In the post about the three views of season 3, the first view sees Sarah withdrawing from Chuck because he’s becoming a spy, and her feelings for him would be a liability for her—she can’t compartmentalize around him, and this would put her life in danger. She would become like Karl in Carina’s hands.
I think this conclusion is wrong for the following reasons:
- If this were the reason, it would have been presented more clearly. The writers would have made it obvious that this is indeed Sarah’s fear because it would be a major plot and character point for the season.
- It fails Chekhov’s Gun, the “dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements should not appear to make false promises by never coming into play.” If this were Sarah’s reason, we would see it play out within the first 12 episodes of the season. We don’t. There’s never an episode or even a scene where Sarah falls victim to Chuck’s manipulation, as Karl does to Carina’s. Why introduce her fear if it never materializes? The season simply does not develop that way.
- It’s inconsistent with the characters. In the first two seasons, both Chuck and Sarah put the interest and welfare of the other above their own. It would be inconsistent for Sarah to preemptively reject Chuck because he might become a ruthless spy and betray her trust and love.
- It’s unloving and makes Sarah’s character selfish and unlikable in the eyes of the viewers. Instead of worrying about how the spy training will affect Chuck and how she can support him in his spy journey, she’s worried about her own welfare and safety instead.
- It’s based on the false analogy that Chuck and Sarah’s relationship is anything like Karl and Carina’s.
- If anything (and even this analogy is a bit of a stretch), Karl and Carina represent Sarah and Shaw. Just like Karl with Carina, Sarah (the spy with feelings) opens up her heart with Shaw (the spy with no feelings), trusts him completely, and ends up being betrayed by him.
- It makes Sarah look utterly irrational and hypocritical because she preemptively rejects Chuck for being turned into a Shaw by Shaw, and then hooks up with Shaw and trusts him completely, almost to the point of death, and it’s the spy she’s decided to distrust who has to save her from the spy she trusts.
We have a few examples of Chekhov’s Gun in season 3—the Laudanol pill In 3.10 Tic Tac, Casey’s gun in 3.11 Final Exam, and the tracker in 3.12 American Hero. They are introduced early and go off later in the episode.
We also have season-long Chekhov’s Guns. One example is Chuck’s red test—Chuck having to shoot and kill someone. It’s introduced in the very first scene of 3.01 Pink Slip, when Chuck is told by General Beckman to shoot Yuri in the Prague simulation, and Chuck refuses. It’s presented again in 3.02 Three Words, when Sarah hands Chuck a gun as they enter the courtyard to fight against Karl and his goons, and Chuck refuses again. It’s presented again in 3.04 Operation Awesome, when Shaw asks Chuck to shoot him in the chest, and later when Ring agent Sydney challenges Chuck to shoot her as she’s about to throw a knife at him. Both times, Chuck can’t pull the trigger. We then have the red test at the end of 3.11 Final Exam and Chuck’s true red test at the end of 3.13 Other Guy. As we can see, this theme is front and center throughout the season. This theme, the season’s Chekhov’s Gun, is introduced early in the first act, reprised throughout the season, and goes off in the final act.
But we don’t have anything remotely like that for the theme of Sarah’s alleged fear that Chuck will turn into a ruthless spy who will play her just as Carina plays Karl. There are no scenes throughout the season where we can clearly see that Chuck is developing into a spy who will double-cross Sarah. On the contrary, he saves her life in 3.06 Nacho Sampler and again in 3.07 Mask. If the exploration of that theme had indeed been the creators’ intention, 3.10 Tic Tac would have provided the perfect tool—Chuck takes the Laudanol pill, turns into a ruthless spy, and betrays Sarah, whose fear finally materializes, and she distances herself from Chuck for her own safety. Is that what happens? Not at all. On the contrary, when Chuck does become a ruthless fighting machine after taking the Laudanol pill and almost kills a bad guy, it is Sarah herself who brings him back from the brink. The season simply does not develop in a way that justifies the belief that Sarah must distance herself from Chuck because he might double-cross her.
So, how are we then to understand Carina’s courtyard demo with Karl? What is its purpose and what is the lesson for Chuck and Sarah? We can understand it based on the characters’ own words, if we accept that they mean what they say, and also based on the narrative structure of the episode.
3.02 Three Words is a reversal of 2.03 Break-Up. At the beginning of Break-Up, we see a younger Sarah on a mission with her partner/lover Bryce. A bad guy has a gun to Bryce’s head. Sarah shoots the bad guy in the head without hesitation. Towards the end of the episode, we have a similar scene in the present time, but this time the bad gal has her gun to Chuck’s head. And Sarah, hampered by her feelings for Chuck, cannot take the shot. The lesson is that feelings are a liability for spies.
In 3.02 Three Words, we have the very same lesson and narrative structure. At the beginning of the episode, Karl kills the spy holding the briefcase without hesitation. At the end of the episode, he can’t shoot Carina, the spy holding the briefcase, because he’s hampered by his feelings for her. Again, the lesson here is that feelings are a liability for spies, and Carina uses Karl’s feelings against him.
And there is indeed a lesson for Chuck and Sarah, of course, but it’s not that Sarah can’t trust spy Chuck and preemptively rejects him. The lesson they learn (and it’s a different lesson for each) is stated by the characters themselves, and it’s a reversal of what they previously believed in the episode.
During the episode, Chuck is overrun by feelings while Sarah urges him to ignore them. This is from their conversation in the dojo, during their training session with the bo.
Chuck: I’m too emotional. But if we can just talk…
Sarah: You need to learn to ignore your emotions. Spies do not have feelings. Feelings get you killed. You need to learn to bury them in a place deep inside.
Later, during the standoff in the courtyard, when Karl threatens to kill Carina, Chuck appeals to Karl’s emotions, in a conversation that is also about Chuck and Sarah themselves. And we can see how Chuck’s words affect not only Karl but also Sarah and himself and, ironically, for the two of them this is a reversal.
Karl: Bitch has broken my heart. She dies.
Chuck: I get it, man. I get it, ok? You took a chance. You loved someone, maybe for the first time in your life. All you’ve ever done before is shut off your feelings. (Chuck is also taking about Sarah here, and the camera is on her). You bury them deep down inside, because, in your profession, in your line of work, it’s a liability, right? It’s… It can… it can certainly be a liability. [Chuck slows down and pauses. He’s now getting Sarah’s point from the dojo. In fact, his eyes dart from Karl to the back of Sarah’s head and back to Karl. After a pause…] And I know… I know that you think that you messed up your life because you opened up your heart, but maybe you helped her open up her heart in the process. [Chuck’s eyes shift to the back of Sarah’s head; he is now talking more to her and about them than he is talking to Karl] Maybe, because you loved her… she’s learned how to love, too. [Sarah is definitely affected by Chuck’s words]
Carina: He’s right, Karl. Maybe at first, you were just an assignment, but I did fall in love with you.
Carina dispatches Karl.
Carina: Yeah, right. Stupid!
Sarah: Spies don’t fall in love.
Sarah, however, is clearly affected by Chuck’s words to Karl and slowly turns towards Chuck, unsure of herself, while he looks at her stone-faced.
This scene is where Chuck and Sarah switch. Chuck, who started off talking about emotions, gets Carina’s memo and realizes emotions are a liability for spies. If he’s to become a spy, he’s got to bury his emotions deep down inside. Sarah, on the other hand, touched by Chuck’s words, stops thinking that emotions are always a liability.
How do we know this? From Chuck and Sarah’s courtyard conversation the next morning.
Sarah: I’m listening if there’s something that you want to say. [Notice her non-confrontational demeanor. She’s not mad at Chuck anymore.]
Chuck [deflated]: I’m sure there’s somewhere else that you’d rather be.
Sarah: No. I’m good here. For now.
Chuck: You’re right. I’m not a real spy. I’m emotional [like Karl], and that makes me a liability.
Sarah: Not always. You might not have flashed, but you did your job. You got to Karl, and you talked him down, and if it weren’t for your emotions, he would have killed Carina. [Pause. Sarah looks at the courtyard] It’s quite a mess we made. [She looks at the courtyard after the party but is also referring to their relationship]
Chuck: Yeah. I’m really hoping we can clean it up, though. [Definitely referring to their relationship]
You can see the reversal. During the episode, and even as he starts talking Karl down, Chuck is big on emotions, but he realizes Sarah’s point halfway through, and Carina’s treatment of Karl drives the point home. This is when he stops pursuing Sarah, or even trying to explain himself to her. He just pulls back because he realizes that, if he’s to become a spy, which is his journey this season, he’s got to bury his emotions.
Sarah, on the other hand, is on a different journey, a journey that started on the beach during Devon’s and Ellie’s wedding, when she said no to Bryce. She’s on a journey towards becoming a real woman. And real women have feelings. Thus, Chuck’s words about being loved and learning how to love resonate with her, and she no longer thinks that feelings are always a liability. She will learn to express her feelings this season instead of burying them deep down inside.
This is the lesson from Carina’s demo with Karl, in the characters’ own words. It has nothing to do with Sarah preemptively rejecting Chuck because he might become a ruthless spy and use her as Carina used Karl. Quite the opposite. This is the scene that actually makes Sarah warm up to Chuck, as we can see the next day in the courtyard, and Carina’s video will do so even more, when Sarah finally understands the extent of Chuck’s self-sacrificial love for her.
If Sarah preemptively rejects spy Chuck after 3.02 Three Words because she fears he might become a typical spy and betray her, even after finding out that he’s decided to become a spy for noble reasons and because of her loving inspiration, she’s being selfish. She’s choosing self-preservation over trust in the man she’s known and loved for over two years. She’s pulling back when he needs her the most. This trait is not only inconsistent with Sarah’s character over the other four seasons but it switches the heroine’s driving motivation from selflessness to selfishness.
If she then hooks up with Chuck’s spy mentor, a complete stranger and a typical spy, and gives him everything she’s holding back from Chuck (open communication, emotional and physical intimacy, full trust almost to the point of death), she’s being massively hypocritical and irrational.
Any Chuck forum can easily show what choice words viewers, both male and female, have for this Sarah.
If we think that the woman who selflessly risks her own life for Casey in 3.03 Angel de la Muerte by planning on storming the Costa Gravan consulate Matrix-style, and does the same again in 3.10 Tic Tac, suddenly decides that she needs to pull back from the man she loves because she might possibly lose her life, we haven’t understood the first thing about Sarah. Isn’t Chuck ready and willing to lose his life at Sarah’s own hand in 5.12 Sarah? Isn’t he willing to die for his enemy Sarah because he loves her more than he loves life itself? Isn’t this the ultimate form of love? Would we expect anything less from Sarah?