The common misconception among fans about Chuck and Sarah’s relationship in season 3.0 (the first 13 episodes) is that Chuck and Sarah are trying to rebuild their romantic relationship after 3.02 Three Words. They are not. In fact, from the end of 3.02 Three Words to the end of 3.09 Beard, Chuck is doing everything he can to not be in love with Sarah. Carina gives both of them a live demo about what happens to suckers like Karl who fall in love in the spy world and Chuck gets the memo. That’s why he immediately stops bugging Sarah after that scene in the courtyard.
The title of 3.02 is Chuck Versus the Three Words. Chuck against love. In his quest to become the perfect spy, Chuck buys into the cardinal rule that love is a liability in the spy world and pulls away from Sarah until the little bearded man helps him realize in 3.09 Beard that he does love Sarah and denying his feelings for her is foolish. That’s why Chuck starts pursuing Sarah again timidly in 3.10 Tic Tac, more decidedly in 3.11 Final Exam, and like an unstoppable steamroller in 3.12 American Hero.
Viewers get understandably confused after watching 3.02 Three Words because of Chuck’s speech to Karl (and Sarah) in the courtyard. In that speech, Chuck is talking to Karl but also to Sarah when he says, “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” (ostensibly referring to Karl and Carina but also to his own situation with Sarah). “Maybe because you loved her, she’s learned how to love, too.” And the scene, which is shot beautifully, has the camera focusing on Sarah the whole time, who’s visibly affected by Chuck’s words (her gun-holding hand is shaking).
Based on this scene, viewers conclude that Chuck and Sarah are still trying to rebuild their romantic relationship after the traumatic Prague incident. This feeling is also reinforced by a few other tender moments between Chuck and Sarah, like their handshake and Sarah’s hug at the end of 3.03 Angel de la Muerte, or Sarah’s loving look at Chuck at the end of 3.04 Operation Awesome.
But this is not so. Think about it. Schwedak did not break up Chuck and Sarah so traumatically in Prague so that they can bring them back together so soon. That would be cheesy and just angst for angst’s sake. 3.02 Three Words is not the episode that starts to bring Chuck and Sarah together. It’s the episode that clarifies their feelings for each other and then separates them for a good chunk of the season. Let’s see why and how.
Back to the Chuck’s speech in the courtyard. His speech certainly starts by trying to convince Sarah that feelings are an asset but he himself realizes the other side of it halfway through it. That’s why he slows down, realizing what he’s saying (“in your line of work, feelings can certainly be a liability.”), then tries to convince himself and Sarah about his original point, clearly affects Sarah (her hand is shaking), certainly convinces Karl of it, and that’s when Carina gives them both the lowdown (“yeah, right. Stupid!”) and Sarah raises her eyebrow, having gotten Carina’s point and turns around to Chuck right after saying, “Spies don’t fall in love,” but she looks unsure of herself; Chuck’s words have clearly affected her. But Chuck’s facial expression shows that he gets Carina’s point all right.
This courtyard scene right here is when Chuck stops pursing Sarah. In fact, the whole episode is there to show how hyper-nagging Chuck at Karl’s house is very unprofessional because his feelings are compromising the mission. And Carina only drives the point home for him later in the courtyard; thus, when Sarah gives him a chance to explain himself at the end of the episode, he doesn’t take it but admits he is not a real spy because his emotions always get in the way. And Sarah, who was affected by Chuck’s speech to Karl, is the one telling him that his emotions are not always a liability.
In other words, Chuck’s words do get to Sarah, and his vault confession in Carina’s video will get to her even more, and Sarah will be the one in conflict for a good chunk of season 3.0 between her head (I can’t love Chuck) and her heart (I love Chuck).
But Chuck? No, after the courtyard scene, he’s gone. We first see it when he doesn’t take the chance to talk to Sarah by the fountain. In this scene, can clearly see Chuck’s and Sarah’s flip on feelings as a liability for spies in contrast to their earlier conversation during the bo training scene.
And we can see it again in the very next episode, at the generalissimo’s gala, during their respective conversations with Devon and Ellie. Chuck is resigned, while Sarah is conflicted. And there’s a very specific reason for their behavior. It’s intentional by Schwedak for season 3 because this season is a reversal of the first two seasons.
Some viewers think that Chuck is flirting with Sarah during their “friends” handshake at the Orange Orange at the end of 3.03 Angel de la Muerte. He’s not. He’s looking at her and shaking her hand with knowing regret for what could have been between them and is not to be. It’s Sarah who’s hoping against hope for something. And again, this is very intentional by Schwedak for this season for the reversal reason above.
From Angel de la Muerte to Fake Name, Chuck gets progressively more distant from Sarah, as he tries to become the perfect spy according to the CIA rulebook. It’s only in 3.09 Beard that Morgan helps Chuck realize he’s fooling himself and Chuck says, “You’re right. I do love Sarah. I kept telling myself that I didn’t, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t but I do!” Well, that “I didn’t, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t” starts right when Carina dispatches Karl in the courtyard at the end of 3.02 Three Words.
The purpose of 3.02 Three Words is for Carina to put Chuck and Sarah on the same page twice; first on their true feelings for each other, and then on the fact that those feelings are a dangerous liability in the spy world. Chuck accepts that lesson. Sarah self-sacrificially pulls back (just as Chuck did for her at the end of 2.03 Break-Up), so that he can become the perfect spy.
It will take many episodes for Chuck to realize this isn’t so. In fact, love as an asset or a liability is one of the themes of season 3.0.