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.
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.
ANNA ESPINOSA: I heard about your fiancé. Very sad. I thought perhaps it was a security execution sanctioned by your employer. Maybe you said something in your sleep you shouldn’t have. But then why would you be here in service for the men that killed your true love?
If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss.
The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season. It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years. Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.
Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television. The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.
Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.
It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.