“Wherever [the tyrant] sets his hand there is a cry…for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.”
–Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
“It was one of those great stories that you can’t put down at night:
The Hero knew what he had to do, and he wasn’t afraid to fight.
The Villain goes to jail, while the Hero goes free…
I wish it were that simple for me.
“And the reason that she loved him
Was the reason I loved him too:
He never wondered what was right or wrong,
He just knew…He just knew.”
–David Crosby, “Hero”
About a month ago, in a blog post commenting on Daniel Shaw’s return to Chuck, I gave a description of how I first discovered the show and became a Chuck fan. As we move toward January 27th and the bittersweet occasion of the Chuck Series Finale, I’d like to talk about why I became hooked on the show as soon as I started watching it.
First, I have a confession to make. When I heard about Chuck at the time of the Series Premiere in 2007, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think much of the premise. At the time, the idea of a computer nerd becoming a spy & falling in with a gorgeous CIA “cover girlfriend” sounded a little too outlandish to me, and while I thought it could work as a one-shot romantic-action-comedy movie, I doubted that Chuck would last very long as a TV series. I had also long since fallen out of the habit of watching any TV shows on a regular basis apart from the evening news. (I also just remembered that I couldn’t have watched the Chuck Pilot when it first aired, anyway; I was working until 11PM that night, and I remember it because I then waited in line for the midnight launch of Halo 3 on September 25th).
So, what made me rapidly change my tune once I gave Chuck a chance in February 2010? As I progressed through Season 1, I realized that Chuck‘s story was much richer and deeper than I had imagined; in particular, Chuck flashing on his own Stanford ID badge in “vs. the Alma Mater” drove home the point that something very big was at work. Furthermore, it wasn’t long before I realized that Chuck was a clever re-telling of a very, very old story…in fact, one of the oldest stories there is. I became a loyal Chuck fan because I believe that, whether Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak meant it to be or not, Chuck is an excellent example of a story that follows Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” or “monomyth” framework, as outlined in his classic book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
Chuck may not perfectly adhere to every single step of the “hero’s journey” cycle, but it is easy to see how the various archetypes Campbell discussed are embodied in the show. We can see the “call to adventure” throughout Season 1, as Chuck takes his first reluctant steps into his role as an intelligence asset, with his “supernatural aid” coming in the form of the Intersect and the information it provided. Chuck’s “refusal of the [hero’s] call” is demonstrated throughout Season 2, as he begins to actively resist becoming a full-fledged spy, and does anything and everything he can to free himself from the path his life has taken.
We see the “goddess” archetype represented on Chuck in both positive and negative ways. Ellie serves as a nurturing “mother” figure to Chuck, though she also takes on the role of a “mother who would hold to herself the growing child trying to push away” (Hero With A Thousand Faces, pg. 92) as she resists Chuck’s role as a spy at the end of Season 3 and through much of Season 4. Chuck & Ellie’s mother Mary embodies the “absent…mother, against whom aggressive fantasies are directed, and from whom a counter-aggression is feared” (Hero With A Thousand Faces, pg. 92), though in the end Mary proves that everything she has done has been for the sake of her family’s safety. And of course, the most prominent representation of the “goddess” archetype lies in the character of none other than Sarah Walker herself, who initially serves as Chuck’s protector and mentor, and who eventually becomes his lover and his wife. The archetype of “woman as the temptress” is notably embodied by Jill Roberts, but it could also be argued that at one point, Sarah herself fulfills the same archetype when she tries to persuade Chuck to run away with her, thus abandoning his “hero’s path” of becoming a spy.
Another key point in the “hero’s journey” cycle is “atonement with the father,” or the hero’s coming to terms with his father figure, male mentor, or god. In Chuck, the most obvious examples of this are near the ends of Seasons 2 and 3, when Chuck makes amends with his estranged father and fellow spy Stephen. However, we can also see an example in Chuck’s reconciliation with Bryce Larkin at the end of Season 2, when Bryce reveals that he sent Chuck the Intersect on Stephen’s orders, in order to protect both it and Chuck. Even Chuck’s professional relationship and friendship with Casey reflects this aspect of the “hero’s journey,” with Casey slowly developing a great deal of respect for Chuck and his abilities.
One of the greatest examples of Chuck‘s adherence to the “hero’s journey” framework lies in the final scene of the Season 2 finale. After resisting his life’s new path for two years, and doing everything he could to rid himself of the Intersect so he could have a normal life again, Chuck realizes that all of his efforts and adventures have proven that he is indeed a hero, and that it is his destiny to become a spy. Chuck then embraces this destiny, and willingly uploads the Intersect 2.0, which allows him to easily defeat several Ring agents in hand-to-hand combat several moments later. This moment of the “hero’s journey” is known as the hero’s “apotheosis,” or his elevation from the status of a man to that of a god. In Chuck’s case, this “godhood” is of course not literal, nor is it a veiled reference to the awesome combat skills granted by the Intersect 2.0. Rather, it represents the fact that where Chuck was once helpless against danger and against outside influences on his life, he is now in command of his own destiny, thanks to his new-found confidence and realization that he has the potential to be greater than what he was before. This confidence and faith in one’s own potential is “the ultimate boon” in the “hero’s journey” story of Chuck, and is ultimately at the core of what the show is all about.
Simply gaining this “boon” for oneself is not enough, however. The hero must then return to the place he came from and share his gift for the betterment and enlightenment of everyone (Hero With A Thousand Faces, pg. 167). On Chuck, this kind of change can be seen throughout the course of the series, as positive changes take effect on many of the people around Chuck. It allows Morgan to change from an immature “man-child” to a more confident and enthusiastic (if not always competent) member of the spy team. Ellie and Devon are inspired to step outside their comfort zones and help more directly with Team Bartowski’s operations over time, particularly in this last season. Even Jeff and Lester unknowingly helped Chuck track Daniel Shaw in “Chuck vs. the American Hero,” and they eventually step up to the plate to knowingly and willingly help Casey defeat two of Nicholas Quinn’s agents in “Chuck vs. the Bullet Train!” Of course, the greatest examples of positive change on Chuck can be seen in Casey and Sarah. In the Pilot, Casey was a remorseless killer who would have left Chuck and Sarah’s bodies on a skyscraper while he went out for pancakes. Now, he’s a caring man who cultivates a loving relationship with his long-lost daughter, and who will go out of his way to help his friends. Sarah began this journey as an emotionally detached “lone wolf” who refused to let anyone get too close to her, for fear of compromising her mission or getting herself hurt emotionally. Now, she is a warm, happy, loving woman who is excited at the prospect of retiring from being a spy and of starting a family with Chuck…or at least, she was until the events at the end of “Chuck vs. the Bullet Train,” when Nicholas Quinn took advantage of the flawed Intersect program Sarah had uploaded so he could erase her memory, thus tricking her into stealing a fully functional Intersect and killing Chuck in the process.
This is what it now comes down to. Before Chuck and Sarah can finally enjoy the happy life together that they both deserve, Chuck must find a way to defeat Nicholas Quinn, and restore Sarah’s memories of who she is and what they’ve had together. In “Chuck vs. the Cliffhanger,” Chuck had to struggle to save Sarah’s life. Now, Chuck struggles to save things that are just as precious: Sarah’s mind, and their future together. One way or another, I have faith that this will turn out as it should.
Two more episodes to go, Chuck fans. We’ve come this far; let’s see this thing through to the end! To quote Shakespeare’s Henry V, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”