Chuck’s “Hero’s Journey” is over. Now what?
Edit: Okay, it’s after the first episode of S5 now, and while not perfect it was actually pretty decent. We’ll see how things go from here on in.
If ever a blog post needed an opening disclaimer, this is it. For the record, I am not trying to convince people there’s isn’t any point to watching the show, or that it’s no longer fun or that there should be no fifth season. Far from it. I plan to watch Chuck faithfully every day it’s on, now and in the future, because I’ve invested so much in these characters and actors that I just can’t fathom doing anything else. Regardless of what’s happened over the course of its run, the premise for the show was inspired and I still find entertaining moments in every episode.
But having said all of that, it’s impossible to ignore the changes in energy level amongst the fans last season. Twitter traffic after episodes is down, posts on forums are down. Fans’ collective response to a lot of Season Four’s episodes has been: “Meh.” While I have no numbers to back it up, it feels as if the internet fandom is losing interest and drifting away.
What’s going on? I believe there are a couple of major factors in play.
Entropy. Entities that aren’t vigorously evolving tend to bleed away energy over time. Applied to a television show, this occurs as the best plots are expended, every major character is explored and the most intriguing relationships are played out. As seasons pass the writers pluck less and less attractive fruit to meet the insatiable demand for new story. The press of time strains creativity and soon episodes are being constructed that seem like pale iterations of their predecessors. Characters experience relapses of their previous dysfunctions. New guest stars follow the trajectories of previous guest stars. It all happens again, but with palpably less energy than before. At this point, without a significant change to a its formula, a show is just marking days until the end.
Fatigue. Let’s face it, we’ve known these characters and this premise for four years now. Each of the main characters has had their backstories delved into, we’ve met their families and previous acquaintances (both good and bad). We’re familiar with the risks Chuck faces every day to protect his family, friends and even his own well-being. We’ve played out the relationship drama, PLI’s and all. In the spy world, we’ve experienced Fulcrum, the Ring and Alexei Volkoff. It’s safe to say that at this point, most of us can predict with fair accuracy from which direction threats will likely appear and who will be at risk. In short, the Chuck universe has become well-worn. And as Season Five approaches, with each casting notice and web interview echoing a familiar refrain, it’s not hard to believe we’ve seen everything the show has to give.
But beyond those, I think there’s one other fundamental reason for fan dissatisfaction and restlessness:
Chuck’s epic tale is complete.
That’s right, it’s over. As in, reached its end. In fact, I would contend that, depending on how you attach weight to the various elements of the show, it ended no later than “Push Mix”.
This is important, because I think a significant fraction of the Chuck story, the portion that let it penetrate our jaded defenses and attach itself lamprey-like to our collective subconscious was its foundation of monomythical underpinnings. Mythical stories have had the innate power to capture imaginations since men were scratching on cave walls with burnt sticks. If you look at Chuck as a modern variation of an age-old myth, it’s quite easy to understand why people might feel that something is “missing” once the mythological story ends and all that remains are the trappings and embellishments.
Before you feel obligated to protest, let me say right here that there’s a lot more to Chuck than just its mythological basis. The creative team of actors, producers, writers, directors, musicians, and all the rest put the meat on the bones of the show. I’m also definitely not saying that every story must be based on monomyths to be compelling. Just that this one was, in part.
Let’s look a little closer.
In order to talk about the mythic elements in Chuck, I have to summarize the monomyth briefly here. I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting, but the source material comes from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. The basic idea is that throughout recorded history, the most important myths carried on by each succeeding generation had a common premise:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Not really resonating with Chuck? Try this:
The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).
It doesn’t take much analysis to equate the arrival of the Intersect with Chuck’s “call to adventure“: Sarah literally asks Chuck if he’s ready to be a hero in the second episode of the series! The “road of trials” is Chuck’s struggle to survive being the Intersect and reclaim the life that the spy world derailed repeatedly (his parents absence, Bryce’s triple betrayal, Jill’s departure, compulsory service to the government). The “assistance” is, of course, Sarah, Casey and to a lesser extent his circle of family and friends.
The “severe challenge“? I’d argue that this is Chuck’s effort to find his father and get the Intersect out of his head in Season Two, a quest that almost costs him everything and culminates in “Ring” with a dying Bryce. Chuck is faced with the most critical decision of his life: Should he destroy the Intersect and return to the “normal” existence that now seemed eminently within his grasp? Or should he re-implant it, letting go of his old dream but possibly becoming the hero that everyone else told him he could be?
Returning to normal was the single, unwavering goal that had kept Chuck going for two years. It represented his retreat back into his comfort zone, the banality of the BuyMore, his family, friends and most critically, a life with more modest ambitions. But with Bryce dead there was no one to carry on the fight against the Ring, and no super-spy he could entrust Sarah’s safety to. In the end, it wasn’t much of a contest.
Chuck chooses to be a hero because it’s his destiny. And in that moment, he receives “the boon” (the Intersect 2.0) and the “important self knowledge” that what mattered to him most wasn’t what he thought it was. Quite the opposite, in fact. When he tells Casey that yes, he does want to become a spy, he does it because he realizes, at last, that the great future he’d always felt lay ahead of him had snuck in unnoticed – he simply hadn’t recognized it in his zeal to escape. Being the Intersect and a highly moral individual allows him to act as a force for good. A force that could help others in a way few could match (the application of the boon). And maybe he’s even learned a little bit from Sarah and Casey about sacrificing one’s own wants for the greater good. It all pours out of him to Sarah through the locked vault door in “Three Words”.
The rest of S3 was spent chronicling Chuck’s “return to the ordinary world”, his effort to find a new “normal”. One that included Sarah, Casey and the spy world as well as his family and friends. And once those elements reached a certain level of harmony, and all of the visible obstacles were overcome, you could say that his goal had been reached and his journey was, for all intents and purposes, over.
So guess what? Yep. It happened. What, you missed it? Here’s the manifest:
Chuck’s a spy. He’s been a spy, arguably as early as “American Hero” (3.12) but certainly by “Role Models” (3.15). This closes the circle. He has accepted his official role as the operator of the Intersect and uses it to help make the world a better place.
Chuck’s spy and home lives have, with minor exception, been successfully integrated. He’s marrying the love of his life who also happens to be his partner, his family both knows this and accepts it, and they’ve even pulled Casey into their orbit. Beckman has ceased being the potentially devastating adversary she was in previous seasons, becoming more of a sympathetic – albeit firm – boss. There are few clouds on this happy horizon.
Sarah’s story, which was arguably more fascinating than Chuck’s (thank you, Yvonne!) seems to be finding an equally rosy culmination. The question was always whether she’d be able to leave behind the baggage in her life and grab hold of the opportunity that had presented itself. Whether that choice was made during a tiny ballerina’s make-up recital, or with the slightest of head shakes to Bryce, or even in the wake of Casey’s reveal that he, not Chuck, had killed the mole makes little difference. She’s said “yes” to it all (sometimes kicking and screaming, but nonetheless ultimately relenting) and we’ve seen a much happier woman as a result.
Casey? He started the series embittered and seemingly soulless. A man resigned to a solitary existence after events drove him to sever all ties with his past and trust no one but himself. Ready to end Chuck’s life as late as the beginning of S2, a steady exposure to his partners, Chuck’s circle, as well as reconnection with his own family pulled him back from the brink. Play “connect-the-dots” with scenes from the show and you can plot a clear trajectory from Casey’s Ilsa recounting (“Undercover Lover”) to regaining trust in others (“Sensei”) to arriving first at Doc Dreyfus’s house (“Tooth”) to revealing his true identity to Alex (“Subway”). Unimaginable in Season One, it would now be unsurprising to witness a Season Five Casey bouncing a Bartowski offspring on one knee surrounded by a new (or reconstituted) family of his own. Oh, and Morgan. ;)
Speaking of, Morgan started out as an annoyingly juvenile, slacker friend of Chuck’s, an enabler of Chuck’s regressive state post-Jill and Stanford. But no longer. Remember his speech in “Other Guy”? Morgan tells Casey to “wake up” lest he find himself becoming the man Morgan used to be, part of “Jeff and Lester’s crew, hanging out Friday nights in Woodland Hills.” Do I even have to make an argument that since discovering Chuck’s secret identity Morgan has been reaching for every little bit he can be (and probably much more)? He’s found his calling and is on his life course.
As for major plot constructs, those are pretty much resolved or have run out of gas as well. Fulcrum? Defeated. The Ring? Its remarkably uncharismatic leaders arrested. Volkoff? On permanent vacation with his daughter, his assets in the hands of Team B. Chuck’s father? Sadly, deceased (as far as we know) and the remaining “Origin of the Intersect” story of insufficient octane to provoke much interest. Chuck’s mom? Probably a recurring guest star for espionage gigs and babysitting duty. New government Intersects? Left languishing after S4’s “Chuck vs. the Murder”, possibly to be re-hashed in S5. But, meh.
Let’s back up a moment. I’ve been making the case that on the whole, the show ended in S3. What about S4? Did the show take a risk and make bold changes to breath new life into the show? Were there new, mythological underpinnings to add gravitas to Chuck’s senior season? In a word… no. S4 was not the soul-rending succession of buzz-kills that, with few exceptions, the first dozen episodes of S3 were. However, after starting strong (“Anniversary”, “Suitcase”) season four sank into a morass of trifling clichés and often wince-worthy farce. In the midst of this came the sublime “Phase III” and the pleasantly amusing “Couch Lock”, “Seduction Impossible” and “Cat Squad”, so it wasn’t totally lackluster.
But beyond those? Well, for me at least, the show just seemed to be coasting and sputtering without coherency or sense of urgency.
Even the finale, which had the tremendous advantage of including Chuck and Sarah’s long-anticipated wedding, failed to land with the satisfying impact it was due. Part of this should probably be blamed on the lack of buildup in the episodes that preceded it. Neither Chuck’s quest to free his mother from Alexei Volkoff’s clutches and pull his family back together nor the succession of fixes for Chuck and Sarah’s relationship issues really set the table for the finale.
So what now? Here comes S5. Are we going to repeat the S4 pattern again? Well, maybe.
Back in May, Melissa Lowery posted an article on the ChuckTV.net site where she revealed that the destruction of the BuyMore at the end of S3 was originally meant to be permanent. However, contingent to the deal made to keep Chuck on the air for a fourth season, Warner Bros forced the production team to reconstitute the store in order to facilitate product placement as an additional revenue stream. Why am I bringing this up? Because this was the kind of bold change that was needed for S4. The screen time wasted on the tired and often execrable humor coming out of the BuyMore could have been used to establish fresh locations and situations, bringing some novelty and uniqueness to the season. The fact that creative initiatives like this are stifled or thwarted by bean counters is not new, but I wanted to mention this bit of trivia because in S5, the show has created for itself another, similar opportunity.
Chuck and Sarah have formed their own spy agency with Volkoff’s money. Casting off the BuyMore and the government’s leash is what should have happened in S4, right after Chuck discovered Orion’s secret lair and had access to his father’s files, spy gadgets and vast surveillance network. Better late than never, I suppose. In establishing this turn of events for S5, the show runners have given the show a chance to break the cycle of repetition.
How? Well, I have some suggestions for Chris Fedak and the writing team:
- Bury the past. Pretend this is the only season of Chuck that has ever existed. Shaw who? There’s a new agency to setup, contacts to establish, family members to recruit. Spend the screen time there, in the unexplored territory, and dump any dangling plot lines that will just remind us of previous season lameness. Yes, Clyde Decker and your “mu ha ha” conspiracy plot, I’m glaring at you.
- Reboot the characters. Buried deep within each of the characters mangled by “game-changing” plots over the past couple of seasons are the ones we fell in love with. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the earnest, considerate and selfless Chuck again? What about the Sarah Walker whose fearsome reputation commanded instant respect? Or even a Morgan whose pesky demeanor always gave way to unquestioned loyalty?
- Dial down the farce. Chuck works best when the characters are playing it straight and the situations they’re put into drive the comedy and drama. “Wookiee” and “Truth” from S1 are good examples of this. Let the comedy flow from the naturally occurring clash between the spy world and the mundane world—there will be plenty of opportunities for that this season with Devon, Ellie and the BuyMore employees.
- Dial up the sense of peril. The last time there was any palpable sense of peril was the end of S3, in the back of the armored car. Best peril ever? Mauser and Ned Rhyerson in ‘Santa Claus’. Volkoff was just too cartoonish a personality to engender dread. It’s telling that the Volkoff that Mary was afraid of in “Anniversary” was scarier than the one that eventually appeared.
- Finally, and most importantly, remember why your fans are still here. I think you already do, having seen the S5 Key Art.
Is it too late for Chuck?
Every Fall for the last three years, Chuck fans have read the web interviews, watched the sneak peek videos and prognosticated endlessly about the season to come. This Fall? Not so much. As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this post, there’s been a significant softening of fan excitement about the upcoming season. It isn’t hard to imagine that the people still devotedly watching are those that are invested the most.
The best that can probably be hoped for in this short season is that the show runners give us the gift of spending time with these characters in stories that remind us of why we became fans in the first place.
And then we can say goodbye.