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It seems hard to believe (mostly because I’m one of those people who still insists the early ‘90s were like two decades ago, tops), but the spy drama Alias is turning 20 this fall. An almost instant critical and audience darling, the ABC series launched the careers of both creator J.J. Abrams and star Jennifer Garner, running for 5 seasons and giving us 105 episodes full of intricate spycraft, high octane hand-to-hand combat, and one of the best will they/won’t they romances of the early aughts.
When Alias was firing on all cylinders there was little that could match its ambition and go-for-broke storytelling attitude. (There’s a reason this is the show that established Abrams as a genre storytelling force, thanks to its relentless dedication to blowing up its own premise.) The drama follows the story of Sidney Bristow (Garner), a graduate school student who also happens to be a spy, working with the fictional SD-6 and later the CIA to retrieve various objects, track down dangerous individuals, and generally travel the globe in an assortment of candy-colored wigs and fantastic disguises.
Balancing classwork with international espionage isn’t always easy, and the relationships in her life often suffer for it, both from her frequent absences to the outright lies she’s often forced to tell. But when Sydney’s boyfriend Danny proposes, she decides she must reveal the truth about her double life before they can tie the knot. That decision—and the deadly fallout that ensues—launches a series of events that leads Sydney to question and ultimately recalibrate everything she thought she knew about her life, her family, and the work she’s been doing.
However, this is also a J.J. Abrams show, and since none of you have been living under a rock for the past two decades, you won’t be surprised to hear that its scope eventually spirals outward to a ridiculous degree, eventually encompassing everything from clones and conspiracy theories to international shadow organizations and quasi-magical Renaissance artifacts. It’s no secret that the first two seasons of Alias are wildly superior to the ones that followed. But not even the lows of Seasons 4 and 5—which include long-lost siblings, more double agents, and the fake death of Sydney’s handler-turned-love-interest—can take the shine off those earlier installments or negate the universal truths of the show that transcend specific narrative twists. (Even if the thing where Vaughn turns out to have married someone else because he thought Sydney was dead was extremely lame.)
But what makes Alias such a great series had little to do with the specifics of the stories it was telling, which truly ran the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. No, the secret of this show’s success was its commitment to its characters and the relationships it built between them. Alias smartly grounded its most outlandish adventures and jaw-dropping plot twists in thoughtful character dynamics, particularly the rich relationship between Sydney and her father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber).
The mid-pilot revelation that her dad is also a secret CIA agent is just the first of the many bombshells this show drops about their relationship over the course of its run, part of a long line of betrayals, misdirections, and cover-ups in a family whose love language is keeping secrets from one another. Yet, the two eventually grow into one of the greatest father/daughter duos in television history, proving yet again that for all of Abrams’ sci-fi flash, his best stories have always been about the complex relationships between parents and their kids.
When we first meet Jack and Sydney, the two are deeply estranged. This is, of course, partly because they’re each covering up secret double lives from the other, but it’s also because Jack is a stoic, standoffish man who also happens to have spent most of his life lying to his daughter in the name of protecting her. From allowing her to believe her mother was dead and framing innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit to infiltrating a nuclear reactor and committing some casual murder, there’s literally nothing Jack won’t do for Sydney. And though “SpyDaddy” doesn’t always express his care for his daughter in what might be called a healthy or even an entirely legal way, it’s hard not to love him for being the one person who’s always on her side, no matter what. (Even when it doesn’t always necessarily seem that way.)
Alias realized from the start that it was Sydney and Jack’s bond that sat at the heart of the series, exploring the complicated history between them, and allowing them to warm to one another through stories that took place over the span of full seasons rather than single episodes. It takes a big chunk of Season 1 for Sydney to feel something like grudging respect for her father’s considerable spy skills, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it takes the better part of years for the slow thaw between them to fully play out.
But watching these two grow closer to one another was ultimately more emotionally satisfying than any of the romantic ups and downs in Sydney’s relationship with her handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). I mean, sure, we all shipped Syd and Vaughn, but it was the love story between Jack and Sydney that most frequently threw our hearts on the ground and stomped on them.
Part of that is due to the unreal father/daughter chemistry between Garner and Garber, who apparently became super close in real life because of their roles on this show, and whose offscreen relationship I remain intensely invested in to this day. (This is extremely normal; do not judge me.) And Garber’s performance in Alias is so restrained and subtle that on the rare occasions that he—and the show itself—allows us to see the cracks in Jack’s emotional armor (all of which inevitably involve his daughter), they arrive like thunderclaps.
Sydney and Jack’s story is so emotionally complex and messy, a perfect blend of justified anger, painful regret, and hard-fought second chances, as Sydney learns to love the father she barely knew and Jack reveals the lengths he’s always been willing to go to protect her—even if doing so pushed her away from him in the process. That the two finally manage to forge a strong and meaningful connection out of the broken pieces between them is the true miracle in a world that’s full of near-magical objects and unbelievable coincidences.
Though Jack’s death at the end of the series is painfully bittersweet, he gets to go out on his own (badass) terms, telling Sydney how proud he is of the person she’s become despite all his mistakes, before letting her go save the world and using his last breath to trap an immortal Arvin Sloane (don’t ask) in an eternal prison of rocks. That, as the kids say, is growth. But his presence remains—both in the child Sydney and a surprisingly not-dead Vaughn name after him, and the lingering impact his relationship with his daughter has on the shows that came after the credits rolled on Alias itself. (It also made Garber into a genre television star, a fact for which I will always be grateful.) Like many Abrams projects, there’s a lot to dislike about the way Alias ultimately played out, but Sydney and Jack’s relationship is the reason it’s still a story worth returning to all these years later.
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Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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