As I keep posting these moments, you will notice that many of them will fall into a category I like to call “Actors Who Make Me Cry Whenever They Cry.” At the top of that list is Jennifer Garner. I watched Alias for five years, and whenever that woman let the tears fall, I found myself crying right along with her.
While Garner has some incredibly emotional scenes in the Alias pilot, the first scene to make me an emotional wreck came a few episodes later in “A Broken Heart.” With Sarah McLachlan’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Angel” (before it became overplayed) working its magic in the background, Garner allows us to see deep into the aching soul of Sydney Bristow, a woman pushed to her breaking point from bearing the weight of too many secrets, too many betrayals, too many lies, and too many needless deaths.
This scene proves to me that there’s never been a better crier on television than Garner. She’s not afraid to look vulnerable, to let her nose run and her mascara streak her cheeks and her shaking hands mess up her hair. And in doing so, she allows us to connect with Sydney, to see her as a real woman with vulnerabilities and a heart that’s perhaps too big for the work she’s been called to do. When she says, “He was lied to, and now he’s dead,” with such genuine devastation in her voice, I get choked up every time.
What I love about this scene is the way Garner makes Sydney—one of the strongest female characters to ever grace television screens—seem so small and so normal. She’s not a robot, and that’s what makes her such a beautiful character. Alias would never have worked as a show if Garner couldn’t make you feel the humanity at the heart of this character.
The range of emotions in this scene is so vast. It begins with sadness and anger that Jack would abandon Sydney again (though it’s really so much more complicated than that). Then it becomes a scene about loss—both for Sydney’s friend and for her sense of self. Garner sells her identity crisis so painfully well that I always laugh and cry along with her when she throws her beeper into the ocean—one act of defiance for a woman who feels as if she’s losing her ability to stand on her own two feet.
But when she can’t stand on her feet, this scene introduces the one person she could lean on, her greatest source of strength—Vaughn. I love the total sincerity in Michael Vartan’s delivery of “I’ve seen who you are.” Vaughn never wants Sydney to lose that humanity that makes everyone—including the audience—fall in love with her. And when the darkness threatens to overwhelm her, it’s wonderful to see that she finally has someone who can be her anchor, her guiding light, and her guardian angel, helping her find her best self because he believes in and loves her for exactly who she is—the only honest relationship she has at this point.
When Sydney grabs Vaughn’s hand and neither pulls away (despite the fact that they could be killed just for being seen together), I can’t help but cry because it’s the beginning of such a beautiful relationship. Sydney may carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, but Vaughn is the one person she can go to who will help her carry that weight. She may be incredibly strong—and he may be drawn to that strength—but in Vaughn she’s found the one person she can let her guard down with. Everyone needs a hand to hold when they’re at their lowest, and it’s a very emotional thing to see a character as beautiful as Sydney Bristow discover that she has that in her life for the first time.
Ahhhhh! I knew when you said Alias that it would be this moment. This is one of my all-time favorite Alias scenes. It’s at the absolute heart of who Sydney is, how we see her, how Vaughn sees her, and what they can be for each other. You covered it all: her vulnerability, her messed up relationship with her dad, her fear of losing herself in this job. There is SO MUCH GOING ON HERE. I love that. This is how most people cry, I think–we don’t cry over one thing. We wait until one thing sets us off, and then we cry over everything. It’s real and complicated and we can totally feel how overwhelmed Sydney is by her life and how much she wants to do the right thing. Her fears tell us what she values.
Jennifer Garner kills it here. She cries as well as anyone on TV, and I just wish more people knew how good she is. The way she chokes on her own tears laughing when she throws the beeper into the Pacific–that’s just about the most realistic convergence of emotions ever. It always makes me cry-laugh too 🙂
I love what you said about the realism of her crying over so many different things. It’s so relatable because emotional breakdowns often come after things keep building up and piling on one another until we can’t handle them anymore. I remember watching this scene for the first time and being blown away by how much I felt like I understood exactly who Sydney was at her core through this one scene—and how much I loved exactly who she was.
THIS SCENE. Jennifer Garner really is a good crier. This was the first scene to really break my heart on the show (and so, of course, the one that made me love it). Everything about it just works so perfectly together. Even though I watched it after Angel became associated with sad animal commercials, it was still an incredibly effective music choice that only served to make Sydney’s speech and Vartan’s response that much more emotional.
“I watched it after Angel became associated with sad animal commercials”
I’m so happy I’m not the only one who can only think of depressing animal commercials when I hear anything by Sarah McLachlan now! 😉
Jennifer Garner never got enough credit for how brilliant she was when given emotional material. This scene, her confession to Dixon about the true nature of SD-6 in “Phase One,” and her breakdown against her car in Season 3 (before Vaughn hugs her) make me want to hug Sydney more than I’ve ever wanted to hug another fictional character, and that says a lot about just how good Garner is.