Last year sucked.
— Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), “Authorized Personnel Only”

I swam upon the devil’s lake
But never, never, never, never,
I’ll never make the same mistake,
No, never, never, never.
— Cat Stevens, “Wind”

The return of Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) has inspired much rejoicing. The consensus among Alias watchers, a hardy band committed to the show despite (or because of) low ratings, is that last season was too soapy and preposterous, even for them. Syd was dead, then resurrected, she lost her memory, her boyfriend Vaughn (Michael Vartan) was married, then discovered wifey (Melissa George) was a “vicious homicidal double agent,” and oh my god, Syd has a half-sister, also in the spy biz and fathered by Syd’s arch enemy.

Okay, so it was a little overwrought, but if you keep in mind its context — it’s product from the reigning tv-auteur J.J. Abrams, whose most preposterous work to date, Lost, is everyone’s favorite monsters-on-a-tropical-island show — Alias isn’t all that strange, even at its most excessive. It’s always good fun to watch Syd running around in wigs and slithering lingerie, as she performs in the new season’s first scene, for a socially retarded scientist (and on tv, aren’t they all?): Syd shows off her nightie and smiles adorably, affecting a Russianish accent, “Is zis okay for me? I just got it.” From here, she kicks her date’s ass, fights with a tougher guy, and ends up dangling from an open train door, to be saved by Vaughn, all as U2’s “Bad” narrates their lunatic romance: “If I could, I would / Let it go… Surrender, dislocate.”

Such absurdity is exactly what this shows does well. Combining soapy and spy-show elements, it makes nonsensical connections between glamorous globetrotting and close-up crying. Syd’s CIA work — no matter whether she’s hunting down dangerous isotopes or kicking some assassin’s treacherous ass, is only a reflection of her domestic traumas. She regularly works alongside her veteran spy dad Jack (the magnificently melodramatic Victor Garber) and for a time worked with and/or against her evil spy mom (Lena Olin), now deceased. While she clearly loves to run fast and beat down bad guys (and the camera loves to watch her), Syd’s intermittent qualms about her secret job speak to her concern about the persistent betrayals within her nuclear unit, as deception is more a personal choice than ideological.

Still, Syd does have a rudimentary ideology, reiterated in “Authorized Personnel Only,” the first episode of this fourth season: she wants to serve her country, whatever it takes. If it means she has to rejoin forces with that arch enemy, Sloan (Ron Rifkin), so much the better for the show’s preferred emotive mode: anguished close-ups. The gimmick this time is the return to the first season’s players, from Sloan to Syd’s former partner/former boss Dixon (Carl Lumbly) to comic-reliefy geekboy Flinkman (Kevin Weisman). And, apparently, all that Lenny Kravitz-assisted campaigning for this season worked — the premiere drew 14.4 million viewers on its new night, Wednesday (after Lost — Abrams does have clout), beating CSI: New York. You know that makes ABC happy.

Everything now looks vaguely old as it’s presented as new: the old crew is assigned to a new APO (Authorized Personnel Only) team, headed by Sloan and designated Black ops unit within the CIA, “unhampered by the bureaucratic chain of command, with no accountability except to ourselves.” All this under the auspices of new CIA director Hayden Chase (Angela Bassett), who rigs it so the members all appear to have been fired from or quit the CIA (Syd is chastised in front of a witness for her “rogue behavior”).

The new team’s first assignment has to do with that train ride and Russian nuclear scientist shown in the first scene (the series’ cutting back and forth in time remains one of its charms), and involves an assassin named Kazu Tamazaki (Rick Yune). Reportedly, he considers himself a modern Samurai, serving as a murderous lieutenant to a bad guy with a proper bad guy’s name, Vadik. Their evil reps precede them (as Syd parses it, “Men like Vadik and Tomazaki, they need to be eliminated”), and the APO folks need to come up with a ploy to bring Tomazaki out of hiding. Quite unoriginally, they decide to steal a priceless Shintaro sword from a London museum (with Syd providing plenty of Mission Impossible-style action, aided by gizmos, wires, and rolling under doors slamming from ceiling to floor).

Crazy fun and distracting, this kind of hepped up action remains Alias‘ strong suit: Syd’s acrobatics cut to a dance beat trump microscopes and DNA strands any day. And, for all her brooding, she’s got a wicked dry sense of humor, shared with her fellow professionals. (When she asks Tomazaki to name the client who hired him to kill her, he smiles and won’t answer, explaining only, “assassin-client privilege.” It’s enough. Spies have code, even if the folks and governments they serve do not. And Syd, though she struggles mightily each week with mission objectives, devious colleagues, and plans that go wrong, respects the code. It provides a sense of order when serving her country seems full of chaos.

As you might imagine, Syd has lingering “issues” with that nasty Sloan (or, as she puts it, he’s a “criminal psychopath beyond verbal description”), but that’s the point. She starts pouting as soon as she sees him in the new offices, but Chase sets her straight: it’s her assignment to “check and balance” Sloan. Still, she sulks, making faces whenever he speaks, sighing “Lucky me” when he calls her specially into his office for a briefing. It’s like she’s a schoolgirl resenting her substitute teacher. When he accuses her of being “awfully glib,” Sloan is more right than he knows, even though Little Miss Earnest would never admit it. Her assignment is more of the same, institutionally as well as narratively. As Chase notes, the U.S. regularly works with last month’s enemy. It’s just business.

And of course, Syd again has trouble with dad, as she’s learned that he was responsible for Irina’s death. When he suggests that he understands it’s hard for her to come to terms with this, she launches into a barrage of what’s really hard: “What’s hard is looking at you, walking past you, smelling that sickening cologne. What’s hard is being your daughter and not being able to separate myself as far as I might get from the person I despise the most.” Yes, she’s mad. And poor dad sees he’s replaced, when Vaughn shows up at Syd’s, carrying groceries. The tensions are thick, the wordless pauses and moist eyes tremendous. By episode’s end, she learns why he’s done such a dastardly thing, a revelation that leads to the episode’s most profoundly outrageous line: “You killed mom to save me. [Beat] I’ll see you tomorrow.”

If Syd can put such familial turmoil upset behind her (she does, as Sloan observes, “know what it is to put aside personal issues,” it’s her “gift”), her half sister Nadia (Mía Maestro) cannot. With an accent and jawline that make her seem a little Irina, Nadia brings back some of Syd’s earlier idealism and purity of motive, swearing to track down their mom’s murderer and make him pay. Syd only watches little sister pledge her vengeance, knowing what she knows and unable to say so. Instead, she’s back inside, mad and sad, insolent and exposed, a soap star with a body count.