The halfway point of the first season of Alias also feels, appropriately, like the point of no return.
The Confession is an episode which essentially concludes the beginning of JJ Abrams’ series. It serves as a marker between two distinct periods, in a different way to how Season 2’s Phase One will mark the show, but in an important manner nonetheless. The Confession marks Alias as being defined as ‘pre’ Sydney knowing the truth about her mother, and ‘post’ Sydney knowing the truth about her mother, because that revelation completely and utterly changes Alias forever. It is the key to Syd’s entire life – her past, her present and her future, and for all of the revelations and twists Alias will deploy over the five years of its existence, Sydney learning her beloved, venerated mother Laura who died when she was a little girl was in fact a KGB double agent, is the most powerful.
It’s the revelation we should have seen coming all along.
Spirit works not just as a follow on from Mea Culpa but as a companion piece of sorts, continuing Alias’ mid-season exploration of its own central morality.
We saw in the previous episode the difficult soul searching experienced by SD-6 head honcho Arvin Sloane when it came to contemplating that Sydney Bristow, a woman he has spent his life deluding himself into believing a surrogate daughter figure, could have betrayed him – and the consequence of potentially having to sanction her murder. Spirit, by the very nature of how Syd gets out of what looked like at the end of Mea Culpa the end of her life as a double agent for the CIA, shifts this moral question over to Syd’s *real* father, and to some degree the mirror image of Sloane – Jack Bristow. In order to save Syd’s life, Jack has to go beyond simply being Sloane’s weapon of murder—as previous episodes have established—into sacrificing the life of an ‘innocent’ man as part of the greater good.
In reality, as Vaughn later reassures Syd once she realises what Jack has done, the sacrificial lamb of Anthony Russek—an SD-6 agent who Jack frames as a mole working for K-Directorate after faking a transmission to them on a mission we saw in Mea Culpa to disguise Syd’s *actual* transmission to the CIA—was no innocent. “He was an early member of SD-6, he knew he was working for the bad guys”. Russek was culpable in the hidden crimes of SD-6, aware of the Alliance underpinning their ruse of being part of the American intelligence network, and involved in weapons sales used against American interests across the world. “He got what he deserved” Vaughn states, showing that he may not have agreed with Jack’s slippery methods, but from a moral perspective he agrees with the choice Jack made in the heat of the moment. “What would you have done if it had been your daughter, or son, or Danny?” he asks Syd. She has no clear answer.
Mea Culpa is the first episode of Alias to begin the internal, psychological exploration of Arvin Sloane.
The episode also feels positioned at a crossroads point for the first season in terms of where the overarching narrative is going. Everything at this stage is waiting for the next big plot shoe to drop. The Rambaldi mythology, now established, is completely left behind after Time Will Tell brought into play what will become the key text of Alias’ mytharc going forward; the suspicions around Jack being a KGB mole remain hovering in the ether; Will’s investigation into Danny’s death is at the point Will is capable of contextualising everything across the last nine episodes to a tech support guy; and the SD-6 probe into a mole which has circled for the last three episodes remains ongoing. Mea Culpa isn’t quite the episode to pull the trigger on the next stage for all of these plotlines, but it begins the first tentative steps in that direction.
Time Will Tell is another important episode of Alias when it comes to establishing and contextualising the mythology of the show and how it directly relates to, particularly, our protagonist Sydney Bristow. With a title both figurative and literal, this episode brings into focus Alias’ growing preoccupation with time, and just how directly the past influences the present.
Jeff Pinkner’s first script for the series, continuing the steady roll out of Bad Robot creatives who will all go onto major recognisable projects in the future, operates very much as a sequel to the third episode Parity, and the pre-credits sequence of A Broken Heart. Time Will Tell very much illuminates just how Alias, while a highly serialised show, remains indebted to its principal influence, The X-Files, in the structural manner it approaches the mythology at the show’s heart – the search for the work of 15th century ‘prophet’ Milo Rambaldi. While the previous four episodes all continued the ongoing narrative sub-plots and storylines for the characters and the complicated double-agent situation Sydney finds herself in, only two of them concern Rambaldi, and in both cases he is very much background.
The continuing evolution of Alias across its first season is increasingly paralleled, as it should be, by the evolution and development of protagonist Sydney Bristow, as Color-Blind again returns to the central theme of not understanding or knowing who you truly are, growing lost within yourself deep inside a world with no clear delineation of black and white, or right and wrong. What Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman’s second script for the series does, and Alias does for the first time, is frame Sydney’s character journey through that of a guest character.
One of the difficulties in serialised storytelling to the degree Alias has deployed thus far is that it does not particularly encourage the use of the main guest character. TV shows of old, traditional series which tell a contained episodic story and move on, often framed a one-off character as key to the story being told that week. Murder mystery series, such as Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder, cop shows such as Law & Order or CSI, even science-fiction series such as the Star Trek spin-offs of the 1990’s and shows such as The X-Files, all of them frequently utilised a major guest character to weave a narrative around. With a serialised show telling an ongoing tale, it becomes a lot harder to stop and anchor a story around someone the audience doesn’t care about, and who’ll be gone next week.
Martin Shepard, who we briefly saw played by John Hannah in Reckoning previously, does not entirely anchor everything in Color-Blind but this is unquestionably the first episode of Alias to give a character who is not one of the main cast ensemble an arc of some fashion; in this case, Shepard being reminded of his tragic past as a brainwashed assassin who ended up killing Syd’s fiancee on the programmed order of SD-6, and his journey toward finding some escape and peace from that. The reason it works, and Alias is able to do it, is precisely because it factors into Syd’s psychology along the way. Shepard is a character in his own right but his existence is designed to sketch in more aspects of who Syd is, and her own journey in accepting Danny’s death.
JACK BRISTOW: There are rules, Sydney!
SYDNEY BRISTOW: Then you break them!
Alias is steadily building toward a larger point of revelation across its first season, as the title of Reckoning alludes to. Thematically, the journey of super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow continues to be about her own understanding of the bigger picture, and her place within it.
The complexities of the narrative inside JJ Abrams show even facilitate, starting with Reckoning, a change to the recap preamble of the series’ concept. I’ve talked about how Alias doesn’t just employ a ‘previously’ recap akin to many other TV shows, but starts with a bigger explanation and contextualisation of the broader story the serialised narrative is telling. Here, Alias expands that recap by weaving the scene-setting around the four key characters at the outset of the series – Syd, her handler Michael Vaughn, her boss Arvin Sloane and her father Jack Bristow, the recap showing their faces and names just in case the people at the back AREN’T QUITE GETTING IT. I can’t recall another show which ever quite felt the need to prime the audience week by week with so much detail before even the previously recap.
Perhaps the choice was made because even just six episodes in, Alias is already starting to grow quite knotty and dense, and the show hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in many ways. Reckoning has a multitude of narratives bubbling away – Syd’s suspicion that Jack may have been working for the KGB, Vaughn and the CIA’s slow-burning backdoor hack into SD-6 established in the previous episode Doppleganger, Francie’s uncertainty about her boyfriend Charlie, Will’s investigation into the Kate Jones mystery. That’s just for starters, before any of the main episodic missions for Sydney are even covered, though really so far they have largely just been window-dressing around which the series can delve into these deeper storylines and building character arcs.
Reckoning, if anything, feels like the first example of what would have been a traditional two-part episode of a more conventional network TV show version of Alias.
SYDNEY BRISTOW: I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Sit in these meetings with Sloane. Look at him as though I don’t despise him. That I don’t want to leap across the table and use the skills I’ve learned at SD-6 against him.
Doppelgänger comes as something of a surprise when you look at it from the broader context of Alias’s first season. The fifth episode of a twenty-two episode season, structurally, is never going to contain too many of the bigger mythological revelations, character turning points, and narrative surprises that you might expect from a mid-season two-parter or particularly a season finale, and while Doppleganger doesn’t buck that trend, it cuts surprisingly deep to the core conceptual idea crucial to the entire show, namely: do we really *know* the people closest to us?
Before we touch on that philosophical question, we must remember that we are still watching Alias. This is not The Wire, riven with harsh social commentary, or Hannibal layered with creeping metaphysical discourse. This is a show about a young spy “jumping off buildings in three-inch heels while napalm explodes all around me”, as Sydney Bristow deftly sums up her career at the end of the series finale way way into the future. That is not to cheapen the writing or character work, which has far more substance than on the surface you might expect, but we should always be aware that Alias first and foremost is a piece of escapism. Which explains the extended, ten-minute opening sequence which kicks Doppleganger off.