TV Review: ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13)

In many ways, After Six can be considered indicative of the kind of fan-baiting series Alias became in Season Three after the daring apogee of Full Disclosure, a sign of what it runs arms-opened toward in the latter half of the season.

Crossings established that Syd & Vaughn were not going to remain apart as per the new, Julia Thorne-era paradigm, and that the writers were determined to find a way to untie the difficult knots of storytelling that had replaced the UST of the early seasons with a trauma-driven, grief-stricken change in circumstance preventing them being together. Work would need to be done in order to return them to a romantic state, work that takes the rest of the season in all honesty, but Alias would be intent on giving the fans what they wanted: the SVR (Syd-Vaughn Romance). Season Three, as a result, begins in After Six to deliberately angle the series away from Syd & Jack’s relationship as the dramatic focal point, as it is when Alias operates at its best, toward what becomes a knotty quadrangle.

Having Lauren turn out to be a Covenant agent is not a bad twist in and of itself, indeed it makes a modicum of sense on several thematic levels for Alias as will become apparent in what happens to Vaughn’s character at the back end of the season. However, it very deliberately is a convenient way to lessen the problematic moral realities of Syd & Vaughn becoming romantically involved when one of them is married. After Six begins to explore this but everything is offset by how immediately pantomime Lauren becomes as she partners, both literally and sexually, with Sark across this episode. She wears dark eye shadow. She tries out revealing lingerie. She seduces Covenant bosses and savagely murders them. In perhaps one of Alias’ most chilling moments, Lauren watches Sark strangle a man to death while having a casual, loving phone check in with her husband, talking about making them some supper.

After Six, therefore, begins the recalibration of Alias into a more simplistic series driven by sex, betrayal and more traditional forms of spy plotting. It is sporadically entertaining but, at this stage, that’s about all.

Betrayal is without doubt the central running theme coursing through After Six, one which tracks generally with Alias as a conceit.

In this case, the betrayals are of a personal nature, whether Vaughn considering betraying his wife to be with Syd, or Lauren betraying her husband with Sark, Jack’s betrayal of Sloane in Crossings thanks to Katya Derevko’s machiavellian manoeuvres, or even more broadly Lauren & Sark working to betray the Covenant by killing their cell leaders as part of an intended coup. Agendas are shifting, characters are moving as chess pieces across the board, and nobody quite knows who to trust. As a result, certain key characters begin to enter therapy, something we haven’t seen since Season Two perhaps given Alias has been so busily concerned with escalating mysteries and narrative complications since The Telling. With those stripped away, the show is free to dig in a little more.

Therapy on Alias is always designed to serve a narrative purpose. Dr. Judy Barnett, last seen counselling the traumatised Dixon in Countdown, is not The Sopranos’ Dr Melfi, a character who our protagonist simply goes to as a matter of course and rants at or torments etc… (much as almost every on screen therapist has been inspired by Melfi on that show in the last two decades). Syd approaches Barnett because she cannot, from a moral perspective conscience the emotional betrayal that comes from Vaughn cheating on his wife, obsessing over who kissed who in the North Korean camp at the point of death, and once again pushing the idea of Vaughn as her soulmate, someone she is destined to be with. “Does he belong with you?” Barnett asks. The question is whether Vaughn belongs to Syd in her mind, as his betrayal of her in marrying Lauren in the first place remains an open wound.

For me, Alias has a huge blind spot here in terms of Syd’s character development because rather needing to see Barnett because she is experiencing teenage levels of relationship angst, she surely should be requiring therapy to deal with the psychological trauma of her missing two years and the Julia Thorne revelations. We did see Syd enter therapy in Succession but she is in a different space to those people – unlike them, she knows in broad strokes what happened to her and the disturbing, weird, arcane and deeply personal reasons why. Where are the scenes where Syd discusses the abuse the Covenant did to her in extracting her ovum? What about trying to parse the idea a fanatical cult wanted to bear her child with the DNA of prophet who has been dead for 500 years? 

These aspects are never again mentioned as Alias shuts down this corner of the Rambaldi mythology and it is deeply frustrating as a viewer who believes Alias is at its best when the series isn’t mooning over romantic angst or teen drama betrayals and explores the confluence of being a spy in a post-9/11 world where ideological fanatics are attempting to change the world with ancient, mystical ideals. Alias might be giving the fans what they want here but it cheapens the series by outwardly ignoring these enormous plot developments and the fallout once they’ve been blown out of the water. Instead we get Sark perving over Lauren in a changing room while he plots to overthrow an organisation who, again, morph into whatever the story requires of them.

In this case, the Covenant are once again repositioned as terrorists with cells, indeed Alias frames them in much the same way as it did SD-6, with cell leaders operating in different parts of the world and many of them in significant positions of corporate authority such as the CEO of banks or telecoms giants. This sounds remarkably similar to the geopolitically established Alliance with powerful organised crime links into capitalist structures, influencing events behind the scenes. It is yet another face to a group who remain maddeningly hard to pin down. Are they the crime outfit who need Sark’s money we saw in Succession? The extremist Rambaldi cult looking to bring forth his works? A terrorist group? A SPECTRE-esque organisation? They surely can’t be all of them.

I keep harping on about this but it remains a serious bug bear because Alias struggles to function in the same way without antagonists who make sense. We understood what the Alliance was and how the SD cells functioned. Sloane and Irina, however mysterious, made sense as supervillains following arcane agendas. Even the smaller crime organisations the show has presented – K-Directorate, the Triad etc… – could be placed within a framework. The Covenant, however, just does not work in this way and by constantly shifting the goal posts, Alias finds it impossible to truly present them as either a credible nor truly sustainable threat. Sark’s frustrations in them might be ego-based, considered a “worthless foot soldier”, but they cut to a deeper problem about quite what they represent.

The issue is complicated even further by the return of Quentin Tarantino as McKenas Cole, revealed her to be the “man in front of the man” in the Covenant.

Where to begin with this? It should be a point to celebrate. Tarantino was a joy in Season One’s The Box, still one of Alias’ high points as a bravura take on Die Hard where the iconic film director swaggered his way across two episodes as a cocky, pop culture spewing sonofabitch who gave Syd a run for her money in the fighting stakes. It was never made explicit but he was working for The Man in Season One, and if the new Man behind the Covenant is Elena Derevko (as Season Four reveals), then we can reasonably assume Cole knew he was working for Irina Derevko as opposed to Alexander Khasinau in The Box.

Alias is just so happy to have corralled Tarantino back for a one-scene cameo, however, that once again they cheat on the specifics. Cole suggests how he got out of prison after The Box is “a good story” (indeed many many years ago I started a fanfic, that I didn’t finish, which attempted to sketch this out), but that’s it. We don’t know how he came to both be the head of Covenant operations nor play a key role in the plan for Syd as Julia, given we hear his voice as part of the ‘Syndicate’ in Full Disclosure who make Julia kill a man. There was obviously some intention there in the writing staff to seed Cole in but we never see him again following After Six, as he deploys the team of Sark & Lauren as heads of a North American Covenant cell. They don’t report to him, or anyone else really in the long run, so why put Cole in this position if they couldn’t get Tarantino back for a longer arc?

From a practical point of view, Tarantino’s return coincides with After Six’s position as a ‘sweeps’ episode, in this case February sweeps:

Each year, Nielsen processes approximately two million paper diaries from households across the country, for November, February, May, and July—also known as the “sweeps” rating periods. The term “sweeps” dates from 1954, when Nielsen collected diaries from households in the Eastern United States first; from there they would “sweep” west. Seven-day diaries (or eight-day diaries in homes with DVRs) are mailed to homes to keep a tally of what is watched on each television set and by whom. Over the course of a sweeps period, diaries are mailed to a new panel of homes each week. At the end of the month, all of the viewing data from the individual weeks is aggregated.

Season Two’s sweeps episode was, appropriately, Phase One, an episode that certainly had the reach to warrant a bigger audience, but as a transitory episode just over halfway through a season now largely rudderless, After Six would have been considered to need the boost of Tarantino and also Vivica A. Fox, who pops up here for a small role as a rather brittle (and slightly odd, given how she talks about God) sexy arms dealer called Toni Cummings. They are special guest star roles which, in truth, add little or nothing to the storytelling, certainly not to the extent of previous guest roles such as Faye Dunaway or Ethan Hawke.

Or indeed Tarantino, who made sense in The Box, but brings nothing to After Six in any cogent sense.

These might seem like small details but they speak to maddening lack of planning in Season Three.

The writers clearly thought through what they wanted with the Julia arc but once that was wrapped up, After Six already begins to suggest they are tumbling into storylines now with only a vague notion of where the series is going to end up. Across this episode, the one exception to this rule appears to be what Monica Breen & Alison Schapker layer in here with Sloane, which serves as by far the strongest storytelling and subtle character development in After Six, and indeed Blowback next time around. There feels intention behind Sloane’s B-plot here that does not exist with any of the storylines around it.

For one thing, putting Sloane in therapy is a tantalising move for Alias. Syd has therapy to grapple with moral quandaries, Jack we have seen do it through mandated means and largely to justify morally dubious decisions, and Dixon largely vented his quiet anger. Sloane is different. Sloane is designed as a character to be constantly enigmatic and nebulous. In what could be the most honest thing he has ever said, Sloane admits this to Barnett: “I manipulate people. I’m good at that, and I know it. I lie. I keep secrets. I divulge only what I must in order to elicit the reaction I need”. The joy of Ron Rifkin’s performance lies in an awareness of this, of “the power in secrets that you keep” that Sloane mentions, because while Rifkin doesn’t have all the answers, he constantly plays Sloane as if he does.

Season Three has presented a character who, ostensibly, was driven by the ‘word of Rambaldi’ to reform, and relinquish his darker impulses, and so far Sloane has shown little suggestion this is not the case. He gamed his way into being a Covenant double agent in Repercussions (mentioned here after what seems like an age) and quite possibly tricked his way to gaining a Rambaldi device in Remnants, and there are bigger suggestions from characters like Robert Lindsey and Katya that he’s up to something we can’t see, but on the face of it Sloane appears to be a better man. He took a bullet for Jack in Breaking Point. He helps Syd unlock the Julia secret in Prelude. He saves her life in Remnants. So far, the season has done a good job in consistently leading us to wonder quite what masters Sloane serves.

After Six, for me, is the episode that places Sloane alongside the Cigarette-Smoking Man of The X-Files as a villain with deeper emotional complications. His plot in this episode reminded me of a Season Seven episode of that show called En Ami, in which the Smoking Man uses Scully as a confessor to admit his loneliness and desire to change his ways. Sloane admits similar to Jack, anxious that “nothing can erase the past” (a refrain that haunts Season Three in many ways), and later with Barnett strongly suggests he wants to unburden himself. There are even suggestions he is experimenting with drugs, injecting a strange green substance into his arm, but this rather is solid foreshadowing for revelations to come later in the season. Much as with the Emily blackmail story in Season Two, Sloane’s arc feels well considered in After Six and works well as a result.

Putting aside the rather tedious angst around Syd & Vaughn, or the overblown sexcapades of a vampish Lauren and horny Sark, the central spy craft aspects of After Six do work quite well. Cummings’ central Lethal Response System inside the chalet provides Alias with a sizeable central location with which to base an adventure around, as they all have to work together to get past the security measures to reach the MacGuffin of the episode, the Doleac Agenda that will help them take down the Covenant (again, a similar idea to the Alliance server in the much much better Phase One). Marshall getting ‘married’ is a cute added touch to the proceedings, as is Carrie’s labour, and they provide a level of comedy the show has not had the space to employ as of late. It’s ridiculous but this is Alias – if any show can get away with it…

Nevertheless, After Six feels throwaway and designed primarily to place certain characters and storylines, some of which are already beginning to run away from themselves, where they need to be. Sloane’s sub-plot aside, this is hardly one for the ages.

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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