What About Chuck?


Charles Irving Bartowski,  what about Chuck?  It’s supposed to be his show after all, but as far as characters go Sarah gets a lot more attention and discussion.  Go figure, the astoundingly hot and talented blonde gets more attention than the nerd.  Sarah has been the more interesting character in the first seasons because in many ways she has been forced to adapt and change and has evolved far more than Chuck has.  Chuck has become a part of her life but Chuck was a draftee, he had no choice.  Sarah said she would fix this, and has struggled mightily to do so, walking a tightrope between her duty and her feelings for and loyalty to Chuck.  But Sarah did what she set out to do, with a lot of help from Chuck.  She gave him back his life.  Mission accomplished.  The problem is, is that really what Chuck wanted?  Season 3 will tell.  So in these last painful days as we wait for our pre-ordered season 2 DVD or Blue-Ray and Chuckmas, with your kind indulgence lets take a look at Chuck.  Who is Chuck, and how did he get to this precarious place where we last saw him.  Perched at the intersection of two worlds, crossing the threshold from his own into a new, confusing, and dangerous world where what he believes and values may no longer be true, or may get him killed.

Oddly, for the main character we don’t know a lot about Chuck’s history other than a few discrete facts.  Based on the show’s timeline he was born around 1980, some 5 years after his older sister Ellie.  His mother left when he was 10, and his father some 5 years later.  For the most part from age 10 on he was raised by his sister.  He was apparently a gifted enough student to earn a full scholarship to Stanford, until he was unceremoniously kicked out his senior year, twelve credits short of a degree.  After losing his best friend, his girlfriend, his future hopes and his mojo in one crushing betrayal, it was back to live with his sister in Echo Park and work at the Burbank branch of Buy More where he has been for five years when our story opens.  So if we can, lets forget what we know, or Sarah knows, or what we know Sarah knows, and concentrate on Chuck.

The character of Chuck is well-known to us.  Somewhat socially awkward, but with an intrinsic charm and an innate ability to connect with people which seems to belie his nerd status.  A born leader, and everyone seems to recognize this except him, he constantly steps up to the challenge when action is needed.  He is a man of action, just not in the traditional way.  He hates conflict, practically to the point of pacifism.  Lying and deceit are foreign concepts to Chuck.  Family and friends are his lodestone and loyalty is at the very core of who he is.  I doubt you could find anyone less suited to life as a spy.

Don’t Freak Out

Things got weird for Chuck after he opened Bryce’s e-mail.  Ninjas in the living room stealing his computer, Serbian terrorists in the LargeMart, and really attractive blondes asking him out on dates.  Clearly something is up, but hey, a date!  Maybe it is time to get over Jill after all.  Armed with his sister’s advice and his own wit and charm Chuck sets out on the date that will perhaps come to define the rest of his life.

By the end of that date things go horribly wrong and he’s running for his life with a woman he just met who is telling him there are men after him, men that will do him harm, and Bryce Larkin is somehow responsible.  People are pointing guns at him and each other, there’s a lot of talk about spies and secrets and Bryce and cells.  Too late, he’s freaking out. He starts to run.  Flash.

Finally it all comes together.  The computer is in his brain.  He is the computer, and there are people about to die.  And he’s the only one who knows how to save them.  Chuck does what he always does as we’ll come to see.  He steps up, risks his life, and saves the day.

One traumatic realization later and things are starting to calm down a bit.  It’s been a rough night for Chuck.  This wasn’t quite the date he’d hoped for.  And now it just might get worse.

There’s nowhere I can run, is there?

A night alone on the beach hasn’t helped.  His friends, his family, they’re all in danger because of him.  He can’t go home, they’re probably following him even now, and he’d lead them right to his family.  If he stays they might use his family to try to control him.  If he runs they’ll find him, or retaliate against his family.  He doesn’t really care about himself at this point.  His life is over.  Bryce has done it to him again.  Scary violent people who lie and shoot and kill without a second thought, and then go for pancakes are now a part of his life, and he has to figure out something, but nothing is coming.  Except Sarah.

Sarah says to trust her.  It doesn’t sound like he has much choice at this point.  She’s tossed him a lifeline for now.  He has to take it.  Arriving home, seeing his sister and Morgan, all he wants to do is hold them, to hold on to them and never let go.  He can’t bear the thought he almost lost them.  Now he’s working for the CIA and the NSA.  Now what?

Trust me, a spy doesn’t want you to know anything about them that’s real. No matter who you are.

Chuck has to learn not to trust people, and to lie to the people he loves.  He learned he could count on Casey and Sarah to protect him, mostly.  A few close brushes with torture and armed bad guys aside he’d survived without a scratch.  He also has to learn that Sarah may act like she cares, but she still lies to him and keeps secrets, and will only let him get so close.  “Trust me Chuck.”  It seemed like a lifeline once in the pilot, then it was an ultimatum in the Helicopter, and finally a cruel joke in Wookie.  Chuck is not unaware that at this point Sarah’s idea of trust is a one way street.  She gets to lie when it suits her, he’s expected to put his life in her hands and trust her absolutely.  Sadly it takes an outsider, as we’ve often seen, to show Chuck some respect.  Carina treats him like an adult and gives it to him straight.  “Trust me, a spy doesn’t want you to know anything about them that’s real.  No matter who you are.”

Despite it all, Chuck forgives, and trusts, and apologizes.  He does his best to make up for the problems that his few lapses cause while forgiving far more egregious breaches of trust against him.  But something is building in him.  A sense that he didn’t escape that dead-end life he felt so trapped in.  He just traded it for another dead-end.  Career?  Well if you count a second job that puts your life at risk on a regular basis, doesn’t pay, and as a perk you can’t tell anyone and have to lie to and continually let down and hurt your family and friends, if you count that as progress, well then its just aces Charles.  Sarah?  Not happening apparently.  I’d go so far as to say that Chuck may have been smitten in the pilot and curious  early on in Helicopter, but he was pretty much out of love for a few episodes there.  Things seem to have changed after Carina blew through town.  Everyone, even Carina keeps telling him she really cares, they can see it.  Why can’t he?  Sarah does seem to be making an effort, it seems clear she wants him to like her.  They have fun on their fake dates, but more and more it seems like work to him.  It isn’t going anywhere as far as he can tell, and she is really good at faking it, maybe that’s what people see and why he doesn’t see it.  He is still just where he was.  Still no real girlfriend, a second dead-end job, and a future even more bleak than the one he had before he became the intersect.

Damn this truth serum!

Spy life and family collide again, and all Sarah is worried about is being a convincing couple.  Time to sleep together, well not sleep together, but SLEEP sleep together, or not… well it’s complicated.  Especially when Sarah keeps shooting down any woman who takes an interest in him.  It wouldn’t be so bad if he could have something real with Sarah, but comfortable as he is around her, and her him, that seems to be about as far as it goes, or she’ll let it go.  The sleepover is a disaster.  He tries to make it convincing and he gets a lecture about how this is just a cover, she is more than convincing and it’s being professional.  He just can’t win.  In addition Sarah is pretty adamant that dating anyone else is not in the picture for him.  No compromising the cover.

Finally, as if an answer to his prayers Chuck has the opportunity to know for sure, to remove all his doubts and to have the one big question on his mind answered.  The answer is no.  At least he knows where he stands with Sarah once and for all.  There is one less bit of uncertainty in his life, and he can do the healthy thing and move on.

Is it just me or does our government never want me to have sex?

Armed with the truth and a new resolve born of facing death, Chuck decides its time to start living his life, and he wants to start with something real.  He and Lou are real.  Real attraction, no lies, no spy stuff, just someone he can be himself with and enjoy something like real life.  It’s never so simple for Chuck.  His spy life once again finds a way to ruin the only chance he’s had for someone special in his life in quite some time.  Or more to the point, Sarah finds a way to ruin his best shot at a real girlfriend.  And then, even after his best groveling succeeds in winning Lou back, spy life manages to ruin things again.  Lou isn’t who she seems.

One traumatic near death experience later Sarah is kissing him, and they’re not dead.  Has agent Walker’s mask slipped?  Was that really real?  What about the truth serum?  Before he can get any answers Bryce is back in the picture.  Sure enough it’s not long before Chuck sees Bryce and Sarah kissing passionately in his room at Thanksgiving.  So lets see, Bryce has had him kicked out of school, OK, perhaps for his own protection because he thought Chuck too wimpy for field work, but he still stole Jill, sent him the intersect, which by the way pretty much negates the “good deed” of getting him kicked out of Stanford, used him as a human shield to escape, and now Sarah and Bryce seem awfully glad to see each other.  This isn’t simple jealousy, although after Sarah’s kiss, which hasn’t yet been explained, it certainly factors in.  This is the guy who continually ruins his life making out with the woman who controls his life.  An over-reaction?  Perhaps, you decide.  So Bryce works his magic, saves Chuck by shooting him, great metaphor for their entire friendship, and so far as Chuck knows leaves with Sarah.

Is Sarah gone?  Out of his life forever without so much as a goodbye?  It turns out she’s gone, but still around as his handler.  The Sarah he thought he knew has made it very clear, he’s an assignment.  Her job.  Nothing more.  And she seems to be acting as if it’s somehow his fault that she’s here, somehow his fault that he’s fallen for her again after the kiss or that she fell for him.  She can’t even talk about it, but clearly she is taking it out on him.  By the end of Crown Vic she seems to be trying to say sorry.  He’s learned his lesson though, lets keep it friends, mistletoe or not.  Bravo Chuck.

I’ll save you later, Chuck.

“Say it! Say what you’re not saying.”  That’s where it really starts.  Chuck has had enough of being kept in the dark.  Clearly his handlers know more than he does about the danger to him, his friends and family and his future.  Time for them to spill it.  Finally they’ve treated Chuck like an adult, finally he understands the stakes, and he starts to get an idea of what Sarah has been dealing with, especially after Sarah’s mask has slipped again.  There is no question this time.  She cares.  No asset, no spy stuff, she cares about him.  Of course the information doesn’t do him much good facing life in a bunker, but Chuck does what Chuck does, all is forgiven and he tries to console an inconsolable Sarah.

One traumatic fight for survival and freedom later everything is back to normal.  Chuck doesn’t push for something more based on what she revealed, he’s just grateful, but he does show his gratitude.  He’s seen Sarah is all too human and needs someone and something more than a job in her life, and he realizes that he is it.  Chuck is her only friend, the closest thing she has to family, and as much of a boyfriend as she can handle given her job.  As Chuck and Sarah watch the happy couple through the window Chuck opens a door for Sarah, he offers her something she can have for the asking.

Chuck:  You wanna come in?

Sarah:  This is family time.

Chuck:  I know.

Sadly Sarah doesn’t quite get it.  Only later, after he fastens a family heirloom on her wrist when he answers her protests with those same words, “I know”, does Sarah get it.  He has made Sarah a part of his family.

To Be Continued!

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About Ernie Davis

I was born in 1998, the illegitimate brain child and pen name of a surly and reclusive misanthrope with a penchant for anonymity. My offline alter ego is a convicted bibliophile and causes rampant pognophobia whenever he goes out in public. He wants to be James Lileks when he grows up or Dave Barry if he doesn’t.  His hobbies are mopery, curling and watching and writing about Chuck.  Obsessively.  Really, the dude needs serious help.
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13 Responses to What About Chuck?

  1. lou federico says:

    excellent First Post Ernie. Being for Detroit I have to throw this out “Will the real Chuck Bartowski please stand up, please stand up please stand up. This season will show us the content of his character and see can remain true to Charles Bartowski or if he turns into Agent Carmichael. We all know the Agent Walker and Chuck Bartowski do not mix. Lets see if Agent Carmichael and Sarah Walker mixes. Who would make a better couple Agent Walker and Agent Carmichael or Chuck and Sarah.
    My hope is Chuck and Sarah.

  2. joe says:

    So Bryce works his magic, saves Chuck by shooting him, great metaphor for their entire friendship, and so far as Chuck knows leaves with Sarah.

    !!! Yet another fantastic insight, one I’ve missed.

  3. Gord says:

    Very insightful look at Chuck. One interesting point you make about Chuck’s relationship with Sarah “as much of a boyfriend as she can handle”. I think that describes where Sarah and Chuck were in S1, and as we saw in S2 she almost lost Chuck, or should I say they almost lost each other because she couldn’t be more of a girlfriend (Jill), and he couldn’t be more of a boyfriend (beefcake). Although I suppose you plan on covering that in the “to be continued”.
    One nitpicking thing- I just watched the first 4 episodes again last night after the hockey game (still on West Coast time) and it is Charles “Irving” Bartowski vice “Ivan”. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up except the episode was fresh in my mind.

    • Lucian says:

      since we’re picking nits, I believe papa B left when Chuck was 17.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        By all means correct me if you find something I missed. I based this on S1 statements that Chuck was kicked out of Stanford when he was in the last semester of his Senior year, making him 21 at the oldest, then to Jill being 5 years ago, making him 26 at the oldest at start of the show (his birthday). Later he refers to his dad leaving 11 years ago.

  4. Lucian says:

    I’ll need to do some research. It may have been based on the fact that Sarah graduated from h.s. in 1998, and the episode was airing in 2008 (and she was having her ten year reunion), so I was assuming they were both about 28 at the time of the season 2, so 11 years would put him at 17. Given that papa B knew nothing of Stanford, you may be correct. 15 or 16 makes more sense, given the impact papa B’s departure had on Chuck; not as big a deal if he is basically heading off to college anyway.

    • atcdave says:

      I always assumed Sarah was a year or two older than Chuck; but I’ve never done the math.

    • joe says:

      I always figured that Chuck’s 5th year college reunion (Alma Mater) was in 2007, so he should have graduated from Stanford in 2002. That makes his high school graduation year also 1998, and he’d be within a year of Sarah’s age.

  5. lizjames says:

    Ernie-
    Months ago, I vowed not to post another comment until after I saw how TPTB may have ret-conned or changed the characters in season 3 in their zest to keep them in the will they/won’t they haze. But you’re an insightful fellow, so I felt I should at least chime in. It’s Charles IRVING Bartowski…

    • lizjames says:

      BTW, don’t sweat too many of the small details. There have been LOTS of continuity errors in the first two seasons. If, for example, you can figure out the timing of the key events in Colonel, for example, you must be a quantum physicist…

      • joe says:

        Hi, Liz.
        The continuity error that drives me most buggy is in Broken Heart. As far as I can tell, Awesome is drunk and tranq’ed AND operated (while sleeping it off, I suppose) on the patient getting the pacemaker. That’s why the key-card is stolen from him, and he’s the one who operated, according to the hospital records.

        Naw… I’ve let this one ride. But wow!

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Liz et al, It is with the utmost pleasure that I stand corrected.

  6. atcdave says:

    Some excellent insights here Ernie. Bryce shooting Chuck as a metaphor for their friendship; very sharp, very telling. I thought you were a little harsh about Sarah’s treatment of Chuck; but given this post is from Chuck’s point of view, you may be more right than I care to admit.
    You talk about Chuck’s leadership abilities; the term I like is “Alpha-nerd”. He is clearly recognized as a nerd by most who meet him. Other nerds immediately recognize him as a leader. In my experience, a key trait of most of us nerds, is complete confidence we are smarter than almost everyone else. So being recognized as a king among nerds really is a significant accomplishment. And we know he deserves the recognition; he is intelligent, capable, and a self-starter. He shows leadership with his friends, his Buy More job, and even the spy job. It is especially satisfying to see him take the moral high ground and even mission related initiative when dealing with career professionals in a life and death business. I think, that’s what makes him an everyman hero (or at least “every-nerd”, more on that in a sec); an ordinary guy who has the courage of his convictions, and always does his best in frightening and dangerous circumstances is easy to like and respect.

    The only glitch I see is the nerd mantle. Much as I love and relate to the character, I have encountered viewers who lament his total nerdiness. Let’s face it, by definition a nerd is not cool. I wonder what effect that may have on the show’s appeal. Will it be limited to a niche market because “normal” people can’t quite relate? Even I occasionally find the whining and screaming a bit too much. Don’t get me wrong, I know people with no nerd credentials at all who like the show; but I also know people who just can’t admit they like either the character or the show. Maybe with Chuck becoming more of a real spy this season the point will be moot.

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