On Alias

Pieces of Sydney

Espionage, Female Identity, and the Secret Self in Alias
By Joyce Millman

Dimpled grad student by day, spy chick in a sprayed-on rubber dress by night–that was the original premise of Alias when it premiered on ABC in 2001. And while Sydney Bristow is no longer in college, she remains the sweetest, most uncorrupted CIA operative in TV history.

Sydney is unflinching under pressure, a butt-kicking spiritual sister to Buffy, Trinity and the Bride. But beneath her supercool exterior, Sydney often seems as waifishly tossed by hard luck and tragedy as the heroines of such classics as Jane Eyre or A Little Princess. Sydney grew up without a mother (she died in a car crash when Syd was a girl, or so she was told) and was raised by her emotionally repressed father Jack, who was away on business a lot. While at college, Sydney was (ostensibly) recruited by a Black Ops division of the CIA, given a cover job at a bank and sworn to secrecy. When she told her fianc© what she really did for a living, he was murdered. Syd soon found out that she wasn’t really working for the CIA; she was working for the bad guys, in an outfit named SD-6. And her dad was also working for SD-6, except he was a CIA mole. And her mother wasn’t killed in a car crash, she was a KGB agent.

There’s more. After Sydney switched allegiances to the CIA, she fell in love with her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn. Their happiness was tainted by the discovery that Vaughn’s father, also a CIA agent, had been killed by–yes–Syd’s mother. Oh, and then there was that plotline where Sydney “died” in a fire but was actually spirited away by “the Covenant” and rendered an amnesiac zombie assassin for two years. And when she woke up, she found out that Vaughn was married to someone else.

Despite, or because of, the show’s dizzying cliff-hanger structure, it is impossible not to root for Sydney Bristow. Her bright, shining desire to do the right thing is never dimmed by the sleaze around her. And because of that you want her to find the truth and stability that eludes her. Sydney is Good. In fact, she’d be a tad too good–she’d be boring, even–if not for the fact that she regularly gets to don a disguise, go undercover and pretend to be bad.

The main theme of Alias is fractured identity, as illustrated by the double (sometimes triple) lives led by Sydney and her fellow spies. They lead fractured inner lives as well: contradictory behavior is the rule, not the exception, on the show. “Bad” characters have done good deeds–SD-6 mastermind Arvin Sloane founded a humanitarian organization to fight world hunger and cure disease. And “good” characters have done bad deeds–Sydney’s earnest CIA colleague Marcus Dixon pursued vigilante justice after his wife was murdered. On Alias, as in life, the trick is to identify and hold on to your true self, and to be able to return to that self even after you’ve followed unfamiliar urges down blind alleys.

One of the ways Alias creator J. J. Abrams and his writers reinforce the fractured identity theme is by depicting Sydney and other female characters as good girl/bad girl split personalities. Indeed, the giddy brilliance of Alias is how knowingly it taps into fantasies of “dangerous” female sexuality and power. Sydney’s CIA missions, for example, are stylish erotic scenarios straight out of romance novels, where the heroine is imperiled but never succumbs to victimhood, and where she engages in darkly thrilling sexual situations while remaining fundamentally virtuous. Sydney is in disguise on her missions, playing a role. Over the course of the show, she has been a leather-clad punkette, a whip-cracking dominatrix, a slinky chanteuse and all manner of club hoppers, mistresses, bohemians, bimbos, go-go dancers, Eurotrash social climbers and take-charge executives. And let’s not forget her two lost years (shown in flashback during season three) as a ruthless blonde assassin.

As a spy, Sydney is able to be the bad girl in carefully controlled situations–she is protecting her country and saving innocent lives. When she’s impersonating someone else, Sydney gets to be violent, powerful, lusty, dominant. She gets to play slut for a day or avenging angel. Yet, despite her constantly shifting aliases, Sydney is never a stranger to us, or to herself. She remains sweet, good Syd.

But sweet and sour are inextricably linked. And in her war with the enemy spy cabal, Sydney’s fiercest, most personal battles have always been fought against other women, like malevolent, foxy K-Directorate agent Anna Espinosa and, notably, Sydney’s mother Irina Derevko and the Covenant spy Lauren Reed. And these last two women are even more obviously divided than Sydney into good girl/bad girl extremes. Indeed, Sydney’s struggles with her female nemeses could be seen as a metaphor for her own struggle to keep her “inappropriate” bad girl side in check. Like the wicked queen’s looking glass in Snow White, Alias is forever reflecting its identity-conflicted female characters’ fears, desires and secret selves.

Sydney Bristow and Irina Derevko: My Mother, My Self

Alias is a journey of self-knowledge for Sydney. It’s a fairy tale, really: a lonely girl from a broken home discovers that she is, in fact, special. When the show began, Sydney was na¯ve enough to believe that she could fit her magical talent for espionage into the sort of perfect marriage she thought her parents had. After her fianc© was killed as a result of her na¯vet©, Sydney fell into a depression. Still coddled in the lie of her mother’s “tragic death,” Sydney built up the idea of Laura Bristow as a domestic saint. She never seemed to question from whom she had inherited her spy skills. They must have come from Dad.

Late in the first season of Alias, Sydney discovered the truth about her mother. And in the season two opener, Sydney finally came face-to-face with the prodigal mom, alias Laura Bristow, alias “The Man,” alias Irina Derevko. Played by Lena Olin with a wild gleam in her eye, Irina was all stone-cold cunning and sexy, sinewy allure, even while imprisoned in a glass cell by the CIA. The caution with which Irina was handled while in federal custody recalled the nervous care taken with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Unlike Dr. Lecter, though, Irina didn’t need to touch her victims to do damage. Irina’s piercing intelligence and serene yet intense emotionalism were her weapons. Irina zeroed in on Sydney’s–and Jack’s–vulnerabilities.

Despite Irina’s perfidiousness, Jack can’t resist her. In season two, Jack had her released into his custody (she was implanted with a CIA tracking chip as an extra precaution) because he needed her expertise in the field. And Irina dove into the mission with an incandescent energy that was frankly sexual. It was no surprise that Jack fell into a steamy clinch with his ex-wife (after he lovingly dug the chip out of her shoulder with a knife). Though she dupes him again and again, Jack can’t let go of the fantasy he married–Laura Bristow, the good wife. Nor can he let go of the seductive, treacherous reality of Irina Derevko. No wonder Jack looks so pained all the time. He suffers from the bitter frustration, and the exquisite sexual tension, of loving a good girl/bad girl.

As for Irina’s relationship with Sydney, like any good mother, she knows just where to kiss to make it better, and, like any bad mother, she knows just which buttons to push to keep Sydney under her control–and often did both in the same gesture. Behind bars, she tried to convince Sydney that whatever Irina had done (like shooting her in the arm to cause a diversion when they first met in a Taipei torture chamber), she had done to protect Sydney from a larger evil. In the episode “Trust Me” (2-2), Sydney resisted Irina’s maternal advances, telling her, “You are not my mother. My mother was Laura Bristow. Laura Bristow died in a car accident twenty-one years ago. You are a traitor and a prisoner of the United States government.” But Sydney eventually found herself falling under the convincingly penitent Irina’s emotional sway, especially when Irina gave her the motherly advice she craved. (“You’re so willing to take risks for your country. Why aren’t you willing to do the same for your own happiness?” Irina told Syd, urging her to act on her attraction to Vaughn.)

Irina is the key to the show’s long-running plotline (and possible red herring), the prophecy of Milo Rambaldi, a (fictional) fifteenth-century seer over whose prescient inventions and formulae the CIA and Covenant are engaged in spy-vs.-spy intrigue. Irina is the mother of Ram-baldi’s prophesied “Chosen Woman,” who is supposed to bring about world-altering events; that woman is believed to be Sydney, as depicted in a centuries-old sketch. Irina is also the mother of the woman whom Rambaldi named as the Chosen Woman’s enemy, “The Passenger”– Sydney’s half-sister, Nadia. Over the course of the series, Irina has enigmatically helped both the good guys and the bad guys to get their hands on Rambaldi artifacts. And in season three, we were shown the essential piece of the Rambaldi puzzle needed to set his apocalyptic prophecy in motion; it was a box inscribed with the word irina, ancient Greek for “peace.” Mother as both creator and destroyer–Irina Derevko is the ultimate good girl/bad girl, the archetypical Madonna/whore. And the implications for Sydney are troubling. Clearly, she inherited her mother’s intelligence and fearlessness. But did she also inherit Irina’s amorality and appetite for violence?

When we last saw her in season two, Irina was rappelling down the face of a skyscraper, blasting out windows with a machine gun, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Radiant with the excitement of the chase, Irina escaped from Sydney and the CIA and remains in hiding as of this writing. (Lena Olin left the show after season two, and the producers could not lure her back for season three.) She is still an enigma in her absence, which is fitting, given the psychological construct of the show. A woman becomes her own person when she fully separates from her mother. But when Mom is as overpowering a figure as Irina Derevko, it isn’t enough to separate. Sydney must vanquish Irina, either symbolically or otherwise, to be free, and Irina remains a potent presence in her daughter’s psyche. It’s the shadow of Irina that makes Sydney work so hard at being the good spy, the good girl. She is determined to prove that she is not her mother’s daughter.

Francie Calfo: Friend to the End

For the first season and a half of Alias, Sydney and her roommate Francie Calfo were the sort of supportive, unconditionally accepting girlfriends we’ve seen celebrated in everything from Sex and the City to chick lit. Syd and Francie engaged in all the precious clich©s of female bonding–eating ice cream out of the carton after a bad day, crying on each other’s shoulders about boy troubles. But their relationship was also a subtle parody of this Hallmark-card type of idealized female friendship: Sydney, of course, couldn’t share everything with Francie. She couldn’t reveal the truth about her job, or the circumstances of her fianc©’s murder. She had to listen sympathetically to Francie whining about her two-timing boyfriend and her struggling restaurant business while she, Sydney, was covertly engaged in matters of life and death. How unfair!

But grown-up good girls like Syd don’t want to admit this guilty little secret: sometimes, when your self-absorbed friend is droning on and on about her latest crisis and you’re making sounds of commiseration, deep down inside you just don’t care! So it was a lucky break for Sydney in season two when the real Francie was shot dead by the Covenant and replaced with a genetically engineered double, who had orders to destroy Syd. This story line made Francie a chilling–and amusingly literal–embodiment of a good girl/bad girl; it also made the show’s parody of friendship more overt and more perverse. Sydney didn’t know that Bad Francie was an imposter who faked affection and sneered at her behind her back. But we knew.

With the Francie doppelganger plot, Alias slyly acknowledged the “bad” impulse which lurks under the surface of female friendships–the Mean Girls urge to torment other girls, not to be nurturing or selflessly available to your friends. The second season of Alias ended with the roommates unleashing their inner bad girls in a house-trashing fight to the death. Sydney prevailed, of course, and without guilt–after all, she wasn’t actually pumping bullets into the real Francie, she was killing off Francie’s evil fake twin. But, metaphorically, Good Sydney was enjoying the forbidden pleasure of being the worst best friend ever.

Nadia Santos: My Sister’s Keeper

In the tense home stretch of season three, we were suddenly introduced to Nadia Santos, the half-sister Sydney never knew she had. A spy with Argentina’s intelligence agency, Nadia was (we were told) the product of an extramarital affair between Irina and Arvin Sloane. Nadia was born while Irina was in a Soviet prison, and placed in an orphanage. As a child, she had no contact with Sloane, whom we are told had been searching for her for years. Nadia is a totemic figure in the Rambaldi mythology. As The Passenger, whose fate is bound up with that of Sydney, Nadia’s DNA has somehow been encoded with Rambaldi’s consciousness. She is a conduit to Rambaldi, and Sloane, clearly suffering from a God complex, has obtained a serum that will reveal the message locked inside Nadia’s head.

In the episode “Blood Ties” (3-20), Jack cautioned Sydney about getting emotionally involved with this mysterious girl. Still hurting over Irina’s latest disappearance, Syd assured him that she had no delusions of sisterly closeness:

After Mom died I used to have these daydreams. I would imagine her leading my Girl Scout troop or taking me shopping for new school clothes. I thought, if only she’d lived, she would have been my best friend. When I learned the truth about her, and I saw Irina for who she truly was, I was devastated. I won’t make the same mistake twice.

But Sydney’s face dissolved into tenderness when she first saw the helpless, catatonic Nadia in the Chechen labor camp where Irina (we presume) had hidden her. We realized how desperately Sydney wanted this connection. For an only child like Syd, it must have seemed like a wish granted to learn that she had a sister, an ally, someone who could validate her resentment over being abandoned by Irina. But maybe, at the same time, Nadia could provide the crucial information that would help Sydney understand and forgive Irina. Growing up without a mother, Sydney had felt as if part of her was missing. Nadia represented the possibility of completion.

Nadia, though, had her own missing piece–her father. In the episode “Legacy” (3-21), Sloane stole her away from CIA protection and was finally able to inject her with the green goo that would bring forth Rambaldi’s consciousness. Strapped to a chair while her father loomed over her with a syringe, Nadia made a tough little speech that, in its sense of loss and bitterness, echoed Sydney’s “I won’t make the same mistake twice” assurance to Jack:

Every Sunday at the orphanage in San Telmo, they made us dress up in our finest clothes. They would have us stand in line for hours waiting to be chosen by families. I wouldn’t do it. I’d make myself filthy and always frown. I didn’t want to be chosen because I knew . . . I knew that somewhere my dad was still looking for me and one day he’d come to take me away from that place. If I had known it was you I was waiting for, I would have cleaned up.

Despite seeming to loathe her father, the opaque Nadia chose to escape from Sydney and join Sloane on a quest for the Rambaldi holy grail. As of this writing (awaiting season four), Nadia has not provided Sydney with the validation for which she had hoped. Their relationship is charged with mutual curiosity and suspicion. They are not very much alike: Nadia is dark while Sydney is fair. She is stoic while Sydney is expressive. Although she is younger than Sydney, she seems older, more womanly, with a hint of Irina’s almost feral sensuality. Yet, when Nadia was coolly kung-fu-fighting her way out of the Chechen labor camp alongside Sydney, the sisterly resemblance became clear: they both resembled Irina in the heat of battle. Nadia is Sydney–or rather, she’s Good Sydney’s shadow self, her photonegative image. She is Sydney as her mother’s daughter, the Bad (or, at least, Ambiguous) Sydney who might have been, if Syd had grown up without the melancholy yet steadying presence of Jack Bristow.

After an initial period of suspicion at the beginning of the series, Sydney had come to trust her father as a colleague and a protector. Father and daughter had been betrayed and wounded by Irina together, and their love has become deeper and more complex through the run of the show. Jack was the one constant in Sydney’s life. No matter how many times she rebelled against his advice regarding Irina, or dismissed him as being consumed by the desire for revenge, she remained Daddy’s girl. He was her dad. He was good. Therefore, she was good. But, is Jack Bristow really good? Sydney knows that Jack was once involved in a CIA program called Project Christmas, which was supposed to turn American children into a generation of sleeper superagents. She knows that Jack subjected her to the program after Irina’s disappearance. Wasn’t his use of her similar to the way Sloane violated Nadia in order to further his own agenda?

Sloane and Nadia’s father-daughter bond–captured in the grotesque tableau of Sloane injecting Nadia with the powerful Rambaldi hallucinogen–is an unwholesome version of the bond between Jack and Sydney. It represents the fears about her own dad that Good Sydney does not want to face: that Jack is not a loving father, that he betrayed her trust and abused her, that he is even more false and hurtful than Irina. In her genetic mirror Nadia, Sydney sees what she fears she would become if Jack proved to be a fraud. If she has a Bad Daddy and a Bad Mommy, what does that make Sydney?

Lauren Reed: See You Next Tuesday

The good girl/bad girl theme came to a spectacular climax in season three with the introduction of Lauren Reed, whom Michael Vaughn married during the time that Sydney was presumed to be dead. A pallid blonde with a prim British accent, Lauren was the daughter of a U.S. senator and worked as the NSC’s liaison to Vaughn and Sydney’s CIA section.

At first, Lauren was presented to us entirely through Sydney’s perspective. Imagine waking up with two years of your life unaccounted for and then finding out your true love has married someone else. Understandably, Lauren never had a chance with the show’s fans. She was seen as the woman who stole Syd’s guy, however inadvertently. (Lauren Reed hatelistings, the opposite of fan clubs, began popping up on the Internet right after her first appearance on the show.) The thing was, Sydney (and viewers) had no immediate reason to hate Lauren, other than that she was with Vaughn and that Vaughn went all wussy in her passively manipulative presence. Lauren certainly played the poor insecure rebound-bride to the hilt, putting on the injured-doe eyes whenever she caught Syd and Vaughn exchanging longing glances. Predictably, Good Sydney felt guilty over her visceral dislike for Lauren, and how much she envied her. If Lauren Reed’s presence was a litmus test for what women are willing to forgive in each other, then we all failed miserably.

For the first part of season three, Sydney (and by extension, the Lauren-haters in the audience) had to endure repeated scoldings from Vaughn, who put on his “I am disappointed in you” face and accused her of being unfair to his wife. But then Alias did an amazing thing: it proved that Sydney’s (and our own) gut instincts about Lauren had been right all along. In a juicily thrilling plot twist, Lauren was revealed to be a Covenant mole who had lured Vaughn into her marriage trap. We saw her pull the trigger as a deadly sniper; we saw her secretly working to sabotage a plane on which her husband and Sydney were passengers. As far as good girl/bad girls go, two-faced Lauren was the queen.

The vindicating moment for Lauren haters occurred midway through the third season, in the episode “Crossings.” In a short but significant scene, Lauren approached Sydney at the office with a symbolic olive branch, asking if they could give each other another chance to be friends. To show her good faith, Lauren invited Sydney to dinner with her on some future Tuesday–Michael’s weekly hockey night. Sydney accepted, there were some awkward pleasantries, and then Lauren looked at Sydney and smiled like the Cheshire Cat. “See you next Tuesday,” she said crisply, the camera holding her in close-up an extra beat for emphasis. You could almost hear the thud of knowing viewers falling off their chairs. In decades-old high-school-girl vernacular, “See you next Tuesday” is code for the word that starts with the letters “c-u,” means female genitalia and is used to insult a woman when “bitch” just isn’t strong enough. That line was the show’s canny (and a little surreal) acknowledgment of what Lauren haters had been thinking about Ms. Reed for weeks.

As the extent of Lauren’s duplicity was unveiled, she evolved–fascinatingly–into Sydney’s near-double. Her plumped lips became even more noticeably plumped and Sydney-like. She started wearing her hair pulled back, straight and sleek, like Sydney’s. It was revealed that her mother was an enemy spy, just like Irina. And, of course, Lauren had replaced Sydney in Michael’s bed. In the episode “Conscious” (3-9), Sydney had a hallucination while undergoing an experimental brain procedure to try to regain her lost memories: she was pursuing Lauren through a maze of stairwells and corridors, and when she finally caught her, Lauren turned and Sydney was looking at herself.

The more evil Lauren’s behavior, the more over-the-top entertaining she became. At her most villainous, Lauren was made up and photographed like one of Hitchcock’s bad blondes (think Tippi Hedren in Marnie or Kim Novak in Vertigo). Her hair got lighter; she was costumed in sexy black; she was accompanied by lush, noirish background music. In a memorable scene, she got so turned on after murdering one of her targets that she hauled her partner in crime, the eely little Covenant agent Sark, off to bed for a wild tryst. Lauren was Sydney’s funhouse-mirror image, representing Bad Sydney’s dangerous spy-girl impulses, her anger and aggression, her espionage-fueled libido, in the extreme. In an admirably warped stroke of irony, Lauren betrayed Vaughn in the same ways Irina had betrayed Jack. In effect, Lauren was the personification of Sydney’s murkiest fear–the fear of turning into her mother.

In the chilling psychodrama that ended season three, Lauren and Sydney “became” each other. Wearing a false Sydney face, Lauren set off bombs in the CIA offices and shot Michael. Later, wearing a false Lauren face and a voice alterer, Sydney seductively interrogated a captive Sark. It was the perfect climax to the Sydney/Lauren story line, suggesting that the two women made up halves of a whole, bringing the show’s good girl/bad girl subtext to the fore.

At the end of the third season finale, Lauren was about to shoot the unarmed Sydney when Vaughn arrived to save the woman he loved. He shot his wife, then shot her again. And again. The poor guy was entitled. Staggering from her wounds, Lauren managed to draw one last parallel between herself and Sydney, sneering, “We’re both pawns in the same game!” When Lauren finally fell backwards and disappeared down a gaping, open mine shaft, it was reminiscent of the scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho in which Norman Bates locks Marion Crane’s body in the trunk of her car and pushes it into a swamp. We watch the car sink down, down, down, until it’s swallowed under the muck. Lauren Reed was similarly dispatched to the depths of the unconscious (both Sydney’s and our own), where bad girls live. But, knowing Alias, she’ll probably be back.

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