If there is such a thing as a TV comedown episode, it’s The Coup.
Not in the sense that The Coup is a bad episode of television. It’s a perfectly serviceable, mechanical Alias episode, even if it probably would fall fairly low in a ranking of what has been a strong first season. The Coup is a comedown in the fact that after a two-parter like The Box, where exactly do you go next? Almost akin to the difficult second episode, the one that has to clean up the narrative mess from the pilot, The Coup struggles to function in any way beyond that of an epilogue to a much stronger piece of television.
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.
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.
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.