When I first saw Chuck, I thought Daniel Shaw was an incompetent spy and a sexual predator. Upon rewatching the show and thinking about what I understand are the intentions of the writers, I think Shaw is supposed to be a great spy and most viewers do see him as such.
Shaw, like Bryce and Cole and all other secondary characters in the show (or any show), is a plot device. His motives and actions are only important in how they develop the main characters. There are viewers who even hate Bryce for putting a wedge between Chuck and Sarah when he convinces Chuck to break up with her at the end of 2.03 Break-Up because they think Bryce wants Sarah for himself, as if it made sense for a secondary character who wants the heroine of the story for himself to then disappear for 18 episodes and only come back again as a plot device in 2.22 Ring to bring clarity to Sarah’s choice to quit the spy life and be with Chuck, only to be thwarted by another secondary character (Orion), who conveniently cuts her off before she can tell Chuck just that.
This is not Shaw’s story. It’s Chuck and Sarah’s story. Shaw is a plot device used to map their season 3 journeys—Chuck’s hero’s journey towards becoming a spy, in which Shaw is Chuck’s mentor, and Sarah’s journey towards a real life, in which she thinks she can find “real” in the spy life but can’t apart from Chuck. Those two journeys start in Prague (3.01 Pink Slip) and converge in Paris (3.13 Other Guy).
As a plot device, Shaw’s successes and failures as a ‘great spy’ depend on the needs of the episode. Is it ridiculous that he controls the plane remotely through Sarah during Chuck’s mission in 3.05 First Class? That’s not the point. The point is that the writers need that scene because it’s a reversal of the one in 1.02 Helicopter where Sarah controls the chopper remotely through Chuck. They are showing that Shaw’s becoming the handler of a reluctant Sarah, just as Sarah was becoming the handler of a reluctant Chuck in 1.02. S3 Sarah’s walking in Chuck’s S1-2 shoes.
Is Shaw a predator for kissing Sarah on the neck in the 3.07 Mask museum mission? That’s not the point. The point is that he’s taking advantage of his cover to kiss her on the neck just as Sarah did with Chuck in the Wienerlicious closet in 1.08 Truth. Again, Sarah walking in Chuck’s shoes.
Is Shaw an incompetent spy for failing his 3.07 Mask mission? That’s not the point. The point is to show Chuck’s spy growth in saving both his mentor and Sarah.
Is Shaw incompetent for not using a containment unit in 3.07 Mask? That’s not the point. The point is that he and Sarah got poisoned with a gas that forces them to tell the truth about their feelings (pending death leads to honesty), just as Chuck and Sarah were poisoned with a truth serum in 1.08 Truth that forced people to tell the truth about their feelings.
Is Shaw evil for wanting to blow up Chuck in Castle in 3.09 Beard? Does he do that because he wants Sarah for himself? We don’t see that on his face and that’s not even the point. The point is that Sarah is on a journey towards real and she needs to see the difference between Shaw and Chuck, so she works with Shaw in 3.09 Beard and with Chuck in 3.10 Tic Tac and she sees that Shaw is a typical spy who chooses being a spy over people (3.09) while Chuck is a new kind of spy who chooses people over being a spy (3.10) and this is all she needs to know about the two men and which one can give her the real life she’s now desperately looking for.
The story is not about Shaw. It’s about Chuck and Sarah and their journey and what secondary characters teach them.
And in this story, it is important that Shaw be a great spy because he’s Chuck’s mentor and Sarah’s ideal type from the spy world. If Shaw is an incompetent predator, this diminishes Chuck’s hero’s journey and Sarah’s real-life journey by making Chuck be mentored by a Jerry Lewis rather than a James Bond and by making Sarah choose Chuck not over a James Bond but over a mix of Jerry Lewis and Harvey Weinstein. This diminishes both the hero and the heroine of the story and their journeys.
In Sarah’s real-life’s journey, both Cole and Shaw are supposed to symbolize James Bond (i.e. the spy life), just two different sides of it. After 2.13 Suburbs, Sarah is stalling between spy life and real life, so Cole comes in, symbolizing the larger-than-life and supersexy façade of the spy life; he represents The Last Temptation of Sarah and, when she rejects him at the end of 2.16 Lethal Weapon, she chooses a real life over the spy life. Season-3 Sarah is looking for real, so Shaw comes in, symbolizing the stark reality of the spy life behind the glamorous façade, with his unfeeling pragmatism, his inner loneliness, and his wooden stiffness, and he makes Sarah realize that even the best of the spy life cannot give her the real she’s looking for. Only Chuck can.
I think there’s more to this. It also shows the limitations of a spy like Shaw and his “friends and family…make you weak” belief.
Three times Shaw tries to “outspy” Chuck and fails. He is confident he’s got the upper hand but each time, he’s foiled in no small part, by Chuck’s reliance on his friends and family.
First time, Morgan informs Chuck of Shaw’s fake fight and Chuck enlists Casey (friend in this case) to help him save Sarah. Friends and family are a strength.
Second time, Shaw thinks he’s thought of everything. He thinks capturing Casey and Sarah will result in Chuck playing into his hands. Chuck’s dad mentors Chuck in unexpected twist that Shaw then shoots Chuck’s dad to compromise Chuck…. check mate…. so he thinks. He load them up into an armored car and “drives” them off (he’s in the driver’s seat and Casey, Sarah, and Chuck are along for the ride). What he doesn’t expect is that Ellie is following the car and that Beckman has told Morgan (and Awesome) that they are their the last hope. Without hesitation, they jump into Casey’s car and head off. The only thing Awesome needs is Ellie’s word. Both of them knowing they are going against the CIA and the consequences could be fatal. In a comical accident, Morgan and Awesome save the day. Chuck’s friends/family are now driving their friends to safety. Friends and family are a strength.
The second time isn’t over yet though. They set up a trap for Shaw, who again mocks Chuck about what he did to Chuck’s father and implicates himself in the process. He overcomes a weakened Chuck and Sarah saves the day. Friends and family are a strength. Then Shaw shows up at the Buy More…this time, he’s going to blow it up unless Sarah brings Chuck to him. She shows up and he captures her. Chuck shows up in his weakened state and overcomes Shaw with the help of his father’s words. Friends and family are a strength.
The third time Shaw Shaw has been working behind the scenes for a while now. He’s been coordinating his plan ruin Chuck and create as much stress on the newlywed couple. This time, he captures Sarah knowing Chuck will do anything to keep her safe. He uses that to make Chuck get what Shaw wants. Chuck again relies on his friends and family by enlisting Beckman and the Nerd herders to hatch a plan to beat Shaw. Shaw again underestimates Chuck’s reliance on his friends and family and his foiled once again.
Shaw will always be limited in the same way that Chuck, Sarah, and Casey are limited each time they try to do it alone. It’s in belief and reliance of those friends and family as a strength, Chuck to succeeds against insurmountable odds.
Insightful. And of course, we see this in spades in the final episode of the series, where pretty much everyone in Chuck’s circle of friends (including the Buy Morons) are involved in Chuck’s final mission (get Sarah back).
Great commentary and love the job you have done with this blog. Yep I get that we are to see him as a great spy. But there is also an arrogance, a callousness and a need to control and even some degree of jealousy of Chuck.
He pulled a couple of guns on Sarah and Casey. He cold-cocked a handcuffed Rafe which oddly, Sarah just seemed to accept and then subsequently went to Shaw because Chuck was ‘changing’ (double standard?) having pulled Casey’s tooth etc (and so save his life). He lost it with Chuck in the hotel room and really started laying into him. Then he subequently could only admit that Rafe was trying to kill him and Sarah.
So great Spy but damaged goods..and Sarah well, double standards as already mentioned and a complete lack of self awareness and recognition of Shaw’s flaws.
The line that always bothered me was from season finale I think, when Shaw says something to Sarah like “I remember when nothing affected you, its a pity, now you are emotional as your boyfriend”. Really not sure as to what time he is referring to here..but whatever.
I guess imo, what we saw vs what we were supposed to see were just too far apart.
Oh, yes. Shaw was (supposed to be) a great spy but definitely had a dark side to him, which was there to justify his turning to the dark side later in the season. He was indeed jealous of Chuck’s hold on Sarah’s affection and greedily wanted that for himself, as we can see in 3.08, while also refusing to be Sarah’s emotional baggage handler. He was obsessed about his late wife, possessive towards Sarah, cruel towards a tied-up Rafe, manipulative towards Chuck. He looked good on the outside but was broken inside.
I’m not sure we are supposed to think badly of Sarah in this situation. She never saw Shaw as competition for Chuck. She thought Chuck was gone and sought comfort and “real” with Shaw but both she and Shaw always knew she was in love with Chuck all along.