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.