Alias is mostly remembered as the show that launched Jennifer Garner’s career. But it deserves more kudos for being a genuinely groundbreaking show, writes Sam Brooks.
“My name is Sydney. Seven years ago I was recruited by a secret branch of the CIA called SD-6. I was sworn to secrecy, but I couldn’t keep it from my fiance, and when the head of SD-6 found out, he had him killed. That’s when I learned the truth: SD-6 is not part of the CIA. I was working for the very people I thought I was fighting against.
So I went to the only place that could help me take them down, now I’m a double-agent for the CIA where my handler is a man named Michael Vaughn.
Only one other person knows the truth about what I do, another double agent inside SD-6, someone I hardly know… my father.”
[Mild spoilers for a show that finished its run well over a decade ago follow]
So narrates Jennifer Garner in the opening credits of Alias.
As an incredibly cool teenager, I spent my two-week holidays during the school year doing one of two things: Playing Final Fantasy X all the way through, or watching my very well-used box set of season two of Alias. Both would usually take me the entire fortnight, and then I would get back to the wigless, spyless, fantasyless humdrum of life at an all-boys Catholic high school.
I’d wake up in the mornings, make myself breakfast, maybe do a little bit of angsty gayboy writing, and then put an Alias disc in the DVD player. When my mother got home at about 4.30 she’d ask what episode I was up to, and if the mum was in that episode. The mum was, of course, her favourite character. My mother found her very, very relatable.
Alias was, for those of you who don’t remember what TV was like before there was too much TV to keep up with, JJ Abrams’ post-Felicity endeavour, and at the time it was a big gamble. Alias was a crossover between the Bourne films and This is Us, before either of those things actually existed. It combined all the high octane fights and tense, absolutely fictional hacking scenes you’d expect from a spy film with more delicate emotional beats – like a pre-pre-pre-fame Bradley Cooper having an unrequited crush on our wig-wearing protagonist.
But I’m not here to talk about the perfectly adequate and occasionally great first season of Alias. Those episodes balance the parallel emotional stakes of being a spy whose life is threatened on a weekly basis with being a woman who doesn’t trust her father, and now has to get to know her father, and is largely held together by the chemistry between the leads. Ne’er was there a will-they-won’t-they that felt more fraught than that between Sydney Bristow and Michael Vaughn.
I digress. We’re not here to talk about fine TV, we’re not here to talk about the fact that Alias had the best wigs on television, yet to be equalled anywhere outside of RuPaul’s Drag Race (looking at you, Mop on Nicole Kidman’s head in Blig Little Lies). We’re here to talk about the second season of Alias, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking seasons of television to be put before us commoners.
At the end of season one, Alias went into fifth gear and exploded the stakes of its already high-stakes premise: Sydney’s mother, previously assumed to have died in a car crash, is revealed to have actually been one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. And also? She’s not actually dead, but she has just taken Sydney Bristow hostage. The last word of that season is a tearful Sydney Bristow saying, “Mom?”
Season two starts with this cracker of a scene:
Because while season one of Alias mixed spy and family drama like an 18 year old mixing their first screwdriver, season two blended it like an expert cocktail maker doing his hundredth espresso martini of the night.
At the start of the season, Sydney’s mother, the Russian-ly named Irina Derevko, turns herself into the CIA on the condition that she will only talk to Sydney. To complicate the emotional manipulation further, Sydney’s father Jack is trying to keep Irina away from Sydney, due to his own confused feelings emanating from the fact that his presumed dead wife was a Russian terrorist who seduced him solely to get Spy Secrets™ out of him. Oh, also, Irina killed Michael Vaughn’s father.
You can imagine the phrase ‘and you thought your family was messed up!’ coming up weekly in the writers room.
The second season works half because it’s a high-stakes and emotionally fraught setup, and half because Alias had a surprisingly stacked cast. This is back in 2001, before it became fashionable and very normal for movie stars to take roles on long-running TV series. Jennifer Garner was an unknown, Victor Garber was a stage actor who had put in the hard yards, and Lena Olin had an Oscar nomination back in the 80s but had since acted in a series of middling action films and the execrable film Chocolat, in which Judi Dench commits suicide by eating chocolate. Nobody had any expectation that these three actors would deliver as hard and as frequently as they did.
Take, for example, this scene:
You could imagine this scene playing out on stage, in a kitchen, as a nice moment in some play about a tortured Christmas dinner. There’s a looseness to the acting that you don’t often see on TV, even now, and you absolutely didn’t see in 2002. The scene is imbued with a tense warmth that only exists because all three people for a moment forget their histories and their shared trauma, and also the fact that they’ve stowed away on a train between India and Pakistan in order to kill a former collaborator of Irina’s, and there’s a bomb necklace around Irina’s neck that Jack has access to, and will explode at even the slightest hint that she’ll do anything wrong. Alias is… tremendously silly sometimes, you guys.
Alias worked because it managed to take itself seriously while also being tremendously silly. Take for example this scene, which is about as camp as a pink tent:
Sure, the dialogue is fine. Sure, Victor Garber is doing stoic SpyDaddy Acting™. Sure, the music sounds like it should be playing over a scene of a snake literally slithering around the set. But what makes this scene sing is Lena Olin. I still believe, after having watched literally thousands of hours of television since, that Irina Derevko (circa season two, we will get to later seasons soon) is one of the great television creations. In a lesser performer’s hands, Derevko would be the cartoonish villain she is absolutely written as, but Olin turns her into the protagonist from Meredith Brooks’ ‘Bitch’ – she’s a mother, she’s a lover, she’s a sinner, she’s a terrorist. It’s a complicated, layered performance that exists within a show that had more wigs than speaking roles.
In season two, Alias proved itself to be a show that said more about family than anything I’d watched before. I wanted to watch a show where a pretty lady knocked down things, which is a pleasure reserved for a specific brand of gay adolescent. What I got was a show about a woman from a broken home who had to constantly relive and work through trauma, and keep on living her life. As a child who didn’t come from a broken home exactly, but a home kept together by love, an incredibly strong mother and some off-brand duct tape, it resonated with me more deeply than I probably understood.
I thought Irina Derevko was a cool and badass character, but I didn’t really understand her motivations. I didn’t really believe she loved Sydney, because she was a goddamned Russian terrorist who constantly lied to her, had killed people, and was out for her own gain. My mother’s empathy with the character confused me, but I let it go.
The other thing that Alias did in its second season was ‘Phase One’.
A quick history lesson: Alias got given the post-Superbowl slot in 2002, which is well-known as the pimp slot for TV networks. It’s the equivalent of putting your show on after The Block: you’re going to get ratings because people are too lazy to change the channel. The episode that aired post-Superbowl in 2002 was ‘Phase One’.
It started with the above clip: Jennifer Garner in lingerie walking down a hallway to Akkadakka’s ‘Back in Black’. If you were a dudebro who had no interest in watching a show about thinly veiled family trauma, that’s probably the thing that would make you watch.
‘Phase One’ was the episode where Sydney made good on her promise to take down SD-6, the evil organisation which was pretending to be the CIA, which Sydney was a double agent for/against, depending on your allegiances. The show relied on this intensity for the bulk of its in-episode drama – there was always the threat of Sydney being found out and exposed, largely because she was always sabotaging her missions for SD-6 at the behest of the CIA.
Also, it’s the episode where Sydney’s best friend Francie is replaced by a clone who was, in our household, affectionately called ‘Francinator’. Alias is, I will remind you again, a very silly show.
Also also, it’s the episode where Sydney and Vaughn finally kiss.
‘Phase One’ is a great episode of television, easily one of the most memorable of this era. Back then shows didn’t change their premise. Shows didn’t explode and reinvent themselves, especially not mid-season. There were no Red Weddings, there were no Mirrors Black. Shows did their thing until an actor left the show, or died, or it got cancelled. That a show would do this, seemingly out of nowhere, was groundbreaking and shattering.
And then? The show fucking did it again.
At the end of season two, Irina betrays the CIA, but insists that she never betrayed her daughter. Truth of that aside, she escapes from the prison she’s been slinking around for the past 21 episodes (shows used to be long, y’all) and allies herself with Sloane, the former head of SD-6. But this isn’t what shatters the show – that’s merely a fairly expected plot point where one of your characters is one of the most wanted terrorists in the world with intentionally murky motives that revolve around some mystic Illuminati crap. Again, Alias, silly.
First up, there’s this fight scene, which is by far the best fights to have ever aired on television. I’m not even kidding here, you guys. If there’s one video you watch in this article, make it this one. It’s Sydney Bristow versus Francinator, and it’s the most hilariously and epically literal metaphor for how spy shit and emotional trauma destroys your life:
The fight ends with Sydney shooting Francinator in the chest three times and then passing out.
When she wakes up, she’s in Thailand/a backlot in LA dressed to look like Thailand. She wanders around for a bit, and then using her CIA Spy Training™, she makes a phone call and goes to a safe house. She gets there, to see her beloved Michael Vaughn looking forlorn and confused.
Sydney kisses and hugs Vaughn, her tortured will-they-yes-they-did of the past two seasons. He still looks forlorn and confused, which might just be his face. He tells her to sit down, and then this exchange:
“We thought you were dead. They asked me to come back, to um, explain-”
“Come back from what? What are you talking about?
Vaughn. Why are you wearing that ring?”
“Syd. Since that night, you went missing… You’ve been missing for almost two years.”
Roll fucking credits. Drop mic. Wait another year for season three, 13 year old Sam. Spend it figuring out your sexuality or something.
TV shows didn’t do this! They didn’t do cliffhangers like this. This rocked my entire world – the show, the premise, the relationships I had invested in for the past few years had completely shifted. Looking back at it now, it’s a classic JJ Abrams move. This is the mind that gave us Lost, the show that famously existed without a road-map, and meandered through to its purgatory ending.
The rest of Alias pales in comparison to season two. The cast changed up, and it became far less about Sydney and her mess of emotional family trauma and more about mystic conspiracies. If Alias were a ship, the captain had a few too many cocktails on shore leave (in this case, I suppose shore leave is a metaphor for Lost) and came back a bit too sozzled to right the course. It remained a fun and silly spy show, but it was no longer essential television.
I went back to watch season two a few years ago after my mum died. Sometimes she would sit down and watch a few scenes of an episode with me, and over the holidays I spent watching the DVDs she probably saw each episode in its entirety multiple times in a very fractured way. I’ve no idea if she kept up with it, but the same things about the show appealed to her as they did to me – the silliness, the wigs, the family drama.
Watching it back, I understood the character of Irina through her lens a bit. My mum didn’t see the Russian terrorist, because she was an emotionally literate person who knew what a metaphor was. She saw a mother who had fucked up and made sacrifices for her child, and while the latter didn’t excuse the former, they existed in the same person. In fairness to her, she’d probably missed a lot of the parts where Irina had killed people in cold blood, and she absolutely never saw the later seasons which derailed the character into an obsessive psychotic hellbent on… immortality or cloning or some shit.
But there’s one brief, barely even there conversation that I remember having with her, when she brushed past after 4.30 one afternoon. I would’ve been about 16, and watching the season two box set for conservatively the tenth time.
“God, she’s the worst.”
“But you know she still loves her daughter, right?”
“She betrayed her, though! She’s awful.”
“I’m a mother. I just know these things. Even if I was a terrorist, I’d still love you no matter what.”
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