It Still Stings: Vaughn’s Marriage to Lauren Cheapened the Central Romance of Alias

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It Still Stings: Vaughn’s Marriage to Lauren Cheapened the Central Romance of Alias

Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:

Premiering at the end of September 2001, ABC’s spy series Alias hit at a time when American enthusiasm for national security workers could not be higher. Centered around secret agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), who was recruited out of college to join a covert branch of the CIA, the thrilling series spent its first couple seasons serving up delicious twists like soft serve ice cream, starting with the jaw-dropper that Sydney was actually not working for the CIA like she thought, but for a terrorist organization called SD-6. In just the pilot episode, we learned that Sydney and her coworkers were unwitting participants in a massive conspiracy to take over the world—and that her father, Jack (Victor Garber), who she’d thought sold airplane parts, was actually a high-ranking SD-6 official. 

Enter Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), an actual CIA agent who, after telling Sydney the truth about her job, recruits her to work as a double agent to report on SD-6 to the U.S. government. Vaughn serves as her handler, assigning her objectives and serving as the voice in her ear when she’s out on her dramatic, high-stakes missions (always under an alter ego, hence the name of the show). 

Almost immediately, romantic tension crackled between Sydney and Vaughn, but the two kept it strictly professional as long as their roles were those of asset and handler. Throughout the first season, it was clear that the two longed to be together almost as much as viewers did, but it wasn’t until midway through the second season, when the CIA finally raided the SD-6 offices in perhaps one of the best post-Super Bowl episodes of TV to ever air, that they finally gave in to their mutual attraction. 

Unfortunately, cutting off an arm of the monster did not actually kill the monster, and before the dust of the SD-6 offices even finished settling, the audience was hit with a devastating blow—the reveal that Sydney’s roommate and best friend, Francie (Merrin Dungey), had been murdered and replaced with an evil double, courtesy of the powers-that-be at the Alliance of Twelve, the parent company of SD-6. 

The second half of the season was a slow burn of agonizing realization as Sydney eventually figured out that the call was coming from inside the house. In the season finale, Sydney and Not-Francie pummel their house into the ground in a knock-down-drag-out fight that leaves Not-Francie dead and Sydney unconscious. In the final moments of the episode, Sydney wakes up with no idea where she is thinking mere hours have passed, only to learn from a stricken Vaughn that she’s been presumed dead for two years—and that in that time, he’s gotten married to someone else.

Cue Lauren Reed (Melissa George), Vaughn’s wife who is introduced at the beginning of Season 3 as the NSC liaison to the CIA, because everyone in the world of Alias is either involved in national security, a terrorist, or, well, Bradley Cooper. For a while, it plays out rather predictably, with Lauren feeling jealous of Sydney, Sydney feeling jealous of Lauren, and Vaughn making lots of strained expressions as he deals with his Big Complicated Feelings about having to work with both his wife and his presumed-dead ex-girlfriend—until it is revealed that Lauren is also a double agent, this time working for the Covenant, the terrorist organization that disappeared Sydney for two years, used her as a weapon, and then erased her memories.

Apparently Lauren was tasked by the Covenant almost immediately after Sydney’s fight with Francie to seduce and marry Vaughn in order to gain intel on Sydney. It’s a slightly odd plan considering that the Covenant already had Sydney herself in their possession, but whatever. That’s not what we’re here for. 

The problem is that in making Lauren a double agent for the Covenant, the show wound up cheapening Sydney and Vaughn’s entire romance. Two years may seem like a long time to be in a coma (which, of course, was not really a coma after all), but it feels like a pretty tight timeline to discover Sydney was missing (yes, the Covenant faked her death, but if TV audiences know not to write anyone off until they see a body, surely the characters on a show full of doppelgangers and conspiracies and double agents should too), exhaust all avenues looking for her, go through the cycle of grief, quit the CIA and start a new career, meet someone new, and marry her. 

Of course, in real life, everyone grieves and loves in different ways, and it’s not up to those on the sidelines to judge how much time is enough time to move on. But this isn’t real life, and the way Lauren’s plotline unfolded made it feel like Vaughn’s devotion to Sydney was much shallower than he claimed. He tells Sydney that he grieved her for six months and quit the CIA before moving on with his life, but since we don’t see that unfold, we’re more inclined to side with Sydney, who says she would never have given up on him so quickly. And before we get a chance to truly sympathize with Vaughn’s point of view, we learn it was all a sham, relieving us of the obligation to even try to get on board with Vaughn and Lauren.  

After discovering the truth about his wife, Vaughn goes into a betrayal spiral and becomes hell-bent on taking Lauren down, robbing viewers of the opportunity to ever fully understand why he felt the need to get married in the first place. It just all felt rushed and wrong, not because Vaughn moved on or got married, but because we never got a chance to fully buy into it before we learned we didn’t have to. In a show built on the premise that nothing is as it seems, it was crucial that its central relationship felt real enough to balance out the wildly twisting world in which it was set. But when Vaughn’s whole marriage turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors, it felt like the only way it could have upended what Sydney and Vaughn had was if Sydney and Vaughn were never as substantial as we thought they were. 

Once Vaughn learned where Lauren’s true loyalties lie, Alias shifted back to its familiar old dynamic: Sydney and Vaughn against the world. Only this time, their relationship felt far more fragile than before, the foundation of trust between them shattered and then hastily rebuilt, held together with spit and chewing gum that wasn’t fooling anyone. And for the rest of the series, they never felt as strong as they did in those first two seasons.  

If Vaughn and Lauren had been real—if he had dealt with his grief over losing Sydney by moving on with someone who understood and helped him heal—it would have been painful, but at least understandable. We all yearn for connection, and it’s hard to grieve alone. People cope with grief in different ways, and even Sydney could eventually understand why Vaughn would seek out companionship in her absence. 

But instead, he dealt with her loss by clinging to a mirage. By deciding to invalidate Vaughn and Lauren’s marriage, the show also left viewers without any reason to invest in it, leaving us only with Sydney’s feelings of betrayal at what seemed like a pretty abrupt heel-turn from the man she’d considered her partner. Vaughn and Sydney did eventually prevail over Lauren and the Covenant, but after all the cracks that she’d exposed in their relationship, it felt like we all lost something special, and never got it back. 

Lauren Thoman is a Nashville-based freelance pop culture writer whose writing has appeared in numerous online outlets including Parade, Vulture, and Collider. She is also the author of the novel I’ll Stop the World. Find her at her website, or on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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