Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…
One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.
This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.
A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.
The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.
Let’s be honest, it is also pretty damn sinister. “You took away my choices in life” Syd declares to Jack, once she understands the significance of his manipulation, and it should by rights forever cloud their relationship. “I will never forgive you for this” Syd promises. Yet she does, and pretty quickly.
This perhaps is why The Indicator retrospectively doesn’t land with the punch it should as an episode. There feels almost an inevitability about these revelations, as if Alias has subtly been layering in these ideas for a while. Season Two thus far has entirely centered around Syd’s psychological manipulation by his parental, ideological superpowers – Jack’s open, direct attempt to control Syd’s actions and Irina’s careful, insidious work to position herself as more than just a prisoner. The Indicator advances this idea to the Nth degree but doesn’t frame it with necessarily the gravitas or scope a revelation such as this deserves. Learning this would make Syd re-think *everything* in her life, and while Salvation certainly explores the come down and Project Christmas isn’t by any means forgotten, this could have been a season ending shock twist. It almost feels tossed arbitrarily into a situation where Syd and Jack’s relationship was under strain to further vindicate Irina as the victim of her ex-husband’s deviousness, when in reality such a reveal should have been treated with the same steady, careful ominous build up the show gave to the Irina reveal at the end of The Confession.
It’s important to consider just how core a concept to Alias the idea of child spies actually is. It is, perhaps, the most Alias of all Alias’ possible narratives. It reflects everything Syd is anxious about concerning her life within espionage that she is desperate to escape, and certainly has precedent in the world beyond the show. Devlin Barrett in The Wall Street Journal refers to ‘The Illegals’, a group of Russian spies on American soil unmasked in 2010 (after Alias’ run had ended), who were actively working to recruit their children as sleeper agents:
His parents revealed their double life to him well before their arrest, according to current and former officials, whose knowledge of the discussion was based on surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that included bugging suspects’ homes. The officials said the parents also told their son they wanted him to follow in their footsteps. He agreed, said the officials. At the end of the discussion with his parents, according to one person familiar with the surveillance, the young man stood up and saluted “Mother Russia.” He also agreed to travel to Russia to begin formal espionage training, officials said.
The idea of sleeper agents operating on US soil would be later explored in The Americans, very much the successor to Alias while also taking place in the same Cold War period Jack and Irina were married in, but the idea of latent child spies infiltrating Western democracy is a potent and terrifying idea The Indicator actively confronts. The moment Syd, on mission, witnesses Valery Kolakoff’s twisted ‘spy school’ as children barely out of middle school assemble, lock and load semi-automatics while blindfolded, is a haunting and arresting image.
Alias here also uses the opportunity of the ‘indicated’ children to tap into the same kind of latent, post-1990’s conspiracy theory it would inherit from, as we have discussed before, The X-Files. The new villainous organisation behind the spy children, the so-called Triad, are reputed to have nefariously added ‘indicator’ questions to standardised examinations and tests to school children across the entire European Union, after purchasing a company who administered the tests for government departments. Parents of targeted children would be invited to take part in an ‘achievement program’, the aptitude questions would be administered, and the children would then have their memories reset. “They remember nothing except that it was extremely satisfying”. This is a similar kind of conspiratorial breach of data and trust as we saw the Syndicate undertake in The X-Files when they gather DNA of all American citizens via vaccinations that they then use in secret experiments.
Worst of all, the Triad aren’t even a corrupt, secret government. They’re a shadowy criminal organisation described as “a loose coalition of organised crime entities” dealing in drugs, prostitution and now as Sloane describes it “next generation weapons”, which has a neat double meaning ultimately. But this is effectively a mafioso-esque crime syndicate influencing global politics through innocent children. It is as scary and insidious as it gets and reflects the transition from superpowers and corrupting ideologies to unknowable alliances of covert enterprising criminals, filling that geopolitical vacuum. The Triad even are operating out of a disused secret Russian nuclear fallout shelter beneath Budapest, as if to underscore the position these kind of faceless organisations have assumed.
The Indicator of course adds to the reveal that the KGB were actively looking to steal the secrets of Project Christmas. “There was a rumour they began developing a similar program back in the 80’s”, a line which very indirectly foreshadows the character of Allison Doren later in Season Two. Yet even though Irina was sent to gain this advantage for Russia, the fact Jack was actively experimenting on Sydney in precisely the same way the Triad were doing with these children, is even scarier when framed in that context. It is partly why Alias disappoints when at the end of Season Three, it chickens out of a planned dark turn for Jack, and revelations that Resurrection heavily suggests that Project Christmas, Rambaldi and some seriously worrying CIA experiments on children were all part of the same brew. The fact Alias never has the guts to fully go there, especially after The Indicator opens the door, is one of the show’s greatest missed opportunities. “You programmed me to be a spy” Syd declares, utterly astonished that Jack would manifest her destiny in such a way.
Sergio Angelini in his essay ‘Endoscopic Spies’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, argues that such mind-control narratives are simply here being updated by Alias after decades worth of precedents:
Plots using hypnosis to control minds have been popular in cinema ever since The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), but in espionage fiction this became much more frequent with the dramatic possibilities offered by ‘brainwashing’, a term introduced by the Americans in the 1950’s following the Korean War. In the 1960’s it became a staple of the spy genre, from the scintillating black and white of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to the Techniscope swinging London psychedelia of The Ipcress File (1965). Even James Bond was subjected to it in Ian Fleming’s novel The Man With the Golden Gun (1965), though this element has unsurprisingly been omitted for the more impregnable screen incarnations of the hero. More recently the psychological indoctrination of spies who have their memories wiped as they try to leave their profession has been used as the basis for the Matt Damon-starring adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s series about amnesiac secret agent Jason Bourne and the Geena Davis action film The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). Alias has appropriated such elements both to explore the vulnerabilities of its characters and as part of its overall aesthetic strategy in its referencing of the look and motifs of the 1960’s spy genre and then recasting, updating and recreating them for the neoconservative era.
This further reinforces the idea of Alias as a post-Cold War television series, obsessed as these examples within espionage are of insidious forces reverse-engineering human minds as part of a deep-seated conspiracy to corrupt traditional American values.
Interestingly, even as far back as the 60’s, writers who explored the idea of psychological conditioning in the espionage world often suggested the external threats to Western civilisation—be it the Russians or Chinese etc…—were secondary to the damage the West may wreak on itself. The Manchurian Candidate involves conspirators within the United States government itself, as indeed do the films within the Bourne franchise. Alias too, in later seasons, finally allows the CIA to become compromised in Season Five after years of rejecting the idea of turning the redoubtable ‘good guys’ into the same murky establishment we would see, say, the FBI represented as in The X-Files. If the 90’s carved itself the space to explore the post-Cold War fear that American society could be corrupted from within, the post-9/11 landscape would explicitly often return to the anxiety of an external threat, yet always one at risk of turning on itself. Hence the Nixon-like President Logan saga in 24, and in Alias of course the psychological dichotomy of the external (Irina) corrupting the internal (Syd and later Jack).
The Indicator also returns to the central questions of truth and identity inherent in Alias, as they relate to Sydney as a character. She has to reevaluate the truth of her past and present at various points across Season One, first in learning about SD-6 and later not just that her mother was a Russian spy, but also that she was alive. This is the first significant re-evaluation Season Two poses and it’s one of the biggest Syd will ever face. Jack couches these revelations in natural processes. “Some things you need to experience for yourself” he claims as Syd at first thanks him for protecting her from Irina following the events of Dead Drop, but the reality is that everything Syd has learned about her life has been engineered by her father, or in reaction to his actions.
Pinkner’s script very deliberately contains moments in which Syd reflects on herself as a younger person and her mindset. She describes herself to Will as an awkward 6th grader “big teeth, funny eyes” (which is hard to reconcile with the gracefully chiselled Jennifer Garner), and tellingly Will admits he was anonymous “I was just Will” (if ever there was a line which underscored how little the writers really interrogated the character, this is it). She remembers wanting to join SD-6 before learning the truth, excited by the possibilities, but is concerned the children Kolakoff is developing do not have a choice. “I know what it’s like to be used”. Syd nevertheless, by the end of the episode, is left with a gigantic hole in her own personal identity. “The idea that I might have been programmed to be a spy… I can’t tuck that away” she admits, before entering the regression hypnotherapy which confirms Jack’s previous exploitation of her. Syd does just that in the end, though. She compartmentalises another facet of who she is.
Alongside the idea that Jack may well have historically been involved in CIA misdeeds, The Indicator picks up from the end of Dead Drop, whereby Jack had risked Syd’s life in Madagascar to frame Irina and remove her from his daughter’s life, in order to wear the show’s deep-seated anxiety about post-9/11 politics on its sleeve. Syd has to testify in front of a hawkish Joint Intelligence Committee, where we first briefly meet Senator Douglas—set to play a crucial role in subsequent episodes—and Vaughn becomes the catalyst within the CIA for the tense fear around global terrorism. “This is not a good time to be a terrorist, Manolo” Vaughn says to Jack’s mercenary who wired the Madagascar building. “A few years ago you would have had some civil rights. Now we just throw you in a cell, no attorney, no due process”.
This is a very direct comment by Pinkner regarding the Bush Administration’s reaction to the Twin Towers attack and their approach to fundamentalist terrorism in its wake, particularly the use of the now-infamous rendition of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Vaughn’s choice of words are interesting too in that he says “good time”, suggesting how differently the terrorist threat now looks post-2001 compared to the approach during the years after the immediate fall of the Soviet Union, where America was more deeply concerned with post-Gulf War Middle Eastern tensions and atrocities in Kosovo. The game has now significantly changed.
What’s also interesting is that Vaughn’s drive to expose Jack’s secret is not born out of any innate desire to tackle terrorist threats but rather combat his own feelings of uselessness. When Jack effectively gets a promotion after Dead Drop, and exposing Irina’s assumed treachery, Syd accuses Vaughn of feeling “irrelevant” after Jack runs her counter-mission instead of him, and Vaughn takes quiet delight in exposing Jack and confronting him with the fact he knows full well what he did. “Evil must be eliminated by whatever means necessary” is Jack’s self-righteous justification for his actions but Vaughn remains steadfast. “You betrayed her trust. I won’t”.
Vaughn again here is gripped in battle between the father and the suitor, challenging Jack’s enforced role as Syd’s protector. It’s key that the final moment of The Indicator is a direct mirror of Dead Drop, except now Syd is crying in Vaughn’s arms. Beneath the subterfuge and concern about compromised American security which runs through this episode is a psychological battle for dominion over the role as Syd’s masculine, emotional guardian. Vaughn also makes a good point that this isn’t the first time Jack has compromised his own ethics to protect Syd, referring back to how he framed SD-6 agent Anthony Russek in Season One’s Mea Culpa. Jack has form for this kind of greater good treachery.
While it continues to exist as a slow-burn mystery rippling through the season, Sloane being haunted by the possibility of his wife being alive also holds true to the theme in The Indicator of insidious manipulation. “You have enemies, Arvin. Clearly one of them is trying to leverage your guilt” Jack assures, the irony not lost that he would try and play the higher moral ground when he too has directly manipulated events for his own gain. Sloane is, of course, playing the victim card. “It’s not my grief. It’s my guilt”, finally admitting what everyone suspected – he poisoned Emily but, in his mind, to prevent a much more painful demise from a resurgent cancer or the Alliance themselves.
We are still not in, at this stage, on his manipulation of the situation, that everything he is saying or reacting to has been carefully staged (through its not quite clear how Sloane so effectively manages to spook himself for effect) for everyone around him to believe the lie – Jack, the Alliance, and so on. With hindsight, Sloane’s plan to escape the Alliance with Emily, finally realised in The Getaway, is filled with open questions and narrative holes, suggesting Sloane had a much bigger network of supporters than anyone imagined and that the Alliance’s surveillance capabilities of their members is shoddy at best. It’s a plot that, come The Indicator, is already also spinning its wheels somewhat, even if thematically there is some level of connection to the main narrative.
Were it not for the fact The Indicator successfully manages to tether the primary story to Sydney’s own enigmatic childhood and personal family history, it too could be considered an episode of Alias spinning its wheels, part of a cluster of episodes which creatively explore the Syd-Jack-Irina conundrum (even when, as in this episode, Irina isn’t even on screen), however The Indicator remains a compelling piece of television for just how much of crucial importance to Syd’s life, and the overarching mythology of Alias, it throws at the audience. It lacks the dramatic heft of Trust Me or Dead Drop, but it again inverts plots and preconceptions we had about the show and our characters with a confidence few series this early in would be able to pull off.
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: