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.
MICHAEL VAUGHN: In this job you see darkness; you see the worst in people. And though the jobs are different and the missions change and the enemies have a thousand names, the one crucial thing, the one real responsibility you have is to not let your rage and your resentment and your disgust darken you.
As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters. While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.
Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process. It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.
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.
Though written after Alias aired, ABC launched a 12-book series of tie-in novels set before the pilot episode, ‘Truth Be Told’, which explore Sydney Bristow’s life before the series. I’ll be looking at them one by one as we move through exploring the series itself…
There are several reasons why developing a tie-in book series for Alias aimed at the young adult market makes a lot of sense. For a start, with Sydney Bristow, you have a defined heroine for, specifically, a female market who will find the struggles of a nineteen year old girl on the one hand being a dork around boys, and on the other obsessing whether she is capable enough to become a CIA super-spy, fairly relatable – which is precisely what author Lynn Mason puts her through in Recruited. Secondly, there is a very clear narrative black spot in the Alias backstory open for further exploration.
When we first meet Syd, in the Alias pilot episode ‘Truth Be Told’, she is a fully-fledged super-spy. She is still young, around her early-mid twenties, but we get the impression of a woman who has been working for SD-6 for quite some time. She’s travelled the world, fought bad guys. She has friends, a fiancee and is thinking of marriage. She has grown into a persona where she can become someone else at the drop of a hat. We will see the origin story of that on screen with the Rachel Gibson character in Season 5 much much later on, but Alias’ tale begins with Syd already there. The conflict that drives her in the series, which the pilot establishes, is in learning SD-6 is, in reality, a sinister crime syndicate pretending to *be* the CIA. The show, therefore, skips Syd’s origin story.
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.