In some ways, Work Experience exists as an extension of the first episode of The Office, in how it frames itself around a similar story structure.
Just as the tour that David Brent gives incoming temp Ricky works as a device to introduce Wernham Hogg and the culture within the office, here the action is framed around a similar tour being given to Donna, a new office assistant who Brent has taken on temporarily as a favour to his friends Ron & Elaine (the real life names of Stephen Merchant’s parents incidentally). Whereas Downsize was designed to use this device as a way of setting the scene of the office and Brent’s personality, Work Experience is predominantly focused on exploring the culture inside the office and, particularly, the institutionalised level of sexism that becomes apparent with the arrival of Donna and thanks to images being shared of pornography adapted for comedy purposes.
It makes a lot of sense for Ricky Gervais & Merchant to do this in the second episode, having established the setting, because the culture and tone employed in so crucial to understanding The Office and what the documentary captures about not just Wernham Hogg but office culture as a whole. Donna is young and attractive, if seemingly quite working class and with zero interest in a role she has clearly been corralled into doing, but the treatment of her is instantly appalling in a manner that the show recognises as such while mining as much comedy out of the built-in misogyny as possible. This is often the delicate balance The Office treads, and for the most part stays on the right side of – depicting cultural trends and behaviours in a corporate business environment that shouldn’t be present but have been allowed to perpetuate.
Work Experience doesn’t necessarily go down as the showiest episode of The Office, filled with truly memorable moments in the series’ run, but it’s a key establishing piece for the audience.
By the third season of Alias, the series was established not as a breakout piece of television but rather a cult show with a dedicated but not stellar fan base in terms of ratings share.
2003, the year the season debuted, was signalling the continuing slow death march of network television. Cable prestige television was continuing to take hold and while we remain a decade out from the arrival of streaming services, Alias nonetheless plied its trade in a network model where ratings dominated. Alias, in that regard, was not the titanic hit ABC might have hoped for a show designed to appeal to both the youthful, female empowering crowd of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fans of genre-based, mythological storytelling such as The X-Files. A year later, Lost would immediately and vastly eclipse it in that regards.
What Alias did have was a solid core group of fans heavily invested in the life and times of Sydney Bristow, her exploits within the CIA, and the ever developing romance between her and fellow agent Michael Vaughn. Season Two, halfway through the season, responded to an edict by ABC to essentially detonate the knotty, serialised concept Alias began with, and streamline Sydney away from the life of a double agent enmeshed in complicated storytelling. Phase One not only freed her, and the show from that, it gave those rabid fans what they had wanted from early on: it out Syd and Vaughn together as a couple and consummated their romance.
Across the first season and a half, Syd & Vaughn had a very strong line in “will they/won’t they?” storytelling, echoing as far back as Moonlighting in the 1980s and carried through into Mulder & Scully in the 1990s, amidst numerous other examples. Alias decided early on comparatively what almost every other show in this position decides: they will. And they did. And across the latter half of Season Two, as the series ran head long into the natural consequences of that first season and a half of storytelling, joyously revelling in the Rambaldi mythology and characters like Arvin Sloane and Irina Derevko as out and out villains, it satiated fans by allowing Syd & Vaughn to exist in a romantic relationship, firmly in love and committed to each other.
What fans, especially ‘shippers’, can sometimes forget is that what is good and pleasant for a character does not always equate to compelling drama. Where do you go when Syd & Vaughn are happily engaged as a couple? Marriage? Children? Logical possibilities, yet Alias is a series built on the ability of Sydney being able to jet around the globe killing bad guys, fighting goons and generally saving the world. How do children fit in that paradigm? Season Five will answer that question but at this stage in Alias’ life, there would be a reasonable consensus that it might be too soon to either marry Syd off or give her a child; indeed had Jennifer Garner not become pregnant, it likely never would have happened at all, particularly given the events of Full Disclosure this season.
Season Three, therefore, works to upset the balance of their relationship as the primary emotional raison d’etre of this new season. The Telling memorably provided audiences with a rather stunning, unexpected cliffhanger; Syd wakes up after her climactic fight with Allison Doren in Hong Kong to find she cannot remember where she has been for the last two years, everyone believes she was dead, and Vaughn… is now married to someone else. Instant horror for audiences invested in their romance. Instant drama for everyone else, aware that this changes their entire dynamic. This speaks to the constant push-pull between pleasing your established fan base, the people who tune in and make your show a success, and creative satisfying both the series and what it wants to say.
Alias, in that regard, deserves credit for what it tries to fashion Season Three into.
Resurrection is the strangest and least effective season finale Alias ever delivers, existing as a visible consequence of how the latter half of Season Three has been structured.
Ostensibly, it has all of the accoutrements you might expect from a finale of television for a cult, genre network show. In the opening five minutes, the CIA Rotunda—our base for the last two seasons—is attacked and partially destroyed, if not as comprehensively as their future operations centre APO in Reprisal. Our villains hit the nerve centre of our characters world, attacking the very institution they represent, and almost murdering Marshall, a character so beloved and sweet, any kind of violence towards him can only be described as pure evil. The episode then focuses on resolving the central emotional and physical conflict at the heart of the season – Lauren’s betrayal of Vaughn, and where Sydney sits as the woman in the very middle of it.
The reason Resurrection is vastly less successful than either Almost Thirty Years or The Telling is that it fails, unlike those episodes, to balance such personal drama with a broader escalation of the mythology, and simply descends into a rather aimless mire of grim violence and retribution than leans more toward a 1970s Michael Winner revenge fantasy picture than anything Alias would normally produce. Almost Thirty Years brought the burgeoning mythology full circle and provided Syd with the prospect of losing Vaughn. The Telling brought the Rambaldi hunt to a crescendo and then devoted a final act to a deeply satisfying, thrilling and cathartic battle between Syd and the woman who had killed and doubled her best friend.
Resurrection sees the Rambaldi story peter out, parked for a future season, before the episode dives headfirst into a dark, bitter, aimless climax topped off with a twist that, even before what comes next, makes very little sense.
For all of the jigsaw pieces that make up the Rambaldi puzzle, Legacy works to boil the mythology down into a simplistic revelation.
Once again, Rambaldi’s endgame is about a message rather than a physical gain. Il Dire at the end of Season Two, though we didn’t know it at the time, was designed to reveal a simple truth to Sloane, and all we had in The Telling was Irina’s assertion that he believed he was supposed to realise the ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Words. Knowledge. Sacred information.
Legacy repeats this but rather than Sloane assembling a machine, his conduit is now a person in his daughter, Nadia, injected here with a magical elixir designed to ‘remotely’ channel that ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Again, the answer leads to another question, in the boon they later search for in Resurrection and later The Descent, but the legacy of Rambaldi appears to be coming, appropriately, full circle. Once the puzzle pieces are assembled, all roads seem to lead back to the prophet himself.
This is quite appropriate for Alias in how, from the very beginning of the Rambaldi mythology in Parity, he has been positioned as the series’ God-figure; an unknowable creation, off stage, influencing everything the main characters do. Sloane’s faith, Irina’s past, Sark’s extremism, and on and on – everything traces back to the ‘search’ for Rambaldi, the search for a secular God who holds information, knowledge and great power.
Legacy, however, suggests said power does not just come from within, but from the very bloodline associated with Sydney herself. Season Three concludes the transmogrification in this episode of Alias’ mythology from an outward quest for truth into an internal search for knowledge, as Nadia’s channeling and the continued revelations about Irina’s history regarding her birth unfurl to connect the extended family at the heart of the drama to these mythological stakes.
Legacy, like many of these late Season Three episodes, still has way too much happening for its own good as a compelling piece of drama, but it does contextualise the snowballing effect of the Rambaldi quest.
There is a darkness that pervades Blood Ties that feels quite rare for Alias.
At this stage, the season is at the height of complication turning into resolution. A cavalcade of revelations regarding the Rambaldi mythology have been unfurled over the last few episodes, a barrage of detail that the first two seasons didn’t come close to unloading. Blood Ties adds even more layers, revealing quite who the Passenger is in terms of Rambaldi’s mythological context.
We know Sydney has a sister and here we meet her and get a name – Nadia, played by Mia Maestro for the rest of the season, the entirety of the fourth and once or twice in the fifth. Lauren is fully exposed here and stops pretending she’s not a pantomime villainess, breaking away from the CIA fully to become what she tried to hide earlier in the season – Sark’s partner in crime. Almost everything is now out in the open and the dominoes are starting to fall.
There is, within this, a real nastiness buried inside Blood Ties which reflects the road Alias has travelled from the rather pulpy, bright and colourful series we saw particularly at the beginning to a show buried under a huge amount of revelation and laboured with a great deal of bruised and battered characters. Chiefly, this is realised in how Vaughn, already having to try and hide how angry and emotionally wounded he is by Lauren’s betrayal, being physically tortured by in part the woman he used to love.
We also see how Syd is cautious at the prospect of meeting Nadia, lacking the optimism and hope she felt when getting to know Irina, expecting betrayal. Even Sloane goes into the dark heart of the US government, exposing a cabal who he blackmails through a threat of revealing their dark deeds and the “unseemly predilections” of their children. We are a world away from the Alias of Syd running around in three inch heels while napalm explodes around her.
Though Blood Ties manages to be quite effective in places, stating true to its brooding nature and offering several momentous scenes, it nonetheless feels like a show Alias, on some level, never wanted to become.
Hourglass is a good example of the tricky balance Alias is having to pull off, at the end of this season, between mythological revelation and soap-opera theatrics.
Ostensibly, the reveal of Jack’s betrayal by Sloane, and Irina’s added betrayal of him, underpins the central thematic idea coursing through the entirety of the latter half of this season in the ongoing Vaughn/Lauren narrative. Everything is about betrayal, and how the ‘alias’ at the heart of the concept is utilised. It began for the show with Sydney operating as a double agent, evolved into her being kidnapped and corrupted into living with one of the aliases she pretended to be, and has now developed into replaying the core backstory on which the Bristow family saga has played out – Syd’s virtuous all-American mother revealed as the Other, a Russian spy, and how she grew up within a shattered nuclear family as a result, representing the growing dysfunction of American family life at the end of, and in the wake of, the ideological Cold War conflict.
Alias has never really found an idea that works as cleanly as Jack’s betrayal by Laura or Irina to represent what the ‘alias’ means, or the central family values Alias strives for.
The whole point of the show, through the espionage framework, is for Syd to find that happiness and balance and security that Jack was robbed of. It has become more challenging in the post-9/11 sphere Alias was forced to inhabit, a world of uncertain alliances and geopolitical realities—Julia Thorne arc was very much a response to that—for Syd to achieve that balance. Lauren’s intrusion into that security was a pointed challenge to that ongoing story arc and in that sense, her own betrayal—her becoming Irina to Vaughn’s Jack—does make sense, but Hourglass displays how the show has moved from many of these betrayals and revelations operating on a subconscious or opaque level to scenes where Jack and Sloane openly talk about how he had it away with Irina. It removes a lot of the historical mystique from Alias’ deepest themes.
Hourglass also confirms what we have already suspected and throws a classic soap opera drama trope into the mix of the series: the secret sister.
There is a great deal going on in Unveiled, as Alias spirals headfirst toward the end of the season, but the episode feels largely an exercise in the majority of characters playing catch up with the audience.
This has always been a trait of Alias. Both of the previous seasons allowed the audience to be one step ahead, the majority of the time, of Sydney and her allies in the CIA. The first season nevertheless did manage to employ a greater sense of mystery – we didn’t really know who ‘The Man’ was or what his organisation sought to achieve. The second season embroiled us more in the machinations of Sloane and Irina as they moved into the position of antagonists, while keeping their motivations within the Rambaldi mythology enigmatic, and kept us aware of Allison Doren undercover when nobody else around her realised. Alias is built on the ‘unveiling’ of characters and storylines and secrets, with the audience caught in the middle of expectation and genuine uncertainty.
The third season has struggled to make this same structural approach work as effectively. We either simply don’t know enough about the villains (the Covenant) or the actions and motivations of our antagonists, with Lauren effectively here operating in the same position Allison was to all intents and purposes, are too informed and vague. Unveiled suggests these stories are unravelling, as Lauren’s duplicity is steadily exposed to Vaughn and the characters around him, but the payoff is nowhere near the same as when Syd or Will realised who Allison really was. Lauren’s exposure is simply an inevitability to be overcome so Alias can move on to the next stage, and that’s a problem. She, and Sark, now feel little more like necessary evils the series needs to indulge rather than powerful opposites for Syd & company to expose.
Unveiled ends up ticking off numerous plot boxes, drowned as it is in Rambaldi mythology, but none of it really has any weight or substance. Much like Taken and The Frame, this really is Alias on auto-pilot.
If the problem with Taken lay in how bland and rote the narrative plotting around the Rambaldi mythology felt as the series attempted to combine it with character work, The Frame works by and large in how to fuse those elements together effectively.
This is not a top tier Rambaldi mytharc episode, nor indeed a great episode of Alias, but it does two things well: it advances the Rambaldi enigma just enough to intrigue the audience and further us deeper into new territory, and it weaves the machinations of Lauren (and more of a background Sark) into the ongoing, steady revival of Sydney & Vaughn’s relationship without them drowning out everything else in the story, as was the case in After Six. Though some of the twists here stretch some level of credulity, particularly the Reed family dynamic, it nonetheless has fun playing with Lauren covering up her duplicity as opposed to be it being something of a laborious burden around the series’ neck, as it was already swiftly in danger of becoming.
Alongside this, writer Crystal Nix Hines has great fun in transforming the Rambaldi mythology into a gigantic treasure hunt to a degree we haven’t previously found. The crystals hidden in the ocean which serve as a map to how to open the Rambaldi box is all very Indiana Jones, arguably another key touchstone for Alias’ conspiracy and revisionist history, but it is given appropriate space to indulge this kind of pulp adventure serial storytelling in a way Full Disclosure, which saw Syd & Andrian Lazarey undergoing their own Indy-style Rambaldi hunt, didn’t have the time or space to do. There could be an entire spin-off comic series about Syd/Julia’s hunt across the globe for the Rambaldi keys in that episode but we never get it. The Frame indulges those same aspirations to have the Rambaldi mythos a continued hunt for literal buried treasure and the exposure of secrets.
It is a relatively functional episode of Alias, again transitory in how it moves characters and storylines from A to B, but The Frame is certainly more assured in the B-movie storytelling it indulges.
If there is one character who has been left behind the most in the structural changes to Season Three of Alias, it is Marcus Dixon.
Alias has always struggled with how to integrate Dixon in many ways. He began as Sydney’s loyal partner in Season One, a good friend and older brother proxy who provided counsel and advice; a good man unaware of how he was being duped by SD-6. That season at least flirted with him exposing Syd’s secret that provided solid drama but then the first half of Season Two barely even utilises him. Phase One arguably contains the finest material Carl Lumbly—a great actor for someone so underused, as he recently proved on Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—to chew on, as Dixon’s world comes tumbling down. Season Two just then compounds the misery and trauma on Dixon to the point he almost breaks, and only just comes through the other side with his wife murdered and him on the verge of suicide.
Season Three has so much else going on, from a character and narrative perspective, that it again struggles to figure out how Dixon integrates into the post-Julia Thorne dynamic. Making him the new boss, the new Kendall/Jack replacement in the CIA Rotunda, in a sense works. It is logical from a development perspective – he has the experience. But it not only reduces Lumbly to largely an exposition role, delivering mission briefings, it also restrains him. Dixon feels, in the first half of Season Three, relatively inert. He is even essentially written out of the Prelude-arc, as Syd goes on the run, when logically he should have been there with Jack & Vaughn fighting to get Syd away from the NSC. Only in Full Disclosure does Dixon actively show a level of forward motion, of the kind of action-based autonomy we saw in the first two seasons, when he joins Syd to help destroy the Rambaldi baby making machine. “It’s personal for me too” he promises Syd, though it feels more like a reminder to the audience.
Taken is designed to rebalance the scales, to invest us once again in Dixon as a character and a father. The problem is that because he’s spent so long being inert, Taken’s attempt to tether him to the ongoing mythology comes off as frighteningly melodramatic.
When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.
Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.
Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?
Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.
In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.