Season 3 is quite polarizing for the fanbase. Many people love the angst and the raised stakes. Some people hate it for the same reasons. But nothing polarizes the fanbase about the season as the driving motivations of the two lead characters. Why do Chuck and Sarah split up in Prague? Why don’t they get together after 3.02 Three Words, especially now that Sarah knows that Chuck loves her? Why do they turn to Shaw and Hannah when they are in love with each other? Why don’t they talk about all this mess they’ve made once they get really together? Was the angst necessary? Was the misery arc a waste of time and episodes? Did it advance Chuck and Sarah’s relationship at all or did it damage the characters instead? Were the characters ready to be together at the beginning of season 3 and did the powers that be (TPTB) take the viewers on an unnecessarily angsty ride for angst’s sake?
There are three main interpretations of the season among the viewers, and this alone tells us that TPTB either intentionally or unintentionally wrote the season in a cryptic way that lends itself to different interpretations. Here they are.
The First Interpretation – The Taming of the Shrew
This view can be summed up this way—Sarah can’t be with Chuck because he’s becoming a ruthless spy like all others and she can’t trust him. I’m not sure how common this view is but it’s by far the most irrational of the three. Sarah can’t trust spy Chuck, even though she’s known him for three years. He’s essentially being turned by his spy mentor Shaw into a Shaw and her solution is thus to hook up with Shaw and then judge and reject Chuck according to a moral standard that she herself or Shaw cannot even remotely hope to uphold.
This is prima facie absurd, but those who hold this view claim it makes sense because Sarah doesn’t love Shaw, so she wouldn’t be in danger with him. Unfortunately, this conclusion is plainly contradicted by the events, since Sarah ends up trusting Shaw, a virtual stranger, with personal information that she’s never shared with Chuck, and even trusts Shaw with her life in 3.13 Other Guy, almost to her doom. And it’s Chuck, the spy she knows and loves but whom she rejects for lack of trust, who ends up saving her from the spy she doesn’t know or love but whom she trusts.
In this view, Sarah essentially rejects Chuck because she has feelings for him, and now that he’s becoming a spy, those feelings might put her life in danger because she cannot compartmentalize around him; thus, for her own sake, she decides it’s safer instead to hook up with a spy who has a kill order on his head and go out on potentially dangerous dates with him where they could be ambushed by, say, the Ring. She also preemptively rejects Chuck based on her fear that he can’t meet her moral standard and then hooks up with Shaw, who’s not required to meet that standard, while she belabors under the delusion that Chuck must pass her conditional moral (red) test to be worthy of the trust that she gives Shaw unconditionally, even though both she and Shaw failed that test, and that the conditional relationship she has with Chuck is love while the unconditional relationship she has with Shaw is supposedly something less than love, even though, in real life, unconditional commitment is considered the highest form of love while conditional commitment is not.
This patently absurd behavior forces many of those who hold this view to reach the conclusion that season-3 Sarah is damaged goods, a psychologically broken person who fails Chuck on a personal level throughout the first twelve episodes of the season and essentially becomes a Freudian basket case who needs to be saved by Chuck on all levels; by the time they get together at the end of 3.13 Other Guy, she’s so broken that she is not even remotely close to being ready for a real relationship, certainly far less than she was at the end of season 2, and she curiously never manages to apologize to Chuck for any of her season-3 nonsensical behavior.
This interpretation also turns Sarah into the ultimate, insufferable hypocrite, who can’t be with Chuck for things she herself and Shaw have done. I seriously doubt this was the intent of the writers, especially considering that many of them love Sarah’s character.
The Second Interpretation – Silence of the Lambs
This view can be summed up this way—Chuck and Sarah don’t talk and are pawns in someone else’s game. Chuck would definitely run away with the love of his life but he’s brainwashed by the government into wanting to become a spy and rejects Sarah in Prague. Then he gets a second chance to become a spy and wants to become a spy to be with Sarah; Sarah knows this because, courtesy of Carina the alleged shipper, she watches the video of Chuck’s vault love confession—yet, they somehow grow apart. Chuck, who loves Sarah, who wants to be a spy to be with her, and who has much to atone for because of his decision in Prague, allows himself to become a pawn in Shaw’s manipulative game, behaves in a way that makes Sarah think that he wants to be a spy more than he wants to be with her (even though he’s allegedly becoming a spy to be with her), and allows himself to be seduced by Hannah, thus sending Sarah into a tailspin and effectively pushing her into Shaw’s arms. Inexplicably, Sarah stays with Shaw even after finding out that Chuck is no longer with Hannah.
And, in both views, when Chuck and Sarah do finally come together because they manage to talk about their mutual feelings, they discuss their favorite music and bands instead of talking about how they hurt each other during their season-long misery arc. And they never manage to talk about the fact that they were manipulated by others, or never even figure it out since Sarah tells Shaw as late as 5.07 Santa Suit that he used to be a good man.
It’s no wonder that people who subscribe to either of the above views hate the season, hate Chuck’s and Sarah’s behavior, and cannot make sense of the events as presented, like the conversation that Chuck and Sarah have at the end of 3.07 Mask, in which, apparently out of the blue, they use one of the few opportunities to talk to actually push each other into someone else’s arms, which sounds utterly absurd. Hence the Chuckapocalypse after 3.07 Mask first aired, sending thousands of fans to Internet boards to express their incredulity and rage at the inexplicable events since they thought Chuck and Sarah were getting progressively closer after the end 3.02 Three Words.
There is a third interpretation, however, that can explain season 3 quite nicely. It doesn’t make the events any more pleasant. It doesn’t make the love quadrangle any more fun to watch. It doesn’t turn Shaw into a fan favorite. It doesn’t make the misery arc any less miserable. But it does make it rational and understandable if not necessary. It does make Chuck and Sarah masters of their actions instead of pawns in someone else’s game. And it does make Chuck and Sarah selfless, self-sacrificial heroes instead of irrational jerks.
The Third Interpretation – Love vs Duty
This view can be summed up this way—Chuck and Sarah cannot be together because they selflessly sacrifice their love at the altar of duty. Season 3 is the turning point in both Chuck’s and Sarah’s five-season journeys. Chuck is on a five-year journey from loser to full-blown spy, the best of Bryce, Cole and Shaw, without their flaws. Sarah is on a five-year journey from “nothing but a spy” to real woman fully in touch with her feelings, even able to coach other spies like Casey and Gertrude (season 5’s version of season 1-2 Chuck and Sarah) to accept and act on their mutual feelings.
Season 3 is the pivotal season in both Chuck’s and Sarah’s journeys because it reverses their roles. In the first two seasons, Chuck was the normal guy who was encouraged by Sarah to see himself as the hero he always was, while Sarah was the spy who was encouraged by Chuck to see herself as a woman in want of a real life (which, at this point, she equates with a normal, non-spy life). This mutual influence finally actualizes itself at the end of 2.22 Ring, when Sarah is about to confess to Chuck that she’s ready to quit the spy life and be with him while Chuck decides to re-intersect because he has fully accepted his hero’s calling.
This is where Prague (3.01 Pink Slip) comes in. Even though Chuck desperately loves Sarah, he can’t go with her because he’s a hero and, as a hero, he’s bound by his sense of duty to sacrifice his personal feelings (love) for the greater good. Thus, it’s not government brainwashing that makes Chuck reject Sarah in Prague. It’s his sense of selfless, self-sacrificial duty.
Season 3 is a seven-layer dip, even eight layers if we include Chuck’s hero’s journey. Here are the goals of the season:
- Turn Chuck into a spy.
- Turn Sarah into a real woman.
- Swap their roles and let them walk in each other’s shoes from the first two seasons, so that they can see things from the other’s perspective.
- Resolve the conflict between love and duty.
- Resolve the issue of feelings as a liability for spies (introduced in 2.03 Break-Up).
- Prove that Chuck and Sarah are perfect for each other and that even the ideal partner from their respective world (Shaw/Hannah) is no longer enough and only half of a real life.
- Put Chuck and Sarah together in a relationship of equals, uncolored by duty (Sarah), need (Chuck), lack of “on-paper” more pragmatic alternatives (Shaw/Hannah), or an idealized view of the other (thus, both Chuck’s innocence and Sarah’s competence falter). They accept and love each other as they are and are then rewarded with the best version of the other. Sarah is rewarded with “her Chuck” (3.12 American Hero on) and Chuck is rewarded with his superspy Sarah (3.14 Honeymooners on).
At the end of season 2, Chuck and Sarah were not in a relationship of equals. Sarah was Chuck’s mother hen and Chuck was Sarah’s boy toy. 2.21 Colonel was, according to Fedak, the point of no return because it showed unequivocally that, when not bound by the handler/asset relationship, Chuck and Sarah were ready to act on their mutual real feelings. But it was not the point of no return in the sense that they were ready to be together in a relationship of equals—because they weren’t. By the end of season 2, Chuck still felt he was not man enough to keep his girl from James Bond spies like Cole or Bryce. By 3.12 American Hero, he feels man enough to save James Bond (Shaw) and then take the girl from him. He’s now Sarah’s equal.
If we look at season 3 from this perspective (role reversals, walking in each other’s shoes, love vs duty, feelings as a liability), then season 3 makes perfect sense in plotting Chuck’s and Sarah’s journeys while keeping them as honorable, selfless, self-sacrificial heroes who have nothing to apologize to each other for.
If we look at Prague from the perspective of the role reversal, Chuck’s behavior makes sense. He’s trying to act like Sarah, like a spy, and Sarah gets a taste of her own 1.08 Truth medicine.
And again, in the spirit of the role reversal.
And who’s really leading the relationship dance in season 3?
Thus, when viewers say that season-3 Sarah rejects Chuck because he’s turning into a ruthless spy like all others, they don’t realize it’s not Sarah who is calling the romantic shots this season. It’s Chuck. It’s not Sarah who is rejecting Chuck in season 3. It’s Chuck who’s growing more distant from Sarah from the end of 3.02 Three Words to 3.09 Beard, when Morgan helps him realize it’s foolish to deny his feelings for Sarah. Sarah’s season-3 journey is intentionally passive (she’ll have to Wait It Out) because she’s swapped roles with Chuck—Chuck was the passive and reluctant spy team member in the first two seasons, when he wanted a real life, and Sarah is the passive and reluctant spy team member this season, when she wants a real life. Chuck was Sarah’s asset while she was his experienced handler in control. Now, Sarah becomes an asset, while Shaw figuratively becomes her experienced handler in control. In 1.02 Helicopter, she was the experienced handler coaching a panicked Chuck to fly a helicopter; in 3.05 First Class, she is the panicked (for Chuck) asset being coached by her experienced handler Shaw to fly an airplane (the stakes are higher). Other season-3 scenes also point to Sarah’s role reversal. Walker walks in Chuck’s asset shoes.
Chuck, in the meantime, walks in Sarah’s handler shoes while he handles his “assets” Devon, Hannah, and Manoosh. Casey even tells Chuck so openly in 3.04 Operation Awesome to be Sarah while Devon is his Chuck, “On this mission, Devon is you and you’re her [Sarah]. So, be her, Chuck, huh?”
And why is Chuck, in his spy quest, trying to grow more distant from Sarah from the ed of 3.02 Three Words? Because Carina shows him and Sarah what happens to suckers in love like Karl in the spy world, just as Bryce told Chuck all the way back in 2.03 Break-Up. And Sarah walks in Chuck’s shoes when she cries at the end of 3.02 Three Words because she has to do the same thing he did for her at the end of Break-Up—self-sacrificially pull back from him to protect him physically, emotionally, and professionally, so that he can succeed in his quest to become the perfect spy. In giving Sarah the video of Chuck’s vault confession, Carina is not being a shipper. She’s merely letting Sarah know, in her own loving way, that things are difficult for Chuck as well, that Chuck is very aware of the tremendous personal cost he’s paying for his decision to serve the greater good.
This is the part of Chuck’s vault confession Sarah hears thanks to Carina’s video at the end of 3.02 Three Words.
Look, Sarah, I know that you’re probably very hurt that I didn’t run away with you in Prague. You have to know that you were everything I ever wanted, but how could I do that, how could I be with you, knowing what I’d turned by back on, knowing that I had in my head could help a lot of people. And you’re the one that taught me that being a spy is about something bigger. It’s about putting aside your own personal feelings for the greater good, and that’s what I choose. I chose to be a spy for my friends and my family and you. I chose to be a spy because, Sarah, I love you.
Because Chuck loves Sarah (and his family and friends), he has decided that the best way to show his love is to sacrifice his own personal feelings (love) for the greater good (duty). And he has decided to do this based on Sarah’s own personal example over the past three years. She’s the one who taught him that.
Thus, what Chuck is saying here is not that he’s decided to become a spy to be with Sarah. It’s the very opposite. He’s saying that he’s decided to sacrifice his own personal feelings (his love) for her, for the greater good and because of his love for her.
Do you see a hint of ancient Greek tragedy in their situation? They are heroes who selflessly sacrifice their own heart’s desire either for the greater good (Chuck) or for the other’s sake (Sarah). Chuck thinks the best way to show his love for Sarah is to give up his love for her for the greater good. Sarah tearfully pulls back so that Chuck can have a life of meaning and be the hero that she herself encouraged him to be. They are both stuck by the code. What code? The code of duty as the death of love.
That is the reason Chuck, who is leading the relationship dance this season, grows more and more distant from Sarah from the end of 3.02 Three Words until 3.09 Beard—because he accepts the wisdom of the spy world, according to which love is a liability and prevents spies from performing their duty.
It’s only in 3.09 Beard that Chuck accepts his feelings for Sarah. It’s only in 3.10 Tic Tac that Chuck reconsiders his Prague decision. It’s only in 3.11 Final Exam that he starts pursuing Sarah again, and it’s only in 3.12 American Hero that he puts her first.
And when Chuck does put Sarah first, he does so in a reversal from Prague.
And once Chuck does that, once he has made Sarah is priority, they are both rewarded with both love and duty in 3.14 Honeymooners, as they joyfully realize that they can actually have it all, a full double life.
And how do Shaw and Hannah fit into this journey? Well, the season has to prove that Chuck and Sarah are perfect for each other, that only together can they get a full double life—so, the season gives them freedom from their cover and real relationship and the opportunity to be with the on-paper best possible companion from their respective world—a flawless female S1 Chuck in Hannah and a superman-y (1) special agent in Shaw, the most “real” spy that the spy world has to offer (previously married, understands commitment, doesn’t like guns but knows how to use them, wants to know the “real” Sarah/Sam). [ (1) Originally, Sarah’s last name was supposed to be Kent, as in “Clark Kent.” Prior to beginning of filming the character’s name was changed to Sarah Walker.]
But it is clear that Sarah is sacrificing her own heart’s desire for Chuck’s sake. The way she interrupts him with a broken voice in 3.10 Tic Tac, when he’s about to go personal right after she essentially admits that he’s still that guy and her Chuck, tells us viewers she’s desperately trying to keep her walls up for his sake. She’s trying to be strong for him, so that he can indeed become the perfect spy without her standing in his way.
And in her self-sacrificial desire to see Chuck succeed, Sarah is willing to resign herself to a loveless life in DC, away from the man she loves…
…and with a man who will not be her baggage handler and who, in 3.12 American Hero, cluelessly toasts to a new life together with “no Burbank, no baggage.” With Shaw, she will have to hide and carry her own baggage. Yet, she’s willing to do that because of her self-sacrificial love for Chuck.
Hannah and Shaw will ultimately help Chuck and Sarah realize that even the best of the best that their respective world has to offer is no longer enough and will never be enough because only Sarah can give Chuck the spy half of his double life that Hannah can’t (no truth) and only Chuck can give Sarah the normal half of her double life that Shaw won’t (no love). It’s only when Chuck rejects the traditional spy code and learns to control his feelings that he and Sarah can finally be together in a full double life.
In this interpretation of season 3, Chuck and Sarah owe each other no apologies because their actions are dictated by their self-sacrificial duty, either for the greater good (Chuck) or for the welfare and success of the other (Sarah). They are not together because they cannot be together, and they cannot be together because they love each other in a world where love is a liability. That is the wisdom of the traditional spy code (2.03 Break-Up and 3.02 Three Words)
It’s only when Chuck rejects this code that their tragic dilemma can be resolved. But for Chuck to reject the code, he has to live it first (3.05 First Class to 3.08 Fake Name) because it’s very normal for anyone undertaking a new profession to want to emulate their mentor and the professionals in their field. We all do it, whether we want to become lawyers, doctors, nerd herders, Jedi knights, or spies.