In my *Chuck* book, I half-jokingly remark that the entire series could have been entitled “Chuck vs. Chuck”. Half-joked–because there is considerable truth in that remark. Chuck’s primary war throughout the show is with himself. One reason why S3 is so pivotal is that it is the season in which the most intense battles in that war get fought. We have to keep that in mind in order to get the season straight, really to understand it. It is hard to keep it in mind, because of the dispiriting sullenness of the first 12 episodes, because of the painful split between Chuck and Sarah, because of the mess they make of themselves as a couple.
But I want to bring it to mind, and keep it in mind, because the question I want to address, namely “Where is Sarah going at the end of S3E12–to meet Shaw or to meet Chuck?” is hard to think clearly about unless you remember that the series could have been entitled “Chuck vs. Chuck”. A warning: My eventual answer to this question is not super exciting; what I am trying to do here is to find a way better to frame the question, to understand the moment in context.
Now, here is a premise I start with, although I will not argue for it in any detail. Sarah is not in love with Shaw and she knows it and she knows that she will never be in love with him. Despite her telling Shaw that she no longer loves Chuck, she obviously does still love Chuck and will still love him even if she goes to DC.
Sarah is not choosing between Shaw and Chuck in the sense that her heart is divided between the two men. It isn’t. It is all Chuck’s. (Her reaction to Casey’s confession shows this, I take it.) So, to understand Sarah’s choice we have to backtrack some and think our way toward it.
The central event that has to be kept in mind is the choice that Sarah offers Chuck in Traxx: will Chuck kill the mole or not? Will Chuck do what he has to do to become a spy or will he not? Consider that choice for a minute. What sort of choice is she offering Chuck? –Nothing less than a choice between two different Chucks. Will he be the man she loves, the man of integrity and compassion, or will he be a new, different Chuck, the extension of the Chuck he has been flirting with through much S3, a Chuck capable of lies, betrayal, violence and killing? The choice focuses on Chuck. In Prague, although Sarah did not understand it that way, she in effect forced him into a choice between running with her and doing his duty (as he understood it). But the choice in Traxx is a choice that leaves Sarah out, and does so the hard way, since Chuck will (as both Sarah and he believe) almost certainly lose Sarah no matter which choice he makes. Chuck is left alone to choose between Chucks. No choice gets him Sarah.
His choice is between versions of himself. The problem with that choice, other than that Sarah is no part of it (a very serious problem, indeed) is that Chuck is being forced to choose (from his point of view) between the Chuck who hated himself (as he explained to Sarah when he interrupted her date with Shaw) or a Chuck who is a killer. That choice sucks; both options suck. Chuck’s genius is that he finds a way, with Casey’s help, to make a third choice, to choose a Chuck who is not a killer, not the kind of spy Shaw is (bad-spy Chuck), and a Chuck who is not a loser, the kind of guy who hates himself. Chuck will eventually become his own kind of spy–one like his father, but different (good-spy Chuck). (That is a topic for another day, although I have written some about it here.)
Sarah, of course, does not understand Chuck’s choice as he does: she does not think the old Chuck a loser; she does not quite process what it means for Chuck to have hated himself, even though she, better than anyone else, should be able to process it. She knew he was stalled, stuck, facing a fontless five-year plan, but she did not really understand the depth of his self-loathing. Remember, at Traxx, when Chuck considers choosing his old self, she says something like, “You’ll still be Chuck, and that’s good enough”.
–Well, yes and no. Being that particular Chuck is preferable to being a killer, but it is still not an appealing choice for Chuck. And, let’s face it, it is no longer clear that Chuck really can make that choice. He has changed too much to be that Chuck anymore. He does now know what he wants and who he wants to be with–when he hated himself, he hated himself for not knowing either of those things. He can’t make that choice because he cannot turn back the clock. But of course he can’t finally choose to be a cold-blooded killer–that just isn’t in him and no easily conceivable series of changes will bring it about.
I’ve dwelt on this because we need to understand that when Sarah is packing, she is packing in the shadow of the choice she gave Chuck. She is not choosing between Chuck and Shaw. She is choosing between her Chuck and bad-spy Chuck. She does not want the latter. But she fears that the former no longer exists. And she is right, although not in the way she thinks.
Now, if she were packing just after the rail yard, just after the shooting of the mole, it would be clear that she is packing to go to DC, that she is choosing against bad-spy Chuck (she is not choosing Shaw). The structure of Sarah’s choice reflects the choice she gave Chuck. She thinks he chose one side of that either-or, and that she would choose the other. But since the other no longer exists (as least so Sarah believes), she has to leave. She cannot stay and watch the final ruination of the man she loves.
But Sarah is not packing immediately after the rail yard. She is packing after (1) Chuck’s two speeches, the eloquent one (1a), at the restaurant and the shorter one, (1b), in Castle; and, after (2) Chuck has saved Shaw. Each of these deserves individual attention.
1a. In the restaurant, after Morgan lures Shaw away, Chuck talks to Sarah. There’s a lot in the conversation, (like the line about hating himself) but I want to focus on the fact that although Sarah is still fixated on the Red Test, she is at least willing to listen to Chuck as she was not when he approached her in Castle, right after she got back from DC. Then, she was simply unwilling to allow Chuck even to begin to plead his case. But in the restaurant, she is willing at least to listen. She is no longer so sure that he killed the mole. Some doubt has crept in. And although Chuck does not succeed in convincing her there, by the time Shaw and Devon crash through the restaurant window, Sarah is responding to Chuck as she always has, in a way that is much like the way she responded to him on the stake out during the first phase of the Red Test. A few more minutes, maybe a few more seconds, and the whole situation between Chuck and Sarah might have changed.
1b. In Castle, Chuck gives the shorter version of his speech from the restaurant to Sarah. This time, instead of focusing the speech on himself and his changes, he makes it a confession–a confession of his love for her. He tells Sarah that he loves her, tells her repeatedly. And then he asks to kiss her, and she allows it. She even begins tentatively to respond, or so it seems to me. When he ends the kiss he asks her to run with him. He tells her not to answer, he just wants her to show up at Union Station so that they can leave together. As Chuck leaves, Sarah is clearly conflicted.
2. Although 1b occurs after 2, I wanted to mention it first. I think that Sarah is already beginning to wonder if Chuck did kill the mole. Chuck’s saving Shaw does not prove that he didn’t, of course, but it does make Sarah wonder if Chuck has changed in the way she thought. He has changed–he has admitted it in the restaurant–but he does not act like a man who has killed someone. Remember, even Sarah, who Casey will later say is wired differently than Chuck, even Sarah struggles with her Red Test and its aftermath. Had Chuck changed enough to kill the mole, would he have also changed enough to be completely unmoved by having done so? And if he had changed so much that he could kill the mole without any pangs of conscience, without regret (which Sarah could not do in her own Red Test), why would he be willing to risk himself and Rome in order to save Shaw? But he does save Shaw, and he does it for her, even when he thinks she will leave him, and leave him with Shaw. That Sarah is not more troubled by Chuck’s lack of reaction to killing the mole, that it never occurs to her to wonder how Chuck–hand-wringing, second-guessing Chuck–could suddenly have become a man who not only could kill, but kill without any regret, kill without any apparent compunction, kill without any reaction at all, is one of the weirdest bits of the many weird bits in S3. –Perhaps it never occurs to her because of her own misery? She blames herself for the choice she thinks Chuck has made, and that is an important part of what pushes her toward DC and toward Shaw. As I said, she cannot watch the final ruination of the man she loves–a ruination for which she counts herself responsible. Still, it is strange that she never wonders about how he could have changed so much. Does she think that he is so excited about Rome that the excitement is overriding his guilt? Chuck? Weird. How would that go? I guess even if there is no explanation for it, that it does not occur to Sarah to wonder testifies to how convinced she is initially that he really did kill the mole.
But, however that goes, she now knows he saved Shaw at great risk to himself, and for her sake. That has to be on her mind as she is packing. Can she really believe that he has changed as much as she thought? She could not be packing to go to DC with Shaw, if that is what she is doing, if Chuck had not saved Shaw. In a sense, Chuck gave this choice to her.
The drift of the plot at this point in S3 favors Sarah’s packing for DC. Her comment to Chuck (1b) is that she has made commitments, and not just to Shaw. Her reaction to Chuck’s kiss, though conflicted, is measured and hard to read. And that brings me to another crucial point.
Throughout the show, Sarah really never rejects a direct appeal from Chuck. She resists, but does not utimately reject. (Even when she seems to do so, she changes her mind.) Given what he says to her in Castle (1b), if Sarah is still going with Shaw, then we have reached a decisive moment in the show, a decisive moment between the two of them, a moment at which Sarah not only resists but rejects Chuck’s direct appeal. Is that what happens here? Has Sarah rejected Chuck’s direct appeal?
I suspect that this question really nags anyone who has gotten stuck on the question about where Sarah is going. (Mea culpa.) The real issue is whether Sarah can reject Chuck when Chuck has done all that he has done to get her to choose him. But–at the risk of being really repetitive–it is worth remembering again that if Sarah is rejecting Chuck, Sarah is not rejecting Chuck in favor of Shaw. If she rejects Chuck, she will end up with Shaw, presumably, but that is a consequence of her decision, not its real object. –So where is Sarah going?
Of course there is no way of knowing for sure.
For a long time, I thought Sarah was packing disjunctively, that is, packing to go with Shaw-or-Chuck, but not knowing which. I still think that is a very real possibility. But having thought about this for a while now, and having discussed it with various fans of the show (you know who you are), I am inclined to think that she is packing to go with Shaw. That is, she cannot see how to renege on her commitments if she is anything less than sure about Chuck. In the past, when Chuck appealed directly to her–and in the future, when he does so–Sarah finds or will find a way to respond to his appeal, to believe him, or to trust him even if she doesn’t believe he is right. (Chuck will ask Sarah to do that in S4, mirroring her request to him from S1.) This is the one time in the show when events have overwhelmed Sarah’s basic responsiveness to Chuck. Prague alone would have created difficulties, but they were moving past them (S3E11). But Prague combined with what Sarah thinks happened in the rail yard, combined with Sarah’s feelings of guilt for Chuck’s predicament, combined with Sarah’s re-living of her own Red Test, well, it proves to be too much. She cannot respond to his direct appeal. She collapses under the combined weight of these events. As much as this may seem to contradict the overarching logic of the show, I have come to think it actually coheres with it. Sarah has been pushed past her breaking point and she is packing to go to DC.
(I think the closest to a decisive bit of evidence, if there is one, is that Sarah is packing wearing what she was wearing in Castle (1b). But, after Casey’s visit, when Sarah is heading to meet Chuck at Union Station, she has changed her clothes, and in a dramatic way. She is dressed up, clearly dressed for Chuck and in celebration of her new non-spy life with Chuck. That she is packing wearing what we might call her work clothes sure suggests that she is choosing work, choosing DC, choosing Shaw.)
Casey is the one who saves her, saves Chuck, saves them as a couple. For all the grief he has given them about their being together, he turns out to be nearly as invested in them as they are. It is worth remembering too, since the things that happen next happen so quickly and mask the fact, Casey’s decision to tell Sarah is a Really. Big. Deal.
He is, in effect, confessing that he is technically guilty of murder. If Sarah were really not in love with Chuck, if she were really in love with Shaw, that confession might have had disastrous repercussions for Casey. He gambles on Sarah still loving Chuck–he gambles right, but he gambles. He also knows that if Sarah acts as he expects, she and Chuck will run. And if they run, Casey will be left alone in Burbank, probably locked out for good from the job that matters so much to him. Casey is, in effect, preparing to fall on his own sword, and for Chuck and Sarah’s sake. It ends up working out for him. But he has no way of knowing that when he shows up at Sarah’s apartment. When he tells Sarah, “Have a good life, Walker”, for all he knows he has effectively ended his own.
Chuck will himself soon collapse under the weight of events. He will take everything that has happened, including his unhappy attempt to save Sarah from Shaw, to have destroyed his chance at happiness with Sarah. Chuck’s retreat into liquored-up, video-gaming is the moment of his collapse under the combined weight of events. Sarah shows up and saves him (and Morgan).
This is the true nadir of the show, the deepest valley it visits. (Well, setting aside the end, maybe, but that too is a topic for another day.) Sarah thinks Chuck has chosen the wrong version of himself, the wrong Chuck. Chuck thinks Sarah has chosen Shaw. Sarah gets out of her valley before Chuck, and so she is the one who rescues him from his. But in the course of these events, they each lose faith in them, in them as a couple, in the possibility that they can be together. It is Casey (of all people) who keeps faith, Casey who is ultimately the author of their salvation as a couple. First, he saves Chuck from failing the Red Test outright, giving Chuck time to win Sarah back; second, he saves Sarah from a disastrous choice: she would have chosen the wrong Sarah, Sarah-without-Chuck.
That is the final thought in this too long, rambling essay. The show could have been called “Chuck vs. Chuck”. Or it could have been called “Sarah vs. Sarah”. Neither can truly win the other or be won by the other until he or she wins out against himself or herself. And to win, each needs help from Casey.
Addendum (10/17): As if this long, twisty essay needed more twists…A friend (atcDave) pointed out to me something that I somehow managed to miss in the episode. While Sarah packs, her photograph of herself and Chuck is framed on her nightstand beside her. Now, while I do not know that this decides the issue in Chuck’s favor (proves that Sarah is running with Chuck) it is a clearly significant piece of evidence, and it strikes me as outweighing my Sarah’s-still-wearing-her-work-clothes point). So, maybe she is packing to go with Chuck after all…?
 One thing that viewers do not focus on enough is the far-ranging effects of the changes in the Intersect on Chuck’s understanding of his duty. If Chuck had only the Intersect of S1-2 in his head, and Sarah wanted him to run, surely he would have run–as is proved by the final episodes of S2. But the Intersect of S1-2 is an Intersect that only provides Chuck with information, not with skills. It gives him a certain kind of power, but does not make him powerful, as we ordinarily understand that term. The Intersect of S3 (setting aside its glitching problem) does make Chuck powerful. And, to borrow the oft-repeated Spiderman tag, with great power comes great responsibility. When Sarah wants to run in between S2 and S3, when she meets him in Prague, Chuck’s understanding of his duty has changed with his recognition of his power. If we don’t recognize this change, we will never wrap our mind around Prague; Chuck will look like he is refusing to do what he has already proven willing to do. But that is wrong. The situation is vastly different because of the different Intersects. Chuck feels victimized by Intersect of S1-2, and so he feels that having it confers upon him no special duties. But he feels empowered by the Intersect of S3, and so does feel that having it confers upon him special duties. (And remember, Chuck chooses to download the Intersect of S3; he did not choose to download the one from S1-2.) I think that even Sarah does not fully understand how Chuck’s relationship to the Intersect changes from S2 to S3. Her failure to do that is a partial cause of the misery between them, as is, of course, Chuck’s inability to explain the changes effectively. He bungles his attempt in Prague and then gets gassed as he tries to explain later, in S3E2. Sarah (thanks to Carina) eventually hears the explanation he gives before he passes out, and while she is moved by it and understands some of what Chuck is saying, I do not think she comes fully to understand it yet.
 You might now think: “Wait a minute! I thought you said Chuck’s relationship to the Intersect had changed and that he now took himself to have duties because of the powers it gives him. But he is willing to run again, like at the end of S2!” –Well, I did say that and I believe it. But the thing is, Chuck’s understanding of his duties changes when he realizes he cannot be the spy (bad-spy Chuck) that Beckman and Shaw want him to be. He still feels like he has duties, but he is not sure how to discharge them, since he has not yet worked out how to be a spy on his on terms (good-spy Chuck). He has also figured out that his control over the Intersect is itself contingent on his emotions, and in particular on his emotions for Sarah. The Intersect really only empowers him when she is with him, when all is good between them. Ultimately, it is Sarah, not the Intersect, who really empowers Chuck. I noted in my book that Sarah goes as deep in Chuck as Chuck does. (Proven, I take it, by the events of Chuck vs. Phase Three.) And it is important to remember that she goes deeper in Chuck than the Intersect does. That is one of the fundamental truths of the show. It is why Chuck, narrating their story to Sarah as the show ends, claims that his life really changed, not when he downloaded the Intersect, but when he met a spy named Sarah.