“There’s only one Sydney Bristow.”
After four years of double crosses, global jet-setting, martial arts fighting, crazy gadgets, ancient relics, explosive gun battles, and bucketloads of weepy angst, CIA agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner, Elektra) bids farewell to viewers in this fifth and final season of Alias.
The season begins with double the surprise plot twists, as Sydney learns a shocking fact about her fellow agent turned boyfriend Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan, One Hour Photo), and then reveals she’s pregnant with his baby. These two revelations set the stage for Sydney and her fellow agents to take on a newly-discovered evil society called Prophet Five. While she does the maternity thing, Sydney acts as a mentor for inexperienced new agent Rachel Gibson (Rachel Nichols, The Inside). Other new faces in her life are tough guy agent Tom Grace (Balthazar Getty, Lost Highway), and Renée “The Raven” Rienne (Elodie Bouchez, Sorry, Haters), an assassin who becomes a reluctant ally to the CIA. Familiar faces making a return are Sydney’s father and ruthless CIA director Jack (Victor Garber, Titanic), her stoic field partner Dixon (Carl Lumbly, The Ditchdigger’s Daughters), and in-need-of-Ritalin tech expert Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Weisman, Clerks II).
Also back for more espionage fun is sociopathic super criminal Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin, Pulse). Still claiming that he’s seeking redemption for all of his past crimes, including the murders of several of our heroes’ loved ones, Sloane returns to hopes of finding some way to revive his daughter and Sydney’s stepsister Nadia (Mia Maestro, Poseidon). But can he do that without rekindling his interest in the work of ancient seer Rambaldi, whose prophecies could lead to modern-day glory and/or mass destruction?
This concluding season of Alias might be only 18 episodes instead of the usual 22 episodes each, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on plot. This season is like one big, insane 18-hour spy novel, with the events of one episode leading right into the next, and a ton of characters and subplots to track. In this way, it’s preferable to watch the show on DVD, where episodes can be devoured several at a time. This allows viewers to better keep track of everything happening.
The season is roughly divided into two halves, pregnancy and post-pregnancy. In real life, Jennifer Garner was pregnant during filming, so the writers and producers had to dream up ways to get the show made with their star available only some of the time. The solution? New stories about new characters, which make up several episodes in the first half of this season. The Alias faithful might be frustrated with so much of this season being devoted to previously-unseen agents, but if you’re willing to go along with it, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
The number one fresh face this year is Rachel, a character clearly created to be a younger, more naïve Sydney. When we first met Sydney way back in the pilot episode, she was already skilled at undercover spying and butt-kicking. We never got to see her go through the process of learning to be a spy. When we meet Rachel, however, she’s in a situation much like Sydney was when she first started out in the spy biz. We see Rachel’s first undercover mission, the first time she sees the death of a fellow agent, her worries about keeping confidential secrets from her family, and even her first hand-to-hand fight with a major baddie. Throughout all this, Sydney acts as Rachel’s “Obi-wan,” monitoring Rachel from a distance and encouraging her through those tiny CIA earpieces no one can see. Yes, Rachel’s hesitant and frightened at first, but eventually she gains a lot of self confidence and becomes quite the effective agent.
Rachel’s not the only newbie running around this year. Renée fills the role of the kung fu fightin’ girl power type, and she even gets to throw knives at bad guys, which is always cool to see. But because she’s not an agent, but instead just a tough girl who sometimes hangs out with the agents, this makes stories about her somewhat limited. Also, she’s stationed in France, across the ocean from our heroes’ home base. Seems like the agents end up with reasons to go to France more often than usual this season, just so they can conveniently meet up with Renée. It’s kind of like those old episodes of Super Friends, in which every adventure had to have some sort of oceanic element to it, just so Aquaman could have something to do. I think Renée would have been better served in a series of her own, perhaps a contemporary take on To Catch a Thief, where her character could have been fully explored. Instead, we’re left with someone who never quite reaches her potential.
And there are even more new characters. Balthazar Getty is given little to do as Tom; it seems he’s only here to add a little extra hunky man-meat for when the story calls for it. The subplot about his investigation into his wife’s death ends up being anticlimactic. It really should have been its own episode, instead of a stretched-out B-story running through several episodes. For villains, we start out with Gordon Dean (Tyrees Allen, Robocop), who gets a nice run of episodes as the “big bad,” but he’s eventually upstaged by Amy Acker (Angel) as the cold-hearted and opportunistic Kelly Peyton. She becomes more and more of a problem for the CIA as she rapidly rises through the ranks of international criminal-dom. Kelly might not have as much depth as some of the other Alias villains, but it’s always fun to see Acker play a “bad girl” type.
So for a while, this show turns into the adventures of Rachel, Tom, and Renée as they battle the evil machinations of Gordon and Kelly. And it’s pretty engrossing stuff. But then, when one of the regular cast members makes an appearance, suddenly I think, “Oh, that’s right, this is Alias I’m watching.” Fortunately, during the second, post-pregnancy half of the season, the show turns back into semi-classic Alias, and we’re back in the world of Sydney, Jack, Dixon, Marshall, and Sloane.
I’d heard a lot of rumors that Jennifer Garner sleepwalked through this season, thanks to both the pregnancy and to her getting more and more movie offers, but I personally don’t see it. Sure, she missed out on a lot of airtime while becoming a mom, but aside from that, she really shines when she’s on screen. As Sydney, she shows a lot of emotional intensity while fretting over Vaughn or worrying about the fate of her baby. And as usual, she still gets to adopt some crazy aliases while undercover. At one point, believe it or not, she even plays two characters at once. This, plus the fact that her name gets added to the credits as an executive producer this year, tells me Garner never lost her passion for the show, and she sticks with it right to the end.
The rest of the show’s regulars continue to play their roles with skill, even if they are sometimes overcrowded by all the newbies. Victor Garber gets a few moments of extreme bad-assness that has made his character so popular. Carl Lumbly remains strong and stoic; Weisman continues to fill the vital comic relief position with ease. And if there weren’t enough characters already running around, the second half of this season suddenly becomes a massive continuity-a-thon, with a “who’s who” of former Alias supporting characters returning, including a few of the dead ones. This is not the season to start with if you’re new to the show. Instead, it rewards longtime viewers with dozens of nods to previous episodes, tying up all sorts of loose ends.
Then, it all comes to a head in the big finale. For folks who have followed all the ups and downs of this series since day one, there’s a lot of payoff here. That’s all well and good, and yet it also concludes kind of how you expect it would. For a show renowned for its wild plot twists, I hoped for one last big shocker. Instead, the ending is satisfying, but still a little predictable.
The picture quality here is excellent. For example, check out the scene in the season premiere in which Sydney is chased through a cornfield by a bunch of thugs. It’s almost a 3-D effect, with the bright green leaves standing out in contrast with Sydney’s white and pink outfit. The sound is similarly good, booming out of all the speakers during the big, explosive moments.
From the beginning, one of the biggest draws of this series has been the action. In every episode, viewers knew they could count on at least one big fight scene or stunt sequence, not to mention stuff like gunfights, car chases and explosions. But the fifth season has a lot less action. The thrills are more cerebral this time, with the emphasis on being stealthy or outwitting enemies instead of out-punching them. While the big “summer movie” action scenes used to be every week, this time they’re only once in a while. When the show makes with the excitement, it’s great to see; just know that there’s not as much of it this time around.
A few episodes get commentary tracks which, this time around, tend to be a little more jokey than informative. The “100th episode” featurette walks us through the making of this single episode, including the construction of one of the largest sets used on the show, as well as a big “100th” party held by the cast and crew afterward. The “On Set” featurette has a camera crew follow Rachel Nichols around during the filming of another episode as she shares her thoughts about joining the cast and about acting for a big-budget TV show in general. The featurette about Rambaldi has the show’s creators talking about what their big McGuffin has meant to the show, and there are even some faux-documentary bits about the man himself. Finally, in the “Music of Alias,” the creators praise the music department and discuss how important the score is to the final product. Rounding out the extras are few deleted scenes, some trailers, and another ridiculous blooper reel.
I went into Alias: The Complete Fifth Season expecting to see the series implode, with burned-out actors and writers just going through the motions. “Time for this show to turn into a pale shadow of what it once was,” I thought. So imagine how surprised I was to find some compelling storytelling here. The tone and style might be different from the Alias we’re all used to, but when it was all over, it ended up a satisfying ride.