There’s Only One: A Letter to Sydney Bristow

This is the latest in my collection of letters to female characters who’ve inspired me throughout my life as a fangirl. If you have a character you’d like to write a letter to, click here for details on the book of letters I’m compiling!

Sydney red hair


Dear Sydney,

When I was in high school, my friends and I were talking about our dream jobs, and one of them turned to me and asked, “Katie, you want to be a CIA agent, right?”

No, I didn’t want to be a CIA agent. But I did want to be you. I wanted to be you so badly that apparently my friends thought I wanted to follow your career path, too. But your career path was probably the only thing about you I never tried to emulate. (I think I made up for that by choosing to major in English in college like you did.) I was the only teenager I knew who owned not just one but two black pantsuits, which I often wore with turtlenecks. I wore my hair in a lot of low, sleek ponytails while I was in high school (and I continue to do so today). And I don’t think my love for coffee ice cream developed by coincidence.

High school is often the time when we desperately search for role models, for people to help us develop into the best adults we can be. I was lucky: I had inspiring teachers, I had great family members, and I had you. When other kids in my class dressed up as Lindsay Lohan for “Celebrity Dress-Up Day” during Spirit Week, I dressed up as you—not Jennifer Garner, but Sydney Britsow, complete with one of my aforementioned pantsuits. I got more than a few strange looks and there was even some snickering behind my back that day, but I didn’t care. I walked through the halls confidently—with my homemade CIA badge proudly displayed—because I was channeling you, and you walked with confidence and poise through things much worse than rooms full of judgmental teenagers. Thank you, for helping me to learn to walk with that same confidence and poise even when I wasn’t wearing a pantsuit or homemade badge.

You were a part of my life during some of my most formative years. Alias premiered when I was in eighth grade, and it ended just weeks before my high school graduation. During that time, my love for your story introduced me to fan videos and the concept of spoilers (which I gobbled up like candy). It inspired me to create notebooks full of collages with pictures from my favorite episodes and folders full of (pretty terrible) fan fiction. It brought me to the SD-1 forums, where I learned the many ways fandom can connect people from all over the world and can help us all feel a little less alone. Alias was the first TV fandom I was ever a part of, so—while I might not have followed your path to the CIA—you did end up influencing my future in a very real way. And I will forever be grateful for that.

I might be biased, but I don’t think you get enough credit, Sydney. You were so much more than just a superspy with amazing fighting skills (which is what most people say about you when you’re remembered); you were a female character who embodied the idea that strength and vulnerability aren’t mutually exclusive concepts long before it became more common in the media. And watching you show that to the world had a profound impact on me as a teenager and continues to have a profound impact on me today.

Continue reading

Fangirl Thursday: A Perfect One-Two Punch

The only thing better than a great season finale is a great season premiere to build on the foundation laid in that finale. It’s a perfect one-two punch: the shock that often comes with a brilliant finale and the catharsis often granted by an equally brilliant premiere.

In my years as a dedicated TV fan, I’ve seen plenty of great finales and premieres, especially from mythology-heavy shows like Once Upon a Time, Orphan Black, and Lost. However, I’ve never seen a more powerful finale/premiere duo than the knockout combination of Alias’s “The Telling”/“The Two.” Those two episodes set the standard for me in terms of shocking cliffhangers and premieres that dealt perfectly with their fallout.

Alias’s second season was pure brilliance. And its finale was exactly the kind of ending such a phenomenal season deserved. It featured one twist after another (“Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream…”) until the final minutes gave way to what I still consider the most blindsiding cliffhanger I’ve ever watched.

Continue reading

Fangirl Thursday: Making an Impact

parks prom

We’ve all seen those lists popping up on our Facebook feeds—“15 Movies that Changed My Life,” “10 Books that Stayed with Me,” “10 Albums that Have Defined My Life,” etc. We’ve probably even made one or more of those lists ourselves. (I’ve done both the book and movies ones.) But I haven’t seen any of these “challenges” devoted to television.

That’s about to change.

I am the woman I am in no small part due to the movies I’ve watched and the books I’ve read in my 26 years. However, I’m also the woman I am because of the TV shows I’ve watched and the television characters I’ve loved. More than any other form of media, television has given me characters and stories to grow up with, to be inspired by, and to learn from over the course of many years.

Therefore, today I’m making a list of the 10 TV shows that have had the deepest impact on me. And I’m challenging all of my fellow nerds to make their own lists and post them in the comments!

1. Sesame Street: My love for television as a medium and my respect for it as a positive force in people’s lives can be traced back to mornings spent watching Sesame Street with my mom. It was the first TV show I was ever exposed to, and I want it to be the first TV show I expose my own children to someday. I love Sesame Street not only for the things it taught me (Spanish, letters and numbers, the continents…) but also for how happy it made me as kid and still makes me as an adult every time I see Grover or Big Bird or Cookie Monster spreading joy to a new generation of kids.

2. Boy Meets World: This was the first show to teach me that a piece of media can mean different things to you at different times in your life. I grew up with these characters not only when the show first aired but also through reruns that seemed to air just when I needed them in high school, in college, and even now. Boy Meets World’s series finale is one I treasure as an adult far more than I did as a preteen watching it for the first time, and it gave me some of the most profound advice any TV show could ever hope to give: “Dream. Try. Do good.”

Continue reading

Fangirl Thursday: Playlists Full of Feelings

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of playlists on my iPod: “Workout Mix,” “Road Trip 2013,” “Yoga Time,” “Alias Songs,” “Extraordinary,” “Perhaps I Would,” “I Will Always Find You”…

Why yes, I do have multiple playlists devoted to songs that remind of my favorite fictional characters and couples. Doesn’t everyone?

Music makes us feel, so it’s always made sense to me that the right song would make me think about the characters and relationships that make me feel, too. It’s what we do as fans; we take the things we’re passionate about and make deeper connections with them than the ones we’re given during the small amount of time we spend in the movie theater, reading, or watching TV.

It all began—as so many things in my life as a fangirl did—with Alias. Season Three of Alias was a time of immense angst, so naturally, ever sad song reminded me of the time Vaughn spent thinking Sydney was dead or the time Sydney spent watching Vaughn be married to someone else. From the entire More Than You Think You Are Matchbox 20 album to Coldplay’s “The Scientist” and Garth Brooks’s “The Dance,” I spent my entire sophomore year of high school listening to angst-ridden songs—not because I was an angry teenager but because I was a fangirl.

More than 10 years later, I’m still the kind of fangirl who hears a song and immediately finds a character it relates to. And when I do, I add it to the playlist. Some of my playlists (like “Extraordinary,” aka my Castle/Beckett mix) also have songs used on the TV shows or in the movies themselves, but I love discovering new songs that unexpectedly give me all the feelings.

Today I want to share my top five songs from my three most-played fangirl playlists, ones devoted to Castle and Beckett (from Castle), as well as Snow and Charming and Emma and Hook (both from Once Upon a Time).

Extraordinary: My Castle/Beckett Playlist
1. “Shake It Out” (Florence and the Machine)
And I am done with my graceless heart, so tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart…
This song will always be Kate Beckett’s anthem to me. I discovered it right around the time “Kill Shot” aired back in Season Four, and its empowering theme of moving beyond the demons we carry with us seemed to be a perfect emotional companion for everything Beckett was going through in that episode.

Continue reading

Small Screen Style: Who’s Your Fictional Fashion Inspiration?

When I was 15, I bought myself a black pantsuit and a pinstripe skirt suit. No, I didn’t have ambitions of running for political office. I just wanted to dress like Sydney Bristow, the hero of ABC’s espionage thriller, Alias. Sydney wore a lot of suits and a lot of turtlenecks, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to look at my wardrobe from my sophomore year in high school and see it filled with blazers, black dress pants, and fitted turtlenecks. Even today, whenever I wear an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, I feel like I’m harkening back to Sydney’s climactic last scene in the Season Two finale, “The Telling.”

What started with Sydney has grown to include fashion inspirations from all corners of the television landscape in the 10 years since I bought that first pantsuit. We all have those TV characters whose styles we envy and ultimately try to emulate, with varying degrees of success.

When we dress like our favorite characters, we channel a little bit of their personalities into our daily lives, too. Wearing a red leather jacket might make you feel like you’re giving yourself a dose of Emma Swan’s strength. Putting on a killer pair of shoes could give you the feeling of being as fashion-forward as Carrie Bradshaw. Investing in a new pair of thick-framed black glasses might allow you to believe you can be as smart as Orphan Black’s Cosima.

My closet is filled with wardrobe pieces inspired by TV characters I love, but there are four whose styles I most often imitate when I want a boost of confidence.

1. Jess Day (New Girl)

jess day dress

Jess’s style leans more towards the “cute” side of her “cute and quirky” personality. It’s defined by flirty dresses and skirts, polka dots and stripes, vintage-inspired pajamas, and plenty of pairs of flats.
My Favorite “Jess-Inspired” Look: A fit and flare dress with a cardigan and ballet flats. If the weather is too cold for dresses, substitute with jeans and a polka-dotted sweater.

Continue reading

Daily Dose of Feelings #25

Some TV scenes will always have a special place in our hearts for reasons even we can’t explain. They’re the ones we watch over and over until we’re pretty sure our computers or DVRs (or VHS tapes of episodes back in the day) are going to break from being rewound to the same place 100 times in a row. They’re the ones that we think of first when we hear the name of a TV show years after its series finale and remember the times when we were obsessed with that show. They’re the scenes that make us cry because they remind us of just how much we can love a show, a character, or a relationship.

When I think of the years I spent adoring (aka obsessing over) Alias, one of the first scenes I think about is from Season Three’s “Prelude,” when Vaughn helps Sydney escape to Rome and tells her, “even though everything’s changed, some thing don’t.” My 15-year-old self probably watched this scene 50 times within the first week after it aired, and I cried every time.

For those of us who were emotionally invested in Sydney and Vaughn’s relationship, the beginning of Alias’s third season was a rough time. We had to deal with Sydney’s two-year disappearance, Vaughn’s marriage, and the constant presence of his too-perfect wife, Lauren. By the time “Prelude” aired, things were looking pretty hopeless for Sydney and Vaughn “shippers” like myself.

But then this scene happened, and suddenly it was like we could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Some things hadn’t changed, and the biggest one of those things was Vaughn’s willingness to do anything to protect Sydney. When Michael Vartan delivers the line, “I’m not going to lose you twice,” you can feel Vaughn’s guilt over losing Sydney the first time as well as the conviction and love that I’d hoped was still in his heart. Vartan is so good in this scene. Vaughn’s inner conflict feels so real, and I love that—for a brief moment—the conflict goes away and all that’s left is love for the one woman he’d do anything for.

And how could he keep from doing anything for Sydney when she’s as heartbreakingly vulnerable as she is in this scene? When she tells Vaughn that her life is a disaster, I tear up every time. And her reactions to Vaughn throughout this scene are so genuine and beautiful. Her tears feel earned because we’ve been through so much with this couple, and we know how much it means to Sydney to hear the man she’ll always love tell her that he still has her back the way he did so long ago.

Hope is such a beautiful emotion to feel, and that’s what this scene is all about. When I first watched Sydney and Vaughn hold each other like they did so many times before, I felt so much hope. And when I watched Vaughn lean in to Sydney—his desire gorgeously written all over his face—I felt his hope, the hope of a man who wished for one second that he could go back in time to a moment when he could kiss her. And even after Sydney pulled away—her adorable smile trying to shine through her tears—I still felt hope. If they could have this moment, then maybe they could find their way back to each other.

This isn’t the best Alias scene ever. It’s not even the best Sydney/Vaughn scene. But it’s the one that holds the most precious spot in my heart because it gave me hope as a viewer at a time when I was looking for something positive from a relationship that used to make me so happy. Hope is a powerful thing, and that’s what this scene is all about.

Daily Dose of Feelings #8

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.