In episode 1.09 Chuck Versus the Hard Salami, Casey tells Sarah that she falls for every guy she works with—first Bryce, and now Chuck. We can also see that she has unsorted feelings for her ex-boyfriend and spy partner Bryce when he returns in the next episode and is also attracted to Cole and Shaw in later episodes. Is Casey right? Does Sarah fall for every guy she works with?
If Casey is right, Sarah is a flake, and her relationship with Chuck becomes less special.
I think this is the wrong way of understanding Sarah’s character. After all, Chuck also has unsorted feelings for his ex-girlfriend Jill and is also attracted to Lou and then Hannah. Would this fact make Chuck also a flake?
When we speak of Chuck vs the Flake, do we mean the flake is Sarah? Is it Chuck? Both? Or neither?
I argue it’s neither. The series wants to show instead that Chuck and Sarah are perfect for each other and, despite coming from two different worlds and being tempted by easier relationships with people from their original world, will always choose each other over such temptations, which are symbolized by the ghost from their past (Bryce and Jill), the temptation from their present (Lou and Cole), and a glimpse of their future with on-paper ideal partners who mirror their past selves (Hannah and Shaw).
Labeling Sarah or Chuck as flakes for being tempted by relationships they perceive as possible while the relationship their hearts yearn for seems impossible oversimplifies the complexities of their situation and the depth and humanity of their characters. It is essential to delve into the reasons behind both their temptations and relationships and understand the context of each, the reason behind it, and how it moves Chuck and Sarah’s relationship forward.
Exploring Sarah’s Relationships
As Chuck and Sarah start working together in season 1, we witness the developing yet unacknowledged (at first) relationship tango between them.
The nature of their attraction is prima facie odd: we wouldn’t expect the CIA’s best spy to fall for a bright but underachieving nerd. This ontological difference between them is highlighted by none other than Chuck at the end of 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up when he says that they could never be together because a normal guy who plays video games does not belong with a superspy who quells revolutions with a fork. Chuck shoots straight at the target since Sarah could not do so earlier.
We can also see that Sarah has a past relationship and unsorted feelings for her spy partner and boyfriend, Bryce.
Given the considerations above, it is only natural to ask ourselves, “Would Sarah still choose Chuck if super-cool-spy Bryce were alive and interested?
And so, Casey introduces the topic in 1.09 Hard Salami by bluntly bringing up the fact that Sarah falls for every guy she works with. Casey’s words raise questions about Sarah’s character and the uniqueness of her relationship with Chuck. Does Sarah’s past attraction to other colleagues like Bryce make her a flake, and does it diminish the special bond she shares with Chuck?
This possibility must be explored. If it isn’t, it will remain a question in some viewers’ minds. Does Sarah choose Chuck only because she has no “better” options from her spy world?
And so, super-cool Bryce does come back (he was only mostly dead) and is indeed interested. After all, he and Sarah always had Omaha.
Will Sarah choose her old love or her new one? It’s a strong temptation because it is more than just a matter of feelings; with Bryce, Sarah has the temptation of a relationship she could have now (they are both spies, thus equals), and it is a relationship that she can emotionally handle (it is spy love rather than real love).
With Chuck, on the other hand, Sarah, the handler, has shown that she cannot handle the relationship with her asset, at least not at this stage. It is a relationship that she cannot have now. It is a relationship that the spy world dictates she should not have or seek at all, as it goes against the cardinal rule—spies don’t fall in love and don’t have relationships with their assets.
Yet, we see that Sarah chooses Chuck (or “the job”) over Bryce after 1.10 Chuck Versus the Nemesis, but she will still need a few days to sort out her feelings and behavior and how she will handle her asset.
Some viewers find it uncomfortable that Sarah has unsorted feelings for Bryce when he first comes back, but it is very normal (see the movie Pearl Harbor); it is crucial to understand that these emotions don’t diminish the authenticity of her connection with Chuck. Instead, they serve as a testament to the challenges and sacrifices that come with the spy life. Her unsorted feelings make her character more human and relatable.
We can also see that when Bryce comes back in 2.03 Chuck Versus the Break-Up, Sarah’s feelings for Chuck are so strong and acknowledged by her own heart that Bryce is no longer a temptation.
What about Cole, then? What is the story there, and what is the purpose of introducing his character? Well, just as the first Bryce arc in season 1 was introduced by Chuck at the end of 1.07 Chuck Versus the Alma Mater when he says he wishes he could talk to Bryce, the Cole arc is introduced by Morgan at the end of 2.131Chuck Versus the Best Friend is really episode 2.13 and should be watched before Chuck Versus the Suburbs, which is episode 2.14 since the two episodes were swapped due to a presidential address. Chuck Versus the Best Friend when he tells Chuck their life is as good as it gets.
If we pay attention to Chuck’s and Sarah’s reactions at the very end of Best Friend, we can see they are different. Sarah is completely in love, and her feelings are perfectly underscored by the lyrics of the song “Africa” that plays in the background right after hearing from Chuck that she has a best friend in him. There is nothing that a hundred men or more can do to take her away from Chuck.
Chuck is happy, too, at that moment, but look at his expression right after Morgan tells him this is as good as it gets. Chuck’s smile turns into a somber look of unfulfilled longing. In a masterful way typical of Chuck, where sentences often have multiple meanings, Morgan’s positive meaning (“Nothing is better than this”) is perceived by Chuck as, “All Sarah and I can be is best friends; things are not going to be any better than this. This is not good.”
And so, the next episode, Chuck Versus the Suburbs, the Valentine’s Day episode, introduces a Sarah who really wants to go on a date and a Chuck who demurs since there is no point in going on a pretend date as a couple if all they can be is best friends. Fate then dictates that they go on a mission as a married couple [what are the odds, huh? :-)], and Sarah is really into it, which gets Chuck really excited and gives him hope that the relationship can be something more. There is even a scene (shown above) where Chuck protects Sarah, and there is a close-up of their intertwined hands and the rings on Sarah’s hand. But Beckman brings Sarah back to reality, and in a counterpoint typical of Chuck, it is now Sarah’s turn at the end of Suburbs to cool Chuck’s jets.
Okay, but what does this stop-and-go relationship tango have to do with Cole?
A lot, actually, since after Suburbs, Chuck gives up on the relationship. He is acting like a child who gives up when things get difficult, and the two-episode arc with Cole will thoroughly roast Chuck for this weakness while, at the same time, showing that Sarah’s love for Chuck is as good as it gets. Cole, in fact, symbolizes those one hundred men or more who could never drag Sarah away from Chuck. Her love for Chuck is so good that even what she considers the sexiest man in the world at his James Bond best cannot drag her away from Chuck at his childish worst. Her love for Chuck is as good as it gets.
The Cole arc shows that Sarah is the opposite of a flake. Her steadfast love for Chuck resists the strongest temptation, even after Chuck himself gives up on the relationship; we can see from the interplay of the A, B, and C stories in 2.15 Chuck Versus the Beefcake that the theme of the episode is unwelcome and uncomfortable sexual innuendos (Cole with Sarah, Big Mike with Morgan’s mother in Morgan’s eyes, Morgan in the nude with Devon and Ellie, the casting couch with Jeff and Lester), and the theme of 2.16 Chuck Versus the Lethal Weapon in both the A and B stories is the unrepulsability of the girl (Sarah in the A story and Anna in the B story) despite the attempts of the boyfriend (Chuck in the A story and Morgan in the B story) to push the girl away. By the end of Lethal Weapon, Chuck learns this lesson and verbalizes it to Morgan as the moral of the Cole arc at the intersection of the episode’s A and B stories:
Chuck: You are testing Anna. Why?
Morgan: Because she’s trying to get all serious with me, and I want to make sure that she loves me for me and not for other things. [Like Chuck trying to act like Cole.]
Chuck: Are you crazy? You’re lucky to have a girl in your life who loves you for you, even though you are, in fact, you.
Chuck: If you don’t stop testing her, she’s going to choose to be with someone else. And then, you will have realized, unfortunately too late, that you lost the catch of a lifetime.
Through the B story, Chuck is verbalizing the lesson he has learned about himself and Sarah in the A story.
And Chuck will learn this lesson from Cole. Instead of quitting when things get tough, as Chuck did at the beginning of 2.15 Chuck Versus the Beefcake, Chuck is encouraged by Cole to never give up on something he wants badly enough; the two of them are ostensibly talking about the intersect, but the unspoken object of their conversation is the girl intentionally framed between Chuck and Cole during this exchange.
The purpose of the Cole arc is twofold: it’s to show that Sarah’s love for Chuck is as good as it gets and to teach Chuck to fight for the things he wants. After Cole’s departure, Chuck makes his speech to Sarah by the fountain about his resolution to get rid of the Intersect and pursue the girl he loves, and Sarah has a look of dawning realization in her eyes at the end because she now has what she really wants—a man who acts. The Cole arc is a masterful interplay of all these themes despite being very hard to watch for any man who identifies with Chuck since he is going to be metaphorically emasculated during this arc, as symbolized by Sarah chopping up a banana at the beginning of Beefcake.
What about Shaw? In a show based on counterpoint and parallels, Shaw is the counterpoint to Chuck’s girlfriends. Just as Chuck has three one-week girlfriends in the show, Sarah has one three-week boyfriend. Just as Chuck loves Sarah in the first two seasons but tries to find something real with Lou and Jill when he loses hope of being with the girl he loves, Sarah loves Chuck in season 3 but tries to find something real with Shaw when she loses hope of being with the man she loves.
But neither one can. This is the purpose of season 3—to remove all the spurious elements of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, give them the freedom to pursue the ideal partners from their original world (Hannah for Chuck and Shaw for Sarah), and let them discover that it’s different and only together can they have it all, both the spy life and a real life.
Ultimately, this is the purpose of the other temptations and relationships in Chuck and, in essence, their legitimacy; the “will they, won’t they” between Chuck and Sarah is not prolonged because of the cluelessness of the main characters or because of implausible reasons. On the contrary, it is due to very legitimate obstacles that the characters must overcome in order to finally be together. These reasons range from the nature of their handler/asset relationship to the nature of feelings as assets or liabilities for spies to the 49B and finally to Chuck’s and Sarah’s oh-so-different ontological nature. And until all these obstacles are systematically removed by the end of season 3a when Chuck reaches Sarah’s ontological status and quells a (Ring) revolution with a fork, Chuck and Sarah cannot be together, and it’s only human that they are tempted by “easier” relationships with people from their respective worlds.
Chuck Bartowski: The Exception to the Rule
Unlike her feelings for her former boyfriend Bryce (and for Cole and Shaw later), Sarah’s connection with Chuck is unique and transformative. As Sarah later reveals in her heart-stopping wedding vows, Chuck is a gift she never dreamed she could want or need. He makes her the best person she could ever hope to be, and she wants to spend and learn and love the rest of her life with him.
Could she have said the same for her relationships with Bryce, Cole, or Shaw? Not in the least. The best they could offer was a soul-killing spy partnership with benefits where the mission always comes first.
Chuck, and only Chuck, gives übercompent but nothing-but-a-spy Sarah her humanity back. That is his gift to her.
Exploring Chuck’s Relationships
To truly appreciate the nuances of Sarah’s character and the challenges she faces in her intricate relationship with Chuck, it is important to draw a parallel with Chuck’s own romantic journey. Chuck’s unsorted feelings for his ex-girlfriend Jill, his attraction to Lou, and his later relationship with Hannah all mirror Sarah’s experiences.
Just like Sarah, Chuck’s romantic entanglements are a result of the complex nature of their lives. The constant threat of danger, the secretive nature of the spy life, the blurred lines between professional and personal, and the unpredictable nature of the spy world contribute to the challenges they face in forming stable relationships with other characters.
We viewers also see in the pilot episode that Chuck still has unsorted feelings for his ex-girlfriend Jill. Would he still choose Sarah if Jill were around and interested? This possibility must be explored.
And Chuck will need to close that door so that he can look at his future with Sarah. It is no accident that Jill comes back right after Chuck discovers pieces of Sarah’s past in 2.04 Chuck Versus the Cougars and after the scene at the end of 2.05 Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer where Chuck and Sarah make a very sweet, silent wish for each other, but their relationship cannot move forward until Chuck faces the ghost from his past, just as Sarah faced hers with Bryce.
So, Jill comes back, Chuck hopes to have a real relationship with her since he thinks he cannot have a real relationship with Sarah. But Chuck will learn that he cannot have a real relationship with Jill either: she has now betrayed him twice, and he emphatically closes that door, This is mentioned by Chuck to Ellie at the end of 2.08 Chuck Versus the Gravitron. Bryce and Jill are in his past, and Sarah is in his future.
What about Lou? Lou comes in about two months after Chuck uploads the Intersect 1.0 and becomes a government asset. He feels there is something real between him and Sarah, which Sarah would clearly deny. But she also does stuff like this (“Girl on top”) under the cover of their relationship. What is a red-blooded male supposed to do if not dream of a real relationship?
And so, he is caught between two worlds: the pure and white (innocent) world he knows, symbolized by Lou, and the dark spy world (Sarah) that towers over his real world and unexpectedly intrudes into it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Just as Cole’s arc impacts both Chuck and Sarah, so does Lou’s arc. For Chuck, the lesson is that he won’t be able to have a real relationship even with a normal girl because the spy life forces him to lie and be secretive, which is not conducive to having a real relationship. As for Sarah, Lou’s threat pushes her to reveal her real feelings for Chuck.
Finally, Hannah, sweet Hannah. Just as Shaw is a male version of S1 Sarah (a superman-y and ridiculously good-looking CIA agent who lost a person he loved), Hannah is the female version of S1 Chuck.
Hannah is an overqualified nerd herder who wants a real relationship and falls for a spy. Just like Devon and Manoosh, she is a partial representation of S1 Chuck—the charming and bright brunette longing for a real relationship.
Hannah would be perfect for Chuck if Chuck had never met Sarah. Hannah is Chuck’s ideal partner from his normal world, but S3 Chuck is no longer that Chuck, just as Sarah is no longer the Sarah she was before Chuck. Chuck has been sarahfied, and Sarah has been chuckified.
And just as Shaw is no longer enough for S3 Sarah, Hannah is no longer enough for S3 Chuck. It’s different.
Sarah Walker: The Exception to the Rule
Unlike his feelings for his former girlfriend Jill (and for Lou and Hannah), Chuck’s connection with Sarah is unique and transformative. As Chuck later reveals in his no-vows wedding vows, their kids will wear capes like superheroes. Sarah has turned Chuck into a hero who has accepted his role in the world.
Could he have said the same for his relationships with Jill, Lou, or Hannah? Not in the least. The best they could offer was a normal life that never encouraged Chuck to become the hero he was meant to be.
Sarah, and only Sarah, gives bright but underachieving Chuck his destiny back. That is her gift to him.
The Backdrop: The Complexities of the Spy Life
All the “other” temptations and relationships described above do not happen in a vacuum. They take place in the world of espionage, a world unlike the normal world experienced by us viewers. Sarah and Chuck navigate a landscape where trust is a rare commodity, feelings are liabilities, and forming genuine connections is discouraged—it goes against the very cardinal rule of that world.
Chuck and Sarah’s relationship stands out not because it is devoid of challenges but because it triumphs over them. Their love is a testament to their resilience and their ability to follow and trust their heart even when their head gets in the way.
Their willingness to embrace vulnerability, mutual trust, and openness as sources of strength rather than weaknesses is what allows them to become the new Role Models of the spy life, inspiring the Turners to turn around and later inspiring Casey and Gertrude to follow Charah’s steps.
In the world of Chuck, relationships are complicated and go well beyond feelings. Sarah’s past attractions to colleagues are not evidence of fickleness but rather a reflection of the challenges and temptations inherent in the life of a spy and her growth as a woman whose heart yearns for more than spy relationships. Chuck and Sarah’s connection is exceptional because it transcends the emotionless nature of the spy world. By understanding the complexity of their situation and the unique circumstances they face, especially in the first two seasons when they have to pretend to pretend to be together as the only way to be really together, it becomes clear that labeling either character as a flake does a disservice to the depth and authenticity of their complicated love story. On the contrary, Chuck is a celebration of love and the strength of real relationships, and Chuck and Sarah’s five-year relationship tango is an inspiring example of resilience, trust, and the enduring power of true love despite all odds.