Chuck: And that’s why I’m going to bring him back.
After the initial shock at Chuck’s execution of Perry, Sarah goes through the the remaining four stages of grief. Chuck sets out to reacquire agent Walker and win her over again and again. And again. After Casey’s revelation, Sarah’s all in for Chuck. Shaw finds out who’s responsible for his wife’s death and is out for revenge against the killer and the organization who ordered the kill.
American Hero is the pivotal episode of season 3, which is the pivotal season of the show. It’s the episode that marks the second part of the Resurrection stage of the hero’s journey, the episode where Chuck, who was metaphorically dead to Sarah at the end of Final Exam, rises from the dead in Sarah’s eyes and proves to her again and again that he’s the hero she fell in love with.
Romantic Reversal. Just as Sarah made the ultimate sacrifice in 2.21 Colonel by risking her relationship with Chuck by helping him remove the Intersect, all for his sake, knowing she could lose him forever, and then again in 3.01 Pink Slip by by giving up her spy life for Chuck, Chuck makes the ultimate sacrifice by risking his life to save Shaw, all for Sarah’s sake, knowing he could lose her forever, and then by giving up his spy life for Sarah. The restaurant scene in American Hero is the mirror of the one in 3.01 Pink Slip but, this time, Chuck has switched his top priority from the spy life to Sarah.
Sarah’s reaction to Perry’s execution is the reversal of Chuck’s reaction to Sarah’s execution of Mauser in 2.12. Sarah doesn’t have the full picture of what happens between Chuck and Perry just as Chuck didn’t have the full picture of what happened between Sarah and Mauser. Sarah goes through the remaining four stages of grief (anger in castle, resistance at dinner, acceptance during Chuck’s love declaration, healing while packing), just as Chuck went through the remaining four stages of grief (anger and resistance in castle when having to convince Tyler to perform at his concert, acceptance of Sarah’s explanation, healing when going on the mission with Sarah and Casey).
Sarah’s dinner with Shaw is a reversal of Sarah’s 1.01 dinner with Chuck. As Sarah expressed real feelings on a fake date with Chuck, she now expresses fake feelings on a real date with Shaw. As Sarah incorrectly believed she had been betrayed by Bryce, she now incorrectly believes that she’s been betrayed by Chuck. As she left DC for LA because she needed a big change, she’s leaving LA for DC because she needs a big change. As all her friends were Bryce’s friends, all of her friends are Chuck’s friends. As Sarah transitioned from a spy relationship to a real relationship, she’s transitioning back from a real relationship to a spy relationship. As Chuck said he could be Sarah’s baggage handler, Shaw toasts to a new life without baggage. As Chuck was charmingly ushering Sarah into a real life full of feelings, Shaw is stiffly leading her back into a spy life devoid of feelings. As her date with Chuck symbolized the birth of Sarah Walker the real person, her date with Shaw symbolizes the death of Sarah Walker the real person.
Someone’s got to save the girl from this dreadful non-life. Enter Chuck and his “I’m here for you” to Sarah at the restaurant. He’s putting her first, the first man in her life to do so. His “I’m here for you” is pregnant with meaning in that it sums up Chuck’s whole relationship with Sarah. No matter what, he’s there for her. Always has been. Always will be—from his “I can be your very own baggage handler” during their first date to his “I’m here for you always” offer at the Malibu beach in the finale. It also stands in contrast to Shaw’s earlier “no baggage” comment; Shaw was there with her but not for her.
Sarah demands an explanation of Perry’s execution, just as Chuck demanded an explanation of Mauser’s execution in 2.12. Just as Sarah gave him a non-response by saying she did what she had to do, which Chuck had to accept on faith, Chuck gives her a non-response by saying that he has indeed changed but in the opposite way that she fears. She thought his change would make him hate himself the way she hated herself after her own red test. He says he hated himself before but not now—now that he’s found purpose without guilt, a lack of guilt that should be revealing but that Sarah, engulfed by her own guilt, fails to notice. It’s as much as Chuck can say without ratting out Casey (who’s listening and taking it all in), which Sarah has to accept on faith.
And then Chuck shocks Sarah by turning his explanation into a proposal of a life together. Sarah’s “what are you saying?” at the restaurant mirrors Chuck’s “what are you saying?” to her in 3.01 Pink Slip. Because of the interruption, Chuck can’t say what he’s always wanted to say and she wanted to hear (that he loves her), just as Sarah in Pink Slip couldn’t bring herself to say what she’d always wanted to say and he wanted to hear (that she loved him).
The next day, Shaw reneges on his toast to a life together with Sarah and abandons her by selfishly choosing a vendetta over being with her, which Sarah mistakes for a heroic gesture of self-sacrifice to serve his country. This is a reversal of Prague, where Chuck, after having initially accepted Sarah’s offer of a life together, really did make a heroic gesture of self-sacrifice to serve his country by choosing duty over love, which Sarah then mistook for a selfish decision.
The conversation between Chuck and Sarah when Chuck decides to go save Shaw is dense with meaning. When Chuck says he’s going to bring Shaw back because he knows how much Sarah cares about Shaw, what he’s also doing in Sarah’s eyes is bringing himself back because she cares about him (her Chuck).
Just as in 2.21, Sarah leaves Chuck in the car while she goes to save Orion for Chuck’s sake, in 3.12 Chuck locks Sarah in castle while he goes to save Shaw for Sarah’s sake.
Here, Chuck shows Sarah who is making the greater sacrifice. Shaw is sacrificing himself, yes, but for selfish reasons, for something that he wants (to avenge his wife’s death), against Sarah’s interest. On the other hand, Chuck is sacrificing himself for selfless reasons, for something that Sarah wants (to save Shaw’s life), against his own interest (Sarah’s leaving him for Shaw). We are never explicitly told that Sarah understands the difference, but it looks like she does when she pauses and asks Chuck, “Why are you helping him?” The change in tone and the look on her face are indications of her dawning realization that Chuck is making the greater sacrifice. And Chuck confirms it when he pointedly looks at her, just as Shaw did when he told her that he was doing it for personal revenge, and tells her that he’s doing it for her. To use Sarah’s own words from the Final Exam stakeout, it’s different. Chuck is once again showing her that he is indeed the same guy she fell for, the selfless hero who sacrifices his own interest for others. Later, after saving Shaw, Chuck says Shaw would have done the same selfless gesture for him. But would he have? Shaw just showed Sarah the opposite. She asked both men essentially the same question: why are you risking your life? The reason is given in their own answers: Shaw does it for himself. Chuck does it for Sarah.
Just as at the end of 2.21, an air strike destroys a Fulcrum base. at the end of 3.12, an air strike destroys a Ring base. During the 2.21 building explosion, Casey emerges unharmed with an unconscious Chuck slung over his shoulder. During the 3.12 building explosion, Chuck emerges unharmed with an unconscious Shaw slung over his shoulder.
After saving Shaw for Sarah’s sake, Chuck bluntly and honestly finishes his interrupted proposal from the night before. He tells Sarah he loves her (with a line that is reminiscent of the one in the movie Terminator) and, unlike Shaw who just chose the spy life (death) over her, he chooses her over the spy life. Chuck offers Sarah what she offered him back in Prague, showing her his full regret for hurting her back then and willing to risk the same fate if she doesn’t show up, which is exactly what happens, as she stands him up without really wanting to, in a symbolic reversal of Prague, where Chuck abandoned her without really wanting to. And Chuck doesn’t know the real reason behind her not showing up, just as Sarah didn’t know the real reason behind his decision in Prague.
Chuck’s “I’m gonna kiss you now, if that’s ok” scene is in stark and powerful contrast to Shaw’s “I’m gonna kiss you now” scene in 3.08 Fake Name. As Shaw’s kiss was greedy and possessive, taking advantage of a woman in deep emotional distress, Chuck’s kiss is loving and respectful of Sarah’s emotional distress, even baptismal as he knowingly rechristens her “Sarah Walker,” recognizing her real identity and giving a final answer to Graham’s 2.04 “Who are you?” question and to Sarah’s own doubts. As Shaw saw and coveted Sarah only for her appearance (the spy half of a real life), Chuck sees and respects her as a person with feelings, intrinsically worthy of love and honor (a full real life). As he’s about to kiss her, the background song’s lyrics speak for Sarah’s conflicted heart, “I’ll take a chance on something.”
And this scene is also the culmination of Chuck’s confidence in going for Sarah’s heart. The nerd who hated himself and always felt emasculated by the James Bonds in Sarah’s life now feels equal to them and finally overtakes James Bond.
Sarah’s packing scene mirrors the packing scene at the end of 1.10 Nemesis. Both scenes start by framing a watch/clock (decision time), a passport in 1.10 (she’s going with Bryce) and Chuck’s picture in 3.12 (She’s going with Chuck) and both scenes express conflict (Sarah’s thousand-yard stare in 1.10, her work clothes and facial expression in 3.12). Both scenes feature a choice, complicated in 1.10 by what Sarah did (the kiss) and in 3.12 by what Chuck did (the kill). Both scenes feature an interruption (Chuck’s phone call in 1.10, Casey’s visit in 3.12) but, while the 1.10 interruption causes Sarah’s paralyzing conflict, the 3.12 interruption dissolves her conflict, as the background song’s lyrics now speak for both her heart and mind finally acting as one, “Go, don’t stop!”
Spy Reversal. Sarah continues on her journey from “nothing but a spy” to a real woman by seeings things from Chuck’s perspective.
Chuck’s saving of Shaw is a reversal of 2.21 Colonel. Chuck gets out of the nerd herder and into Shaw’s own car (a symbolic representation that he now finally sees himself as an equal of spies like Shaw, Bryce, and Cole*) in order to save Shaw, while Sarah is locked in castle (stays in the car), just as in 2.21 Chuck was told by Sarah to stay in the car while she and Casey saved Orion. Here, Chuck carries an unconscious Shaw over his shoulder, just as in 2.21 Casey carried an unconscious Chuck over his shoulder.
(*This scene encapsulates Chuck’s S3 growth and is hugely important for his psyche. In 2.15 Beefcake, a whiny Chuck felt he was not man enough to keep his girl from James Bond [Cole], the worst possible feeling for any man. Now, a confident Chuck feels he’s not only man enough to get out of the nerdy car and into Bond’s [Shaw’s] own cool car but he actually saves James Bond and then takes the girl from him.)
The end of the episode is a reversal of the ending of 2.07 Fat Lady; Shaw whisks Sarah away somewhere off the grid, with Sarah unaware of Shaw’s real intentions, and Chuck saves her with Casey’s help, just as Jill whisked Chuck away somewhere off the grid, with Chuck unaware of Jill’s real intentions, and Sarah and Casey saved him. S3 Sarah is trusting the way S1-2 Chuck was trusting, while S3 Chuck distrusts Shaw’s motives the way S1-2 Sarah distrusted people.
Love vs Duty. In a scene that is the reversal of the Prague one, Chuck chooses love over duty by asking Sarah to run away with him.
Feelings as a liability. Chuck is blunt and honest with Sarah about his love for her. If they run together, feelings won’t be a liability.
Red Test. Chuck uses non-lethal weapons while saving Shaw in the Ring compound. Shaw had assigned Chuck’s red test in part to evict Chuck from Sarah’s heart and now, in a tragic and ironic twist, the ghost of Sarah’s own red test evicts her from Shaw’s heart. Also, ironically, Sarah does not believe her own Pink Slip prophecy about what is real in the spy life.
Hero’s Journey. Resurrection. Chuck, who was metaphorically dead to Sarah, faces another test and rises from the dead by saving Shaw for her sake and by being revealed by Casey as innocent of the mole’s death. Shaw shifts into the shadow archetype, bent on destroying the heroine.