Some viewers argue that Sarah’s behavior in 3.12 American Hero is hypocritical because she rejects Chuck for killing someone when she and all other spies in the series kill people all the time. They claim she is not only hypocritical but also narcissistic and selfish because she is later perfectly fine with Chuck killing Shaw to save her life. In other words, according to these viewers, we have a case of Chuck vs Sarah’s hypocrisy.
It’s trivially easy to interpret American Hero this way, but it’s also lazy. A better way is to do some spy work to suss out that Sarah’s reasoning is the same as Chuck’s in 2.12 Third Dimension. The two situations mirror each other—Chuck then was mad at her for allegedly betraying her moral principles (he was wrong), and Sarah is now mad at him for allegedly betraying his moral principles (she is wrong). He was mad at her for five weeks, while she is mad at him for a couple of days. We can find confirmation of this interpretation in the parallel narrative structure of the two events, the parallel framing of the relevant scenes, and the parallel progression of Chuck’s and Sarah’s emotional reactions to the shocking events.
Chuck and Sarah are walking in each other’s shoes so that, when they come together in Paris, they both know where the other was coming from in the first two seasons. They learn to see the other’s perspective.
There’s no hypocrisy or narcissism in season 3. Both Chuck and Sarah are selfless and self-sacrificial heroes. The problem is with how the story is told, which makes it trivially easy to misjudge Sarah’s behavior.
Chuck was always okay with Sarah killing bad guys in action for self-defense. He always knew that she wasn’t like other spies. He told Carina so in 1.04 Wookiee. That is the reason he was shocked and upset when Sarah apparently executed Mauser in cold blood at the end of 2.11 Santa Claus. He was mad at her for five weeks.
Sarah treasured Chuck’s innocence and care for others, his desire to always do the right thing and not compromise his morals. This is what he promised her in 3.10 Tic Tac when he told her he would always be “that guy.” That is why she is shocked and upset when Chuck kills Perry to put his spy ambition ahead of his moral principles. She is mad at him for a couple of days.
It has nothing to do with her being a spy and assassin. It has to do with her wanting to cherish and protect Chuck’s innocence and good morals. But we can see during the interrupted dinner in American Hero that she is ready to accept him even when she thinks he’s an assassin.
Sarah is not a cold-blooded murderer either, as some viewers object. We see it in the Mauser incident and in the 5.08 Baby episode. She does not kill in cold blood. She must have a good reason to kill bad guys when not in combat, and she is given a good reason with both Mauser (he was the gun pointed at Chuck) and the bad guys in 5.08 Baby (they murdered the baby’s parents in cold blood).
Sarah also gives Chuck the benefit of the doubt the very same evening at the restaurant during their interrupted dinner. In fact, she never brings up the issue again.
And she is later going with Chuck even when she thinks that he’s killed someone, so there is no hypocrisy there either.
The thing with Sarah being okay with Chuck killing Shaw is precisely to show her that Casey was right—Chuck is not a killer; he is not wired that way. Chuck couldn’t pull the trigger, Shaw was about to kill him, but Chuck is able to pull the trigger when it counts, when it is for a good reason, when it is about saving family and friends, not merely on government orders like with Perry’s execution. She is made to be conscious but immobilized so that she can see all that unfold before her eyes.
That is the point.
After all, do we really think that the writers sat down in the writers’ room and decided to write a story in which the heroine is a narcissistic hypocrite and then reward her with a most selfless hero?
Or is it more likely that they wrote a story in which the heroine is selfless and loving, but they messed up and wrote the story confusingly so that some viewers incorrectly perceive her to be a narcissistic hypocrite?
Some viewers object at this point that she is holding Chuck to a higher standard than any other spy she is interested in.
Well, Sarah has a higher standard for Chuck precisely because she chooses Chuck over Bryce, Cole, and Shaw. We all have a higher standard for the people we love.
We know Sarah felt terrible about her red test and only shot Eve out of fear and instincts, not on government orders. She is holding Chuck to the same standard.
Finally, Sarah’s acceptance of Chuck killing Shaw is not about Chuck saving her life, but about Chuck confirming that he only pulls the trigger when it counts, not merely on government orders. She herself is not even able to pull the trigger on government orders (with Eve and with the bad guys in 5.08 Baby).
None of this has anything to do with hypocrisy or narcissism. It has to do with the moral justification of killing someone, whether one is able to stay moral in the dehumanizing spy life, as mentioned in Chuck and Sarah’s conversation in 3.10 Tic Tac about “the line between right and wrong becoming more and more gray as one progresses as a spy.”