Alias

Alias – ‘The Prophecy’ (1×16)

If The Box was the episode which transformed first season of Alias from a narrative perspective, The Prophecy is the episode which sees Alias finally embrace the fact it exists on a fine line of two distinctive genres.

It is hard to look past The Prophecy as perhaps the most important episode of Season 1 of Alias, indeed it may well be one of the most important episodes of the entire series. The Prophecy is the episode which embraces and contextualises the Rambaldi mythology in a way JJ Abrams’ series has thus far been hesitant to do. John Eisendrath’s script acknowledges that the reveal at the end of Page 47, which saw the key page of Milo Rambaldi’s 500-year old manuscript unveil an image of our heroine Sydney Bristow, was a moment Alias could never come back from. 

This was the moment Alias becomes as much science-fiction as it has been pure, pulpy espionage.

Over the course of the season, Alias has flirted with the supernatural origins of Rambaldi. Arvin Sloane claims in Parity that he was ex-communicated and eventually executed for heresy because he claimed science would allow us to “know God”. Time Will Tell heavily suggests that Rambaldi bestowed upon clockmaker Giovanni Donato immortality, or at least incredibly long life. The Prophecy takes all of this one step further in tethering Sydney to the very core of his work, and the enigma of what he saw as a prophet or visionary. In one breath, Alias ties a centuries-spanning supernatural mystery to the character arc of its protagonist and alters the very direction of the series.

This feels like an inevitable move for Alias, given how deep and layered a mythos Abrams worked hard to build into the show’s DNA, and given how well known his inspirations as a creative are – particularly The X-Files, which itself was built on a core mythology which by the second season worked to place both of its protagonists at the very centre of. Fox Mulder’s father was a key part of the conspiracy to cover up the existence of extra-terrestrial life while Dana Scully’s abduction and experimentation on by either conspiratorial or alien forces gives her a personal, dramatic and life-threatening stake in exposing the truth. Sydney’s centrality to Rambaldi’s mystery from The Prophecy onwards places her in a similar, relevant position.

What it more acutely renders is the position of both Christian iconography and Hellenistic Greek myth to the story and mythology of Alias.

While Mulder’s search for the truth is every bit a quasi-religious crusade, and Scully’s own search for personal revelation clashes with her fundamental dichotomy of trusting in science and having faith in God, Sydney is faced with powerful Christian messianic symbology in The Prophecy and almost immediately runs away from it. This is clear from early on in the episode, before Syd learns that page 47 unveils a prophetic quatrain, in which she escapes from wild dogs on a mission in Rio de Janeiro and parachutes past the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer, positioned looking out over the city in a pose of sacrifice.

Paul Zinder goes into significant depth on Sydney’s role as a messianic figure in his essay ‘Sydney Bristow’s Full Disclosure: Mythic Structure and the Fear of Motherhood’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, suggesting the first two seasons of Alias serve effectively as an ‘Old Testament’ of the Rambaldi mythology:

Contemporary readings of the New Testament may focus on events in the life of Christ, but the God-man archetype appears first in the Old Testament. The sketch on Rambaldi’s page 47 infers that Sydney will ‘bring forth Rambaldi’s works’, appointing Sydney the Messiah and Rambaldi a prophet in the Old Testament of Alias. As her defined role in the Prophecy remains shrouded until ‘Full Disclosure’, Sydney denies her Messianic title throughout her own Old Testament.

It is true that The Prophecy is, in some sense, part one of a three-part story which continues to a degree in Season 2 finale The Telling, and finally comes to a conclusion in Season 3’s mid-season revelatory Full Disclosure, an episode which essentially closes the book on the Rambaldi mythology of the first three seasons and opens the doorway for its evolution. Subsequent seasons would attempt to stitch both mythologies together but with little success, with only various aspects from the first two seasons playing into key Rambaldi events of Seasons 4 and 5. The mythology is one destined to be among the more nebulous and ill-plotted of any genre show employing an underlying mythos.

The Prophecy equally works hard to never couch this outwardly Christian iconography and myth-making directly into the series overtly. While Sydney and Vaughn do break into the Vatican during this episode, recovering a cipher code which allows the prophecy to be read in full from a historical Pope, Eisendrath works hard to never directly make Rambaldi’s mysterious endgame directly related to Christian text. His manuscript is, in many senses, equivalent to the Bible of Alias; it is considered with religious reverence by Sloane, as we saw in Page 47, and is coveted by followers (disciples) across the globe who wish to understand the arcane knowledge and meaning within. Yet according to Zinder’s interpretation, Sydney is the Goddess figure, not Rambaldi – he is the Biblical prophet, the transmuter of sacred truth.

The very word ‘prophecy’ invokes a sacred and deeply spiritual aspect which seems almost out of place in the hi-tech world of espionage Alias has thus far played in. Prophecies have existed across myriad cultures since Ancient Greece, all playing effectively the same function – interpreting the will of God and scribing future events, often in metaphorical or couched phrases and terminology. The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides suggested Prophecy was “in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, in the first instance to man’s rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty”. In other words, prophecy can be whatever we interpret the signs and symbols, as mere mortals, to be.

This is never more clear than in the work of Michel de Nostradame, better known as Nostradamus, the 16th century prophet who, alongside Leonardo da Vinci, serves as the chief inspiration for the creation of the Rambaldi character – earning his soubriquet ‘Nostravinci’ in the Alias writers room. Season 1 has displayed the ways Rambaldi is indebted to da Vinci, the genius painter and inventor who lived in late 15th and early 16th century Florence; innovations such as the Golden Sun in A Broken Heart, the clock in Time Will Tell, or the ampule recovered in The Box which unveils hidden writing on page 47 of the manuscript. For the first time, The Prophecy infuses the Nostradamus DNA into Rambaldi by revealing him not just a genius inventor but a seer of future events.

Nostradamus is well known for his quatrains of predictions published in his 1555 book Les Propheties (‘The Prophecies’), many of which are believed by scholars to have correctly predicted the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, both world wars and the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all through the interpretive descriptions given in the quatrains. To this day, scholars continue to interpret his work to predict events as recent as the death of Princess Diana or 9/11, and this will likely continue well into the 21st century. Many also believe Nostradamus predicted the literal end of the world, an Armageddon scenario, which is consistently dated and then revised when it does not come to pass.

Whether Nostradamus’ predictions were accurate is a matter of continued scholarly debate but there is no doubt the prophet has secured his place in the cultural mindset of generations across many centuries. Even today, he is synonymous in the Western world with the idea of a ‘prophet’.

Rambaldi, therefore, and The Prophecy, is a direct attempt to evoke the work of Nostradamus and place it within not just a Christian Messianic context, which will become clear in the third season, but at this stage connect it to the broader anxiety Alias displays geopolitically in the post 9/11 world. While The Prophecy is concerned primarily with the build up to Sydney learning what Rambaldi’s words contain, we should take a moment to study the passages Sydney hears from DSR investigator Carson Evans at the climax of the episode:

This woman here depicted will possess unseen marks; signs that she will will be the one to bring forth my works, bind them with fury; a burning anger, unless prevented, she will bring the greatest power unto utter desolation.

Much like the quatrains delivered by Nostradamus, Rambaldi’s description of the woman who looks identical to Sydney are significantly open to interpretation. Upon uncovering the words on the page, the DSR work to try and identify if Sydney has these ‘unseen marks’ that Rambaldi discusses, which Vaughn later describes as “DNA sequencing, platelet levels, and the size of your heart”, all of which match anomalies Rambaldi appeared to have knowledge of on the page. Once identified, the rest is taken quite literally – Sydney has a ‘burning anger’ and will ‘bind with fury’ his works.

What is interesting at this stage is that Rambaldi’s work has not, as of yet, been specifically dangerous or apocalyptic. Sinister forces from foreign governments and organised crime organisations have been gathering his innovations, but not until Season 2 will we learn that the Red Ball ‘Mueller Device’ from Truth Be Told (and later Almost Thirty Years) contains some kind of lethal disease, or in Fire Bomb we see a device which creates spontaneous combustion in those in proximity, or even in Countdown where Rambaldi is revealed to have written more specific, timed and dated, events deemed as ‘apocalyptic’. The DSR, presumably, understand more of the wider danger posed by Rambaldi’s work, hence why they clap Sydney in irons at the climax.

This is a response to the heightened fear of American attack and the sensitivity still felt from the wound of the Twin Towers attack in New York. CIA director Devlin, while showing scepticism at how seriously Rambaldi’s work should be taken, admits “these times force us to be vigilant against any perceived threats to our National Security”. Carson Evans, at the top of the episode, appeals to an equally sceptical Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to allow the DSR to bring Sydney in. The Senator admits “we’ve been all over this” in terms of Rambaldi, suggesting he wasn’t perceived necessarily as a threat before. Times have now changed. Vigilance is required. Carson’s determination to play it safe, to be *sure* Sydney is or is not a threat, very much taps into the American guard being up when it comes to security and safety.

The DSR themselves are further evidence that Alias is using the Rambaldi pretext to broaden the genre base deeper into the Abrams-loathed, ‘spy-fi’ moniker.

Named the Department of Special Research, they remain at the end of The Prophecy a deliberately mysterious organisation. Ostensibly connected to the NSA, Vaughn describes them as “off the books paranormal guys”, later telling Sydney they were created “during World War Two to investigate Nazi interest in the occult”, and that after the war they were given resources to look into “fringe science, parapsychology, remote viewing…”. This is the only appearance of the DSR in Season 1 and they do not reappear until Season 3, until Full Disclosure indeed, but even they they remain decidedly enigmatic, even if they are a clear distillation of ideas very much in the Abrams wheelhouse.

The DSR, essentially, are an X-Files department with money, resources and the government seemingly behind them, as opposed to against them. Alias, in part of its reactionary place of the cultural landscape following 9/11, never particularly questioned government authority. If people were crooked who worked for the CIA, NSA or DSR, they were usually in the pocket of super villains such as Sloane or Irina Derevko, or sinister occult crime organisations such as the Alliance, the Covenant or Prophet Five. In the world of Alias, the CIA are the good guys. The government is working in our best interests, facing both powerful criminal terrorist threats, and the anachronistic weirdness of Rambaldi’s exploited works.

You can also see in the DSR the forerunner DNA of future Abrams mythological creations. The DHARMA Initiative in Lost, which serves as a major backbone to the mythology of the Island, concerns scientists working on time travel and other fringe science experiments, including elements of remote viewing. Future series Fringe front loads the presumed investigations of the DSR into the very premise of the show, with eccentric Dr. Walter Bishop the kind of modern-day mad scientist figure you could well imagine being right at home with the DSR. Though Alias never truly capitalises on the idea of the DSR, their existence in the broader world and mythology of the series further suggests a deeper paranormal or supernatural underbelly to Sydney’s espionage adventures.

This is even more apparent in the DSR’s connect to Nazi occultism, in another example of Alias working to place itself inside the real-world secret historical mythology of 20th century culture. Hitler is suggested to have been interested in Rambaldi in supplementary Alias material and the Nazi interest in the occult is a strange and well-documented truism that is sometimes buried, understandably, behind their genocidal crimes. This is a very very deep well of arcane pseudoscience and questionable historical record to mine, if you’re so inclined, but it suggests everything from secret Nazi Arctic and moon bases, UFO’s, artefacts from the age of Christ, and demonic possession as causal realities behind Hitler’s Third Reich. You’re probably best off watching Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hellboy and leave it at that!

All of this nonetheless further pushes Alias away from straightforward, Mission Impossible-style espionage and into a stranger, arcane, spiritual and supernatural realm. It is a huge turning point.

At this stage, it would be remiss of me briefly to mention that after Alias came to an end, I dabbled in a long, script-based fan fiction project called ‘The DSR’ which served as a spin-off set in the world of Alias, featured the characters of Carson Evans and Assistant Director Kendall (more on him next time…), and explored in much greater detail many of the mysteries of this organisation left dangling. At a future date, I will go into more detail on the development of this project, but if anyone is curious about it, just follow this link. Though I would recommend finishing Alias before you read as, well, there be spoilers…

Returning to The Prophecy, we therefore have an episode dominated by a huge advance development in the Rambaldi mythology, and as discussed, it is one Sydney cannot reconcile with her rational mind. “Millions of women looked like that. My Mom looked like that. Maybe its a picture of her” she suggests to Vaughn, further seeding the idea that Laura Bristow could well still be alive. This is a question that will be explicitly returned to in The Telling, but will carry through the entire Rambaldi mythology, at least across the first four seasons. It makes sense on Sydney’s hero’s journey, however, to reject the possibility of her centrality and importance to something so arcane and detached from her life, even with the reality staring her in the face.

In some sense, Sydney displays the kind of traits we saw in Dana Scully in The X-Files; a refusal to countenance a supernatural possibility, particularly when it concerned her own life and fate, unless confronted with absolute incontrovertible evidence. The reality is even more hard to reconcile – that Rambaldi saw her in some kind of vision, drew an exact likeness of her, and even was able to write down her DNA profile. It’s why Syd struggles with what appear to be random tests employed by the DSR – Rorschach tests, mathematical problems, asking for the solution to metaphorical riddles and, in another clue about Laura/Irina, showing her an image of a mother and daughter baking, perhaps to test her reaction to motherhood. “You are wasting your time taking this Rambaldi thing so seriously. There are real threats in this world” Sydney tells them, with a level-headed authority.

This also perhaps cuts to the heart of what Alias is doing – telling stories which allow us to face our modern-day fear of compromise by unknowable, powerful forces, through a pulp, science-fiction storytelling medium. The threat of Rambaldi could at this stage be the Taliban or al-Qaeda. They are forces beyond Sydney’s understanding, in just the way she cannot comprehend the DSR’s assumed higher-order thinking when it comes to the tests placed upon her, but they leave her with a fear she cannot shake; she asks Will and Francie if dreaming about a prophecy suggests something bad (they confirm her fear), and later she goes to Emily Sloane and has that fear confirmed.

Emily’s presence in The Prophecy is another example of how the episode is drawing close the idea of motherhood in Sydney’s story, and perhaps unknowingly suggesting not just the conclusion of the Old Testament Rambaldi mythology but also one of the overarching themes of the series that will be revisited as late as the final episode of the show. It was clear in Page 47 how Emily served as something of a surrogate mother figure to Sydney and that becomes even more apparent here, particularly in how Eisendrath uses her own fear of the cancer killing her as a parallel to Syd’s fear of what the prophecy could mean. “I was paralysed. Wanting to know the truth but being too afraid to find the answers”.

Emily’s words do not push Sydney toward believing in Rambaldi—there is an argument she never exactly becomes a *believer* as such at all—but it does push her toward confronting the fear of what the prophecy might mean for her. In this sense, Emily is a mother figure passing down lessons, even if she doesn’t know the context in which Sydney may interpret them. It further establishes Emily as an angelic figure, if we consider her in a Christian context, in direct opposition to the Devil iconography applied in the previous episode to Sloane and, interestingly, suggested in connection to Sydney herself here through the obstructive presence of Stephen Haladki. When siding with the DSR’s attempt to medically examine Sydney, he crassly says: “It’s like 666 guys, you see some markings on the kids scalp, you know there’s some problems at home”.

666 of course being the number of the Beast, and through Haladki we have the first direct suggestion that Sydney could be far from the hero, and in fact be a threat to the ‘greatest power’ which, in broad strokes, the DSR seem to be interpreting as the vaunted National Security of the United States. Haladki even pulls together threads from previous episodes – confirming that Rambaldi prophesied the death of Giovanni Donato in Time Will Tell, which tracks with how Donato seemed to know he would die and when, and that he was serving a function, to fix the clock which allowed the manuscript to be found. Sydney, be default, is suggested as working to a design which could threaten National Security. Again – interpretation is key.

This reference of 666, and direct allusion to the Devil, is even more interesting in how The Prophecy has a B-plot which is almost as important as the A-plot across this episode – the unveiling of The Man and Sloane’s attempts to manipulate the Alliance into going to war against him.

The Prophecy is the first time we truly see the Alliance and get a feel for them as a bigger, global organisation of magnitude. As the threat of the enemy has increased in Alias, so does the portrayal of the Alliance. They are extremely SPECTRE-esque in how they meet in a grand room, members sat together around a large table in an elegant London setting; urbane, mysterious former spies who exist in the shadow of the Cold War they escaped before the Wall came down. “They’re cold warriors who prefer the paradigm of detente” Jack Bristow tells Sloane, as he seeks a way to push the Alliance to war against Alexander Khasinau, the Russian former KGB Lieutenant-Colonel revealed as The Man.

Detente was of course the fifty-year state of mutually destructive assured ‘peace’ between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union before the end of the Cold War in 1991. Coming from the French word ‘relaxation’, it now traditionally exists in a political context ever since the Triple Entente and the Entente Cordiale at the turn of the 20th century, which concerned an attempt to secure relations between the British Empire, the French Republic and the Russian Empire and prevent war – which in that case ultimately failed, leading to World War One. 

Detente was popularised throughout the Cold War as synonymous with the lessening of tensions between the West and the Soviets. From a popular culture perspective, this is no more apparent than in the James Bond film series (another major inspiration for Alias), where in the 1980’s pictures we see Walter Gotell’s Soviet General Gogol happily sharing a cup of tea in office of Robert Brown’s M at the end of Octopussy – a marked difference from earlier films with Soviet-influenced 1960’s villains such as Rosa Klebb. As Stalinism gave way to a softer old guard, and Reaganism found a happy bedfellow in Gorbachev, so the seeds for a new world created. Francis Fukyama’s ‘the end of history’ as quoted in his book The End of History and the Last Man:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

It is therefore interesting that Alias works to suggest a Cold War paradigm now exists in the powerful organised crime world the Alliance and The Man inhabit. The Prophecy places them in fairly neutral positions – the Alliance having realised the threat Khasinau poses, they decide whether to seek detente or launch a war against him, a war Sloane worries will be voted against. “Members from the old Soviet bloc still control 5 of the 12 votes” Jack claims, suggesting they have learned lessons from Soviet history and understand detente may be their best method of preventing their own destruction. To Sloane, they are all just cowards.

The Prophecy very much places Sloane within the Alliance as an effective consigliere, a man behind the man, a position with Devil-like manipulation he is attempting to move beyond by controlling the event of the vote. Earlier in the season, we may have been convinced Sloane had more influence in the Alliance, and with the powerful Alain Christophe, but The Prophecy clarifies him as middle-management, not even on the board of directors qualifying for a vote. Sloane, however, is driven by a powerful sense of revenge given the events of The Box and, in many senses, ego; slighted by what Khasinau dared to do, he lets that ego get the better of him here. It takes quite some skill for a man as machiavellian as Sloane to be outwitted.

The casting of Sir Roger Moore as that man, SD-9 director Edward Poole, is a perfect example of the same casting coup power Alias had, bridging the gap between TV and cinema in quite a trend-setting manner. If Quentin Tarantino was cast as an example of Alias being in touch with modern popular culture, Moore’s appearance is evidence of how it remains connected to the chief influences of its past; not only of course was Moore a staple of the pulp 1960’s television Alias takes a cue from, such as The Saint and The Persuaders, but he remains of the most prolific and affectionately remembered James Bond’s in cinema history. To see Moore appear ultimately as the equivalent of a SPECTRE-member bad guy, a smooth-talking spymaster who manages to manipulate the manipulator, is delightful casting indeed. Reputedly, Poole was meant to recur but Moore turned it down as the money wasn’t good enough. A shame.

Interestingly, there is a hint of latent, post-colonial empiricism about the character of Poole. We first see him sipping tea in exotic, Eastern surroundings, being served by a waiter who looks all the world of Indian extraction. While the location of SD-9 is never confirmed, it is suggested Poole may oversee a branch operating in India, and perhaps enjoying some level of colonial overlording in his criminal position. It is a subtle but geopolitically suggestive set up, once again hinting at how these criminal organisations see themselves more in the vein of nations operating in an underground paradigm. This is particularly apparent in how Sloane and Poole attempt to influence the Alliance vote by plotting a covered-up assassination.

This provides something of a moral quandary for Sloane, one that will come back to haunt Jack in particular midway through Season 2 – the decision to execute Alliance member and old friend Jean Briault. “I was in Chile with this man under Allende,” he tells Poole. “He recruited me”. Through Briault only appears in one scene, handily appearing more of a cuddly grandfather than Alliance criminal to underscore how difficult Sloane finds killing him, he is a key player in Sloane’s backstory with the Alliance. Killing Briault, even having falsely been convinced he’s a traitor, should be a deeper moral problem for Sloane, yet it doesn’t seem to be. He looks troubled but he still cold-bloodedly kills him, in the end for nothing. If there is a Devil in this episode, Sloane fits the bill.

The Prophecy therefore is an episode with a staggering amount for Alias to process, almost too much for the episode on a narrative level to handle. It could have easily been a two-part story, which may have given set pieces such as the Vatican break in more room to breathe and truly been evoked; indeed you sense Abrams knew that was a wasted opportunity, as he borrows elements of that very set-piece for Mission Impossible III, which is Alias: The Movie in all but name. Sloane’s manipulation of the Alliance, the debut of Khasinau, the revelation of the prophecy, the key steps taken forward for the Rambaldi mythology, not to mention the Christian mythical iconography, all fuse together as part of an unforgettable rollercoaster of an episode.

Alias will return to many of the ideas and themes established by The Prophecy in later seasons, but without question this episode changes the entire playing field for the show in even more of a profound manner than The Box. Alias is no longer just a series about spies. It is a series with a deep mythology that will come to define, and often damage, the entire future of the show.

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

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