TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Breaking Point’ (3×08)

Though moving away from anything that could be described as an Alias episodic ‘formula’, Breaking Point is not just one of the best episodes of Season Three but, perhaps, of the entire series.

A natural culmination of the third season’s story arcs to date, Breaking Point is where Alias has arguably been heading for almost two seasons. Breen Frazier’s script, as the arrested Sydney is carted away as a suspected terrorist to the menacing, isolated Camp Williams, renditioned and tortured by US military forces for intelligence, is the natural extension of the first season’s episode Q&A, in which Syd was detained by the FBI (supposedly) after she was directly linked to apocalyptic quatrains in the Rambaldi manuscript. Jack said at the time that they could “conceivably hold her without trial for the rest of her life” and the same applies here. Camp Williams is not presented as the kind of detention facility people leave, or certainly leave as who they were before.

There are plenty of connections back to The Prophecy arc in the first season over the conclusion to Syd’s missing two years storyline, but one of the most interesting is how Alias approaches terrorism in this context. After spending several years operating as a post-Cold War series as America’s unipolar might is challenged by domestic insurgents and glamorous external villains, Breaking Point finishes the work began in Q&A—and continued in episodes such as Fire Bomb in the second season—in transforming Alias, born in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Towers, into a post-9/11 series. Breaking Point could be an episode of 24 or Homeland. It debuted at the height of 24’s popularity, as The Sopranos was coming to terms with the New York tragedy, as Star Trek: Enterprise was exploring the reactionary cost of American imperialism in its fictional future. Though a series built on retro, cod-1960s escapism, Alias boldly crosses a threshold in Breaking Point as it explores the reality of American political extremism in reaction to the existential fear of terrorism.

It makes for one hell of a powerful, dark and disturbing hour of Alias. This might be as grim as the series gets.

The show almost intentionally appears to be divesting itself of the usual Alias trappings in order to present Breaking Point as extraordinary, given it dispenses with the traditional pre-credits sequence and just provides a recap up to the end of Prelude. All roads have been leading here for a long time.

You really do get the sense that NSA Director Robert Lindsay is just the catalyst for what certain arms of the US government have wanted to do for several years now: treat Sydney like a domestic terrorist.

She is dropped into Camp Williams on a tooled-up military helicopter, her hands in chains, her head draped in a black hood—identical, indeed, to the one placed over Sloane’s head in the previous episode—and she is escorted, in what has to be some kind of slight homage to The Silence of the Lambs, through cells filled with renditioned inmates as screams and moans of anguish echo in the distance, delivered into a cell colder and bleaker than even her mother was given at the CIA last season. The fact most of these men she passes are black males could be Alias making the point that it doesn’t matter if you’re innocent or guilty in Camp Williams, this is where you go if you’re a problem. This is a domestic Guantanamo.

Guantanamo Bay was in the mind’s eye at the point Breaking Point was being written and produced, given the American military had established what became a notorious detention camp on the island of the same name just off the coast of Cuba in 2002, intended according to the Bush administration’s Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld as being designed to hold extremely dangerous threats to American national security and people being prosecuted for war crimes, but it very swiftly became a detention centre for suspected terrorists and enemy combatants in theatres such as Afghanistan.

By 2005, it was being described by Amnesty International’s Irene Kahn in stark terms:

Guantanamo has become the gulag our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law. If Guantanamo evokes images of Soviet repression, “ghost detainees” – or the incommunicado detention of unregistered detainees – bring back the practice of “disappearances” so popular with Latin American dictators in the past.

Sydney is, in essence, a ‘ghost detainee’ in Breaking Point, having not been charged with any crimes but simply suspected of assassination and working for a global terrorist threat. Much as in Q&A, holding Sydney indefinitely and using her to extract vital information feels a deeper motivation for Lindsey than, if she is guilty, prosecuting her through the rule of law.

Part of the change in Alias’ view of geopolitics in episodes such as this lies in how it begins to suggest there are forces within the US government willing to betray human rights and the rule of law to protect ‘national security’ as a broader entity, or use that as a justification for just as much torture and abuse as someone like Syd might experience captured by outside forces. In earlier seasons, SD-6 were doing terrible things but they were only gaslighting people, Sloane pretending to be a man of American virtue while torturing and murdering for a broader organised crime entity, while the CIA were portrayed as defenders of law, democracy and security. As the War on Terror intensified around Alias’ production, Lindsey encapsulates that internal extremity in national policy that can easily lead to corruption.

Lindsey comes into his own here after working in the background as a thorn in the side of Dixon’s CIA office since The Two, staging an effective coup and seizing control of the Rotunda, aware they are tethered directly to Syd and have worked to protect her from the revelations uncovered by Lauren. It’s a convenient way to remove Dixon from proceedings for the episode as he refuses to play ball (and it’s a shame because by all rights he should be in the team helping Jack, and seeing him and Sloane working together off book could have been great value), but it does allow for some strong internal drama. There is a fantastic moment where Lindsey locks eyes with Jack, who passes by in slow motion giving the NSA boss a look filled with pure murder, as Michael Giacchino’s music ominously plays into Jack’s dark side. It does so much with so little.

Vaughn also does a lot to redeem himself in Breaking Point after his vacillating across the first third of Season Three, caught between his wife and a hard place, as he very quickly fully commits to working off book with Jack to save Syd, directly against Lauren at first. He displays the kind of clear-eyed pragmatism it appears Lauren is ignoring, perhaps playing up to give the later revelations about her, as she defends Lindsey’s actions. “Don’t act like this is your first day on the job!” Vaughn tells her, reminding Lauren that he’s funded by black money and “what the White House expects from him is results” and that he could very easily ship Syd out to Russia and run the brain damaging proceedure intended to recover her lost memories there (which is ironic given the Covenant’s origins).

Alias is very clearly here suggesting Lindsey is no lone entity – he plays golf with the President, he is funded by him, and he acts with the backing of the highest levels of power.

Syd, therefore, represents the existential fear that pulsed through the American nation in the wake of 9/11 – the terrorist threat who could destabilise and destroy the American way of life, and Lauren manages to convince herself she is acting on the side of angels, promising Vaughn that Lindsey is legit because he wants Lauren to witness Syd’s interrogation and write a full, transparent report. Lauren’s naïveté might be false ultimately but it is powerful here, perhaps also clouded by the threat Syd poses on a personal level to her marriage – she wants to believe Syd, our hero, is in fact the enemy. Alias does try and sugar this pill a bit when Lindsay tells her that “no one on the Hill should question our ethics” in terms of what they’re doing at Camp Williams, thereby positioning him as an extremist even within the heightened War on Terror foreign policy world view of the time, but Lauren still goes on a journey across this episode.

In many respects, Syd gets less to do in Breaking Point than you might expect, which is perhaps appropriate given all of the episode strands revolve around her recovery. She is witnessing the kind of extremes that hawkish, fear-driven government policy, in response to terrorism, can yield. Vasson, the chillingly urbane doctor (played by the fine character actor Erick Avari) who prepares to conduct the neurostimulation on Syd, talks to her like a friendly family GP. “Don’t bother negotiating with me!” Syd declares, as Vasson tries to encourage her to tell them what they want to know and avoid the procedure, a nod itself to the intense American rendition techniques being reported on in places such as Guantanamo. At the same time, Lindsay plays a psychological game, using Pruitt Taylor Vince’s cell mate Campbell—a damaged former professional whose exposure to neurostimulation appears to have left him unable to even remember his own son—as emotional leverage to appeal to what Lindsey considers her weakness: her empathy. “Thanks for caring” he says to Syd, ironically.

Taylor Vince is great casting in this respect as he is capable of subverting expectations. Though a veteran of TV and film roles, his performance as Campbell evokes an excellent one off turn in The X-Files some years earlier in the episode Unruhe as Gerry Schnauz, a lonely, damaged photographer who kidnapped women and had the ability to psychically replicate their terror on polaroids. In that role, Taylor Vince was deceptively quiet and offbeat, almost pathetic, before entering points of psychotic rage, as he does enough as Campbell here to wrong foot the audience, and in many ways Syd, as apparently an example of what places like Camp Williams can do to detainees. Vasson provides what turns out to be a fake backstory, how he was a Middle Eastern journalist who ‘died’ in a car accident, but was in fact protecting his source: “He thought the First Amendment would protect him” Vasson laughs.

By this, he refers to the American Constitution, thereby further pointing out how Camp Williams betrays the fundamentals of American law, and the amendment laid down in 1791 which states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Campbell therefore, in this instance, is equivalent to the kind of whistleblower or journalistic source who believed there was a greater good protected by law, which would be the argument Syd and her allies would make, and have made, over the death of Andrian Lazarey.

When he unmasks himself as a government plant called Schapker, literally changing his mannerisms as well as his speech, he not only seems to have gotten the better of Syd’s nature—given she had revealed what Lindsey wanted to know in order to spare the man’s life—but sells Lauren’s own steady realisation that the rule of law is being utterly discarded in this place. She sees the guards brutally cut down Syd when she finds an opportunity to escape, dragging her back to confinement, and realises that Lindsey has brought her here to whitewash everything that has been going on, threatening to blackmail her over helping her husband get Syd to Rome if she doesn’t: “Legally, you needed a witness”. Vaughn had already implanted the seeds of doubt in her mind but this confluence of events, and Schapker’s unmasking, sells her on this.

On the flip side, if we are seeing the steady corruption of American law and government values in the main story, the B-plot of the episode continues to suggest the opposite, as Jack’s covert operation to rescue his daughter further develops the supposed redemption of Arvin Sloane.

Firstly, it has to be said, these scenes are the most enjoyable by far in Breaking Point, and sell it as one of Alias’ best hours.

For all the strong drama of a renditioned Syd being exposed to literal and psychological torture in the greyest, most washed out environs the show has ever delivered, Frazier’s script very much uses Jack’s personal mission to tap into the traditional mission structure of the show, normally seen via Syd, that audiences are used to. Jack recruiting Vaughn, bringing in Sloane, seeking out Thomas Brill, revealing he has his own secret storage facility (Vaughn quips nicely with “The fact you’re even letting me see this place means it’s not your only one is it?”), and the sequence where they break into a FEMA government facility to steal plans for Camp Williams—with Jack posing as a cocky repairman—is all terrific fun, given extra weight and ballast as Sloane literally takes a bullet to save his old friend.

“I told you we’d work together again” Sloane boasts before this, referring to when he kidnapped Jack in The Telling to boast about assembling the Rambaldi device, and Breaking Point leaves open the question as to where Sloane knew this would happen and has access to future information (Alias will, as with many other things, never definitively answer this question), but it perhaps comes from a place of will. Season Three has worked hard to find ways of keeping Sloane tethered to the main action and this is the most organic inclusion of him yet, Jack forced (or secretly wanting) to use his skills.

Sloane gets in on the mission fun by having a ball posing as a bossy senior government figure on the phone, Director Blackman, and even here Breaking Point examines the consistent anxiety of terrorist activity in the US at the point this episode was written. “I’m sure you’re aware that the chances of a terrorist attack on the city of Los Angeles are extraordinarily high” he tells the guard he’s berating, adding that forest fires, mudslides and earthquakes are as much of a problem for FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) as terrorists. Sloane stokes the consistent flames of fear rolling around the American psyche.

Speaking of psychology, he even gets to do with Vaughn (who he has barely shared a scene with previously) what he did earlier with Lauren, and subtly undermine his marriage.

“I imagine all of this is a strain on your relationship” he suggests, and it remains fascinating as to why he would consistently try and put a wedge between Vaughn and Lauren. Is it for Sydney? Does he want her to reunite with the man he loves? Either way, it further makes the point that Sloane might have reformed, but he’s still a manipulator, quite openly. The fact he does take a bullet could suggest a further ongoing master plan, which Jack suggests when Sloane talks in admiring terms about the Bristow’s, as Jack and Vaughn sow him up, and claims “You and Sydney are my absolution, my penance. You’re all I have left.” Jack will always believe he has an ulterior motive but Ron Rifkin plays what’s on the page, and it serves as the potentially most honest and human conversation Jack and Sloane have had to date.

There are also hints of Vaughn’s future path too as he readily accepts Jack’s help in breaking out Sydney, which this time goes much further than in Q&A. They genuinely start to bond a little here yet it comes tempered with a warning from Jack, and we can see thematically the beginnings of the dark turn Vaughn will take once Lauren’s treachery becomes apparent in the back half of the season. We also get another hint that more might lie in the already mysterious backstory of his CIA father Bill through the recruitment of Thomas Brill (played by 70s blaxploitation icon, Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree), who knew Bill and last worked with Jack in Chile in 1973. “I should have never helped to overthrow Allende” he laments, and interestingly this places him in the same area as when Sloane was recruited into the Alliance by Jean Briault (see The Prophecy and The Getaway). Even subtly, mythology and backstory interconnects, even as details remain opaque.

Come the conclusion, Breaking Point reaches an explosively cathartic crescendo, and a continued sense that the status quo of Alias is fluctuating once again. The attack on Camp Williams has the scale of a mercenary strike on a foreign base, as if Syd is being held by enemy combatants in a foreign land. This is quite sobering and a rather disturbing place for Alias to go. Even if Lindsay is portrayed as a maverick, and Schapker and Vasson his extremist dilettantes (both of whom pay with their lives), ultimately the very fact Alias has Sydney renditioned, tortured and psychologically abused on American soil shows the space the series is moving to inhabit, in line with television and cinema of the moment anxious and slightly obsessed with what the circling War on Terror is doing to the American soul.

“You made it, Sydney…” Jack promises as his team spirit her away from the darkness but there is a sense Syd, as she sees Vaughn cradle a complicit Lauren, wonders if this is true. They have all reached breaking point. What happens next, for Sydney and Alias, feels like an uncertain road…

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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