Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

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Alias – ‘Almost Thirty Years’ (1×22)

When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.

Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.

This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow JJ Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you *don’t* see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.

It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.

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Alias – ‘Snowman’ (1×19)

If Masquerade was a busy episode of Alias that needed to function as both ostensibly the beginning of a two-part episode, and deal with the reverberations from the mid-section of the run, then Snowman ranks as one of the most disposable outings in Alias’ debut season.

Snowman in any other series would have been a two-part episode expressly designed for our protagonist Sydney Bristow to enjoy a brief romantic attachment that would in no way impinge on the formula of the show. As discussed in Masquerade, this kind of plot device would often be deployed in TV shows across the 1990’s which balanced stand-alone storytelling with a level of narrative serialisation; any number of Star Trek characters across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise for example as one of the worst offenders for this trope. The problem with the character who serves this function in Alias, Noah Hicks, and the problem with Snowman in general, is that it has to function within a broader ongoing serialised narrative that is ramping up for the climactic beats of the season.

By this point in the twenty-two episode season, Sydney is simultaneously balancing her role as a double agent for the CIA inside the sinister SD-6, reeling from the revelations that her mother was secretly a KGB agent but is also in fact still alive, now aware she is central to an arcane, esoteric prophecy by a 15th century genius who predicted she could be some kind of human weapon of mass destruction *and* she is having to keep all of this secret from her two best friends, plus has steadily been developing an attachment to her CIA handler which goes beyond professional concern. Where exactly *could* any kind of meaningful love story fit amidst such a dense stack of open and ongoing plot lines? Especially when each episode has to service the majority of them at once.

Snowman ends up being an episode which focuses on the one story element that, in the long run, is never going to matter.

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Alias – ‘Masquerade’ (1×18)

Masquerade operates in a tricky position within the scope of Alias’ debut season and, arguably, marks the beginning of what in any other series would be a clear, delineated two-part episode.

Alias may appear ostensibly to be a highly serialised, propulsive rocket of a series, but it has flirted with trying to tell smaller, condensed arcs within that broader structure, often connecting episodes with specific themes or characters. Color-Blind and Reckoning, for instance, which focused on Sydney Bristow coming face to face with her fiancee Danny’s assassin; Mea Culpa and Spirit, which dealt primarily with a mole hunt in SD-6, and of course The Box which actually *was* a two-part episode and condensed Alias’ format down in a way the show would never as tightly repeat again, despite directly playing off a major narrative beat in the previous episode.

Masquerade is the beginning of such a double episode and the epilogue to, essentially, a three-part story.

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Alias – ‘The Coup’ (1×14)

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.

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Alias – ‘The Confession’ (1×11)

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.

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Alias – ‘Spirit’ (1×10)

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.

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