Chuck, the Anti-Spy
Chuck premiered on September 24th in 2007 and aired its last episode on January 27th 2012, ending a long-fought battle by fans to renew its production season after season. The TV show follows the adventures of Chuck Bartowski, a seemingly ordinary IT guy thrust into the life of a spy after absorbing all the secret information of The Intersect database. What seems like a random twist of fate slowly reveals itself as the result of complicated past events, all steering Chuck toward espionage.
The continued production of Chuck was in question after the first two seasons, so this article will examine them and their construction of what it means to be a spy. The show doesn’t make the distinction between being a good spy and being a good person easy to understand. Although the two are not mutually exclusive, Chuck in many ways poses that the more spy-like a character becomes (deceptive and violent), the farther they slip from being a decent person. In those starting seasons, the series guides viewers into favoring the journey characters like Sarah and Casey take to reclaim normalcy in caring for others, and dislike espionage in general as it separates Chuck from his loved ones. This theme however, is not flawless, and the inconsistencies in the presentation of spies as undesirable people may give insight why the show was threatened with cancellation.
Sarah Walker is arguably the most versatile spy in the main cast trio. She can act a wide range of personas, is multilingual, and kicks enemy butt. What stops her from being the perfect spy—someone who always get the job done without a hitch—is her heart of gold.
In ‘Pilot’ Sarah’s first mission is to seduce Chuck and recover The Intersect’s secrets for the CIA. Despite her deceptive cover, Sarah shows the capacity to sympathize with others. Once Sarah realized the Intersect lives solely in Chuck’s head, she doesn’t want Chuck to be ripped from his family and forced to live in a government secret base, so she suggests he work for the CIA instead. Although it is a temporary convenience for the CIA to have access to information through him, Chuck is nevertheless a liability any true hardened spy would eliminate immediately; someone like John Casey.
John Casey is the NSA spy assigned to watch over Chuck with Sarah to ensure his organization’s secrets are kept safe. Casey relies primarily on physical skills to get an assignement done (whereas Sarah uses deception and stealth to avoid violence if possible). Casey shows little pleasure aside from beating others and expresses a strong patriotism.
In ‘Pilot’ Casey is comically hostile. While trying to gain possession of Chuck, Sarah puts Casey in the classic ‘if I can’t have Chuck, nobody can’ situation, to which Casey replies: “You shoot him, I shoot you. I leave both your bodies here and go out for a late snack. I’m thinking maybe pancakes” (Fedack). Casey shows preference for the quick elimination of any liabilities with no remorse or hesitation.
However cold Casey appears in his introduction, he eventually grows fond of Chuck and by the end of season one proves that he would be incapable of (or at least upset about) killing him. In ‘Chuck Versus the First Date’ once Casey is ordered by the NSA to terminate Chuck, Casey can’t shoot Chuck’s picture as target practice anymore—the reality of the situation hits home, and Casey realizes his attachment to Chuck.
Chuck’s appeal was in his quirkiness and loyalty but as he becomes more involved with spy organizations, he starts to disappoint his friend and family. In ‘Pilot Chuck asks, “Why me? I’m nobody. I’m the supervisor of a Nerd Herd at a Buy More” (Fedack). Chuck in the first season shows proficiency for amateur luck. Chuck is only useful as a spy because he is so unable to hide his humanity and often changes the heart of— or at least confuses— the enemies. Chuck admits his incapability as an efficient spy after being conflicted by his emotions for Jill: “I wasn’t ready for this mission… I’m too trusting… I’m just getting used to this new job—all the spying and lying” (Fedack). All Chuck has going for him in the field is the Intersect’s information and his boyish charm.
Viewers continue to endorse Chuck’s relationship with Sarah because she supports his innocence by saying, “What makes you special is that you’re not like every other spy. You’re a good guy, and you want to help people. Leave the deception to me” (Fedack). Sarah is willing to take on the burden of being an emotionless spy during cases to preserve Chuck’s naivety, even though Chuck continues to want more out of himself.
Chuck constantly comes close to wrecking his relationship with friends and family because of his involvement as a spy. In the season two finale, although he manages a quick-fix of the situation, Chuck nevertheless unintentionally ruined his sister’s wedding. Where the show uses Sarah and Casey to promote the redemption of spies who choose to care about others over their job, Chuck himself is used to show the incompatibility of pursuing being a spy and maintaining a normal life.
Jill’s representation in the show prompted this article because it doesn’t follow the aforementioned narrative themes. If viewers are meant to love Sarah who starts as an empathetic character and like Casey who becomes sympathetic over time, they should theoretically hate Jill for seeming apathetic to Chuck’s wants. The key word here being ‘seems’. Plus, on principle, viewers get defensive of any character trying to steal Chuck’s heart away from Sarah, when Jill had already broken it in the past. Jill’s presence in the show is felt even before her on-screen appearance, as the ex that left Chuck emotionally devastated.
Jill as it just so happens, is a spy part of Fulcrum, an organization trying to steal the Intersect’s secrets—aka, the bad guys.
After a long series of events and betrayal, in ‘Chuck vs the Gravitron’, Jill confesses her wish to leave the spy life behind and run away with Chuck. Trying to escape a hostile scene between the two opposing factions Jill begs, “We can still be together… Come with me Chuck” (Fedack). Chuck, however torn by his attraction to Jill, arrests her and says, “I was going you let you get away… But when you were about to kill Sarah, you made the decision for me” (Fedack).
This scene is far more significant than the love-triangle plot. Sarah openly opposed killing Jill in fear of emotionally damaging Chuck, and although Jill seemed ready to shoot Sarah regardless of Chuck’s feelings… Jill did not. Jill chose an emotional response over a calculated one (the appropriate response for a spy) but Chuck still punishes her. Jill, although picking the right path in the end, is condemned for taking too long to choose it—or at least, fostering doubt over her true intentions. Because Jill hesitated and came closest of all the spies mentioned in this article thus far to putting her job before Chuck, she becomes a scapegoat (arrested and locked away).
Only main characters who convincingly show capacity for emotion over their job as a spy are promoted to viewers. All ‘real spies’, cold and efficient—as one would expect a spy to be—are seen as the enemies. Because a good spy doesn’t have or show emotions, there is no way to flesh them out as characters or redeem them as humans; there would be no point.
Although Jill’s sincerity is questionable, Chuck’s ability to forgive her as opposed to other characters who continuously practice deception, is very telling. Having viewers follow through Chuck’s experiences limits their ability to judge for themselves who can and cannot be exempt by the rules of condemning heartlessness. Is this narrative of overcoming the emotionless requirements of the spy occupation constructed by the people he forms relationships with, or is it shown through the development of Chuck himself? Is Chuck unable to forgive Jill because he is becoming more like a spy and closing off his heart?
Family and Friend Spies?
What would normally be a clear-cut distinction between bad guys and good spies becomes unclear when looking at the few second-tier spy characters. Bryce Larkin is forgiven for getting Chuck kicked out of university framed as a cheater, under the explanation that it was the only way he knew how to keep Chuck away from their professor recruiting spy candidates. Chuck’s father was absent from their family life for years under the same pretext—keeping Chuck safe while also emotionally damaging him to do so. Because Chuck picks and chooses who he finds forgivable and viewers follow the show mostly through his perspective, it’s hard to draw a line on what defines a bad person but a good spy, a bad spy but a good person, and ultimately asks whether anyone can be a good spy AND a good person?
Are All Spies Bad?
In the finale of season 2, when a leader of Fulcrum is defeated, a new unnamed threat presents itself. There are inside/double agents abound. Sarah asks the villains who they are, to which a man replies, “Spies, Agent Walker. The Best.” The show leaves viewers with this. Spies are posed as the bad influences in the story. Throughout the two seasons, the act of being effectively spy-like is framed as the true problem Chuck and his friends are facing; They are fighting to maintain their humanity, not just stop the bad guys.
The theme of conflict between being a successful spy and a moral person is prominent, however, the last scene of Season Two is Chuck’s shocked face at being grafted into a ‘perfect spy’ (physically and intellectually by the Intersect 2.0). Chuck discretely perpetuates a dislike for hardened spies and puts value in Chuck and his friends who try to cling to their compassion, but left viewers dangling after the Season Two finale; unsure what this new development would mean in terms of that theme. If Chuck chose to continue as a spy there was no doubt it would result in the collapse of his relationships. Would Chuck pursue the lifestyle and forsake himself, or would the show continue to blur the line of acceptability with exceptions?
Chuck in the early seasons succeeds as a spy because he is an anti-James Bond, but now with the uncontrollable physical skills of a Bond, he has little-to-no way of escaping his destiny. Was this twist in tropes what threatened to end the show’s production, or what kept fans dedicated enough to fight for its return?
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