One moment in Monday night's two-hour wrap-up of the five-season run of "Alias" offered a glimpse of what the show might have been and where it might have gone after its first two whiz-bang years. It came courtesy of Ron Rifkin's Arvin Sloane, of course, because the older supporting actors in "Alias" have always been the series' greatest asset. Sloane confronts superspy and new mom Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in a parking garage as she's on the way to drop off her infant daughter at the sitter.
Sloane, finally proved to be a baddie after years of swinging ambiguously back and forth, materializes in a ridiculously sinister pair of blue wraparound sunglasses. He demands that Sydney phone two of her friends, fellow agents whom he has kidnapped and tortured, and order them to cooperate with his nefarious, if incomprehensible, scheme. Sloane has always cherished paternal feelings for Sydney, even if that hasn't stopped him from collaborating in her near death countless times. So after handing Syd the cellphone, Sloane takes a second to make googly faces with her baby.
"Alias" was always meant to be the story of a young woman struggling to balance a normal emotional life with her day job at the CIA and its various offshoots, secret subagencies and, memorably, the Sloane-run ringer outfit SD-6 during the show's first season. In the beginning, Sydney's personal life had some substance: a premed fiancé; a funny freshman-year roommate, Francie (Merrin Dungey); a charming male journalist pal, Will (Bradley Cooper), who harbored a quiet yen for her. The rather faceless fiancé had to go in the first episode, of course, to demonstrate that Syd's job and love life were on a collision course. But for those first two years, Francie and Will provided a warm, grounded counterpoint to the conniving of Sloane and Syd's frosty spymaster dad, Jack (Victor Garber).
We'd see Syd sprinting down hallways in high heels, shimmering evening gown and spectacular wig (for some reason the high-tech gizmos she was sent to retrieve were always hidden in the vicinity of fabulous parties), and then we'd see her in sweats, eating pizza and hanging out with Francie and Will or frantic to keep up with her schoolwork. This contrast conveyed the bizarre splitting of Sydney's experience far better than the routine interludes of brooding torment that TV typically uses to signal that the hero's crusade is taking a terrible toll on his personal life.
Eventually, though, even Will and Francie got sucked in the maw of Sydney's work, and soon she had no life outside the spy biz at all. She fell in love with chronically boring CIA agent Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), and then they had to be kept apart by a string of preposterous obstructions in order to sustain some narrative tension. The ongoing soap-operatic dramas between Sydney, her father and her treacherous mother (the delicious Lena Olin) and her romantic travails were all subsumed in the series' endless, silly-glamorous parade of terrorist MacGuffins, outrageous disguises and leering villains who needed to be kickboxed into submission in exotic locales.
Not that this stuff can't be fun, but it all tended to look the same after a while, and it was hard to sympathize with Syd's quest for normality when, really, she gave up on it sometime around Season 2. Instead, we were forced to acknowledge that although Sydney was a very nice and exceptionally talented young woman, she wasn't really all that interesting as a character. She had almost no sense of humor and no serious flaws. She could only take her increasingly baroque relationship with Vaughn and her outlandish assignments very, very seriously. She had no sense of the campiness of her exploits, no tendency to fall for the wrong kind of guy, no girlfriend to dish with after hours, no substantive inner conflicts. In short, she was no Buffy Summers, the morally conflicted pop icon on whom she was patently based.
And then there was Milo Rambaldi, that "15th century genius" whose prophecies and "master plan" have long swamped "Alias" like a fog of confusion and lassitude. (Can we have a TV- and moviewide moratorium on prophecies, please?) This fifth, last season managed to regain a little of the verve of the first two, even if the soap opera had become hopelessly clotted, but the necessary reintroduction of the whole Rambaldi palaver nearly sunk it again.
Of course, the only way to kick-start Sloane back into full evil mode was to reactivate his Rambaldi obsession. But I spent the whole year wondering what he could possibly be after, since I thought the master plan had already culminated in that giant, glowing, rotating red sphere that hovered over Moscow, prompting people to savagely attack each other, at the end of Season 3.
But no. Rambaldi -- whose master plan, let's face it, has still never been revealed -- could not be eradicated so easily. (What real, material profit the show's various villains could derive from Rambaldi's apocalyptic devices has remained equally unclear.) Sloane had yet another Sydney-centric, prophecy-driven mission this time around, involving yet another Rambaldi artifact (the guy had more gear than my little brother's GI Joe), and this turned out to be yet another rotating red sphere that could be converted into a red liquid that conferred some unspecified form of immortality on Sloane. It was disappointing; I'd always hoped that Rambaldi would ultimately be resurrected and forced to answer for his sins -- primarily the murkification of a perfectly good spy show.
Despite the fact that most of this didn't make much sense and a phalanx of ICBMs aimed at London and Washington somehow got slipped into the picture as an obvious device to ratchet up the tension and give Olin's Irina something to do, "Alias" managed to finish itself off with a satisfying crescendo. Let's face it, everyone on this show has been revealed to be somebody else entirely, been physically replicated and faked his or her own death at least a couple of times, so it was a relief, really, to see some of them finished off once and for all.
Jack sacrificed himself to thwart Sloane; Sloane met the appropriately horrific fate of spending an eternity entombed alive; Irina was destroyed by her willingness to choose Rambaldian "power" over her maternal connection to Sydney. And as for Sydney herself -- several years on we find her finally living the rather dull life she always longed for, socked away in a remote tropical paradise with her rather dull husband and two kids, and maybe rousted out for an occasional mission every now and then because -- hooray! -- foxy, dashing bad guy Sark (David Anders) is still on the loose. Could we have a whole show about him now?
Fine. We're done (almost!) with all of these people. But that scene with Sloane and the baby, and a handful of other amusing sparks in this last episode, suggest the direction "Alias" might have taken. There's nothing more relentlessly prosaic than caring for an infant, and baby Isabel, at least, could never be revealed to be actually a double agent. The contrast between this mundane dimension of Sydney's life and her athletic international intrigues was genuinely fun to see. A spy mom who's always scrambling to find a sitter so she can rescue her work buddies from an evil mastermind is a lot more like the Sydney Bristow we met when "Alias" started, equal parts regular girl and superhero.