My keyboard has been rather idle of late. Some might suggest it needed the rest, but the truth is far more mundane. After basically having a week off because of snow storms I had some catching up to do. Life sometimes intrudes on my hobbies, and I hate it when that happens. But with Season 3 now available on my computer thanks to iTunes you can bet I’ve been busy picking apart every episode and scene, and I’ll have a bit to say before we get to March 1st about the episodes, the characters, the season so far, and to come. As a first order of business I wanted to pick up on something I’ve written about a number of times. The Hero’s Journey. In the past I’ve written of how various elements of the show are represented or various characters presented, or even why it all matters, and I will probably do so again, but for now I wanted to cover something else, how it works as an outline for a story. For the purposes of doing this I’m going to break down the episode where I think the structure is most evident, Chuck Versus First Class. After the jump.
I hate to be a bore, or sound like I’m assigning homework, but I’m once again going to suggest to those of you unfamiliar with the Hero’s Journey concept familiarize yourself, and I’m here to help. You can find the Hollywood version (call it Mythos Lite) here or here in great detail. I’ll summarize for those of you looking for the readers digest version. From the second link:
The Hero’s Journey Outline
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
7. APPROACH. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
8. THE ORDEAL. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
9. THE REWARD. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
10. THE ROAD BACK. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
11. THE RESURRECTION. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
Now it is important to understand that this is a general outline and that various writers for various reasons may switch the order of some of the plot points, or overlap them, or in some cases omit them entirely based on the needs or limitations of the story. In Chuck Versus First Class however we have a nearly perfect example of this outline in action.
THE ORDINARY WORLD.
The opening scenes find us in the Buy More, where Casey actually seems to fit in better than Chuck now. Chuck is uneasy, longing to leave behind his former life, eager to embrace his new destiny as a spy.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
Shaw decides it is time for Chuck to “get out of the car” and evolve, Chuck is eager to do so and accepts his first solo mission.
REFUSAL OF THE CALL.
As mentioned above sometimes the refusal takes the form of another expressing fears or reservations about the journey to come rather than an outright refusal. In this case it is Casey’s subtle shake of the head when Chuck looks to him before accepting the mission and Sarah’s plea that he not go that serves to highlight the danger the hero will face.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.
Shaw plays the mentor as he tells Chuck that he needs to evolve and that he is ready for the journey ahead. In addition the quick run through with the tranq pen in the Buy More fulfills the mentor role explicitly.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.
Almost literally this time, as Chuck walks out of Castle and is then next seen entering the first class cabin he moves from one world to another. First class is an unfamiliar world to Chuck, and he seems to fumble badly with the new world’s new rules and values. First with his hesitation with removing his coat, then his introduction to Hannah, and his uncertainty on whether to have some Champagne we see Chuck sorting through how to fit in. In this scene you can also see Hannah acting as a mentor, giving Chuck a quick tour of the new world and its inhabitants. This also leads to…
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
Chuck has made his first alliance, Hannah. And it is his first new ally who points out his first enemy. Chuck’s other allies are Shaw and Sarah, nearly taking on the role of an oracle or goddess in that they aren’t present, but are able to guide and protect him. His first objective is now clear, and Chuck sets forth. Hugo Panzer is Chuck’s first true test, and while he kind of fumbles he manages to pull it off.
In the classical Mythos this is often also called the descent into hell. The hero must journey, with his newfound allies and skills toward a goal or to retrieve the prize. Directed by Shaw and Sarah, Chuck descends to the underworld that is the Cargo Hold.
Also known as death and resurrection. I mean you can’t get much more clear cut than Chuck in a coffin. Here the great trial and Chuck’s battle lead to him successfully obtaining the key (the prize) and returning with it from the underworld. “I’m still alive, and my first solo mission was a success.”
With the key in his possession Chuck celebrates his success with Hannah at the bar. We all know there must be more to come, after all we’re only 25 minutes into the show at this point.
THE ROAD BACK.
An unfortunate lapse in our hero’s judgement puts him, his journey, and his prize in danger. The poisoned drink and a previously unseen enemy again send Chuck to the underworld and the brink of death.
With the intervention of his goddess (Sarah of course) and his oracle/mentor/ally Shaw Chuck is once again resurrected and retains the prize.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.
Chuck’s journey is completed as he arrives back at Castle with the key that allows Shaw to access the intel. “With this we might stand a chance.”
So What’s Your Point Ernie?
Now it’s always fun to feel like an insider, someone who knows the secret code, and that’s part of why I did this, to include those of you not familiar in on the fun. I think from my outline above it is pretty undeniable that TPTB are working with some variation of this outline as their playbook. But the Hero’s Journey works on many levels. As I’ve shown, one episode is a perfect example. While I don’t intend to do it…yet, you can apply the same structure to last season, and this season as individual journeys all part of another larger journey. The entire series is more than likely outlined as one long journey for Chuck, and this season he just crossed the threshold into the new spy world and is learning its rules and finding his allies and enemies. This has, as many have remarked, changed the feel of the series. I think it is pretty clear from my postings that I understand and sympathize with this point quite a bit. In essence a lot of my objections to Chuck Versus The Ring were that it was really not part of season 2, and it left me with a sense that they’d cheated. But for now I just wanted to introduce this subject and make a point, TPTB have a plan, and knowing that plan can help ease some of the pain seeing the changes in the show and characters we love. I’ll have more to say on this and how it relates to season 3 as a whole later. For now, have fun deciphering the code.