Alias: How Jack Bristow went out with a bang
A decade after the finale, EW looks back on Jack's death with Victor Garber and EP Jeff Pinkner
Alias has been missing for 10 years. The J.J. Abrams drama walked into the sunset on May 22, 2006, but not without making a few painful sacrifices — none of which cut deeper than the death of Victor Garber’s flinty but devoted spy dad, Jack Bristow.
In the heart of Rambaldi’s tomb, Jack, Sydney (Jennifer Garner), and Vaughn (Michael Vartan) confronted Sloane (Ron Rifkin) in a standoff that ended in gunfire. Sloane shot Jack; Sydney retaliated by shooting Sloane. At the news that Sydney’s mother Irina (Lena Olin) was assembling nuclear warheads, a critically wounded Jack convinced Sydney and Vaughn to leave him behind — then, rather than wait for the medevac, made his way back into the tomb, where the Rambaldi device had rendered Sloane immortal. But Jack had the last word — specifically, this killer final sentence: “You beat death, Arvin, but you couldn’t beat me.” Detonating a charge of C-4, Jack trapped Sloane underground for eternity.
To celebrate the anniversary of the explosive series finale, EW spoke to Garber and executive producer Jeff Pinkner — who co-wrote the episode and went on to executive-produce Fringe — about crafting an end befitting Alias’ most complicated character.
When it came time to map out the series finale, Jack dying to protect Sydney seemed like the inevitable conclusion to a five-season journey.
JEFF PINKNER: The arc of the series was this woman, who had found out that her entire life was a lie, choosing the life that she wanted and working towards that life: marrying Vaughn and having a kid and retiring. And the idea that Jack would sacrifice himself so that she could bring down Sloane, bring down Sark (David Anders), bring down the bad guys, was an idea that came very, very late, towards the end, but then instantly just felt right.
VICTOR GARBER: It seemed like a logical way to finish up. The main thing was how Sydney was going to carry on with all of the drama in her life, and although it would have been nice to have been a grandfather walking along the beach, it was not meant to be, and I think it was the right choice. That Sydney got rid of Arvin and he got rid of me — it was really kind of perfect.
PINKNER: Jack tried at every moment to protect his daughter, to control her world, to make it, despite the crazy things that she was doing, as safe for her as humanly possible. And this was the first moment where he realized that he couldn’t do that any longer. He had done his job as a parent and helped nurture this incredible woman, and finally he had to let her go. He stood up to see her off, to make her believe that he was strong enough that she could go without feeling the pull back towards him. And then the moment she’d gone over the hill, he just collapsed. He couldn’t do it anymore.
The Bristows’ father-daughter dynamic drove Alias from the start: a credit not only to the show’s patient unfolding of their history, but to Garber and Garner’s real-life friendship.
GARBER: The genius of J.J.’s creation was that it was one of the first of its kind, really. It was a very complicated spy story that was really about a family who happened to be spies. The heart of it was the family.
PINKNER: Victor and Jennifer are just such spectacular actors and they in real life formed a very real and meaningful relationship which couldn’t help but come across on screen, so there was a really deep foundation of love between them.
GARBER: I think the casting of Jennifer and myself was just a happy accident, if there is such a thing. We had an incredible bond from the minute we met, and I think that resonated into the show.
PINKNER: The pilot dramatized Jack and Sydney’s relationship as super, super fractured, and that’s where it had become by that point in her life, but over time we started to reveal their history. We saw Jack training Sydney as a young girl to be this superspy, and she, as she started to remember that, took that to mean that her father had trained her from a young age and had chosen this path for her. Nobody wants to believe that their parents are really choosing or designing their life for them in an evil way, but what she came to realize was that Jack was actually preparing her and protecting her from this world that he knew to be really dangerous, including her own mother. So what she took to be really evil actions she came to see as actually really quite loving. We continued that all the way up to the finale.
In fact, in the scene right before Jack ultimately convinced Sydney to go on, despite the fact that he knew he was dying, we showed the first time that he learned that she was working for SD-6 and had sort of unintentionally been sucked into his world, as much as he had tried to avoid it. I think their relationship felt resonant because it felt real. Many loving parents do their best to protect their kids and ultimately realize that they can’t, and the kids are going to choose who they’re going to become. There was a wonderful line in the finale that I sincerely don’t remember whether Drew Goddard or I wrote — we wrote the finale together. It was Jack saying something to Sydney like, “There is no one in the world who can do the things that you can do, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.” And I think that’s exactly the sentiment that you want to hear on both sides of that relationship.
In typical Jack Bristow fashion, his last confrontation with Sloane was as cool as it was emotional.
PINKNER: Sloane’s end was inspired by the spectacular Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone episode [“Time Enough at Last”]: the man who just wants all the time in the world to read every book and then finally gets it, and, ironically, his eyeglasses break. What he viewed as this gift just became the ultimate punishment. So what’s the perfect way for Arvin Sloane to die? There is no perfect way for Arvin Sloane to die. The perfect comeuppance for him is to be buried alive for all time, and, given the magic of Rambaldi devices, we were able to do that. How does Jack win? He wins by taking down his chief nemesis, the corrupting force in Sydney’s life. And the way to take down that man is to show him, “You cheated death, but you couldn’t cheat me.” It’s a pretty badass line.
GARBER: I liked that Jack was a badass. I’ve had moments in Legends of Tomorrow where I’ve sort of done a Jack Bristow moment and it’s always, “Oh, I know what this feels like.” I liked that he was so smart and that he was able to see a lot of different ways out of a situation.
Jack’s death came in the middle of Sydney’s final fight with her mother, which Pinkner says was a deliberate contrast between the parent who put Sydney first and the one who didn’t. Irina didn’t make it out of the fight alive.
PINKNER: We explored all of the options [in terms of which characters to kill]. Some of them would have felt opportunistic and would have felt like an easy means of tugging at heartstrings just for the purpose of almost manipulating the audience. Like Dixon (Carl Lumbly): As much as anyone, Dixon was an innocent victim of this world. We wanted it to feel much more inevitable and authentic, which was Jack.
So many shows get canceled without a clear plan in mind for how to end the series. This one had the luxury of knowing it was ending and being in control of the storytelling. Some episodes are really hard to figure out, but this one, once we knew what it was we wanted to do, felt really inevitable and came relatively easily. The intercutting of Jack and Sloane and Sydney and Irina just felt so natural.
The Alias finale returned to a theme that the show had explored since its first season: the debate between fate and free will. By making Sloane immortal but letting Jack win, the show split the difference.
PINKNER: It would be very sad to believe that everything in one’s life is just destined by fate, but clearly, as much as you try to create events, there’s a certain amount of — call it fate, call it luck, call it just synchronicity or fortuity. And so much of the show was about the intersection of those things. Ultimately, we wanted the grand theme for Sydney to be that finally, given this confluence of events, she was able to achieve the life she wanted to live. Even with Dixon coming back and trying to draw her back in and her refusing the offer. As writers, we imagined he would do this every couple of years. He would come to her with a case, and probably eventually, in spite of herself, she would either provide advice or go back in the field, because that’s what you want to believe of your heroes. But it would be her choice, if she did. It wouldn’t be out of a sense of obligation. The quest for Rambaldi devices for Sloane was sort of: How can you enlist fate on your side? How can you control fate? And for Jack, the flashback to finding out Sydney was working at the bank was about the fact that despite his best efforts to protect her from this world, she chose it. Is that fate? Is that just circumstance? You can’t really answer that question, but you can certainly ask it again and again and again in fiction.
The cast cried even more than you did.
GARBER: It was a very emotional day for all of us, Jennifer and I particularly. Jennifer still won’t watch [the finale]. I just actually had dinner with her in London, and we talked about it. Five years — we were very grateful to have that much time to do the show, but it does go by quickly. And often when you’re doing it, you don’t realize how fast it’s going until it’s over. And then you think, “Wait a minute, I’m not ready for this to be over.” That was kind of the duality of it, because although we were all ready to move on in various ways, it was very hard to say goodbye.