck hard to develop his skills. Though Shaw is at this point an aid in Chuck’s heroic development, he will eventually become his arch-nemesis. This shows the way in which the hero’s journey is so fraught as former friends become mortal enemies.

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The Crossing of the Return Threshold

The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.

In Season 3 Chuck struggles with his emotional state, causing The Intersect to malfunction. Sarah and Chuck agree to be friends (only). Chuck becomes interested in another woman Hannah, but eventually has to lie to her (appearing like a jerk in the process) in order to protect her from the underbelly of his double life. Members of his family and friends become endangered and Chuck questions whether his choice of becoming the spy-hero has been the right one.

Worse still, The Intersect begins to drive Chuck to the point of insanity by overloading his neural circuitry. The hero quest is taking everything from him and Chuck comes close to the point of total collapse.

Initiation of the Hero-Child

The hero is often depicted to have a miraculous or auspicious birth or childhood. In the Season 3 finale, Chuck has a flashback (induced by an attacker’s 2x4 to his head) to his childhood. He accidentally downloads a prototype version (as a young boy) of The Intersect, from his father’s secret work room. His father is amazed that Chuck is not injured and has downloaded the entire stream of imagery into his brain. Even as a young boy Chuck is destined to become The Intersect’s guardian and a true hero.

Master of Two Worlds

This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.

Midway through Season 3 (Episode 13), Chuck saves Sarah from Shaw. He (seemingly) kills Shaw, marking his first kill. (Shaw we later learn, survived the attack). Chuck has mastered the spy world of intrigue and violence but he has done so in a way that protects his innocence. It is an act of self-defense to protect Sarah.

Originally Sarah said that she and Chuck could never be together because he was an asset and she was his handler and this was against protocol. Then when Chuck became a real spy she said that they couldn’t be together because it would transform him from the man she fell in love with.

Chuck has now found the way to merge his being--he is now fully both hero and in relationship with Sarah. He unites both worlds, having overcome the duality that previously held him back.  Chuck begins to live his life but the return of Shaw threatens to de-stablize everything. Shaw has received his own version of an Intersect from the nefarious organization known as The Ring.

Chuck faces Shaw. The video below shows their final confrontation, complete with Western showdown references. Chuck in white (symbolizing the angelic) and Shaw in black (the demonic).

It is during this fight that Chuck has his flashback to his boyhood act of downloading the prototype Intersect. As he says, when he comes back, “He needed a reboot.” Chuck has gone through a kind of death and resurrection act.

Atonement With The Father (II)

On his journey to defeating Shaw, Chuck’s father Stephen Bartowski is killed. Chuck is there to witness the tragedy. His defeat of Shaw also plays upon classic hero themes of avenging a loved one.

Chuck tells his sister Ellie that he will no longer be a spy—he freely lays down his role as the hero.

That is, until Chuck’s father leaves a message for him, set to arrive to Chuck only in case of his death. Chuck learns that his father became a spy on his own for two decades, taking on cases beyond the scope of governments and the traditional context for hero spies in our day.

Stephen Bartowski tells his son that he has now inherited his life’s work and mission. The son must become the father.

Atonement With the Mother

This one is not technically discussed in the hero’s journey literature. But part of Chuck’s mission (inherited from his father) is to search for his mother, Mary Elizabeth Bartowski. Chuck’s mother left he and his sister at a young age—the theme of heroes being orphans is strong throughout the history of their journeys.

Season 4

Freedom to Live

Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.

Season 4 has (so far) covered a number of themes. One is Chuck’s search for his mother (played by none other Linda Hamilton, bringing a tie-in to the Terminator Series).Another fascinating one is the development of Sarah and Chuck’s relationship. Overturning the traditional script, Sarah is the commitment-phobic member of the couple, while both struggle with their communication abilities. Meanwhile they team up as superheroes.

But an even deeper theme in this Season (now that all of Chuck’s closest friends and family know of his spy life) is the freedom to live in the place of this budding community.

The second half of Season 4 begins Monday January 16, 2011.

Conclusion

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Since its debut, Chuck has struggled to reach a wide-scale audience. The show was nearly canceled after both the second and third seasons and was only kept on by the Save Chuck campaign organized on the internet by Chuck fanatics.

The show isn't given the artistic credit I think it is due. I would imagine this is because the show is seen as "light" in some quarters--as compared to the "serious" dramas of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the like. Nor is yet a fluff show like Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy. It also doesn't follow the typical formulaic forensic shows like Criminal Minds, CSI (any version), and Bones.

The show (particularly through its writing) tries to forge a creative and unique way that is not always understood. It's not even entirely clear how to categorize the show in terms of typical TV genres: it's sometimes called a romantic spy-dramedy (romance, spy show, plus comedy and drama). It's also a thriller, includes elements of slapstick, sci-fi, fantasy, plus espionage and action. It's tough to pigeonhole--in a TV landscape dominated by niche marketing it's inventive (and at times I would say courageous) foray into multiple genres is not appreciated enough. ;It also suffers from the fact that it's base demographic (people under 40) tend to watch more TV on the internet than on TV itself (I'm in this category myself).

Moreover the show reveals in subtle allusions. It's references to classics of the sci fiction and fantasy (e.g. Star Wars) tends to leave the impression that it's a show for nerds. But it's stable of references is really a compendium of television history over the last thirty years:A-Team,Heroes, Firefly, to name just three of so many. I mean how many 20 year olds would catch the early '80s showHart to Hart referencein this episode opener? Alternatively, how many people like my parents who watched Hart to Hart when it was originally on watch Chuck? [To read more about the evolution of TV in the last three decades, check outBr. TJ's definitive word on the subject.] If you check out theWiki page for each individual episode of the show, there is a section at the bottom called References to Popular Culture. The list is dizzying and for those who aren't pop culture denizens, this can be confusing. Alternatively though for those who haven't watched the show, it's a perfect show to rent say the entire first season and get hooked on, following through the rest from thereon. Admittedly there are ups and downs (a down point being the early points of Season 3). Nevertheless it has already gained a cult classic that I think will stand over time.

--

* An inevitable question is whether I think the writers of the show consciously have chosen to invoke these themes or whether they are simply, in a Jungian sense, in our collective unconscious. The short answer is I don’t know, but I would guess that it is intentional. The writers clearly show themselves students of Tron, Star Wars, and the great mythology of Science Fiction (e.g. Dune), which themselves are already invoking themes of the Hero’s Journey.

** examples include: Bruce Boxleitner who played Tron himself has a recurring guest role on the show as Captain Awesome's dad (Ellie's father-in-law). Chuck keeps an iconic poster of Tron in his room because he says it was his dad's favorite movie--his dad had given him the poster. In Season 2 when Chuck first begins to contact Orion about The Intersect (who later turns out to be his father), he hides Orion's messages behind his Tron poster. When Stephen Bartowski eventually helps Chuck escape from the bad guys (and reveals himself to be Orion), he does through a computer armband he has that allows him to take over the electronic controls of other buildings--much like Jeff Bridges' character in Tron has.

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3 comments

  • Comment Link Vanessa Fisher Tuesday, 18 January 2011 17:04 posted by Vanessa Fisher

    Cool post, Chris. I'd never heard of Chuck before, but I appreciate your framing of it through the Hero's journey. Since I'm home sick with the flu, perhaps I'll rent the first season and see if I get hooked :)

  • Comment Link Ericka Friday, 04 February 2011 19:45 posted by Ericka

    Really great and insightful essay. I think Jung's hero framework is at heart of any truly compelling epic story--and I agree that the Chuck story arc definitely falls in that category.

    I'm a literary snob with finicky TV tastes. I've also been hooked on Chuck since the pilot. Your analysis pretty much sums up why I've kept my Monday nights free for going on four years.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 05 February 2011 17:02 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Ericka,

    Thanks for the note. Glad you enjoyed the piece and glad to have a fellow Chuck-head around these parts :).

    Do you have any thoughts where the storyline goes from here? In some ways Chuck has kind of entered post-hero status and I would say Season 4 has brought forward more and more Sarah into her own.

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