This is about killing the monster
Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) kicks ass. It’s her job. She also talks on a chic Nokia cell phone and wears at least three different hairstyles per episode of Alias, the first because Nokia is a major sponsor of the show (and is currently running a contest for viewers wanting to win cell phones like Syd’s), and the second because, well, her show is called Alias, and she’s a CIA operative who needs to be disguised, again and again.
It’s true that Syd’s subterfuges aren’t very convincing, her kung-fu-fighting is accompanied by a pounding dance beat, she’s equipped with James Bondian gadgets, and her too-fabulous wigs tend to call more attention to her than is probably healthy in her line of work, in particular, the bright red-pink Run, Lola, Run-ish number she wore while on the lam during the premiere episode. But all that’s fine with me. Unlike the new season’s other spy series—for instance, the real-time show, 24, or the CIA-approved The Agency, whose production crew had access to CIA buildings to achieve that extra-real look—Alias is strictly fantasy, and a seriously unhinged show, to boot.
Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, Carl Lumbly, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Mía Maestro, Kevin Weisman
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
For starters, Syd—for all her ostensible feminine wiles—is all hard body and mean looks, except, of course, when she breaks down and cries like a little girl. She has mad fighting skills, speaks multiple languages (French, Russian, Chinese), looks awfully limber in skin-tight plastic dresses, and thinks nothing of digging up a coffin in Virginia and then jetting to Cairo to disarm nuclear devices, all by herself. It’s a pleasure to see her circumvent government surveillance when it suits her, not to mention outthink and outmaneuver all those turf-anxious guys who’ve been spies for longer than she’s been alive.
You get the idea, making sense is incidental here. As Alias creator J.J. Abrams observes, “We’re sort of in our own universe.” That would be the ironic universe, where Syd has to grapple not only with all sorts of international evildoers and megalomaniacs, but also with the fact that her dad, Jack (Vincent Garber), is not the airplane-parts exporter he has pretended to be, but a super-spy hisownself. And so, on top of everything else, Syd’s also a metaphor, with her layers of aliases representing the too-many roles young people are expected to play, in relation to work and family, just to survive contemporary life.
The first layer concerns Syd’s job at the CIA’s super-secret, super-special division called the SD-6, where her boss is an insidious-looking fellow called Sloane (Ron Rifkin) and her partner is a very nice-seeming fellow, Dixon (Carl Lumbly). The second layer is that the SD-6 is a front: the organization is actually set against the U.S., though it’s not clear why or how or with whom it’s affiliated. It’s probably safe to assume that the rationale is less ideological than mercenary, because Syd is so very moralistic, driven to save the free world against all odds. This opposition is laid out immediately: when Syd learns, in the first episode of Alias, that she’s been working for the bad guys all along, she wants out. But of course, they won’t let her out. Tres La Femme Nikita.
It is a bit odd that Sloane wants Syd back after she bolts during that first episode. It could be because he and the rest of his mostly anonymous crew are such arrogant dicks that they believe they can control her, a mere “girl” (you, of course, know better). The exception at the SD-6 appears to be Dixon, who has—in two episodes—developed a very specific and very supportive role in relation to Syd. You could even call it a repeated plot point: the two of them go to some mark’s lavish party, she goes through the files or the safe or the whatever upstairs, and he distracts the mark downstairs. His undercover disguises involve high-tech communications gadgetry, so he can speak to Syd wherever she is at any moment, as well as “African” accents and costumes: I think this is the kind of thing Barney used to do in Mission Impossible. That is, the gimmick is tired.
The third layer of Syd’s aliasness is at once the goofiest and the most mundane: she’s a grad student. If you’ve been a grad student, you know that the accompanying pressures can feel like the weight of the world; and so, this is arguably the show’s cleverest joke. Likely, this idea comes from J.J. Abrams, creator-writer of Felicity (on which Garner played Hannah), as well as Joy Ride, the new movie about a college-student road trip turned nightmare. Giving Syd a secret identity, like Superman, is demented enough, but making that identity one where she has to study for midterms is truly inspired.
As a student, Syd has the usual friends, you know, the ones who have no idea what she does for a living. Because, you know, the spy stuff would be tedious if that was, like, all Syd did. Luckily, her friends give her the semblance of having youthful tastes and concerns, important for Alias‘s target demographic. So far, the friends are two, both stock characters. Scruffy journalist Will (Bradley Cooper) has a massive crush on Syd, so he’s good for digging up information and will likely discover her secret. Francie (Merrin Dungey) is the black-girl-best-friend who provides practical wisdom and romantic advice (think: Lisa Nicole Carson, without the vavoomy aspect). Because she’s a waitress (that is, she has a real job), Francie voices insights that the otherwise distracted and repressed Syd misses. Because she’s emotionally stable and self-assured—and very vocal about racist, classist, sexist remarks tossed her way—Francie is an ideal best friend for the brave and determined, but, let’s face it, slightly screwy Syd. Let’s hope Alias makes more use of Francie in the future.
Will and Francie may eventually be destined for Scooby-Gangdom, but given that Syd’s decision to tell her fiance, Danny, about her secret leads immediately to his gruesome murder by the SD-6, I can’t imagine she’ll be quick to tell them herself. While she is understandably upset about this dead fiance thing, you’re not asked to care very much, because he’s only on screen for about five minutes total, before he’s killed. His murder is an occasion for still more irony, as well as infinite sadness. The day after Syd finds Danny’s body, she goes to class, soldiering on, where she endures her English-litty teacher’s comments on the day’s assignment: “She loved a man and she lost him, not a new theme in literature.” Like I say, irony.
But really, Danny’s execution is just a plot-starter: it gets Syd to realize (duh!) that the SD-6 is the enemy and that she must sign up with the CIA as a “double,” to get even with those big meanies. It makes Syd a tragic and righteously vengeful figure: she spends a minute or so per show mourning him, usually crying in the bathroom while some mournful rock song plays in the background. Yucky as this is, the yuckier part comes when she finds out that dad had something to do with the murder—or at least he knew about it beforehand. I’d say this qualifies as extremely sinister on the continuum of father-daughter crises.
Indeed, during the first episode, Syd also finds out that Jack has had a hand in most everything about her life as a spy. When she was recruited by the CIA—or maybe the SD-6, whichever—back when she was a freshman in college, Syd had thought it would be exciting, ego-boosting after-school employment. But the spies approached her because they knew her dad, also a double agent. It’s not apparent yet what side he’s really on, if there is one side to be on, or if it matters what side he’s on (he does seem to have Syd’s back, as of Episode 2, but that’s subject to change). Suffice it to say that poor Syd has to run through a gamut of emotion—anger, fear, gratitude, distrust, and ugh, admiration—whenever she comes near this guy. Each of these emotions involves tears, so she has plenty of chances to test out her dramatic sad-girl side, to offset the much more satisfying martial arts scenes.
These, thankfully, come up whenever Syd is sent on a mission—either by Sloane at the SD-6, or by her CIA liaison/handler, Vaughn (Michael Vartan, who kissed Dew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed). When Vaughn shows up, the real reason Danny had to die becomes crystal clear: Syd had top be freed up for sexual tensions with her new boss, always a crucial dynamic for a reluctant girl hero bringing down nefarious plots all over the world. Vaughn will no doubt take up increasing screen time, especially since his superiors are already reassigning him—off Syd’s cases—because he’s just too obviously “interested” in her. Perhaps he admires her dedication to the cause, whatever, that cause is. Perhaps he likes playing instructor, as when he informs Syd, “It’s not about cutting off the head of the monster. It’s about killing the monster. The work is complicated, it’s political, and it is long term.”
On Alias, this monster is not so specifically defined: Is it the non-CIA? The CIA? The spy business? Television shows about the spy business? It’s all the same, I guess, one big military-entertainment industrial complex. Trying to sort it out seems daunting and in the end, irrelevant. Like Vaughn, Alias knows what’s most interesting here—this dazzling girl and her wigs.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.