Whether we love or hate season 3 is a subjective topic but there is an objective topic that concerns Sarah’s driving motivations during this season; this topic must be addressed because it gives rise to two polar views of Sarah, depending on how we answer the three questions below:
- Why doesn’t Sarah get back with Chuck after 3.02 Three Words?
- Why does Sarah turn to Shaw?
- Why is Sarah mad at Chuck after his red test?
The First Sarah
This is perhaps the common interpretation of season 3 and it also seems to find support in some comments by Schwedak themselves when they were trying to put out the firestorm after 3.07 Mask. There are two problems with this view: it makes no sense and it turns Sarah into an irrational idiot. Let’s see why.
Why doesn’t Sarah get back with Chuck after Three Words? She doesn’t get back with Chuck after hearing his heartfelt confession of love at the end of Three Words because (a) she made herself vulnerable in Prague and got burned, so she’s hesitant to make herself vulnerable again and (b) because he’s changing and becoming a typical spy and she doesn’t want to end up like Karl with Carina. In other words, she does it for her sake. But this makes no sense because (a) she does make herself emotionally available again with Shaw, a virtual stranger, and because (b) her solution is to hook up with another typical spy (Shaw) with whom she does end up like Karl with Carina in 3.13 Other Guy. And not just once but twice. Well, maybe she doesn’t want to make herself vulnerable again with Chuck. But this also makes no sense because (a) he chose to be a spy for noble reasons and she knows it and is moved by it, because (b) it’s the same choice she made in the first two seasons (they are walking in each other’s shoes), and because (c) Shaw makes what to her appears to be the very same choice in 3.12 American Hero when he chooses the spy life (death) over being with her and still gets a kiss from Sarah and her commitment to him (as she says to Chuck at the beginning of his love declaration).
Why does Sarah turn to Shaw? She turns to Shaw because (a) she needs the emotional comfort due to Chuck becoming a spy, because (b) Shaw’s emotionally safe since she doesn’t have feelings for him and thus she will not end up like Karl with Carina, and (c) Shaw’s her type and saved her life and doesn’t need her protection and is a super spy like her. But this makes no sense because (a) she’s seeking comfort from the very person who’s the catalyst of the changes she hates in Chuck,1One might reply that Shaw is merely doing his job. But this doesn’t work because one could simply retort that so is Chuck. because (b) with Shaw she does end up like Karl with Carina, and because (c) Shaw was the one who accidentally poisoned her in the first place, only saved her life because Chuck saved both their lives, and Chuck saved Shaw’s life twice, so Chuck doesn’t need their protection either but they are the ones who need Chuck’s protection.
Why is Sarah mad at Chuck after his red test? She is mad at Chuck after his red test because he killed a man even though he didn’t like guns. But this makes no sense because she’s killed many people and is leaving with the very man who ordered Chuck’s red test and who’s also killed many people.
Ultimately, this popular view of season-3 Sarah makes her the ultimate idiot who pulls back from Chuck for her sake because she doesn’t want to end up like Karl with Carina, so she decides instead to hook up with a man she doesn’t know or love over the man she knows and loves—and not just any man she doesn’t love but the very man who’s mentoring the man she loves into becoming like the man she doesn’t love—only to end up exactly like Karl with Carina and it’s the man she knows and loves but whom she rejected who ends up saving her from the man she doesn’t know or love but whom she chose. She sacrifices love for safety due to self-preservation and almost pays with her life for it and is only saved by the love she rejected for safety. Morpheus was right—fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
The Second Sarah
This view is almost as popular and has three advantages over the first view:
- It’s supported by what we see on screen;
- It’s rational;
- It makes Sarah supremely loving and likable rather than a hypocritical idiot.
Let’s see why.
Why doesn’t Sarah get back with Chuck after Three Words? She doesn’t get back with Chuck after Three Words because of (a) duty and (b) selfless love. 3.02 Three Words is the reversal of 2.03 Break-Up. The same way that Chuck selflessly pulled back from Sarah in Break-Up because crazy-in-love Sarah was going to get herself killed and hesitated and couldn’t properly do her job, Sarah pulls back from Chuck in Three Words because (a) Beckman tasked her with training Chuck to become a spy and (b) the emotional Swiss cheese that is Chuck in Three Words won’t last five minutes in the spy world, so Sarah selflessly pulls back from him in tears after watching Carina’s video because she wants him to succeed as a spy and have a career that will give his life meaning and purpose. In other words, she does it for his sake.
She also can’t be with Chuck because he is the one who pulls back from her after Carina’s live demo with Karl in Three Words makes him realize that he needs to bury his feelings for Sarah if he’s to become a successful spy for the greater good. Chuck and Sarah are walking in each other’s shoes in season 3 compared to the first two seasons. Chuck is now the one who denies his feelings for Sarah in order to become a spy while Sarah is the one who wants a real relationship. She’s the one giving him all the longing looks while he’s moved on. We can see it because he immediately stops pursuing her after Carina’s courtyard demo with Karl until Morgan makes him realize in 3.09 Beard that he still loves Sarah and it’s foolish to deny it.
Why does Sarah turn to Shaw? Sarah turns to Shaw because Chuck has moved on, is losing himself in the spy life, and has replaced her with Hannah, leaving Sarah a work of real-life redemption in progress. Just like S1-2 Chuck, she desperately wants a real relationship and starts one with Shaw only when he lets her hope she can have one (Shaw in 3.08 Fake Name, “If this is you, I like you. I want more” and at the end of the episodes when he calls her by her real name). In other words, Sarah is now acting on Chuck’s request from 1.04 Wookiee to reveal her real name because she now craves real, the same way Chuck did in the first two seasons. When she later realizes during the Final Exam stakeout that Shaw is not interested in a real relationship but only in a spy relationship, she admits to Chuck that her relationship with Shaw is different (not real) and she’s ready to be with Chuck as soon as he asks her back.
Why is Sarah mad at Chuck after his red test? She is mad at Chuck after his red test because her reaction is the reversal of Chuck’s reaction in 2.12 Third Dimension. The same way Chuck was mad at her for executing a man in cold blood and demanded an explanation, she’s mad at him for allegedly executing a man in cold blood and demands an explanation. Chuck and Sarah are walking in each other’s shoes. The same way she gave him an evasive answer he had to accept on faith, he gives her an evasive answer she has to accept on faith. Ultimately, season-3 Sarah has to accept Chuck as he is, the real Chuck, fallen from the soteriological pedestal she put him on in the first two seasons. Once she does that (in the packing scene), her faith is rewarded by Casey with the revelation that Chuck is not only not fallen, but is indeed supremely loving and selfless to the point of self-sacrifice and is indeed her ideal man.
The shock (above) and the anger (below). Walking in each other’s shoes.
This second view makes Sarah rational and loving. It makes Sarah pull back from Chuck for his sake, so that he can succeed in his chosen profession even though she has to sacrifice her heart’s desire in the process. Everything that she does is because of her selfless love for Chuck, because of her sense of duty, and because of her quest for a real life.
Season 3 is a reversal of the first two seasons, not just thematically at the big-picture level or in Chuck and Sarah’s role reversal, but down to the individual episodes and scenes, which are reversals of previous episodes and scenes.