TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Hourglass’ (3×19)

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.

We don’t meet her yet, that’s for next week in Blood Ties, but the presence of who we will eventually know as Nadia Santos permeates the majority of the narrative across Hourglass.

“The Passenger… she is… your destiny” the mysterious Nepalese monk Conrad, played by guest star David Carradine, tells Syd with his dying breath, and maybe this has always been the case. Alias has from the beginning existed as a series built on personal and familial relationships constructed within a high-tech espionage world of mystery. Syd had whole sub-plots with close buddies. We met people like Vaughn’s girlfriend or Sloane’s wife. Marshall ended up getting married while Dixon’s wife was murdered. Jack’s entire character is built on having never really gotten past his wife’s deeply personal betrayal. Alias has always worn the personal and inter-personal heavily on its sleeve and the majority of key dynamics come back to parents and children. Even Sark with Lazarey, or Lauren with her scapegoated father and duplicitous mother.

So as Alias developed, it feels a fairly natural evolution to introduce a sister for Syd, particularly given the patrilineal mysteries around her father’s betrayal and her mother’s origins, or even Sloane’s continued creepy vacillation between either showing parental attachment to Syd on one hand and maybe wanting to sleep with her on the other. It has always skewed perhaps a shade more toward the former thanks to Ron Rifkin’s performance, and Jack even calls him out on it during the frankest conversation here they have perhaps ever had. “You did it because you were angry and jealous and wanted to take away the one thing that was important to both Irina and me, the symbol of what we had and you didn’t: Sydney.” While Jack can’t quite see straight here, consumed by anger at the secret he now knows on the one hand and plotting on the other, he isn’t wrong, and nor does Sloane deny this.

Arguably, the show was always flirting with the idea Sloane might secretly be Syd’s father anyway, as we discussed in Blowback.

Josh Applebaum confirmed, nonetheless, that none of this was directly planned for the end of Season Three in advance, in terms of the Passenger being Syd’s surprise sibling:

I don’t remember who it was — it probably was J.J. — but somebody said, “What if Sydney had a sister?” Suddenly everyone’s like “F–k yeah!”…Then J.J. was going through a script… and in his rewrite of it, as this guy is dying, [Abrams] added this line in. The person dying said, “Find the passenger.” We in the writers’ room were like, “Who’s the passenger?” J.J’s like, “I don’t know. It’s sort of an interesting idea. Let’s talk about it.” It just felt like a compelling thing. By the end of the day, it was like, “Wait a minute: What if the passenger is Sydney’s sister?” Tie those two ideas together and that sort of took root, and it was game on.

Though it might seem the person Applebaum is talking about here is Conrad, he probably means Lazarey at the end of Full Disclosure, which was of course where the Passenger was initially seeded without context. He doesn’t tell Syd to find her, in fact, rather if she knows about the Passenger; indeed he never suggests the Passenger is her sister, even if we can assume he’s talking about a person. 

This comment very much sums up the approach to the Rambaldi mythology across the third season which we are now seeing play out as we ramp up toward a rather spiralling conclusion. As late as Full Disclosure, which wrapped up and concluded a Rambaldi arc that feels totally divorced from the Passenger story, there was no direct roadmap toward Nadia. It is probable nobody really knew when making Countdown what Sloane was reading on that piece of paper. We have discussed this before, the lack of forward planning in the Rambaldi mytharc, but the holes in the storytelling are becoming more and more apparent as Season Three attempts to stitch together plot lines and character beats from both the previous two seasons and the larger backstory of the series.

Let’s try and work out where we are with the mythos, because it is growing increasingly convoluted. Sloane discovered he had a daughter, the Passenger, from Conrad in Countdown thanks to Rambaldi’s apocalyptic ‘event’ listed in that episode alongside Napoleon, WW1 etc… and perhaps that Il Dire would reveal her DNA code. He powered that machine up with the heart of Patea Di Regno, who we can assume again lived for over 500 years much like Giovanni Donato in Time Will Tell as a ‘disciple’ of Rambaldi, maybe thanks to the ‘endless life’ we saw previously incarnate in the flower in Passage. Anyway, Sloane gets the DNA string and begins searching.

Yet at the same time, Conrad apparently has the Restoration, a manuscript encoded in “fourth century Neapolitan Italian” according to Marshall that points the way to the Hourglass, which will somehow reveal the location of the Passenger only to her father: Sloane.

So… why didn’t Conrad just give Sloane the Restoration and allow him to get the Hourglass and find his daughter that way? What was the need for Il Dire? And what makes that an “ultimate creation” of Rambaldi’s, as Sloane suggests in Unveiled, and The Telling certainly hinted at. All it does is reveal a DNA string that Sloane maybe didn’t even need! Surely immortality is far more ultimate? Something only hinted at through Di Regno & Donato as opposed to be fully explored. What about the Red Ball or his device that caused people to spontaneously combust?

Even if we frame Il Dire through Sloane’s ego, that perhaps he considers it Rambaldi’s prized possession because it connects to him, it still doesn’t entirely make sense. Especially as in The Telling, Irina suggested all of the artefacts they had collected needed to be put together to create the device, which again doesn’t really seem to have been the case. Also… how exactly did the Covenant get Il Dire in the first place? Remnants suggested Sloane had slipped the device away from the NSC but how did it end up in their hands if Sloane has been working against them?

Some of these questions need answers or at least require qualifying. Hourglass does this in part. It admits Sloane’s sudden humanitarian turn after The Telling was designed as part of his bigger end game. “I created Omnifam. While I was inoculating millions of people against diseases, I was simultaneously able to gain access to medical databases that identified people through their DNA. And I hoped that it would help me find my daughter.” This makes sense because it places Sloane’s altruism within his own self-interest, and that’s true to his character. Alias consistently stumbles during this period in making the Rambaldi pieces have a logical sense of continuity, however, without them feeling like they are tumbling into each other and being compounded without any forethought.

For instance, Syd bats away Jack’s quite fair questions about who Conrad actually was. “A monk, a cleric, a Rambaldi scholar. What difference does it make?” Aside from the fact that this dialogue feels like the writers, in this case Applebaum & Andre Nemec, reaching out and suggesting the audience not really worry about it—which is lazy in itself—than if we are to assume Conrad was a Follower of Rambaldi, protecting his secrets (he described the Passenger as “compromised” after all), then why would he have told Sloane he had a daughter and how to look for her in the first place?

The Followers have been protecting her, after all, in part from Syd it appears, and if Conrad is aligned with them, then it doesn’t entirely add up. Unless he assumes Sloane is meant to “realise the word of Rambaldi”, as Irina said in The Telling, and that’s a good thing? If the Hourglass is only meant to reveal the Passenger to her father, then does he consider Sloane’s destined in a way no one else is. Yet he suggests the Passenger is Syd’s “destiny”. Which is precisely what he suggested Sloane had. It adds up and yet… doesn’t, at the same time.

The question is whether we’re supposed to look this deep into Alias’ storytelling. Some might suggest the answer is no. Alias is more of a romp, right? A sprightly spy drama about family relationships. It’s the Syd & Vaughn stuff we’re supposed to be here for, right? Or Jack being a terrible father etc? On the one hand, yes, but on the other, Alias also carries this labyrinthian mythology that speaks to an entirely different kind of storytelling design on the part of a writing staff raised on arcane science-fiction – The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, The Prisoner etc…

They see the potential in Rambaldi even if they never entirely seem to know how to structure it or give it a cohesion. They’re not alone. Few mythologies of this scale have it either. The X-Files didn’t. Lost didn’t. Perhaps Babylon-5 largely did but even that series had inconsistencies. Alias nonetheless is structured, certainly this season, for these mythological revelations to have weight in terms of the main character arcs, yet they muddy the waters by sending audiences down a white water rapids journey of twists, turns and sudden additions.

Where Hourglass does work, and works better than the preceding three episodes that have built to this point, is in how it focuses on Sloane’s apparent redemptive arc in contrast to Jack’s growth as a father. Jack was always defined in opposition to Sloane – he wasn’t a supervillain, he was a father. Now their positions aren’t so stark. Sloane is a father. He isn’t a supervillain. Yet Jack has been in jail, during the missing two years, as we saw in The Two. He has corrupted the system such as in Dead Drop, murdering with impunity himself even if he believes it’s for a greater good – see Stephen Haladki in Almost Thirty Years. They have more that binds them in some respect than keeps them apart, especially now both know that they were lovers of the same woman. “Irina betrayed both of us, Jack. She sought me out for information the same way she did you.” Sloane declares, perhaps less apologetic than he should be, but then he does appear to see Irina with much greater objectivity than Jack does even now.

The mystery of Irina continues to permeate Hourglass.

She terminates the online communication link she has with Jack once he asks about the Passenger after all, and given what we learn in Search and Rescue next season, it is likely Jack was being duped here and this never was Irina at all (more likely her sister Elena, but… we’ll get to her…). Sloane nonetheless begrudges the fact Jack is clearly still in love with her, clearly still holds animus toward him for an affair that doesn’t seem to have shocked him (maybe he long suspected), and cannot let the past go, even if it means ensuring Sloane dies for a crime he didn’t commit.

She was a KGB spy who cared nothing about you or me. I’ve always thought that you understood your relationship with Irina was nothing more than that. But now that your schoolboy crush on the woman who destroyed your life is preventing you from saving mine, I will have to revise that assessment.” It is harsh but true. Jack came close this season to re-engaging Sloane in terms of, if not friendship but certainly respect, but he cannot get past a 25 year old affair that has no real bearing on who he is now, ostensibly.

What you sense aggrieves Jack is just how aligned he and Sloane now are. Sloane, after all, seemingly with genuine feeling, suggests as he is about to be executed that if Nadia is found “she understand that this day’s events are the net result of her father’s passion to find her, to know her, to love her.” Sloane does genuinely believe he’s a dead man here—not realising Jack has schemed to secure his release by faking his death—so he has no reason to lie. His motivations across the season appear to have been genuinely to reform, as much as the show has flirted with him having his own agenda in episodes such as Prelude or Remnants or Crossings.

It’s not entirely clear the audience are supposed to even want Sloane dead at this point. “This is as it should be” Sloane suggests people are thinking but even Syd doesn’t believe he should die at this point, aware Jack has concealed the truth to seemingly assure the execution of a man who has personally betrayed him on an emotional level. Her moral standing can’t conscience even a man she hates as much as Sloane, the father of her sister, to death based on Jack’s petty jealousy of his own relationship with the woman he still loves. Hourglass brings Jack and Sloane together in a manner we haven’t quite seen before in the show, and lays some of the foundations for the next shake up of the series in the fourth season.

One aspect of Hourglass in this vein is how it approaches capital punishment.

Alias vacillates between hard line and liberal where this topic is concerned. It always suggests that the death penalty is morally questionable even for criminals such as Irina or Sloane, and in both examples Jack has manipulated the scenario in order to punish someone who has betrayed him, with Syd serving as the bulwark of tolerance in trying to prevent these people being killed by the state. At the same time, Alias questions whether such terrorists deserve anything better.

We never got to see Irina in the execution chamber as we do Sloane but the Senator prosecuting the case in Salvation suggested “she’s had it coming” while here, the embarrassed US government employee who co-signed Sloane’s pardon agreement, Marlon Bell, claims he’s “looking forward to seeing the son of a bitch die”. Dixon offers prayers, at peace with consigning him to lethal injection. Hourglass suggests on the one hand that Sloane deserves clemency while, alternatively, being quite happy to let him pay for his crimes. Yet we are supposed to if not sympathise then believe he might have changed, as we were encouraged to believe with Irina a season ago. Is it also a coincidence that Sloane is framed very much like he is dying on the Cross in the execution chamber? Unlikely given Alias‘ frequent Judeo-Christian allusions.

Ultimately, Hourglass provides him the kind of second chance the series is determined not to afford Lauren, as she grows closer and closer to exposure, unaware for the majority of the episode that the CIA are closing in, and that Vaughn is by this point turning the tables and playing double agent himself. While a crucial part of the season’s final arc, it remains a storyline you are just waiting, at this point as the audience, to be over.

Even the writers appear fairly tired of stringing aspects of it along – consider how Olivia Reed is entirely forgotten about after cropping up as a pantomime villain during this episode, not even getting the dubious honour of being killed off. As the show will soon lightly try to airbrush Lauren from existence, Olivia becomes a spare part not even worth following up on, and she typifies the approach to the Covenant and their villainy this season. It is a house of cards, smoke and mirrors built on empty foundations.

What is interesting is how Alias continues to frame emotional recovery in the form of escape. During their fake therapy, which Lauren is doing to continue her dupe of Vaughn and vice versa, Dr. Barnett suggests that getting away and having a break together, just the two of them, might be the salve they need. Recall how this was the plan Syd & Vaughn had just before the climactic events of The Telling, and which they manage to achieve by reaching Santa Barbara during the fateful end of Before the Flood.

You could suggest that escape, salvation, and indeed the beach and the ocean, represents the kind of survival and emotional success Alias is all about Syd trying to reach. That equilibrium. The core personal essence of the series. The fact Lauren & Vaughn’s trip here is fake, is a sham to conceal information on one hand and gather information on the other, typifies how their relationship is just as much smoke and mirrors as the Covenant. It’s not real. It’s not the true escape that is finally, only reached at the end of the series finale.

Hourglass probably stands as one of the stronger episodes across this final run of Season Three for how it maintains a dramatic, thematic consistency, but Alias remains swamped and to an extent drowning in both mythological complication and inter-personal theatrics. As we finally meet Nadia, the rabbit hole only begins to deepen…

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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