LANGLEY — I was only 12 or 13 when Alias came out, and was pretty surprised when my protective parents agreed I could watch it - then joined me every Sunday to see what the CIA and SD-6. We all thrilled in the intrigue, the fight scenes, the high stakes of international espionage.
For such a long time, I was convinced I would eventually become a secret agent just like Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow. I was smart, and if I started right now I could learn how to use all kinds of weapons and speak seemingly every language. Even at twelve, I made fitness goals for myself so I could be strong and kick ass like Sydney. Eventually (like, fifteen+ years later) I gave in and made peace with the fact that I would never work for the CIA or the lesser FBI, and that I was far more suited to play one on TV. (Surprise: the pursuit of acting also requires fitness goals.)
There are countless memorable moments and incredible wigs on Alias, but the one that stands out to me the most - probably for its achievability - is when she changes her entire look in a drugstore bathroom using products she bought in. the. store.
I finally re-watched the scene, featured in the season 2 episode "Endgame," after thinking about it nine of ten times I enter any Walgreens, and it truly is a masterpiece. It’s so short, but packed with excitement.
Sydney is being followed in her car by the enemy, so she pulls into a drugstore parking lot and heads inside: straight brown hair, sunglasses and an all black ensemble. She immediately calls her handler, Vaughn. The conversation that ensues is clearly a code, which he catches on to slowly while Syd takes a basket and starts to shop. The bad guys are listening in. The music denotes intensity. Sydney’s friends back at the Bureau start to decipher her code while she checks out, then asks where the bathroom is.
The music shifts, she makes herself a skirt out of a cow print drawer liner, cuts a nylon to act as a wig cap, (it is maybe far fetched that a drugstore would sell a wig) and becomes a blonde.
Then: the best part of her ploy. She goes up to a group of girls and talks to them about skincare.
“I tried that once, and totally broke out,” says Sydney, who never uses the word ‘totally.’
The girls feel an immediate kinship, then she drives it home by claiming to have been president of her local chapter of their sorority. It’s one of those classic Alias moments where Sydney has a pretty much boundless knowledge of things that seem like they’re not remotely within the wheelhouse of a super-spy.
It’s kind of a Legally Blonde moment. The sisterhood and camaraderie of these girls who are strangers ‘totally’ saves her. She walks out of the drugstore as a blonde part of this group, completely disguised to the guys who were tailing her. She’s just another sorority sister. A girl like that could never be a threat.
I think about this a lot not because I often find myself needing to outrun bad guys but because I just wonder if I could pull it off with the same level of assurity. Imagine the social implications. Not having fun at a party? That’s ok, go put on the skirt you made from the hostess’ tablecloth and one of the Halloween wigs you snatched from their basement and go introduce yourself as someone new!
She so effortlessly enters this conversation, with her perfect smile and bright eyes. Did this inspire a huge portion of the social interactions I had as a teen and might still be a strategy I employ in my early twenties? I’m really blowing up my own spot here but: yes. A quip followed by a carefully researched and planned entry point for bonding is how I make friends. Always. I walk out of tons of pharmacies surrounded by lunch buddies! That was a joke. But for real, thanks to the beauty of social media and people’s ubiquitous presence online I can do a stupid amount of research about someone if I intend to become their friend. I can pull lies out like I’m a goddamn secret agent - effortlessly, with a big smile, and total confidence in my ability to nail this interaction. In theory.
I also think about this a lot because it’s such a good "girl power" scene, where the sisters are willing to include a rando from the pharmacy in their lunch plans because of a shared something. Sure, they think she’s one of them - and Sydney sells it hard by referring to an exclusive standing lunch they have with a fraternity - but they also probably would’ve been ok with a bevy of other similarities.
In a show where Sydney Bristow is often the only girl in the room, her greatest and most threatening rivals are women. They happen incredibly infrequently, but in amazingly personal and heartbreaking ways - her mother, for example becomes her major nemesis. Her best friend is a sleeper agent. The love of her life marries someone else, and she turns out to be pretty damn evil.
Whenever I watched Alias, I watched Syd and her team of boys and men and actual dads and father figures guide and work with and against her, and it reinforced my deeply held belief that the peak of success meant being the only girl in a sea of men. But this scene causes me to examine that. How girls can help each other escape the bad guys. Maybe if Sydney had worked with more women, the show wouldn’t have devolved into a madness I can barely even remember witnessing. But regardless, that has never stopped her from being my ultimate hero. Catch me in the drugstore trying to buy an outfit to fit in better with the cool girls.