TV Review: ALIAS – ‘The Frame’ (3×17)

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.

The Frame finally goes for broke and confronts what the audience, and some of the characters, have known for a while: the Vaughn/Lauren marriage is dead.

You can only imagine the screams of delight from the Alias ‘shipper’ fanbase as Vaughn admits he wants to leave and divorce Lauren, telling her quite starkly “I’m not happy”. It is a testament to how rigidly ‘evil Lauren’ has been drawn over these last few episodes in just how bluntly Vaughn puts this, and how much we are supposed to just accept it. We as an audience are meant to have no sympathy for Lauren being ceremoniously dumped, given we know she is playing Vaughn, but Alias vacillates over how we’re supposed to see Lauren. It picks and chooses whether to play ambiguously whether she does care about Vaughn, and is frustrated by his love for Sydney. “She is our problem. Michael, if you’re going to destroy my life, the least you can do is be honest about why you’re doing it” Lauren tells him, but does part of her mean it? We know part of her doesn’t but Alias never seems to decide who Lauren really is.

All that we’re supposed to root for is Vaughn choosing Syd, who doesn’t stand in the way of his plan to finish things with Lauren, likely sparked by her promise in After Six that she won’t be his mistress. This makes sense but it also invalidates everything the first half of the season did to make this triangle complicated, and place Vaughn in a bothersome light; the man who quickly moved on and married someone else, a woman he does appear to love. The Frame just wants to extricate Vaughn from this situation so the series can get back to what it perceives fans want – Syd & Vaughn to be happy. To whit, Lauren is taken almost to a point there really would be no coming back from – patricide. She is prepared to murder her father, Senator George Reed, on Sark’s advice. “The last time Sydney Bristow induced your husband to stray from a committed relationship, he was dating Alice Williams. When her father died, Vaughn recommitted.”

Lauren does at least struggle with this idea, and can’t ultimately go through with it, but it’s designed to double down on Lauren’s villainy.

Honestly, the whole Reed family dynamic makes no real sense, does it?

For a start, where does Lauren come from? Her father is American, her mother Olivia (played by 1960s counter-culture symbol, and later Twin Peaks favourite, Peggy Lipton) is American, yet Lauren was born in London and has an Australian accent (thanks to Melissa George). Are we supposed to believe Olivia is British? If so, why cast Peggy Lipton? We can let this go, in a way. This is Alias. This is the early Noughties. Network TV would never let accents and cultural accuracy get in the way of their storytelling, and Alias is always framed through an enormously American view of the world.

The bigger problem lies in how Olivia also turns out to be in league with the Covenant, and has seemingly been playing house and pretending to be the good Senator’s wife for a long time. It is, frankly, bonkers, and Alias never really gives us much in the way of explanation for it. Did Olivia recruit her? Lauren tells her father that she “believes her cause is just” but what is the cause? It remains maddeningly opaque.

There is something strangely Presidential in some ways about the Reed family. Senator George is the old, white patrician who was presented in Taken as obstructionist but here comes off more as conciliatory, if a bit corrupt in how, faced with Lauren’s treachery, he is prepared to lie and connive in order to get her off the hook. “I’m a Senator on the Intelligence Committee. No one would say a word.” Lauren seems genuinely tempted by this abuse of power and might have taken it, had not Olivia finished the job.

Given we later learn Reed was apparently interested in Rambaldi, and in league on some level with Sloane, he too perhaps was a corrupted figure in a different way, but the character here is the sacrificial lamb on which to cement Lauren’s deviousness and complicity, thereby allowing Vaughn’s easy out of their marriage. Alias even cheats by having Olivia, framed initially as a charitable ‘First Lady’ by Reed—“Olivia chairs the largest literacy program in the country. Does more good in a year than I do in a six-year term”—do the dirty work for her daughter.

It should have been Lauren who killed her father if they were really going down this road.

The Frame paints Olivia in an intriguing way.

If we are to believe she is some kind of wealthy philanthropist in her spare time, has she recently converted to the Covenant’s cause or has she been undercover for much longer? Was she always undercover? If Alias is playing with the idea that Lauren parallels Irina, and what she did to Jack, then is Olivia the same? Is Olivia Reed the alias? Who knows? Reed seems to suggests she is a long suffering wife. “She’s a great woman, your mom. Put up with a lot. Me being away, Congress all these years.”, just as he is prepared to consider Lauren’s betrayal a consequence of his neglect as a governor.

But was he just a sucker? Was he what Vaughn could have become? These are all open questions that Alias both doesn’t answer and, to be honest, doesn’t seem all that interested in asking. Which is a shame because there has to be a thematic reason why Olivia would shoot dead a man she has spent decades with without a second thought. Alias just shrugs it off though as another ‘twist’ in a series drowning in sudden right turns that don’t make a great deal of sense.

The suggestion that Reed was somehow in league with Sloane—and Olivia’s stitch up that he killed himself because “our country, that our government was ineffectual. He said he’d made certain choices, that when they came out no one would understand” also feels like a reach, and a way of manipulating a character who Alias did scant character work with to fit the broader plot aspirations – chiefly, Sloane facing the death penalty and finally ending up behind bars. This feels like a turn the Alias writing staff have wanted to put in place for a long time, they just never particularly had the mechanism for Sloane to easily be locked up.

The reasoning here seems quite out of nowhere and flimsy, which certainly would fit Dixon’s motivations—his hate for Sloane ever present under the surface—but the series had made such an effort to present Sloane as possibly rehabilitated, his sudden incarceration feels forced. It does admittedly allow for an enjoyable play on The Silence of the Lambs, with he as the Hannibal Lecter to Syd’s Clarice Starling as she brings him The Iliad (in the original Greek, because that’s how Arvin rolls) in exchange for his help about the crystals.

While Sloane reading The Iliad, apart from trying to prove how he’s read the classics, might have deeper Rambaldi significance too. Though the story at the heart of Homer’s poem, featuring Odysseus before he undertakes his fateful voyage in The Odyssey (a word described in A Free Agent to represent Sloane’s search for Rambaldi), concerns the fall of Troy and the first Trojan War, and have no direct significance to Sloane’s journey, The Iliad was a text that had a major rediscovery in culture and literature during the Renaissance period, particularly in Italy and Western Europe. This was, of course, the time of Rambaldi when he developed his creations before being burned alive for heresy, so could Sloane’s interest in Greek myth connect to his search for Rambaldi? Alias never provides direct answers but the continued allusions to Sloane as a flawed Odysseus, as well as the mythological Devil figure from folklore, continue to be layered into the series.

One intriguing factor about Rambaldi that The Frame plays with is the continued idea that the unseen ‘Followers of Rambaldi’ worked to hide the works that make up his grand puzzle in some of the most arcane spots on the planet Earth. “You know better than anyone, Sydney, there isn’t anywhere on Earth that Rambaldi or his followers wouldn’t go to hide one of his creations.” This feels like a reference from Sloane to Syd’s aforementioned search for the keys to Rambaldi’s DNA cube while undercover as Julia, but it also suggests a dichotomy between people who revere Rambaldi, but seem to appreciate how powerful and dangerous his work is, and people like Sloane, or here Sark and the returning Kazari Bomani—played by Djimon Hounsou and last seen in Repercussions as he brokered with Sloane to join the Covenant—who are actively breaking with what you might call under other circumstances a ‘covenant’ with Rambaldi to protect his works. Syd even suggests this in the underwater cave holding the crystals: “It looks like it’s been fortified over the years, probably by the followers of Rambaldi to protect his artifacts from ever being removed.”

Vaughn does then make a suggestion that comes as a surprise, in terms of why Alias has never really made it before. “If what’s in the Rambaldi box is a danger to you, and these keys are the only way to open it, maybe they should be destroyed.” Syd understands but she doesn’t take him up on it, perhaps out of some kind of morbid curiosity at this point as to what Rambaldi was doing, and likely given she now understands the box connects to the ongoing mystery of her mother. She has to know, even if she might literally open Pandora’s Box – perhaps another reason Sloane was reading The Iliad, as an allusion to Greek myth. This is, of course, the suggestion, especially as Bomani claims the box contains “Irina’s legacy”. But really, Syd should destroy anything Rambaldi she gets her hands on. Now allow it to be stored by the DSR. Not try and negate prophecies by scaling mountains. She should actively destroy this sacred work, but she doesn’t. That says something about Syd’s own psychology in relation to Rambaldi.

We here are reminded of the new aspect of the mythos, the Passenger, first mentioned by Lazarey on what would become his death bed in Full Disclosure. In a strange call back to Season One’s rather unremarkable episode Snowman, The Frame drafts in the enigmatic Mr Kishell, who was butchered and facially disfigured by Syd’s ex Noah Hicks, to deliver a brace of Passenger exposition. Interestingly, he suggests a particular Soviet real life figure tried to find the Passenger years before: “Stalin obtained the box, but the key to opening it eluded him.”

This is a nice slice of alternate history, alongside the DSR being formed in response to Hitler’s interest in the occult during WW2, with a suggestion that Joseph Stalin was a follower of Rambaldi and sought to find the “plague like bio-weapon” inside. It could easily have been Hitler, a la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but Stalin is more evocative for Alias. He was, after all, the infamous, murderous despot under whom agencies such as the KGB came to bear and the tyranny of a Soviet state became apparent in the decades after Lenin’s revolution and WW2. Syd’s ancestry is part-Russian; she is a child in some sense of two worlds. Stalin pursuing Rambaldi strikes at the ultimate American fear – that the Communist regime might wield ultimate destructive power. Stalin looking for Rambaldi is both a pulpy and chilling concept.

These aspects add some good shades of intrigue to The Frame which prevent the episode being particularly forgettable, even if it continues to exists as an episode moving characters further into positions they need to be. It is, at least, entertaining in the hokum it provides and holds a stronger level of character depth—with the unravelling Vaughn/Lauren situation—than the previous episode. It nonetheless threatens to return to Season Three’s status quo by the end, even if this turns out to be a false dawn given Unveiled. Alias is about to enter a final few episodes of the season whereby too many ideas, too many loose concepts that the series simply has not time to explore well, are thrown into the mythological melting pot. The Frame serves as the beginning of that.

One final question… why is this episode actually called The Frame? If you know, answers on a postcard!

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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