A First Class Journey

A Hero Journeys

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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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23 Responses to A First Class Journey

  1. JC says:

    Great Post

    I’ve always found it interesting that the Heroes Journey is so simple in concept yet it strikes a chord in so many. Maybe its the desire to reach for something more within ourselves. That we can overcome any obstacle in our way.

    With regards to Chuck, its very easy to see the journey. I would even say that Seasons 1&2 follow steps 1-5 in the outline you posted to the letter. But I’m going to have disagree when it comes to this season. And it all comes down to the reset, that implies that whatever they had planned was changed to fit what were seeing now. I have no doubt that parts of original story are being used but this isn’t what was originally intended. Just from what we’ve seen this season, I can see steps 6-9 happening. Maybe thats why S3 feels off to me, its being rushed and too much of the journey is happening at once.

    My faith in the TPTB is dwindling but they have me until 3.13 after that we’ll see. I hope they prove wrong. I would be more than happy to eat crow all day if this season works out.

  2. amyabn says:

    Ernie, thanks for such a great primer. I learned a lot. Now my question: if we look at the 13 episode arc, where do you think we fall on the scale? I would venture to say that going into 3.08, we should be at the ordeal. We know Chuck is going to be tested, so will he face it and thus be rewarded and find his way to what I will describe as “real?” I sure hope so!

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Amy, I am planning a full post on this, hopefully by the weekend, so for the most part I’ll wait, but the thing to understand when doing a full season is that there is a lot more overlap with the steps, and they can run more than one episode. In one sense Chuick is still looking for allies. We still suspect Morgan will be one as well as Sarah, but it isn’t really established. We also don’t know the true nature of either Shaw or Hannah. Both could be allies or have their own agenda that conflicts with Chuck’s. In brief, based on a new synopsis 3.9 is probably the central episode of the ordeal setting up 3.10-3.13 as the return and the final showdown. As I said, more later.

  3. Jason says:

    ernie, that is good writing, but seriously, I too can rationalize just about anything I choose to. That is all the pro ‘spinners’ are doing right now, and all you are doing with what you wrote, fine, it is an epic story, heroic, mythological, almost like a greek classic, amazing – I still leave each episode somewhere between real unhappy and indifferent, after 2 seasons of just the opposite. All the fancy english aside, the only real test is going to be for me, am I going to be given some pleasant moments in the rest of the show’s life, or continue down this dramtic path for 12 hrs and 55 minutes, for the mythological 5 minutes of reward. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with your way, it just is not what I got hooked on the first two seasons.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Agreed for the most part, and as I said I do have another post in the works that will address some of what you say. The short version is that S&F are asking fans for a season long commitment based on how they structured things.

    • lizjames says:

      A couple of quick points:
      1) Pay attention when Ernie says Chuck versus the Ring is the start of Season 3. I’ve been saying that for months, too. It’ll make your head hurt less if you realize seasons 1/2 ended with a happy ending, Chuck Versus the Colonel. (And, btw, I don’t think TPTB are done with Colonel. I suspect we WILL see what happened after the rehersal dinner before E13 this year.) The new Chuck started with the Ring and makes a tryptich with Pink Slip and Three Words.

      2) It’s okay to not like what you are seeing in season 3 on an episode by episode basis. It’s okay because you are right. TPTB got so caught up in the heroes journey and telling you to make no judgment until you read the entire book that they FORGOT to make each chapter of the book exciting. On an episode by episode basis, season 3 ain’t all that great.

      3) Quarterize the Season 3 wounds by accepting the fact that you’re in, like it or not, for all 13 episodes this season. To paraphrase a much-used movie line, “They had us at Colonel.” And, to paraphrase a music line that Amy beat TPTB to, “wait it out.”

      We have no choice….

      • JLR says:

        True Liz, we hard-core viewers likely have no choice, but what about the casual fans? What is everyone hearing from casual fans they know? The ones I got to watch the show this season for the first time have all quit watching, though I have come across a couple who seem to like this season of Chuck.

      • Jason says:

        liz, love the notion of looking at the arc in parts, here is my attempt to be more optimistic than I have been lately, 3-1 resets season 2, then 3-2 thru 3-4, lulls us into a comfort zone, with shows more like S2 than S3.

        3-5 thru 3-7 tore apart every aspect of the show, team B, CS, CE, CA, CM, C-Buymore , I think 3-8 thru 3-10 will build all backup, then 3-11 thru 3-13 our fav spy will apply all he has learned to tackle ‘the ring’.

        Specific, IMO the end of 3-8, ali adler will move broken CS into a safe spot, essentially the ‘con’ converstation will be had real time in front of all of us, words like trust, partnership, truth, will be the theme, be cool if the bracelet was used and maybe a name reveal causing chuck to gain his flashing power back (proving sarah was indeed both his kyprtonite and his spinach)???.

        In 3-9, from the spy bench, chuck will recover morgan, ellie, awesome, buymore with morgan’s help. In 3-10, CS will work thru the spy issues, her angst, his angst, moral choices and consequences, while helping casey deal with consequences of his own past choices.

        Then in 3-11 thru 3-13, with all his arrows in the quiver and his intersect battery fully charged with ‘spinach’, he will go to war with the ring, more than likely having to save multiple members of his team. Last 5 minutes, an ILU scene.

      • atcdave says:

        Thanks for an excellent post Liz. Its an interesting balance right now; its interesting to be aware of the overarching story. It helps a lot to understand what the writers are up to. But it leaves the central problem, individual episodes (with a few exceptions) just haven’t been much fun for me.
        I think they got so excited about their over-all theme, they forgot the fun that drew many of us to the show in the first place. As I’ve said, I’m here for the duration (probably!); but so many of the more casual fans I know are seriously discouraged. Ernie himself has observed, TV is a week to week contract. So no matter how brilliant or well conceived a central story may be, if its no fun week to week, there may be a problem keeping viewers.

    • Jason says:

      Ernie / liz others – I appreciate the perspective you pass along to people like me – you make it fun to read this site, thanks

  4. Miette says:

    I so agree with you Jason!
    Thank you all!

  5. kg says:


    An awesome outline of the Hero’s Journey. I honestly believe Cliff’s would be envious.

    It’s safe to say we’ve all had our say in the (few) likes, dislikes, analysis of what has transpired so far and our theories of what may lie ahead. Really, what else could be added? What possibility has been left out?

    Reading your extensive and specifically detailed outline quickly conjured up thoughts of another favorite hero of mine, whom like Chuck I share passion and familiarity with. Batman.

    Following the outline closely, I begin to completely understand why I fully love and appreciate Christian Bales’ portrayal of the Dark Knight in “Batman Begins” head and shoulders above any other witnessed in a movie or television production.

    TBTB in BB follow each step almost as closely as Chuck’s TPTB have in First Class. Because of your piece, I now combine my original reasons with newer ones. Or maybe a lot of the older understanding is more clearly defined in a more academic sense.

    Anyway, great work Ernie, we again humbly thank you. Welcome back. Look forward with great interest for the conclusion of this engaging initial piece on this topic.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      Thanks for the kind words kg, but I can’t take credit for the cliff notes outlines. Those I stole unabashedly from the author of the memo who started it all (and later a book) Christopher Vogler. The second link in the opening paragraph after the jump is to his website. I highly recommend his site (or book) since it covers so much more, such as character archetypes and the hero’s inner journey (emotional state). It is a much more readable and accessible version of Campbell’s theories IMHO.

  6. Ernie Davis says:

    I meant to add, if you have any doubt that Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak use this structure re-watch the Pilot episode with this in mind. It isn’t as obvious as in this episode, but it is there.

  7. Ernie Davis says:

    Wow, that’s embarrassing. I just now realized I’ve been typing heroes (as in the plural and the TV series) for some reason instead of hero’s, as in the possessive of hero and neither spell checkers or style checkers have caught it because, well, it also makes sense. Remind me to use my brain on occasion rather than relying on computers to fix my mistakes!

  8. Crumby says:

    So where would you say Chuch’s at in this journey, Ernie?

  9. Pingback: Journeys and Stories and Plots (Oh My!) « Chuck This

  10. Pingback: Don’t Stop Believing (It’s All About The Journey) | Chuck This

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