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Transmutation: A Character Study - Chuck Bartowski (Chuck)

8 Aug 2017

When thinking about the best cases of character evolution, a lot of components spring to mind. Some of the most acclaimed characters of all time are anti-heroes, brooding men shrouded in misery, deceit, and bordering the lines of villainy. And in the midst of this craze, way back in the year 2007, you had Chuck; a funny show about nerds working menial jobs, also featuring some deceit I suppose, spies, and a whole lotta love. And deep within the heart of Chuck lied the titular main character, Chuck. On the surface, he could've been just like any ol' protagonist. In fact, I see a lot of protagonists showing up years later that take a book out of the Chuck Bartowski school of thought. But he set the curve. You'd think that a man who gets sent all of the government's secrets would turn out to be a bitter, cold person for this. But the opposite couldn't be more true, this is a man with a heart of gold, who took this crazy happenstance and used it as an opportunity to save the world every week for 5 seasons. I'll be breaking down, season by season, just how fascinating and beautiful this character really turned out to be. And this goes without saying, but there will be some spoilers. Now let's get to work!

"Working on my 5-year plan. Just need to choose a font."

We first meet Chuck and Morgan, Chuck's best friend, in what appears to be a spy mission. Only this is before we even see the spies of the show. Chuck is trying to escape from his own birthday party. He's a nerd, awkward around the ladies, and wants nothing to do with his sister's (Ellie) work friends. She catches him, because he isn't even a real spy yet, and he indulges her. One of the best things this montage gives us is in introduction into Bryce Larkin, Chuck's nemesis. The most important thing to note about him is that he's not an accountant. When we see Bryce for the first time, he's extracting some sort of spyware (HA!) from a computer. While here we also get the first taste of this shows' impeccable score. It's tense, high-action fun. His escape is brilliantly filmed and we also meet John Casey for the first time, who shoots Bryce after he sends off the information stored onto a tablet-like device. Meanwhile, Chuck, you guessed it, failed with the ladies by constantly bringing up his ex-girlfriend Jill, who is also an important character for the show. But the show really kicks off when Chuck heads back to his room and witnesses what Bryce sent him - the Intersect - which is also a pun on how the CIA and the NSA joined forces to intersect their data with one another. It's filmed in such a way that is almost confusing. But when Chuck starts immediately understanding complex traffic patterns, we know something is up. And that something makes for truly great entertainment.

He arrives at his natural habitat: the Burbank Buy More. It would seem just like any other day, with a new computer virus on the loose, only this time a beautiful woman named Sarah Walker crosses paths with him. All the while two spy directors named Beckman and Graham are discussing what happened with Bryce. The show displays its sleek way of getting from one plot to another, something it will master over the seasons. It is evident that Chuck is the kind of person who likes to help people by what he does before he finds out about what he now possesses. He helps out a girl whose dance recital wasn't filmed. He lets Morgan come over and use his computer. He tells everyone about his date with Sarah and just wants to keep things low-key. He is truly a good person, through and through, and that's why when Graham says, "Good guys don't get sent government secrets" it really makes you appreciate Chuck that much more. Chuck's awkward dancing and confusion over just about everything aside, it's great to watch this man get launched into an utterly new world for him. Put yourself in his shoes for a second. Your entire life changes in a flash (HA!) - what would you do about it? Would you confront both spies sent after you to get them to leave you alone once you realize what you are? Would you later join them, and help them out with the huge mission at hand, using your extensive computer virus knowledge? Would you be fearful to find out that these problems aren't going to go away any time soon, and this is now your new normal? You would probably keep having to tell yourself, "Don't freak out!", that's for sure. Throughout the season he faces many antagonists and threats, and faces a lot of drama that he isn't really ready for. That's the allure of this season, and this character.

Your opening season is supposed to hook you in and be the perfect setup for the world you are hoping to build, and the character you are hoping will anchor your show to successes. And there are not many shows that really showcased a perfect character build up in their first outing better than Chuck did. One of my favourite episodes of the season, "vs. the Alma Mater", was The Great Flashback Episode and we really got to see some of the best sides of Chuck here. Bryce's betrayal, a man who was so sure of what he wanted to do and learn, but was kicked out of that world and had to start all over. Sound familiar? It was great paralleling to his current spy world. The soundtrack was also awesome throughout this episode, and I'm just going to say that the soundtrack in this entire show is a force to be reckoned with. It was its own character, in a way. Season 1 had so much to offer as the first foray into the spy antics Chuck would need to be accustomed to. By the end of the season, he has helped so many people, and has struggled with balancing his Buy More job and his spy job. Bryce is revealed to be alive, and he has to lie to his family and friends time and time again, and this does not change for quite a few seasons. It's enthralling watching such a good guy be forced to conceal so much of his life. And this all culminates in the first season finale, where it is believed that Chuck will be taken away to D.C. and must leave everyone behind. Well...that doesn't happen. But this is a show where its season finales were one step away from becoming series finales, so it's entirely plausible that this could've happened. But I'm so happy it didn't, so we could see more of this amazing character.

"I want this Intersect out of my head. Are you going to help me or not?"

It's easy to notice the progression of Chuck's character in the second outing. In the first, he's so insecure about the intersect and just so confused about everything. It was endearing to see him in this way. But here, Chuck is learning more and more about who he is, what it is, why it is, etc. He starts asking the big questions, and he wants the big answers. I feel like it's here where he really starts to see the divide the spy world creates on himself, his love ones, and friends. Early episodes can be seen as silly filler but this season contained some of the most high quality episodes the show would ever see. Its premiere really started off with a bang, too, as Chuck is trying to date Sarah for real. Which is an important thing to note at this time. It's Chuck's love for Sarah which really does separate him from most other characters. He is driven by the need to help others, yes, but in this season especially his crush on Sarah boils over into full blown love and he is trying to show her this. While the antagonists of the show play tricks on Chuck, it's really his love for Sarah that drives him mad and tears him up inside. He goes through an existential crisis of sorts, wondering if any of this is real. That's a question that he asks himself a lot throughout the show. Is all this real? It needs to be real. Because I really love Sarah, and she couldn't possibly love me back, not really. I will get into this more later. This season has a bit to do with Jill, but it resolves pretty quickly, because she's not Sarah, and she was never going to be Sarah. The climax of this season, and one of the shows' greatest and most underrated episodes, happens in "vs. the Predator". We learn about a rogue spy named Orion, someone who appears to know what Chuck is going through and is offering some help. But he's super underground because he has been hunted and chased by everyone for quite some time.

Now, imagine once again if you were Chuck in this situation. Your direct orders were to stay put and ignore this anomaly. But would you? If you had the chance to connect with someone who truly understands you, who could help you, would you keep quiet? It's hard to say, but Chuck certainly didn't. I remember watching this episode for the first time and being in awe of Chuck's behaviour. I mean, it makes sense from a character standpoint. He's so used to following the rules and doing what he's told. After all, one of the main jokes spawned from the show is that Chuck always needs to "stay in the car" and do nothing while Sarah and Casey do the grunt work. So, naturally, when he finds the one person who he believes could answer all of his questions and solve all of his problems - well, it seems obvious that he was going to seek this person out. And of course, Orion turns out to be Chuck's father. And this is a great plot, Chuck's dad getting back into his life. Stephen is a great character and he effects both Chuck and Ellie immensely towards the end of the season. After all, Ellie is getting married and she wants nothing more than for Stephen to be there. But there's more drama before that wedding, it'll get its own paragraph. The endgame of this season was Chuck wanting to lose the Intersect, to get it out of his head. Ultimately, he wanted nothing more than this to happen, for him to return to his normal life. And he was hoping his father could help him out with it. But alas, no luck, and more than that, Beckman gives Chuck an ultimatum. It's time for him to become a spy. Whether he wants to, or not. He struggles with this reality a lot and it weighs down on him. He's lucky to have Sarah and Casey with him who understand him, but he can't exactly talk to them about everything. This is why Orion was so important to him. And why he remains so important for seasons to come as well. All this makes the second season finale probably my favourite episode of the series, and one that is catalyst for Chuck's growth as a spy, and just as a person in general. "vs. The Ring" is about Ellie's wedding, sure, but it's also completely about Chuck coming into his own. It was also nearly the series finale of the show, and I cannot imagine if this would be its end. But it wasn't, so enough about that.

Chuck starts to see visions of his future. He is ready to settle down with Sarah, get the intersect out of his head (yes, Stephen thinks he has cracked the code to get rid of it), be a regular guy again and put everything else behind him. He quit the Buy More, which is the first step, and even Casey gets emotional about the possibility of them parting. Only one problem: Bryce Larkin is back and Sarah was tasked of going with him on a mission involving a new and improved Intersect project, since a huge plot line of the first season was that everyone believed Bryce was the one who has the Intersect in the first place. But during the wedding, Bryce asks Sarah if she's coming, and she declines. She too is ready to settle down with Chuck. Only another problem: Roark is a thing and he has hijacked the wedding and Jeff and Lester (Jeffster) need to stall to give Chuck more time to think. I kind of skimmed over Fulcrum but just know they're the main antag. of the season. Anyway, Bryce offers himself as bait, Chuck calls Casey for backup, this wedding ends up not being the real one anyway. They have a better one and everything seems great. Chuck is feeling insecure about losing the intersect and if Sarah would stop liking him if he were a regular guy, but she reminds him that the regular guy inside of him was the hero all along. This all comes to a head when Chuck goes to rescue Bryce (and Casey, because the people who took Bryce also know about Casey), and with the help of Stephen they're off to the facility where the new Intersect is being held. Bryce is shot in the fray and dies, not before imploring Chuck to destroy the new Intersect. But this is where Chuck faces his biggest challenge. There are so many flashbacks here of people telling him what a true hero he is. And all he learned about this new Intersect is that it would make him even more of a hero, despite Bryce and Stephen being on the defensive. So Chuck does it, he really does it. He downloads the Intersect 2.0., fights off some spies from The Ring, and it ends in the classic line, "Guys...I know Kung Fu." Here's a clip to this scene because honestly, everyone needs this in their lives. And I can't give the development of Chuck in this scene enough justice.

"I'm not a machine! Okay, I am a machine, but I'm also a person!"

Season 3 is probably the most interesting one of them all with the most going on, especially for Chuck. It very well could be my favourite one as well. At the beginning of the season right up until a huge bombshell of an episode that Zachary Levi directed himself, it's all about Chuck learning how to cope with this new Intersect. A lot of people could see this move as a Deux Ex Machina of sorts, wherein Chuck learning how to fight properly, play music, understand languages, and more, was sort of a cop out for the show to take. I think this was just the big thing the show needed, and the risk certainly paid off. There's nothing more entreating than finally watching Chuck be able to hold his own in a fight alongside Sarah and Casey. One thing I haven't dwelled on yet, that Season 3 does impeccably well, is the shows' fight scenes. There's a reason this show won Emmys for them. One in particular always makes me salivate at the thought of it. Anyway, as I mentioned above, "vs. the Beard" is the groundbreaking episode in which things really start to change. Chuck finally lets someone in on his secret. Sure, earlier in the season Devon was directly involved in his spy world, but this time, it was his best friend. Sarah and the antag. of the season, Shaw, were getting awfully close, and this was hurting Chuck and reflecting poorly on his ability to flash. He has been keeping so much inside of him and it was driving everybody away, especially Morgan. When they're both trapped deep within Castle (their spy headquarters), Chuck has no choice but to confess the truth to Morgan right there and then. This turns out to be just what he needed, and he is able to flash and fight to get them to safety.

Emotions play a huge factor on the Intersect and I'm so happy this season really delved into it considering I was always so curious about this aspect. In the fight scene I showed you before, Chuck takes a pill that renders him emotionless, and after he almost kills the guy, he decides to never take it again. Emotions are what makes him human, what makes him a good spy, it's just all about figuring out how to balance him. This comes into play again in "vs. the Other Guy" when Chuck believes Shaw has taken Sarah hostage and orders a tank and a bunch of other militia to save him. See? He just cares so much, you guys. When he is benched, he's lonely and upset, and actually ends up flashing on Morgan. This is the episode where Sarah admits that she loves him. Which sucks, because Shaw actually does take her hostage later on and it's up to Chuck to save her. One problem. Shaw has a gun. Chuck hasn't killed anyone before. He can't stand the thought of having to kill people. He would much rather just tranquillize them. He has no choice here, and it's a heroic move to kill Shaw. Of course, he doesn't end up staying dead, but this decision begins to eat at Chuck anyway. It's okay that Chuck 'killed' Shaw, because he saved Sarah in doing so. The two go on to be all cute and together, for real. From this point on, however, there's a problem with the Intersect 2.0. It wasn't ready to be uploaded; there are "glitches", as it were, and it is unstable with huge side effects on the user. He keeps this information from Sarah, to protect her, even though the risk of death is eminent. It's an honourable thing, though it didn't always seem that way. One thing I wish the show put more effort into caring about was Chuck and Sarah's spy wills, especially since the scene where he wrote his will was one of my favourites in the entire show. This scene showed Shaw downloading an Intersect 3.0. and it's tense. I digress. The endgame of the season with Shaw is fantastic, so I can look the other way.

Orion is back in town, and Chuck was lying to him about downloading the Intersect 2.0. Stephen tests him and gets enraged when he finds out, especially since he knew it was unstable. Chuck gets very upset when he finds out and wonders why he didn't tell him in the first place, and Stephen says it's because he never wanted him to download it, which is true. Stephen never wanted Chuck to become a spy in the first place. It's a dangerous business and it leads to despair, for everyone. This is particularly true when Stephen ends up being murdered by Shaw in the penultimate episode of the season. This has a noticeable change on Chuck and Ellie's behaviour. Ellie is dealing with a spy from The Ring who is masquerading as a good guy, but instead he's working with Shaw. To save her, Chuck must once again tell the truth to a family member. The finale begins with the two of them plotting to take down Shaw and have this be his "last mission". Yep, Ellie hands Chuck an ultimatum. He agrees, for now. We also get more of a backstory about Chuck and Ellie as kids with Stephen. Chuck actually downloaded a small scale Intersect when he was quite young, and Stephen was fascinated by this. Chuck really was the perfect person for all this. He's special in this way. And despite the setback of having the side effects from this faulty interface (HA!), Chuck is still able to corner Shaw and take down the Ring from the inside. Or so he thinks. Shaw returns to the Buy More and nonchalantly places a bomb there. Morgan is tied up and has to break his thumbs to get free. It's hilarious. But Sarah has deal with Shaw, who only wants to fight and kill Chuck. It's a truly epic and satisfying throw down. Chuck doesn't end up killing him (unfortunately), but that's the kind of person he is. This leads us to Chuck finding his dad's secret lairs of sorts and seeing info about more villains and - his mom. Leading us to...

"Yeah, I probably should have told you, I have this thing about bullets. I was never going to kill you, Alexei. After all, I am my father's son, aren't I?"

Chuck gets into a lot of trouble trying to find his mom. And just as he's about to stop, she calls him. It's ironic. Also she has a lot to do with this Russian spy family called the Volkoffs. On the surface, this season could've been really bland and Chuck's development could seem quite linear. But that's not the case here. It's probably the most consistent season of them all, but there was still plenty going on. I could probably condense this seasons' paragraphs considering a lot of the growth Chuck has is with his relationship with Sarah. He proposes to her, he marries her, and before this they try and have domestic bliss. Things get a little complicated when Chuck gets abducted in Thailand and these scientists require him to flash so they can harness the Intersect for their own gain. It's one of my favourite episodes of all time, and Sarah's character has rarely been better than she is here. It's his love for her that saved him in this outing, and it's beautifully and masterfully done. The Volkoffs have direct connections to both of Chuck's parents, and he is forced to jump through hurdles trying to one up them from beginning to end. And the craziest part about this whole thing? For over half the season, Chuck doesn't even have the Intersect anymore. That's right. One of the first things Chuck's mom does is erase the Intersect from his head. It's an interesting thing that we learn, though. He can still be a spy and still fight all of these people. Maybe there is a bit of muscle memory associated with it. "vs. the Push Mix" is another great episode, with Ellie going in labour and Chuck having to deal with Volkoff and other things to make it all safe for her. And then the finale hits, Sarah was dying (due to Vivian Volkoff) and Chuck saves her. It's called "vs. the Cliffhanger" for a reason, but maybe not the one you were thinking. They show a billboard outside of a church and there's a time for a funeral, and in smaller font, a wedding. It's genius. They really make you think we're about to watch Sarah's funeral. But of course, there is also another real cliffhanger, and instead of Chuck settling back into the Intersect, which he was supposed to, Morgan finds the glasses and he uploads it onto himself. Yep. That happened. It's weird for Chuck, seeing someone else have the Intersect and not him. He really does start to miss it at the beginning of the next season.

"We're still working out the kinks."

Imagine if you had these awesome skills and you were finally getting used to an Intersect that doesn't suck (oh yeah, before he died Stephen built Chuck a watch called the Governor and it calibrates brain functions and fixes the problems with the Intersect 2.0.) - would you not feel like shit? While he may not have the Intersect, he gets to showcase his impeccable hacking skills at one point (oh yeah, did I forget to mention that too?) and it's great. He has always been a computer genius and the Intersect just let him be one on the inside as well. Now, I have to get this off of my chest ASAP. Many fans were upset by the choices the showrunner made in this final offering and were dissatisfied about the finale and what happened here. For the most part, I would have to agree, all this buildup and development for Sarah's character ultimately went to waste. On the other hand, this only improved Chuck as a character, building on prior things and adding a bunch of new layers to him. The Intersect Morgan got was a faulty one, it erased his memories, and then they get another one that they have no idea about and when it seems like there's no way out, Sarah takes it. Yep, Sarah gets to feel what it's like to be Chuck. Only it's yet another faulty one, and with Morgan he was able to slowly regain his memories after losing it. Sarah wasn't so lucky, with the sheer frequency of uses and the "villain" of the season ultimately 'resetting' her (I use the term villain loosely here, he was by far the most underdeveloped one they had). Continuity errors abound, Sarah couldn't remember a thing and Chuck had to basically start from square one to win her back. Ugh. But here's the best thing that came from this. Chuck has the opportunity to have a new Intersect that is completely functional. Ellie believes she could program it to restore Sarah's memories, but Chuck relents. He uses it on himself, since the villain has Morgan, Beckman, and others in a symposium set to explode. He saves the day using the virus he dealt with in the pilot, and it's great. The best part is that there's never a big deal made about the act that he has the Intersect back. It has become a part of his character, who he is. Nobody ever questioned it. But as Sarah and Chuck sit together on the beach once more, we're left wondering what happened next.

In conclusion, I cannot possibly mention every single scene of his growth. I'm sure there are plenty of details I've forgotten about here. However, it's important to remember that Chuck was ultimately a nice guy who just wanted to help people in any way that he could. Whether it was fixing their computer or foiling the plots of some bad guys. The Intersect was merely an outlet that he could use to give aid to more people on a larger scale. The desire to do good was there from the start, the hero inside of him being there since the beginning. He was taught that emotions are bad and fighting properly is good. But through Sarah he learned that his feelings are important and crucial. I want to thank Zachary Levi at this time for gifting us with this character. He was such an important part of television history and so much of Zach seeped into the role of Chuck, and I could not imagine anyone else playing him. I'll leave you with one last quote: "But how could I do that? How could I run away with you? How could I be with you knowing what I turned my back on, you know? Knowing that what I had in my head could help a lot of people. And you're the one that taught me that - that being a spy is about choosing something bigger. It's about putting aside your own personal feelings for the greater good. And that's what I choose. I chose to be a spy for my friends, my family and you. I chose to be a spy because... Sarah, I love you." His 5-year plan was successful, I think. Whether you agree with me or not, please feel free to leave a comment below detailing your favourite facets of this character and be sure to vote for him at the end of the year!