Character Deep Dive: Chuck Bartowski

Zachary Levi as Chuck Bartowski in NBC's Chuck.
Source: NBC

Portrayed by: Zachary Levi
Show: NBC’s Chuck

We all have that one TV character we’ll love to the end of the time, right? The one we jokingly tell our significant other they should be more like. The one who’s truly, in our book, ideal. You cannot not fall in love with Chuck Bartowski. 

When someone shows you so much of their heart and simultaneously loves Star Wars and all things nerdy, it’s a done deal. Am I right or am I right? But in all seriousness, there are a number of things that have made Chuck a noteworthy, noble character, and my all-time favorite TV male. Chuck’s integrity, openness, and empathy effortlessly weaved into an unapologetic nerd makes him indescribably special. As Sarah Walker once said: “I love Chuck Bartowski and I don’t know what to do about it.” Same, Sarah. Same.

Chuck’s integrity is unparalleled—the sheer, steadfast honor he desperately tries to keep is not only rare in the world of television, but in real life. And though a spy has a number of secrets that must be kept, as the audience, we were often given the chance to see that hiding the truth from his loved ones heavily weighed him down. Sometimes, even though a person is forced into silence, understanding that it doesn’t come easy to them is definite proof of where their heart actually stands. And Chuck Bartowski is in every sense of the word, an honest man. (He’s also a terrible liar, but that’s an essay for another time.) Chuck’s integrity, and the innate need to be upfront with those he cares for often played a crucial role in how he viewed others. While the desire to see people as they could be sometimes got him into trouble, it also allowed his family and friends to see the best in themselves. The idea that people deserved his honesty broke through the toughest walls inspiring characters to open up their hearts to something much more solely because of how much Chuck loved them.

Much like Chuck’s integrity, his openness contributed profoundly to impacting the lives around him, mainly his relationships with those closest to him. Chuck’s choice to often speak his mind directly correlates with his integrity that’s allowed so many of his loved ones to feel comfortable around him. In earlier seasons, Chuck was under the impression that his emotions jeopardized missions and put his friends in harm’s way, but the reality is that his emotions not only differentiated him from other spies but a great majority of people. 

People aren’t often praised for being in sync with their emotions, and male characters especially, but thankfully with Chuck, it was one of the most prominent traits people admired him for. And those emotions, the choice to be open with everything he’s felt gave those around him the platform to be more vulnerable and honest. Silence was never Chuck’s forte and that is what made him rare—even when he was told that spies are supposed to be ambiguous, stern, and misleading, no matter how hard he tried, Chuck felt wrong behaving in a way that contributed to patriarchal orders of the job. He has managed to break every rule a spy shouldn’t by not only falling in love but remaining steadfast to his beliefs that honesty and sincerity should be a constant in a person’s life.

Along with his sincerity and openness, Chuck’s empathy easily resonated with most characters and inadvertently, viewers. The choice to appreciate people as they are and the cultivating need to understand whatever they tell him speaks volumes. It’s a trait not many possess and it’s a trait not many hold onto. We are getting better with characters today and the conversations surrounding toxic masculinity, but at the time, though it’s been a decade, characters like Chuck were rare. 

Sometimes, even when a person is empathetic, there’s a need to conceal it, a need to hold it in because somehow nonchalance is far more appealing than vulnerability. And it’s easier too. It’s easier to put up walls than to give in to vulnerability. (I mean, let’s be real, he was even empathetic towards villains like Karl Stromberg, 3×02 “Chuck Versus the Three Words. And later, Volkov.) When people chose to hide behind sarcasm and apathy, Chuck Bartowski chose kindness and empathy.

Chuck chose to give in to his emotions and used his empathy to understand people better while doing everything in his power to ceaselessly be a source of comfort.

In retrospect, one of the essential traits that have made Chuck undeniably honorable is the choices he’s made in spite of the hardships he’s endured as a child. Oftentimes, people darken their hearts when they’ve endured the kind of abandonment that Ellie and Chuck faced. But both Bartowski siblings have striven to live a life filled with kindness. They’ve extended their hands towards helping those in need and they have given without expecting a thing in return. 

But to ground him in reality, Chuck is, much like all of us deeply imperfect and ultimately, a human being—he has had moments of sarcasm, anger, and frustration, along with deep sadness that’s closed him off from others. However, consciously making the choice to be someone others can rely on is an admirable characteristic that comes from the desire to ensure that people don’t feel the type of pain that abandonment has left on him. And that innate kindness goes hand in hand with his ability to always forgive. 

Chuck’s choice to later understand why his parents did what they did and thereby, forgive them is the ultimate showcase of how vast the love in his heart is. No matter how much trauma and heartache he’s faced, the choice to open his heart to all is admirable on all fronts. It takes great courage to be vulnerable with those who’ve hurt us, but it takes even more courage and love to be able to forgive in lieu of lifelong resentment. Chuck’s choice to understand that though people are flawed, they still deserve to be loved allowed those in his path to believe in it too. 

We are who we are because of the choices we make, and Chuck Bartowski has tirelessly done everything in his power to make sure he bares all the love that resides within him.

Finally, while Chuck is pretty flippin’ great, we have to give credit where credit is due to the unapologetic nerdiness we’ve fallen in love with. The ridiculous, sincere geek who chooses to motivate his friends by humming the “Imperial March”. And while us nerds have found a kindred spirit through him, what’s often been the most inimitable aspect of his characterization is Chuck’s steadfast loyalty to the nerd within. 

It doesn’t matter if his loved ones didn’t understand where he was coming from because the loyalty to himself and thereby, all the nerds in the world, created a safe place for escape. Due to the fact that Chuck is so in tune with his likes and dislikes, it allows him to support people in their avocations and choices too. It allows those around him to understand that they will be appreciated just as they are even if they aren’t always on the same page. I’ve always admired the fact that though he’s wanted to be better for Sarah and his family, he’s never once felt the need to stop appreciating the things they didn’t understand. He didn’t choose to abandon Star Wars because it was perceived as geeky, but rather, he grew by loving those things that meant a great deal to him while being open to the possibility of other diversions.

Now while the notes above make Chuck Bartowski sound like the ultimate perfect man, he isn’t without flaws. And thankfully so because he wouldn’t be human if he weren’t flawed. Chuck’s impulses have often gotten him into trouble showcasing the detail that though our intentions may be in the right place, acting on impulse isn’t always the best thing we can do. He also needs to lay off the cheese balls—control, man. And sometimes, he could get a little carried away, but the reality is that as human beings, we’ll always be too much or too little for the world, and that’s okay. 

We aren’t here to please the world, but if Chuck Bartowski has done one thing, he’s showcased the importance of being ourselves. And for men especially, Chuck’s traits break down the chains of toxic masculinity beautifully. Men (and in general, women too) shouldn’t be forced to change just to please the world because those who love us won’t care. A nerd can be a spy. A nerd can be a superhero. A nerd can be anything he or she wants to be as long as they are the very best, always growing, most noble version of themselves.

Finally, a character is nothing but writing on a page without the respected actor who brings him to life, and Zachary Levi’s work as Chuck Bartowski is unprecedented. Levi embodied the character with akin sincerity that’s given colossal life to the spoken words. Levi’s authentic, heartfelt portrayal has allowed the audience to see the nuanced layers, which make Chuck inimitable. Levi’s profound understanding of the character cobbled with the full range of emotions he’s played him with has illuminated the vast capacity of compassion that resides within Chuck. And it’s that very compassion that’s allowed us to form such a deep attachment to the character. (I know I speak on behalf of many when I say we are grateful.)

Chuck Bartowski is aces. There’s no perfect way to describe a man with such fervency and adoration bursting from within him. There’s no perfect way to paint the therapeutic impact his ridiculous antics have had from laughing too hard to crying in the process. And there’s most certainly no right way to describe the admirable sincerity in which he’s graced our screens with. 

There’s immense, irrevocable bravery in openness and sincerity. It takes great courage to have empathy in a cruel world. And Chuck Bartowski is one of the bravest men in TV history. You know those characters words will never do justice? The ones you need to force yourself not to go on and on about because you can’t stop? The ones that are just so special, if you loved them less, you might be able to talk about it more. Chuck Bartowski is one of those characters.

It is the way he always stood up for Morgan. It is the way he fought ceaselessly to protect his sister and brother-in-law. It is the way he saw softness in Casey. And it is the way he loved Sarah through everything. Chuck’s inability to give up on people often resorted me to tears. He loved so deeply and so sincerely that a woman with walls higher than the moon brought them down to find serenity with him. 

Chuck Bartowski saw people entirely as they were—as the very best versions of themselves even while their vulnerability was buried beyond the stoic facades shown to the rest of the world. His sincerity gave people the platform to come undone as they needed to. His sincerity brought them home to a place where they could always laugh, break bread, and heal. Aces. He’s aces.

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