The enemy being, of course, one Irina Derevko.
So this seems like a good time to pause and post about something I’ve been thinking about since I rewatched episode 11, The Confession, in which Sydney first learns the truth about her mother. And basically what I’ve been thinking is more than any single other element, more than even Sydney herself, it’s Irina that truly defined Alias. Or maybe not even Irina herself, as the character she came to be as embodied by Lena Olin (and by the way, this character is my favorite female character in any medium), but rather it was the idea of Irina, the idea of this woman that wasn’t actually the loving mother Sydney remember but who was actually someone much more mysterious, dangerous, and powerful; someone Sydney couldn’t decide whether to love or hate. And as the audience, we were the same. When she betrayed, there was the little seed of hope that there was a reason for it that she just couldn’t share, and when she came as an ally there was always the nagging little doubt that maybe in the end she was only in it for herself; and it was that mystery and duality that made the character so fascinating.*
*Spoiler alert! Personally, I would have been happy if the last we’d seen of Irina was in season 5 after she delivered Sydney’s baby. In my opinion, her last appearance did her a huge disservice by stripping away the mystery and flattening the layers.
But I’m digressing here, because the point I wanted to make wasn’t about Irina herself as a character, fascinating though she is, but rather about why I think that it was the idea of her that defined Alias. Honestly, yes, Alias, was defined by a lot of things, by all the wigs and sexy, nonsensica disguises, (for good or will) by Rambaldi, by Sydney’s double life in the first couple of seasons, by her relationship with her father, and if you’re a shipper, yes, by her relationship with Vaughn. If Laura Bristow had remained the perfect lost mother, Alias was already an extremely fun to watch show.
But throw in that one wrench: Laura Bristow was actually Irina Derevko, a KGB agent responsible for a dozen agents’ deaths, and everything, well it didn’t change, exactly, but it evolved. It went up on another level. There was already great family drama between Syd and Jack, but throw in just the idea of Irina, and that dynamic starts to shift. And Syd herself is put on a new path, both externally, with the search for Irina and where it leads, and internally, in how she starts to question what she thought to be true, although the show only scratches the surface of this during season 1.
Really, learning about Irina was what really set the course for where the show would go and how it would get there, definitely for the first two seasons, which are by far the best of it; but even later, when the show kind of got derailed with Sydney’s lost years, the Lauren fiasco and when the Rambaldi element got out of hand, the ghost of this woman was always there, always implicit, always promising a link we didn’t know. “Truth takes time”, she said, and it lingered even when she wasn’t there. Directly or indirectly, there is nothing in the Alias universe that wasn’t touched in some way by Irina’s existence. The idea of her was a driving force for the story.
And it’s interesting to look back on, because at the time the revelation was surprising, wasn’t it? OMFG, HER MOTHER WAS ALSO A SPY!! So these days, when Chuck (a show I enjoy, by the way, in case it’s not clear) ends the season with the revelation that Chuck’s mother was also part of the spy world, it’s not so much OMFG as it is oh, so it’s like THAT. Because there is already the Irina reference, and I don’t think it diminishes Chuck to say that this was probably a homage to Alias‘ “SpyMommy”.