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.
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.
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.