TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Unveiled’ (3×18)

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.

For a start, the episode begins with a whopping great Rambaldi plot hole.

Sloane claims that he used the Rambaldi box to conceal the Di Regno heart, last seen being ripped from a man’s chest by Danny Trejo in Season Two’s Countdown, and later “secured” the box to only be opened by the crystal keys recovered in The Frame by Bomani & Sark. Yet earlier in that episode, the gravel voiced Mr Kishell claimed that the box hadn’t been opened since the time of Rambaldi, aka the late 1400s, despite the best efforts of Joseph Stalin and presumably others. So how did Sloane open it? How did he get the heart that powers Il Dire, “Rambaldi’s ultimate creation” in his words, into the box? And then are we supposed to believe he hid the crystal keys deep in an obscure part of the ocean with the help of the Followers of Rambaldi? It’s feasible that he used the keys himself to open the box and then hid them, sure, but why not just then destroy them if he didn’t want the box opened? The continued inability to commit a level of heresy in destroying Rambaldi’s work?

As always with the Rambaldi mythology, we are left to speculate, but not in an enriching, mind-opening way. It simply feels rather like plotting that hasn’t been structured or pre-planned or thought through in advance, and now the writing staff are sketching in gaps and even lightly retconning themselves to make the pieces fit. After all, much as we finally get to see Il Dire after it was used off-screen in The Telling—and honestly compared to what that episode suggested it’s a bit of an anti-climax—Unveiled confirms beyond a doubt that when The Telling was written, J.J. Abrams had no answer as to what Il Dire really was or did.

That lack of forward planning, beyond perhaps the basic essentials (presumably Sloane learning in Countdown that he had a daughter), is shown up when Unveiled has to work hard and deliver fairly anodyne exposition to make the pieces fit together.

At this stage, Rambaldi has lost the same sense of weird unique mysticism it had in the first two seasons, primarily because as Alias strives to explain all of the unanswered questions from the second season, those resolutions become more and more knotty and less and less interesting.

The Passenger, it turns out, is a woman the Covenant are looking to find, the “legacy” of Irina (so you’ve probably worked out by now what Hourglass will very early on spell out). Yet the means of getting the audience to this revelation is staggeringly, needlessly complicated – finding keys to open a box to plug a heart into a machine that spells out a 500 year old DNA code that leads the Covenant to employ a hacker to, as Dixon hilariously describes, “consume over half of all internet bandwidth” in a day, to infect the servers of medical facilities to find the DNA code that will expose the woman… I mean, just read that back. It’s nuts. Even for Alias, it’s nuts, especially when Sloane could tell Jack or Syd “oh yeah, the Passenger is a girl, my daughter, your sister” in one line.

Now, granted, that’s not how drama works, especially a show such as Alias built on escapism and escalation of storytelling. The whole point is that Rambaldi is a mystery, styled in the vein of Indiana Jones, that the characters globetrot to exotic and strange locations to expose. That’s the point and to remove that would not make sense. Yet the problem is how the writers are now stretching the mythology in episodes such as Unveiled to the degree that it becomes exhausting. Think about how Rambaldi was parsed out over the first two seasons, often with pieces that didn’t quite fit together. That was almost the point, even if Alias—unlike, say, The X-Files or Lost—was always going to stitch these concepts together in a wider, cohesive whole. Rambaldi works when we don’t quite have the answers.

Unveiled unveils too much and takes a ridiculous, circulatory journey to get us there. The Rambaldi revelations are now simply necessary as opposed to being vivid, weird or exciting.

The real unveiling of the episode is, of course, Lauren’s secret existence as the mole, which isn’t confirmed quite yet officially but crucially becomes apparent to an in-denial Vaughn across the episode.

These are probably the standout aspects of Unveiled from a dramatic perspective. In a nice moment of honest introspection, Weiss asks Syd to be honest with herself, as she starts to suspect Lauren framed her father. “Do you think she’s the mole, or do you just want her to be the mole?” This is good because Syd, in truth, probably wants the latter, given how Senator Reed’s death in The Frame manoeuvred Vaughn back into a marriage he doesn’t want to be part of out of obligation, just at the point he was about to leave Lauren to be with Syd. She would never directly admit that to herself, or anyone else, but she wants Lauren to be the villain as much as the audience, at this point, want her to be exposed. Lauren has been transformed into such a one-dimensional avatar of ‘shipper hate’, Alias has no time for any ambiguity.

Everything about this storyline now just feels like we’re marking time. Lauren, bafflingly, talks about how Senator Reed wanted his ashes scattered in Dover. “Those cliffs, I don’t know how many times dad and I took walks there.” Really? Why? He was about as American as Senators get, surely? Was he supposed to be British? Then why cast Raymond J. Barry?! Heck, the whole Reed family are basically miscast. It’s just bizarre. And the problem is that Lauren selling these lies, about how neglected she was by her father when he was in the States, don’t mean anything because she’s playing the ‘character’ of Lauren.

Even if she’s not, and at these points she is explaining aspects of her backstory that perhaps give us an idea why she threw her lot in with the Covenant (although it doesn’t explain Olivia), we have so little context of who Lauren really is, what she stands for, and what she wants, none of it means anything. They’re just empty scenes that keep selling a lie we, as an audience, just now want out in the open.

You’re willing Vaughn on to smoke her out.

The best moment of the episode is the one where Jack, after Vaughn defensively brushes off Syd’s (rather tactless, it has to be said) attempt to suggest Lauren is working for the Covenant, goes to see Vaughn and very clearly makes the parallel between Lauren and Irina that the series has been not so subtly dropping in our faces for the last six episodes or more.

Jack recalling his own experience feels cathartic for him in some sense, and is the kind of admission that he likely would never have openly admitted toward the start of the series. “There were times, moments when I became curious. How had she occupied her morning? What were her plans when I was out of town? Usually she told me, but occasionally she’d stop what she was doing, walk over, and offer me a kiss. A spontaneous gesture. But on one occasion it struck me. This impulsive kiss, what if it was an evasion, camouflaging the truth in an expression of love? Of course, I dismissed my concern immediately… merely professional paranoia. After all, she was my wife.” Vaughn, naturally, because he’s Vaughn, makes it all about him and turns the tables on defensively. “Lauren is not Irina, and I am definitely not you.”

This scene is effective because Jack & Vaughn have never liked one another, even when they have developed a grudging respect for what they do (which we saw nicely developed in episodes such as Breaking Point and Remnants), and the entire third season has in many ways thematically tethered them together, especially in the latter half. We will talk more about this at the very end of Season Three but this lays the primary foundations for Vaughn’s actions in Legacy, as he very much does become Jack. It is obvious plotting but it works and the scenes is powerful as a result, more powerful than many of the other moments across the episode. Unveiled is mostly contained of scenes in which exposition is dropped, elements are clarified for the audience, and narrative chess pieces are manoeuvred.

It is a major reason why many of these later Season Three episodes fail to stand out and bleed into one another in many ways.

Just take the Covenant storyline, which continues to be maddening in how flimsy and uninspired those scenes are.

Remember just how tense moments with Sloane or Irina were? Or Allison operating undercover? Or even Alliance machinations in episodes such as The Prophecy? When we did see what the villains were up to in Alias, it used to be quite thrilling. Now we have Sark attempting to convince a petulant Lauren (who at one point calls him a “pathetic little errand boy”) that he will protect her from a Covenant who are becoming tired of her failures and carelessness, as she struggles to maintain her hold on Vaughn and keep the CIA from exposing her, or we get lifeless scenes between Sark and Bomani. Seriously, what is the point of that guy? Djimon Hounsou is a presence with genuine gravitas who deserves so much better, with Bomani saddled with bland lines and ultimately turns out simply to be an internal Covenant obstacle to be disposed of so the Sark/Lauren murder shagathon can continue. Did they have bigger plans for Bomani that simply were never realised? We will never know.

Don’t get me started again on the Covenant. Seriously. Who are they? Today, by the way, they are cyber-terrorists. Tomorrow they might be a cult again, who knows? Certainly not the writers. Why was Bomani basically acting like Sark’s boss even though Sark claims he broke him out of a Siberian prison? Where did he operate on the food chain? Was he just under the never to be seen again McKenas Cole? Was he the same level as the never to be seen again Zisman from Crossings? What did he want from Rambaldi? Why was he a zealot? Question after unanswered question that might seem unimportant but how can you truly invest in antagonists when you know so little about them, or alternatively they have no real characterisation? Alias by this stage is taking the main villains for the third season for granted and it really shows.

Incidentally, Alias‘ presentation of cyber-terrorism is decidedly post-The Matrix corny, and still redolent of an age where cyber attacks were the domain of either nerdy computer obsessives (such as Marshall and his alias online, ‘Black Kitty’ – sort of a geek Katya Derevko then!), or techno-genius hackers working in the underworld. Syd and Vaughn don almost ridiculous, Matrix-esque guises as they visit ‘Cypher’ in Berlin (which only seems to be represented, a la Second Double, as a blue-lit techno-dystopia filled with either sex addicts or criminals). Lauren equally goes in Neo-Gothic with red flamed wig and dark makeup.

Alias treats the world of hacking as an alien landscape not fully yet understood, even Syd refers to Cypher as such. “I know you people get your little power trips by designing viruses, defacing websites, breaking into systems.” She sounds decidedly middle-aged here, not to mention quite conservative. She can’t conceive of such a cyberspace world that would, a few years down the line, become ingrained in Western culture.

There is also the steady introduction of the Trust, who we will fully meet in Blood Ties, as yet another complication is piled into an already packed season.

Sloane, suddenly, is working also for this secret group within the US government who have an interest in Rambaldi, as apparently was the conveniently dead so we can’t ask him about it Senator Reed. Unveiled and the episodes around it heavily rely on Reed to explain numerous sudden left turns that help the narrative develop, chiefly for Sloane. Keeping him in jail feels like such a waste, even if it is designed to give him moments with Jack where he tries to prove his veracity as a good guy. “Have I been helpful this year? Tell me, have I lived up to my word? I helped Sydney recover her memory. I took a bullet for you for God’s sake.” 

On one level, this almost feels like Sloane talking as much to us as the audience. The way he says ‘this year’ suggests almost an awareness of how network television used to work, in how audiences followed characters and seasons with the expectation of ‘coming back next year’. Alias exists at the tail end of this system, or certainly at the beginning of that end, but Sloane understands how audiences expected him to once again be the arch villain and in this dialogue, he is pleading with us–as well as Jack–to believe he is not the same man we thought he was. This whole sub-plot seems designed to have Sloane go through what he does in Hourglass as part of a redemptive arc, and once Dixon starts revealing (again, tactlessly) to Jack about Sloane’s affair with Irina—massively undercutting the whole power of that revelation in Blowback, by the way—we’re heading into really facile soap opera territory.

In the end, yet again, Unveiled is just a means to an end as opposed to a strong individual Alias episode it it’s own right. It’s also worth noting just how little these reviews recently have discussed Syd and her own characterisation, because that has massively fallen by the wayside given how many plots and characters and revelations Alias is right now having to serve. That’s the chief complaint about the lacklustre, overstuffed run of late Season Three episodes for me. Syd might well be learning more and more about the Rambaldi mythology, but what is it all truly doing for her character? Granted, the upcoming revelations will give her a strong impetus and stake in the plot over the next few episodes, but now she simply feels like a protagonist whose own development is in waiting.

Just unveil all this damn stuff already, Alias, and let’s actually go somewhere.

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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