I know, I just won’t let it go. Here I go again pounding on the Hero’s Journey and the story and the plot and how they don’t have to be the same thing. I’ve even created a new category as a warning label for those of you tired of this same theme infusing my posts. The thing is that to me at least, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my fandom and the show. Schwedak have come out and said that this is a Hero’s Journey, and we have the template for that kind of story. If you’ve missed my previous excessive discourses on the topic you can find a few of them in our archives. Here or here or here for instance. I’d recommend the second link to my old post A First Class Journey for a quick explanation. If you’re averse to re-visiting old posts dealing with season 3 and you aren’t familiar with the Hero’s Journey there are a few links explaining it here and here. Personally, being familiar with this structure for storytelling really helped me enjoy a lot of season 3. I expected Chuck and Sarah to seem to lose themselves, only to come back and to come together better and stronger. When things got dark I tried to look at the big picture and ride it out. It sometimes helps when you can see things you don’t appreciate in a new light, when they are the building blocks to reach something you do want. But rather than re-hash season 3 again I want to speculate on how season 4’s journey highlights what has been so great about this show from the beginning, perhaps shed some light on it, and maybe even allow others to either enjoy or overlook some aspects of the season they aren’t happy with. I’m hopeless, I know, but I can’t stop believing there is a purpose and something to be gained from this conversation as we move forward. Faith has agreed to join me, to add her own dose of awesome and appreciation, and hopefully to keep me from going to the dark place again (season 3 angst). So more thoughts on journeys, stories, plots and when they work and don’t, and why Sarah is not a plot device. After the jump.
Ernie: We often talk about that perfect jem of a season, season 2, as the ideal for Chuck’s genius. It had it all, love, family, friendship, bonding, loss, other interlopers in the love affair, a twist or two and finally Chuck taking control of his destiny in a final arc we all describe variously as both epic and awesome.
So what was that destination? We’re all so sure that Barstow was the turning point, what did it point us toward? Sarah leaving the CIA and settling down as a housewife like in suburbs? Perhaps with a job as a kickboxing instructor at the local health club part time? Chuck getting a job at the re-organized Roark Industries and doing 9 to 5? Maybe, but then that’s happily ever after, not Chuck. Were we really done? Why? Because they finally admitted to themselves and each other that they wanted to be together? Barstow was the beginning of something, but perhaps it wasn’t what we thought. It was the end of lying to themselves in one sense, though it took some time, and the realization that they both wanted something else, something more than what they had. If the show was going to go on, it had to be something more than before, because our characters had outgrown the limits of that limited life and relationship. Going after what they wanted, well, given who our heroes are that was a big step and it’s not too surprising that it was initially a disaster. Sarah wanted Chuck and Chuck wanted to be the man Sarah saw. But there was more than just that. Sarah also wanted a home and a family and love, and above all, trust. Chuck wanted out of Burbank and the life of a BuyMoron. He wanted to travel and see the world and have adventures that didn’t necessarily involve risking death. In addition to seeing someone they loved Chuck and Sarah saw each other as someone who could give them what they wanted out of life. Rather than putting in the hard work they both grabbed for what they wanted with disastrous results. Chuck thought the 2.0 made him a real spy because he could do Kung Fu. Sarah thought she could tell Chuck to choose her over everything else. They grabbed like children at a candle flame, the bright pretty thing, knowing what they wanted but not knowing the reality of grabbing at it before you understand what it means. Not knowing the responsibility and hard work that having those things meant. And like children, they both got burnt.
Not a pleasant story, granted, and not always well told. Also granted. But here’s the thing. We wanted more Chuck. Could you have done another season like 2, where Chuck wanted his “old life” and Sarah wanted to be a “normal girl” and every criminal, spy and terrorist in the world was located somewhere between San Diego and Barstow? Could you have another season with them never talking because Sarah might get re-assigned or Chuck might get put in a bunker? Forget theories about what the network may or may not have wanted, other than budget cuts, could they realistically re-do season 2 creatively, or had the characters grown past that?
Wasn’t it about time the spy world cost Chuck something more than a guilty conscience or a missed family dinner party? Wasn’t it time for Sarah to learn what real heartbreak, the kind she regularly inflicted on Chuck, meant…what it felt like to be told you weren’t enough to make the love of your life take a risk for you? The very thing that made season 2 genius, the notion of the real/fake relationship became the one thing that was keeping the story and the characters in the same place. It served it’s purpose, so it needed to go.
In season 2 both Chuck and Sarah inhabited a purposefully small world. Chuck wasn’t ready for the big one and Sarah needed to leave it for a while. They both needed and found in each other possibilities. And love. And it was genius. Two people who you would never believe together as a couple, and yet through circumstance became the perfect couple. And yet it was precisely because of that small world they shared that this was possible. Chuck’s breakups never amounted to much, because Sarah always remained part of his life. Sarah could only push him so far away. They had to remain a part of each other’s lives in that world, and with essentially an arranged marriage they learned to make it work and to love each other as much as circumstances allowed. It was the most amazingly original take on the love story I’d ever seen, two very different people brought together by circumstance chose to love each other even though they were never sure they could actually ever be together the way they wanted. Clearly for both of them it was the most emotionally fulfilling and simultaneously frustrating relationship they’d ever had. Maybe that speaks to us as fans too. I never loved a show as much as Chuck. I’ve never cared enough about a show to be as frustrated, and to write as much, as I have about Chuck.
Faith: I’m not as well versed into the Hero’s Journey, or much of mythology as Ernie but I do know literature. And psychology. In literature you have to have something called conflict to overcome. Conflict can take many forms, from love interests (the most contemptible kind), to separation, to disease, famine, apocalypse. Whatever form the writer chooses, it’s meant to propel the story forward. So, getting back to Chuck, at its most basic entity, did it do that? I’d say it did.
Chuck and Sarah aren’t the same people as they were. They’re far removed today from the naively in love yet clearly undefined couple they were in the cell in Colonel. They’ve grown from that, more they’ve grown together and become more to each other than either has thought possible. It took all that has happened, yes even hurting each other to get to this point.
See season 4 isn’t genius on the basis of fun, but on the basis of strength. Namely strength in writing, storytelling. They’re accomplishing what few shows in television can even dream of: character progression and they’re doing it with a dash of fun, humor and heart. Lots of heart. As Bones skates through another season of stagnation, Chuck is leap frogging through issues of loss, abandonment, risk, family and love.
Zac Levi remarked in one of his interviews (with Mel from ChuckTV) about how in a way the perennial cancellation threat has propelled the story forward. Propelled the characters forward.
Chuck isn’t sitting at home trying to come up with a font for his 10 year plan any longer. He’s no longer whining about being helpless with regards to the state of his life, he’s leading. On missions, on finds and most definitely his life. The old Chuck needed to be approached by Sarah because he would never had had the confidence to approach her, much less ask her out. This Chuck knows he’s not only deserving of her love (and it took more than DYLM for that, it took Phase Three and American Hero, etc.) but that he contributes more than his fair share in the relationship and in the job. Remember Couch Lock? A confident, assertive Chuck not only came up with the plan for the mission but he took charge and he moved forward instead of waiting to be asked, “some people want to be heroes and others have to be asked, so Chuck, are you ready?” (Helicopter). See Chuck was never good at going after what he wants; life has dealt him too much and he’s been reeling ever since. Perhaps one of the earliest signs of the current Chuck we see was in Lethal Weapon, “I am going to get this thing out of my head and I will lead the life that I want with the girl that I love.” Even that is a pale imitation to the Chuck we see today. One that braves torture, sacrifice and grabs life. One that planned the ultimate battle royale against James Bond, er the best villain Chuck has ever had, Alexei Volkoff. One that owns his destiny, “I have a plan.” He’s gone from,
Chuck: “Everyone’s been asking me what I’m going to do with my future but the truth is I don’t have a clue, all I know is I want you to be in it,” (Ring) to
Chuck: “I want to spend my life with you going on missions, saving the world anything. But mostly I want to be with you.” (Note that in both the girl takes precedent, isn’t that the point? The heart never lies and Chuck is a guy that follows his heart. But what he’s willing to do about it and how much he’s willing to risk for it is the true sign of maturity.)
A far cry from the Chuck that just this season claimed he wasn’t ready: “who are we kidding I’m barely on solid foods myself!” (and he wasn’t ready, neither of them were)
Among the things that are most contemptible (at least to some of the fans) this season is that Chuck seems to have fallen behind certain characters, namely Morgan. So let’s tackle that head on. Has Chuck fallen on the maturity ladder compared to Morgan? Not at all. You have to remember that this is Chuck’s journey, not Morgan’s. Morgan has always been the retail therapist, and his role is Alfred. He’s there to support Chuck in any capacity. The hero suffers through trials and tribulations and triumphs while the sidekick helps. It’s as simple as that. So no, Morgan is not more mature, he’s a sounding board. There’s a difference. Chuck, this season has been more mature than he’s ever been. From confronting and outsmarting Volkoff, to asking more from Sarah, to talking it out. These are the things he didn’t do previously. Emotionally he’s definitely a lot more mature. He has moments of insecurity but it’s part of his personality. As a hero, he’s far removed from the guy that essentially, although inadvertently used Sarah as a human shield in Nemesis. This Chuck not only knows how to use his fists, but is secure in his convictions as his father’s son, “he taught me appearances can be deceiving, protect your family and never use a gun unless you have to.” This Chuck (the hero) is Orion’s legacy and it took all that has happened to get to this point. Yes, even losing the intersect, because it made him realize he’s Chuck Bartowski and he does that on his own. Sarah in turn has had to learn to let him be on missions, and fight (his) battles with her.
All of this and yet Chuck is still our Chuck, he cares about people and he will lead with his heart. His search for his mom is more than just about family, but heart. His heart. In season 2 Chuck searched for his father for his sister, because he wanted her to have her one dream: walking down the aisle with her dad. In season 4, Chuck is searching for his mom for himself. “I thought I had to bring my family together, but I don’t. You guys, Awesome, Ellie, you’re my family.” He lost his mom at a young age. He wants to save her. Be her hero. At the dawn of his new life (marriage to Sarah), he wants more than a clean slate, he wants answers. He wants closure. To move forward, we often have to look back and this season is about both of that. “Ellie’s right, Bartowskis look out for their family and it’s time I put my family back together again.” Not to mention his father passed this mission on to him, “this was my father’s mission and I have to finish it.” His dead father. One who died through his actions, “I’m the one who chose to be a spy and it’s him who paid the price.”
Sarah has taken a similar path. She’s evolved. Ernie talks about the journey to heroism, well in Sarah’s case the journey isn’t so much heroism as it is to being a “real girl.” One of the things that I find most notable about this season is the incremental and obvious character progression not just in Chuck, but also Sarah-the-girlfriend. We start off with Sarah on numerous missions. In years past Sarah Walker, superspy didn’t have anyone to miss, now she’s not just missing Chuck she’s sexting him (one of the funniest bits of the early season). When once Chuck had to teach her about humor (Living Dead), now she’s joking (Couch Lock). Now she’s not only acting (Colonel), she’s talking (Phase Three). Now she’s not only considering his feelings (Suitcase), she’s feeling some of her own (Balcony). Nervous Sarah is mind boggling! It’s a testament not just to the depth of her feelings but the importance of this relationship to her and her future.
Sarah didn’t set out to “save” Mary because she wanted to save the world, she was saving Mary for Chuck; to give Chuck peace of mind, and she’s doing it for them. “I promised Chuck, I wouldn’t come home without you,” let’s think on that for a moment. When was the last time we heard Sarah promise Chuck anything? Once upon a time she couldn’t even give him an answer, much less promise a future: “one mission at a time, Chuck.” See Chuck isn’t the only one that wants closure or answers, she does too. But her questions are far more than “why did you leave,” it’s how will I make this work? If this woman with a life and a family couldn’t have both, how can she attempt to? She’s got baggage after all. Yvonne Strahovski put it best (in uplink’s Emmy4Yvonne interview): “it’s been a great journey. As I mentioned earlier she was never very good at expressing herself and to go from that, to growing into someone who started to express herself more is great. I feel like getting together with Chuck has finally started to open her up. This is what she has always wanted, a normal life, within her spy life. Someone like Chuck.”
Nevertheless the true genius of this season lies in the details. Subtle details that make what is a good episode into a borderline great one. Even in Balcony, whom among us wasn’t reminded of First Date when Sarah said, “what about tonight?” (hint: “what about me?” was the line Sarah uttered during their second first date, complete with head tilt and intonation). Whom among us wasn’t reminded of Chuck in the gondola admiring the view when Sarah admired an equally beautiful view and said, “Chuck look at where we are!” Whom among us wasn’t reminded of their moment in the beach as Chuck and Sarah enter a different beginning and pledge a future to each other in the hospital hallway in Push Mix? More than that, it’s the emotion and the progression from one to another that’s most impressive. In the gondola, Chuck’s alone, lonely, missing Sarah. In Balcony they’re finally together and are sharing that which they have always wished they can freely share: “a life, a real life,” (Ring) a future. They’re now confident in the feelings they have for one another and they’re finally ready to take the next step (Push Mix). There is no more waffling on trust and devotion, because they’re both all in. Even in Gobbler’s shades of Mauser, Chuck moved to get an explanation rather than stand pat and emotionally distance himself from her. The writers have reinvented that which hallmarked seasons pasts and made it better. This search for MamaB is shades of PapaB. The quest to reunite a family, the risks one takes for love (Sarah going rogue, sounds familiar?), the culmination of a hero and a lover’s journey–but they’re doing it far more impressively. The continuity is solid, the emotions consistent and the intent on display. All of this in the scope of 11 episodes and there are more coming.
Ernie: I know I dwell on the journey a lot. To me it is the big story, the one that keeps me in it for the long run when you hit a mediocre episode or two. As far as I’m concerned there hasn’t been a bad episode since Chuck Versus The American Hero. But the genius of both season 2 and 4 is that, as Faith says, the writing is there. They have a great story that now spans four years, and the storytelling has been genius for three of those four. From the start Chuck was capable of great acts of bravery, like running toward a bomb that needed defusing. But the same Chuck literally hid behind Sarah in Nemesis when Bryce and Sarah faced off. Yes, Sarah cared for and protected Chuck bravely from the start, but the same Sarah regularly lied to and manipulated Chuck either on orders or to get him to do what she wanted. When he got too close she didn’t hesitate to push him away and when he started to stray she didn’t hesitate to draw him back in. When he wasn’t open to being manipulated or when she slipped up, Sarah took out her anger and frustration on Chuck. We saw both of them as both heroes and flawed people, and we’ve watched them grow. Both were admirable and heros in the wider sense from the start, but they had their flaws and it was in seeing them learn and overcome their fears and weaknesses that the story is told. In Sarah’s case we got a bit more weakness than we needed. But we needed to see some. If Sarah Walker was really all Chuck thought, then she didn’t need him. If she was a super-confident super-spy who could have any man she wanted, or kick his ass if she felt like it, if she truly thrived in the world she inhabited as Chuck first thought, with guys like Bryce and Cole, then he had little to offer her. But we saw as early as Wookie that there was more to Sarah than Chuck saw, and it was laid out more than once in season 2, in Cougars and DeLorean, that Sarah was as much a lost soul as Chuck had been.
Faith: Rita Hayworth once said, “men fell in love with Gilda but they wake up with me.” I like that you brought up the humanity in Sarah, Ernie. She’s a bit like Rita Hayworth in that on the surface almost too good to be true but beneath lies a real person. Chuck needed to see that person (we saw it, but Chuck really didn’t, initally). The flaws, the vulnerability, the struggle. It made her more real and made her more identifiable. Delorean and Cougars are two of the best episodes of all 4 years because of that; and the story and the introspection hasn’t ended. Even in season 4 we’re still mining the field that is Sarah Walker. I just can’t get over how casually she revealed the story about her parent’s proposal. Nor the flash of the vulnerability she showed with “I don’t get butterflies.”
Something I didn’t really get into with my diatribe about storytelling is that on Chuck there always seems to be a microcosm and a macrocosm growth, progression and story. Throughout the 4 years these characters have grown leaps and bounds but there is a story and a progression to be told within the 4 years. It’s only to be expected that within the season there will be moments of ups and downs, of development and of milestones, none more so than on Chuck (the character). That’s how the best stories unfold, and why it is that Chuck is one of the best shows (if not the best in recent memory) in television.
Ernie: Which brings me to my next point. (You didn’t really think we were done did you?) Chuck has managed to stay at the top of my list because like it’s characters the show has evolved and grown. I know some people miss the lighthearted nature of much of season 2. I often go back to some of those episodes for a refreshing taste of just that lightness and fun. I still enjoy them just as much, but a part of me now sees the limitations of that show, the one set in a Buy More in Burbank where the government concealed their greatest intelligence asset. Where did most of the fun, the drama, the danger and the action come from? When Chuck got out of the car. The premise that carried the show forward was Chuck, who for years had done nothing to move forward, was now stuck in that life, and he finally started to push back. It was Chuck pushing against the boundaries that were suddenly real and not of his making and the threat that those boundaries could become a bunker that gave us a show worth watching. But was it just about Chuck growing up? Well sort of. If you look at Chuck, the character, and what his leaving that small world did to everyone involved you see that it is and always has been the wonderfully written and acted characters and the real-ness and warmth of their relationships that was the foundation for everything else. We cared about the show because we cared about the people. By preserving those aspects the show has managed to move forward, to grow along with the characters, but still retain enough of that season 2 genius to hold most of it’s audience. Chuck got out of the car, and he brought Ellie and Awesome, Casey and Morgan and especially Sarah along with him.
And here I arrive at my final (heh) point. The show has grown up. A thought struck me in First Fight, when all the betrayals and twists start to fall in place at the end, and you see how thoroughly Chuck has been played by everyone. Finally he’s playing against grown-ups, was my first thought. While I don’t want to detract from great villains past like Roark or Vincent, Fulcrum and The Ring never seemed that threatening. It always struck me as a scrimmage game among a bunch of mid-twenty-somethings with no larger experiences or smarts than Chuck. At first I thought it was a generational thing, seeing Timothy Dalton and Linda Hamilton, an older generation, as the villains, but it wasn’t. It was more like what Scott Bacula brought to Orion. A sense that he’d lived in, inhabited this world for years, and he knew his way around it. Remember in Living Dead, how utterly foolish and fruitless Chuck’s denials to his father seemed. Orion wasn’t fooled for a second. Ever. And at this point it was established Chuck could be a pretty good liar if he needed to be. That was the sense I got from both Mary and Volkoff. This was their world. Chuck was a tourist.
So the bar has been moved on Chuck again. Both the show and the character. Where we used to have Ned and Mauser crash into the Buy More to see what it’s hiding, or have Vincent get the drop on Chuck to steal a laptop and lure out Orion now we have Volkoff take over a fully armed base with a team of mercenaries and an incendiary device, ready to kill everyone if he didn’t get his way. Which had more emotional impact, Sarah’s tears and panic on the roof with Longshore in Marlin, or the end of Phase Three? Which seemed the more real and heartbreaking loss, Sarah driving off in Broken Heart, Prague, or the simple look over her shoulder as she’s led away in chains at the end of Balcony? Despite the awkward teen years Chuck has accomplished something remarkable few shows can do. It’s brought us along for the journey the characters have been on for four years.
Faith: You make a great point Ernie. Chuck isn’t a sitcom with a villain of the week, at least not any longer. No longer is Chuck battling against Lazlo, he’s dealing with Volkoff. It is and has become a show with high stakes and real emotions. Yes at times the logic falls to the side but the emotion is always real and this idea of what he risks losing is always genuine and compelling. All the more so now that he has a future, with Sarah and she in turn has one with him.
The Chuck Bartowski who could only secretly search for his father through computers and guile (i.e. Chuck’s board) is now using that strength on a much larger scale, and more he’s expanded on it. He’s storming through barriers, he’s devising elaborate plans (the plan to take out Volkoff was genius) and he’s traveling the world and encountering challenges head on (Tangiers, nonewithstanding ha). Chuck is not your typical spy but he pays attention to people, he sees their strengths and weaknesses and he knows how to work within or if necessary outside of the system to do what needs to be done. Time was he needed to call information to get to General Beckman, now he’s leading the charge with his plan and with Beckman as backup. Conviction has become one of Chuck’s greatest strengths but it has been hard fought. He had to fight (his) demons, both internally and externally to get to this point. He’s been doing that all season long. The Chuck Bartowski who could only hint at his feelings and could only hope to get girl:
Chuck: “We both know how I feel about you so I’m just going to shoot. Sarah you’re the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. You’re beautiful you’re smart, you laugh at all my stupid jokes and you have this horrible habit of constantly saving my life. The truth is you’re everything I thought I ever wanted and more. And for the last few days all I can think about is our future together, about what it’s going to be like once I finally have the intersect out of my head, how we would finally be together for real, no fake relationships, no covers no lies. But the more I think about it the more I realize it could never really be real…I’m a normal guy, who wants a normal life and as amazing as you are Sarah Walker, we both know, you will never be normal,”
now goes after her. With everything he’s got:
Sarah: “I’ve been in so many places around the world but I’ve never been to a place as beautiful as this.”
Chuck: “I have, everyday. Every morning I wake up and I look at you, and we brush our teeth tandem style, when we watch TV together, anything, always. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I feel like I should be James Bond right now you know the guy that’s standing in front of you in this moment.
Sarah: “I didn’t fall in love with James Bond, I fell in love with you.”
Chuck: “Sarah, I want to spend my life with you going on missions, saving the world anything. But mostly I want to be with you. At your side, always.”
and the funnest part is that the girl? She’s in there for the ride too, driving in tandem with him!
So yes, the journey has been beyond satisfying and the heart? It makes Chuck, the best show on television bar none.
Ernie: So to wrap things up, this could have been the end of the series, and a very satisfying one at that. The genius season gave us the closure both we and Chuck crave, yet left enough prologue to move forward. Chuck has finished his journey. He’s taken on his fathers legacy and triumphed where his father failed. He has reunited his family and can now start his own. He has saved Sarah Walker from becoming just a spy, like his mother was. Like he did with the ballerina, the little girl who due to her father’s mistakes lost something precious, Chuck has found a way to give Sarah back that which she lost, a way home to a loving family and a future.
Having triumphed against the final enemy on the threshold of his home, the hero may then return, a changed man, to his life and his family and the comforts he turned away from to undertake his journey and fulfil his destiny. That is happily ever after, and genius.