Spotlight on Alias: Francie Doesn’t Like Coffee Ice Cream

“Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream.”

This is the line that changed the way I watched TV. Let’s talk about it. But first, a quick Alias refresher course (spoilers, obviously):

Alias is a show about a spy. In the middle of season two, Sydney Bristow’s best friend Francie is killed by a woman who, thanks to a genetic alteration program called Project Helix, looks exactly like her. This woman, whose real name is Allison Doren, assumes Francie’s identity, which basically involves cooking a lot and dating their friend Will. She’s also secretly eavesdropping and generally ruining things. Will eventually figures all of this out, leaves a message on Sydney’s cell, and promptly gets stabbed by Allison—who, by the time Syd gets home a few minutes later, is already lounging on the couch with a book like she hasn’t just stabbed a guy. Sydney settles down on the couch, listens to her messages, and gets her spy face on.

And there it is. That line gives me chills every time.

“I just remembered: Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream.”

The whole of the show is in there somewhere. It’s in those relationships that have been turned on their heads. It’s in the slow way that Sydney Bristow loses almost everyone she cares about and almost everything that was ever normal. Forget about the fact that her best friend is dead and the woman she thought was her best friend is actually a double. Sydney Bristow will never be able to BUY COFFEE ICE CREAM again. And she obviously likes it, because she bought that whole pint with no intention of sharing it with her roommate, who doesn’t even like coffee ice cream. Most people dig into some ice cream when they’ve been dumped. Sydney digs into hers when her ex-KGB spy of a mother whacks her over the head with a hockey stick and steals the work of a prophet who called Sydney the Chosen One and then leaps off the building where Syd’s dad is being held prisoner by her former boss. Does this woman not deserve some ice cream? And she can’t have it. She will never again have a moment to herself in the quiet corner of her life that’s untouched by the spy game.

That corner’s gone now. The normal side of Sydney’s life has been shrinking since the pilot episode (“I don’t sell airplane parts. I never sold airplane parts”), and now it’s blown to bits. She has friends, she has family, she has multiple hot, smart, sensitive, funny men who want to date her. She does not have normal. The way the fight goes down—literally crashing through Sydney’s home and safe haven—is a testament to that. She’s just rebuilt her life after finding her fiancé dead in his bathtub, his apartment wrecked. And now here’s Will in the bathtub and here’s a whole new broken house. And here’s Hong Kong, but that’s another post.

And I haven’t even touched on the supreme creepiness of watching Francie talk about Francie. The look on her face. The truth is out there between them the minute Allison says Francie’s name. The fact that she’s holding a gun on Sydney also kind of blows her cover, but it’s the name that gets me. For the first time, we can all acknowledge together that Francie is dead: sweet culinary Francie who wore her hair in pigtails and whose mouth was this big.

She died right after she started hooking up with Bradley Cooper. Life isn’t fair. Here’s to you, Francie! I didn’t like when you almost eloped with Charlie in Vegas, but I liked that you painted your restaurant walls red because Jack Bristow told you to. Always do what Jack Bristow tells you to.

So now Francie’s killer is wearing her face and standing in the doorway with a gun. Everything about this moment gives Allison the advantage. She towers over Syd, who’s still loading her gun and still processing what just went down. Even when shaken up, Sydney’s fast, but Allison is somehow faster and somehow totally calm. Merrin Dungey NAILS IT. Her voice is so soft. It’s terrifying. Even the look on her face when she realizes her mistake is less, “Oh I’m in trouble now,“ and more, “So THIS is when I kill her.”

Allison’s emotionlessness feels especially empty given that she stabbed Will ten minutes ago and promptly broke down in sobs. It’s like she’s been drained of what little humanity Will managed to rub off on her, and all that’s left is a cold robo-spy who’s ready for this thing to be over. In contrast to Allison’s creepy ability to detach from her feelings, we have Sydney, who channels hers. Relationships are Sydney Bristow’s biggest liability, but they also save her life. Will loves Sydney enough to call her first when he figures something out, and Sydney loved Francie enough to keep track of the details. The way she says, “No she doesn’t,” is just charged with love. Present tense, preserving-Francie’s-memory, you’re-gonna-pay-for-this love. Jennifer Garner is the best.

By now I’ve forgotten to breathe. This scene just sucks the air out of the room every time, and then all at once it explodes. The fight that follows is straight-up gold: best of the series by far, and probably best of a lot of series. A little catharsis and a whole lot of pain, and backflips, and a perfectly restrained soundtrack.

Alias was at its very best in this moment. It always worked best when the big, crazy spy games had real human implications, and I don’t think they ever pulled off that parallel better than they did right here. Genetic doubling is bizarre, but it feels so punched-in-the-gut personal, with ramifications that change the show for good. Half a season has been building to this confrontation, and watching the house fall in on itself is quiet, raw, taut perfection.

All this from coffee ice cream. The idea that she’s supposed to know such random facts about Francie makes Allison feel so much more invasive, and that’s all the writers need to sell her betrayal: that one thud in the middle of the emptiness. “Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream,” on any other show, would be an offhanded comment. Maybe on a sitcom it would get a laugh track. Only on Alias could such an inane sentence be so tense and monumental.  It kind of does make me laugh, but only because they pulled it off.

4 comments

  1. Pardon my digging up the mothballs here, but so much this! I marathoned “Alias” for the first time earlier this year, and while some of it drove me batty, this moment? Was phenomenal. The way the show manipulated all these relationships was both infuriating and heart wrenching. My jaw definitely hit the floor at this point.

    (No one on “Alias” was allowed to have nice things. Except for Irina and Arvin. But then… you know.)

    1. Ahhh I’m so jealous that you got to watch it for the first time! I fell off the COUCH at the end of this episode and stayed there thinking about life for a while. Alias definitely twisted relationships like nobody’s business.
      Ohhh, Sloane and Irina. So fascinating, so maddening.

      1. Well, I’m pretty jealous you get to watch The X-Files (and all the season 6 and 7 craziness) for the first time, too, so I guess we’re about even. 😉

        Oh man, the Jack-Irina-Arvin stuff totally messed me up in a fantastic way. Three cheers for the boomers getting stuff done. 😉

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