Alias

Alias – ‘So It Begins…’ (1×02)

MICHAEL VAUGHN: This is not about cutting off an arm of the monster. This is about killing the monster.

The big picture. This is something we are going to see our erstwhile heroine Sydney Bristow struggle with a great deal as we work our way through Alias, and right from the beginning of So It Begins…, it is very clear that Syd is way too close to the mess she’s involved in. This is understandable. Her fiancee has been murdered, she has found out she is working for a global crime syndicate rather than the US government, and to top it all off her Dad has been lying to her all her life. If Season 1 of Alias is about anything, broadly, it’s about Sydney coming to accept the life she has always been destined for.

So It Begins… honestly has quite a task on its hands. Truth Be Told remains one of the strongest pilot episodes of a genre TV show in US TV history. JJ Abrams established the premise of his retro-futurist spy saga while taking his protagonist on a real journey over the course of that opening hour. How does a second episode, meant to kickstart the first season after the introduction of the pilot, possibly measure up? So It Begins… as a title almost feels like a nod to that very question. You can almost feel Abrams, who returns to pen this one, saying “yeah, I know, how do I follow *that*?”.

What he does is, essentially, re-establish the mission statement he put across in Truth Be Told, by throwing the audience right into the thick of Syd’s life and work in a similar fashion the pilot did.

The very fact So It Begins… introduces a recurring primer at the top of the episode, which will evolve and morph over the course of the first season and a half, proves just how detailed the construction of Alias is, even while on the surface it is B-movie escapism brought to the small screen. Most shows conventionally simply have a ‘previously on…’ segment catching viewers up and while Alias will employ this, it doesn’t ditch the primer for a long time. Abrams talks in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion about the third layer of storytelling which was employed in Alias from the get go:

You can simply go for the eye candy and obvious intrigue of this girl who goes on spy missions. But if you watch the show, you can quickly understand and relate to Sydney’s emotional state. There’s questions about Sydney’s mother and father, this forbidden relationship with Agent Vaughn, questions about what Sloane knows about her and why he cares for her. Those questions are a layer deeper than that first level of the beautiful girl going on missions and leading a double life. The third layer is anticipating things and asking questions, getting to understand the different players in this world. It’s sort of like quicksand – if you get into it, you’ll sink into the depths of it.

Many, admittedly, would have tuned into Alias for the first layer, and it becomes particularly apparent the network at least have one eye on this the moment Jennifer Garner, mid-mission, strips off a bland maid’s outfit underneath which is *the* most skin-tight, rubber dress which doesn’t leave a great deal to the imagination. Syd will be sexualised over and over again—perhaps culminating in the opening sequence of ‘Phase One’ in Season 2—but this often is counterbalanced by the depth which you do find in Alias, and is apparent in Abrams’ writing here. If not quite as assured as the previous episode, So It Begins… once again feels confident in how it tells its story, even if Abrams is already jugging a lot of aspects.

The pre-credits sequence alone moves between three different time periods, establishing a connected threat which will ripple across toward the climactic beat of the episode – her new dynamic with CIA handler Vaughn, and introducing one of the earliest villains: Ineni Hassan, a quite ruthless Middle Eastern arms dealer. So It Begins… wastes very little time in both reminding viewers that Sydney is a kick-ass super spy with a thousand disguises, that she is a double-agent working to bring down SD-6, and that she’s still in college. All of this is accomplished in the first 6-8 minutes and, much like the pilot, there’s a certain breathlessness to it.

Abrams does also, early on, manage to lay down the central theme, as previously mentioned: Syd’s inability to accept and understand the scope of what she’s dealing with, given how tethered she still remains to the murder of her fiancee Danny. The moment where Vaughn shows her the map of SD-6 connections, after making her draw what she thinks is the map only for her to realise the hydra is much bigger than she ever imagined, remains one of the signature moments in both Alias and the relationship of those characters. Vaughn may be interminably dull but he is, from the outset, a rational pragmatist who frequently grounds the fiery instincts of Syd passed down from both of her passionate parents. He understands the scale of the fight ahead. “It’s complicated, it is political and it is long-term”.

Interestingly, there is a question brought up about Vaughn’s experience in So It Begins… and whether or not he should be handling a case of this nature. Syd even voices her own concerns: “I appreciate what your job is here, even though you’re a little young to be doing it” which, to be fair, is a bit rich given her own age and circumstance! She even lightly accuses him of institutionalised sexism in the map scene (even though he does nothing to warrant it), suggesting she considers the CIA as an institution to be a ‘man’s world’ (she’s not wrong, to be fair). It more appropriately comes from the CIA, in the character of middle-aged Jeffrey Davenport, who gets the order from ‘Devlin’, the as-yet unseen CIA head honcho (who will turn out, like him, to be a straight-shooting middle-aged man – not that Davenport doesn’t have a secret or two, mind, but that’s a long way down the road…), who wants Vaughn off Sydney’s case by the end of the episode.

This is really the first time we’ve seen Vaughn characterised, given his appearance in Truth Be Told is necessarily brief, and immediately he comes across as oddly out of place. He looks every inch the high school quarterback, the team player, far more so than the shabby chic that is Will Tippin, but Vaughn is quick to temper, quick to buck authority, and has an intensity which belies his years. Now, with hindsight, this is because he’s a guy with a whole bulk of secrets, which we’ll discover toward the end of Alias itself (his name isn’t even Michael Vaughn…) but it is extremely unlikely any of that backstory existed when these opening episodes were being written. Alias is a show which often considered canon and continuity, and particularly legend, as fluid as the narrative needed it to be.

Nonetheless, Vaughn already works well in contrast to Syd, and while it often sends the show into a spiralling halt whenever it becomes the focus, you can understand why Abrams and the writers decided very early on it would make sense to build them toward a relationship. Alias, to its credit, does not rush the process either. It doesn’t seem particularly interested in romance half the time if it doesn’t involve either Syd or Vaughn – both Will (in comely newspaper assistant Jenny) and Francie (in nice but already boring Charlie) get love interests, or prospective love interests, introduced in So It Begins… but neither of these characters end up crucial to the fabric of the series, with only Jenny playing a functional role in Will’s eventual first season storyline.

Abrams makes a wise decision in not grounding the show in romantic entanglements, because it likely would have prevented the show focusing on where the real intrigue is: Syd’s family and how they conflate with her work. Abrams seems to understand how Will functions in terms of the broader narrative though in So It Begins… even if it will take a few episodes to really get him operating as the would-be Carl Bernstein or Bob Woodward. Bradley Cooper certainly seemed to sense this may be the path they would be sending Will down, as he recounts in Alias Declassified:

I saw Will as a sort of throwback to the Seventies. It’s such a high-tech show with all the cutting edge gadgetry, and Will is this guy dressed in corduroy and glasses who has the pen and notepad, the pocket protector kind of thing.

What’s interesting about this observation is that it runs counter to Alias’ more obvious, larger than life, 1950’s-1960’s influences. The 1970’s culturally, and particularly in terms of American popular culture, were steeped in dark deeds and the kind of home-grown treacheries which went on to inspire All the President’s Men as a picture, based on the Watergate scandal, and ultimately served to give The X-Files the cultural space to emerge a decade before Alias. While in many ways, as I’ve previously discussed, Alias crafts a space to throwback to a more colourful age of derring-do, there is equally a post-Cold War overhang which covers the series.

Abrams discusses in the same book how this informed the decision to not invent a fictional agency for Sydney to report to beyond SD-6, akin to Impossible Missions Force or UNCLE, and rather stay true to the CIA:

Since The X-Files is prototypical of an evil government agency show in the audience’s mind, I thought, “Why not let them [a government agency] be the good guys?” I loved the idea that the CIA would be on Sydney’s side and that she was this patriotic young woman who was the one person trying to take control of this impossible situation.

This is, of course, where Alias significantly differs from The X-Files, which despite being among Abrams influences, was much more cynical and fearful of what the United States government meant to society at the end of the American century. Will’s ultimate, Watergate-style probe into the death of Danny—which begins here but has a false start thanks to Syd’s emotional entreaty once she realises he’s on the scent—does not end up smoking out corruption *of* the CIA, but rather corrupting elements *within* the CIA who are working for not just a foreign, but an independent terrorist agenda. Alias’ enemies were always external, even when they were internal.

Take the villainous plot in So It Begins… which is admirable given the fact, in episode two, Alias is already having Sydney take out a functioning nuclear weapon! The villains here are either remote or particularly old fashioned. I’ve discussed how Alias had the misfortune of debuting right in the slipstream of 9/11, and consequently to some degree the enemies Sydney has to face—cartoonish Russian Mafia gangsters or Middle Eastern arms dealers—date the show rapidly compared to the kind of dangerous forces now being faced in the real-world. The plot itself taps into that Cold War-overhang – a nuclear weapon smuggled into the US by Russians, now hidden in the grave of a seemingly dead spy. It’s really only the kind of story you could do in a world where the Russian bear was fast asleep. The whole thing may be a lot less easy to laugh off in this day and age.

On the one hand, you have to laugh at the audaciousness in Abrams both telling a story which feels like it could have fitted on the cartoon spin-off James Bond Jr. and at the same time tethering it thematically to the lesson Syd has to learn here. Not only does she have to dig up the grave of someone (all the while mourning her fiancee), but she ends up compromising her double-agent status and calling Marshall to help her defuse the bomb when, somehow, revealing it activates the weapon on a two-minute timer! If ever Alias at times does tap into a 70’s, retro-aesthetic, moments like Syd defusing a 20 year old nuke in a minute by cutting one wire very quickly remind you this is silliness of the highest order!

Consequences are not on Sydney’s mind across this episode. Whether it’s suggesting to Vaughn she can be out of this mess quickly in the map scene, or the nuke situation, or even how she responds to Jack when he has Sloane ‘reveal’ to her that he is also part of SD-6—“it’ll facilitate what we’re doing if they know that you know”—she slaps him hard. She isn’t really thinking clearly, except in one aspect: Will. She has learned enough to understand that if Will goes down the Danny rabbit hole, he could end up in his grave too. Producer and oft-director Ken Olin explains in Alias Declassified how this was also a breakthrough moment for understanding Syd’s character:

Jennifer still didn’t know how her character should be emotional even though it was important to convince Will to back off the story. Jennifer is part of a generation of actors who place a high value on emotional truth—but Sydney doesn’t have to be one hundred percent emotionally honest. We came to the point where it was okay that Sydney lies. She sometimes puts on an act, which is difficult for her emotionally. That insight was so liberating for Jennifer.

This in many ways could well be more of an important realisation than anyone realised at the time, because Sydney was established from the beginning as being a whiter-than-white encapsulation of American virtue – an inviolate ‘good guy’ who would never be bought, or corrupted, or compromised, and indeed Alias only really plays with that in Season 3 (and she never really turns bad even then). To have a main character who could be virtuous and seek justice, *and* also lie to the faces of everyone she loves on a daily basis, becomes the crux to not just understanding Syd, but Syd starting to understand that bigger picture.

It’s another reason why she softens to Jack toward the end, upon realising Jack did try to get Danny out of the US before he could be killed. Nonetheless, for me, there has always been ambiguity here. Jack is maudlin at the best of times, a man who for understandable reasons considers the glass half empty, but even when Syd realises he’s not the heartless father she believed and didn’t just let Danny die without trying to help him, there is a look in his eye which says differently. While the show will later establish the man who *did* kill Danny, one wonders at this stage if Abrams and Victor Garber didn’t play it with an open question – did Jack actually kill him? Would he have done it to save Syd’s life? The answer, almost certainly, would be yes.

There is also, incidentally, an intriguing suggestion that Sloane doesn’t entirely trust Jack where Syd is concerned, or in general. Their relationship will twist and turn and ebb and flow during the SD-6 days of the show, and later the show will suggest that Sloane was unaware of Jack’s long-term betrayal of their even longer-term friendship, but there is something in the way Ron Rifkin plays the scene where Jack lies to Sloane about Syd taking some time away (when she’s actually on a CIA mission) that suggests Sloane doesn’t entirely believe him. These subtleties in performance and writing are another aspect of that ‘third layer’ Abrams earlier discussed in action.

Alias ends its second episode will what will become a trademark, particularly in the first season of the show – the cliffhanger ending that bleeds into the next episode. I’ll discuss this more next time, because it’s more interesting to analyse when you consider the flip-side of the coin, but it further underscores how Alias already is trying new things in So It Begins… and building off the edge toward serialised storytelling we had seen emerge toward the latter half of the 1990’s. 

Though it’s a show still working to settle into a rhythm, Alias is a rare series that from the beginning understands its groove, and won’t take long to fit neatly inside.

Check out reviews of the rest of Season 1 of Alias here:

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