Many fans hate 3.01 Pink Slip because they think it resets Chuck and Sarah’s relationship in a way that is artificial and out of character. The Chuck they know from the previous seasons, they argue, would not behave like that; he would not leave the woman he loves on a train platform without an explanation; he would not put the train tickets back into her hand without trying to have both the spy life and Sarah. These fans think Prague is an out-of-character forceful separation inserted at the beginning of season 3 solely to unnecessarily prolong the will-they-won’t-they by adding a third, unnecessary round of love interests1“Love interest” is the wrong term in this case since the very reason Chuck and Sarah cannot be together is their mutual love in a world where love is a liability. in Hannah and Shaw. They also think that couples do not recover after traumatic events like Prague.
I understand these fans’ sentiment very well because that was my exact reaction the first time I watched the show back at the beginning of 2020. In fact, my negative reaction to Pink Slip was so strong that I almost stopped watching the show altogether. You see, the ending of 2.22 Ring was so exciting and full of possibilities with Chuck’s upload of the Intersect 2.0 and his Matrix-like “Guys, I know kung fu” line that I was expecting… Okay, I didn’t know exactly what I was expecting but, whatever it was, it was something fun, with Chuck now finally a hero, out of the car, getting closer to Sarah, you know, after Barstow and the “two beds?” and “it is real” stuff from 2.21 Colonel.
What I certainly was not expecting was what I got in 3.01 Pink Slip. I wasn’t expecting Chuck to fail spy school and retreat into the cheese-balls couch loser life; I wasn’t expecting Chuck back at the Buy More; and I certainly wasn’t expecting Chuck and Sarah to be so forcefully separated in Prague, and in a way that looked so out of character for blabbermouth Chuck.
But I plowed through the episodes, got excited after 3.02 Three Words and 3.03 Angel de la Muerte because I thought Chuck and Sarah were repairing their relationship and getting closer. Then Hannah and Shaw happened, and I couldn’t see the point of that, and that made me hate the season to the point that I couldn’t even fully enjoy a fantastic episode like 3.14 Honeymooners because, by then, I thought Chuck and Sarah’s relationship was damaged beyond repair and their happiness was unearned.
A sizable minority of fans still feels the same way and puts the first 12 or 13 episodes of season 3 in a black box. They skip directly from 2.22 Ring to 3.14 Honeymooners. If they are also among the original fans, who fought to save the show at the end of season 2, they feel doubly betrayed because they did not fight to save the show only to get Prague, Hannah, Shaw, and all that baggage.
But I could not do that. First, there is good stuff in the original season 3 that cannot be ignored—a few great episodes and meaningful character growth. Second, it did not make sense to me that the creators and writers of the show would just write the very season that puts Chuck and Sarah together in a way that their togetherness is not earned or deserved. If Chuck and Sarah were selfless and loving in the first two seasons and will be in the last two seasons as well—despite the flaws that make them human and real—why wouldn’t they also be selfless and loving in the central, pivotal season that puts them together?
Thus, after having watched the show a second time, I now interpret season 3 from a different perspective, a perspective that keeps Chuck and Sarah the same selfless, self-sacrificial, and loving characters we see in all the other seasons of the show—a perspective that I have highlighted as the third view in my post Three Views of Season 3. In this interpretation, Prague and Hannah and Shaw, although unpleasant, are necessary building blocks in Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, and they help ground this relationship on a solid foundation after eliminating all the spurious elements that were polluting it in the first two seasons.
So, why Prague? Why does it need to happen?2Okay, this is fiction so, technically, nothing needs to happen, and the story could have been written in a different way. But the story they told is a legitimate development and perhaps the most logical development given the premises. And why does it make sense that it happens in the way it does?
In light of my other posts linked above, I think Prague is needed in order to build Chuck and Sarah’s real relationship on solid ground and to explore their role reversals for the season so that, when they do finally come together in Paris, they will have experienced what the other did in the first two seasons, and they will have understood where the other was coming from when dealing with the relationship back then.
In real life, seeing things from the other’s perspective is an incredible learning and empathic tool in building a strong relationship. I think this is what takes place in season 3, and it all starts in Prague.
Prague is Sarah’s version of Chuck’s Stanford experience. At Stanford, Chuck felt betrayed by Bryce and thought Bryce acted out of selfish reasons, but found out through a video after five years that Bryce’s actions were really motivated by self-sacrificial love. Now in Prague, Sarah feels betrayed by Chuck and thinks Chuck acted out of selfish reasons, and even six months later she’s not shy about stinging Chuck for it.
But she then finds out through a surveillance video after six months that Chuck’s actions were really motivated by self-sacrificial love.
Just as Chuck forgave Bryce on the spot after watching a video at the end of 1.07 Alma Mater, Sarah now forgives Chuck on the spot after watching the surveillance video at the end of 3.02 Three Words. And if we think it’s reasonable that Chuck and Bryce could recover their relationship after five years of estrangement when Chuck found out the truth, it’s also reasonable that Chuck and Sarah can recover their relationship after six months of estrangement when Sarah finds out the truth.
Okay, Sarah has now experienced in Prague what Chuck experienced at Stanford. But why does Prague have to happen the way it does? Well, that is because Chuck now must see things from Sarah’s perspective; he must understand what it means to choose duty over love for the greater good at a great personal cost. With great power comes great responsibility. This is the same choice every superhero makes in every superhero story. In fact…
And Sarah? Well, in Prague Sarah gets a taste of her own medicine, the medicine she handed out to Chuck in 1.08 Truth.3At this point, some fans point out that the two scenarios are *not exactly* the same. In 1.08, Chuck and Sarah were only at the very beginning of their relationship and Sarah had made no promises to Chuck about the reality of their relationship, whereas in Prague, their relationship (of whatever nature it is) is very much established, and Chuck has agreed to run away with Sarah, only to change his mind in Prague. This is all true, but the point of the comparison and reversal here is not to make the two scenarios exactly the same but to highlight their psychological similarities. Just as in 1.08 Chuck hoped for something real between them but got shut down by Sarah and was devastated, here Sarah hopes for something real between them but is shut down and is devastated. Their very similar parallel reactions and facial expressions in the two scenes are a testament to this role reversal.
And why is the usually talkative Chuck so laconic in Prague? Why does he act so apparently cold and curt with Sarah? Well, his behavior makes perfect sense if we consider that he’s making the hardest decision of his life and the more he talks the weaker he will get in his resolve; also, and this is a very important point, he has decided to become a spy and is therefore acting like a spy. After being around spies like Sarah and Casey for two years, now that he has decided to become a spy, he’s trying to act like one.4Is Chuck acting out of character in Prague? Absolutely, but with good reason. We all do when we undertake a new job and try to emulate the masters and mentors from that world, before we find our own footing. Chuck will struggle again with his spy behavior between 3.05 and 3.08 before deciding to become his own kind of spy between 3.09 and 3.13. He is acting like Sarah, just as Sarah in Prague is acting like Chuck in the way she talks and paints a real life for the two of them. Prague is the symbolic beginning of Chuck and Sarah’s role reversal in season 3—Sarah now wants a real life while Chuck must balance love and duty and learn to control his emotions.
What is the Point of Prague?
The point of Prague is not to pave the way for Hannah and Shaw. Even if Hannah and Shaw never happened, Prague would still be necessary because its job is to eliminate all the spurious elements of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship and build it from the ground up based on true and real love uncolored by need (Chuck), duty (Sarah), and idealized views of the other (Chuck’s innocence and Sarah’s competence).
Prague and its aftermath accomplish three purposes:
- Prague is to Sarah what Stanford was to Chuck.
- Chuck must balance love and duty while Sarah wants a real life and gets a taste of her own medicine.
- Sarah selflessly pulls back from Chuck to protect him personally and professionally, just as Chuck did for her in season 2.
This last point is important to establish the selfless reason behind Chuck and Sarah’s separation from the end of Three Words to 3.11 Final Exam. And this reason is, just like the others above, a reversal of the first two seasons. In fact, just as Chuck pulled back from Sarah at the end of 2.03 Break-Up in order to protect her personally and professionally in a world where love is a liability, so now Sarah must pull back from the man she loves at the end of 3.02 Three Words in order to protect him personally and professionally in the very same world where love is still a liability.
In fact, Chuck’s emotions as a liability are highlighted in 3.02 Three Words just as Sarah’s emotions as a liability were highlighted in 2.03 Break-Up. And just as Sarah’s feelings for the asset were finally recognized as, well, an asset by Beckman at the end of 2.18 Broken Heart, the job of season 3 is to show that Chuck will learn to master his feelings for Sarah and turn them into an asset (3.09 Beard to 3.13 Other Guy).
But this growth all starts in Prague.
And this is the reason we cannot ignore the original season 3. There is too much character growth, and if this interpretation of the season is correct, there is also no need to ignore it (as much as we may dislike it) because it is founded in selflessness and self-sacrificial love on Chuck’s and Sarah’s part. And thus their coming together in Paris and their happiness and giddiness in 3.14 Honeymooners are fully earned and deserved because Chuck and Sarah are rediscovering each other5This rediscovery and beginning of their real relationship is symbolized by their conversation about music and bands, a continuation from the same conversation during their first date in the pilot episode, which was the beginning of their cover relationship. after they thought they had lost each other.
In conclusion, season 3 may not be the story that some of us wanted to see, but it is the story that we needed to see.6Of course, many fans *love* season 3 and, for them, the story they needed to see matches the story they wanted to see. For them, season 3 is thus a win-win.