Sydney Bristow’s just too damn nice to be a spy

I’ve been overdosing on spy shows lately. This caused an unconscious pet peeve with Alias to finally rise to the surface: there’s just no way someone as nice and happy and sweet and kind and loved by friends as Sydney Bristow would choose to be a spy.

Spies are messed-up people. From James Bond to Michael Weston (Burn Notice), they don’t come from happy homes, and because of their experience they don’t see the world in a positive, upbeat, optimistic kind of way. While Sydney also comes from a dysfunctional and tragic home life, she doesn’t show any of the expected scars like her male counterparts do: she never lashes out at loved ones, never screws up a relationship out of paranoia, isn’t suspicious when something good happens. She remains America’s Sweetheart despite everything.

You can fanwank it if you squint a little, maybe imagine her sweetness to be a facade – another layer to her double life. But even though Michael Weston on Burn Notice seems incapable of losing his temper, we get enough flashes of what might be lurking under that unflappable exterior to match up the adult with the childhood we know he had.

Bottom line: can you imagine someone writing a show or movie about a really nice guy who loves his friends and his girlfriend and his puppy and baseball and helping old ladies cross the street who then chose a career that demands he lie to all those people, abandon the puppy for weeks on end, and come home with a lot of inexplicable wounds?

Alias tried to make the pieces fit – with very little fan wanking, you can make sense of it, I admit. But at the end of the day, we have lots of very intriguingly fucked-up male spies and one very sweet and kind, if a bit sad, female spy. I want to give them all great big hugs… but I’d be at least a little afraid to hug the guys, you know? Sydney… not so much. She’s harmless.


  1. SunlessNick says

    Interesting analysis. I’ll hopefully have a reply containing actual thoughts later, but I wanted to make sure I gave the props.

  2. Shadowen says

    I always saw it as her being better than her fellow spies, more psychologically resilient–that despite the horrors in her life, despite her own father trying to turn her into a weapon from a young age, she remained relatively normal.

    She and Irina, for example, were apparently predicted by Rambaldi, a guy who invented a device that grants immortality.

    And maybe it wouldn’t work with a guy, at least not if you included the puppy (you’ll notice Sydney didn’t keep pets). But maybe it would. I’m reminded of, I kid you not, the Transformers’ Optimus Prime, who despite thousands–millions, in some treatments–of years of unceasing war has managed to remain relatively compassionate, if not always well-adjusted. Even though the most recent adaptation (not the movie, but the new comics) has him as being willing to accept Earth as a loss in the future, he still displays startling compassion and a willingness to fight for humanity.

    Yes, I did just compare Sydney Bristow to Optimus Prime.

  3. says


    I think it’s an essential part of the spy story that the spy have a dark side. It’s just not plausible that someone could go into a job where you might be assigned to kill people and who knows what else if you’re as bright and pleasant and sweet as Sydney always seems to be.

    I always saw it as her being better than her fellow spies, more psychologically resilient–that despite the horrors in her life, despite her own father trying to turn her into a weapon from a young age, she remained relatively normal.

    Personally, I don’t buy this. I’ve known some very resilient people who came from horrific childhoods – some people will tell you I am one myself, and I guess that’s true. Childhoods like that leave a mark on you that other people pick up. They don’t realize it, but they just sense that you’re different, so they treat you differently. So you fail to form friendships the way they do. You even form enemies differently. Everything is always different, and even little differences add up over time.

    Now, I have known people who had horrid childhoods and came out as sunny and happy as Sydney, and you know what? All of them mad as march hares. Turn your back, and they stabbed it – all the while smiling politely and asking if you’d like more coffee. But Sydney doesn’t seem to be that type, either.

    I know that’s more psychoanalysis than the show is worth, LOL, but my point is that something about the show always rang very false and very different from other spy shows, and this is what it is.

    I’d really like to see a woman who’s a little bit twisted kick some ass as a spy.

  4. Gategrrl says

    Don’t know if she’d fit the twisted mold, but Gwen on Torchwood comes across as more and more damaged as the show progresses. (not that it makes me like her any more… but, c’est la vie)

  5. SunlessNick says

    Thinking about this article, I’ve come to the conclusion that Alias seems to be jammed between two different spy genres: the type with long-term intrigue, demanding compromise of self and morality; and the type where adversaries are clear-cut and bounded, and choices are simple (James Bond could never hack it in Jack and Irina’s world).

    Most of the older characters fit neatly into the first mould, as do Dixon and the struggle against the Alliance, and Sloane’s additional agendas. Syd lies and betrays; even her sparky niceness seems like a persona in season 2, evidence more of a fractured identity than a strong moral centre.

    Vaughn and the Covenant fit into the latter mould, I think. Lauren I’d put in here too, and Sark when he’s around her. In season 4 Syd has a much more “pure fluff and good” air, and she becomes more of a girl than a woman (perhaps because, as Jack said, Vaughn’s a boy).

    Weiss and Will are the only ones that manage IMO to straddle the gap between the genres without falling in. But the longer the show went on, the more it drifted into the simpler patterns.

  6. marco says

    I guess I agree, especially because I view her as stupid since her willful breach of security in the pilot (a trite reason to make her realize SD-6 was the enemy if there ever was one) and as the episodes passed I NEVER believed she could be a spy in ANY way.

  7. says

    Hmm…I’m thinking of “hard-edged, f’d up female spy”, and found myself looking at Bridget Fonda’s character in “Point of No Return”. And then I realized that even though she was a pretty hard-edged person, part of her training was to never, ever show that.

    Which maybe ties into the concepts we have of men and women…we might see something a little off about a guy who we find likable and scary at the same time, but we find something WAY off about a woman who gives that vibe…so we train women (whether as a spy organization or a society) not to give off that vibe even if it’s there, to cover it up.

    My trouble was always to write a female character who was hard-edged without seeming like a bitch. I don’t know if I ever succeeded, but I came close with one character…Sheela Dayne. She was tough, she was ruthless, but she was mostly fair, and even if hardly anyone liked her, you had to respect her.
    (I know that last bit means nothing if you haven’t read my crappy Wheel of Time fanfic, but thought I’d mention it anyways. It does at least tie into the problem we–men, at least, but maybe you ladies too–have with accepting certain traits/behaviors for men but finding them out of line for women. Which gives me another thought…maybe the writers were afraid that if they wrote Sydney too hard-edged, the audience wouldn’t like her? That she wouldn’t be a sympathetic protagonist?)

  8. says

    Jay, I think that’s exactly it. If you write a female Jack Bauer or even Jack O’Neill, what’s perceived as “damaged but fascinating” in the men is just Bitch Steppin’ Out of Line for a woman. I’m not sure audiences are as sexist as TV makers think, but the PRESS certainly goes out of their way to use words like “butch” and “hard” – which, you know, would be compliments toward men but are insults toward women.

    So when you say your challenge is to write women who are tough but not “bitches”, I’d recommend letting your other characters give us clues how to see her. If the characters who are usually right and sensible don’t see her as a “bitch”, that tells the audience how you intend them to see her.

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