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.
While the second season is a thrill ride, largely from start to finish, and boasts many of Alias’ finest hours, the season spiralled the show to an extent into a corner.
Sloane was on the verge of Rambaldi revelation. Irina vacillated between caring mother and duplicitous super-villain. Jack had faced the woman he despised and fallen in love with her all over again. Marshall found romance. Dixon lost his wife and so on. Almost every character by the end of that season had been changed by Phase One and the run of episodes that followed it, to the point Season Three logically needed to try and reset the chess board. Had Season Three simply tried to adopt the pattern of the last third of Season Two, it would have very quickly ran out of steam and collapsed in on itself. That stretch was a conclusive arc of television, not the introductory build every season needs on a structural level.
The time jump trope the series employs, in this regard, is an extremely smart move for the series.
It allows Alias to completely reconfigure itself across The Two with, crucially, Sydney operating as a protagonist should; leading the audience toward understanding of the new paradigm. She is never passive in that story, and series creator J.J. Abrams manages to drop Syd into an entirely new, and quite alien world, very much initially as an outsider trying to parse the new situation and rules of the game. Jack is in jail, Dixon is now the boss of the CIA Rotunda, Marshall is going to become a father, and so on. Season Three allows the series to do what it would have found almost impossible directly after Phase One; find a way to retain the core essence of Alias as a series while giving new viewers a doorway into the storytelling, free too heavily of backstory of mythology.
To the season’s credit, it does attempt to do this across at least the first few episodes of Season Three. We are given a new central mystery, as Syd learns that in those missing two years she was active, working as an assassin called Julia Thorne, who appears to have killed a Russian diplomat in cold blood, but it at first is much more of a moral and psychological mystery for the traumatised Syd. How could she conscience killing anyone as an assassin? Did she do so knowingly? Or was she using an alias under the influence? As a character of strong moral fortitude, often frustrated at the immorality and corruption she finds even her own parents adopting, this mystery cuts to the core of Syd’s being and the idea of the ‘alias’ inherent in the show’s storytelling. She has to embrace the legacy of that dark id in episodes such as A Missing Link & Repercussions by re-adopting the very double life she cannot remember.
In many ways, Season Three is obsessed with doubling to an even greater degree than the previous two seasons. Syd’s own search for the truth about Julia leads to a literal Jungian voyage inward in Conscious, where she has to destroy that dark id, destroy Julia in essence, in order to understand what happened to her. In The Nemesis, she once again encounters the revived, almost super-powered Allison, having survived the events of The Telling where she learned how her best friend Francie had been murdered and replaced, and faces the possibility that this double could be more powerful than even she (which never actually happens).
And then later, of course, we meet Vaughn’s wife Lauren Reed, who by the second half of the season is revealed to be living a double life and working for the season’s overarching villains the Covenant, with her role as an NSC agent seemingly the ‘alias’. Season Three constantly challenges Syd with the dark side of the alias, of the double life, as she attempts to return to a virtuous one.
These are all admirable ways to evolve the series as it moves out of the initial conception, of Syd working to take down the Alliance who have their tentacles inside Western democracy, and into what ostensibly could have worked as a more simplistic conceptual idea of a dysfunctional family drama inside the world of espionage.
The first half of Season Three certainly provides plenty of angst as Syd has to grapple with whether she can even work with Lauren upon her full introduction in Reunion, before they find a mutual, grudging respect for each other and Lauren even helps Syd’s quest by Breaking Point, as the dark side of the U.S. government—in the form of corrupt NSC director Lindsay—attempts to treat Syd like a terrorist in order to extract the memory of her lost time. She has to rediscover how to work with Vaughn despite still being in love with him. These are all solid dramatic elements that provide Season Three with a strong base line on which to tell easier to access narratives.
Ultimately, however, Alias gives way to the kind of serialised pull that dominated the first two seasons. In many ways, this is far from a detriment. Season One stood out in 2001 as a strident, confident approach to serialised at a time stand-alone, arc-based storytelling was still the traditional norm on network television. Season Two pushed that idea into a cathartic and emotional rollercoaster of unloaded consequences that made for hugely compelling drama. ABC wanted Alias to simplify and achieve the level of standard network unsophistication that would have made for an easier sell to syndication once the show struck 100 episodes—ie making a series that audiences could watch in any order—and Season Three attempts to initially approach the storytelling in that manner (The Nemesis is a relatively good example of this) but in short order, it gives way to the need for Alias to embrace full serialisation as a means of satisfying Syd’s character arc, the mystery of Julia, and the wider Rambaldi mythology that the writers choose largely to back away from across the first half of the season.
In terms of the Julia Thorne arc, this is no bad thing. The stretch of episodes from Prelude, as Syd goes rogue in search of the truth about Julia, through to Full Disclosure where a returning Assistant Director Kendall blows the whole mystery wide open, is arguably the strongest run of episodes across the third season. Breaking Point chillingly examines Syd being treated as a threat to National Security and imprisoned in a Guantanamo analogue, the episode very much a response to Alias existing in the post-9/11 world; Conscious evokes an Abrams’ series to come, Fringe, in how it taps the unconscious to tell a mythic story of Syd going within to achieve revelation; Remnants brings back Will Tippin and immediately makes you realise how much of an asset Bradley Cooper was when he had a good storyline; and Full Disclosure is a fascinating exposition tale, brilliantly structured and delivered in a way that is thrilling rather than dull.
It’s the third season at a peak and among the best assortment of episodes Alias ever delivers.
What happens subsequently is a consequence of how Abrams and his writing staff admit they structure and write Alias, without the benefit of significant forward planning and development.
Lauren’s turncoat assassination of Andrian Lazarey at the end of Full Disclosure, a shocking twist moment, struggles to align with the portrayal of the character in the first half of the season as an agent torn between moral compromise over the woman she sees as a threat to her marriage. While it does connect to the overarching anxieties of Alias, specifically the ‘enemy within’ and the corruption of American values, it makes little sense in terms of Lauren as a character and serves to take a nuanced creation and transform her into a grotesque pantomime bad guy, particularly from After Six onwards where she teams with Sark and parallels the staid, awkward moments of restricted passion between Syd & Vaughn, as he realised he still loves her too in Crossings. The second half of the season, once the Julia arc is resolved, very quickly descends into an aimless mire of on the fly storytelling.
Which brings us back, full circle, to Rambaldi.
Across the first two seasons, Alias presented a mytharc which was genuinely mysterious and fascinating; a 15th century prophet whose inventions saw a global treasure hunt of revelation, allowing Alias to play with fringe scene and quasi-supernatural innovations that brought an element of the uncanny to the traditional spy storytelling. Rambaldi here, particularly by the season finale Resurrection, becomes a powerful noose around Season Three’s neck, helping to weigh down the storytelling as Lauren, her smarmy season regular partner in crime Sark, and the Covenant organisation behind them, battle the CIA and Sloane in figuring out the next stage of an endgame that becomes increasing opaque while growing more and more personal to Syd and her extended family. Season Three confirms she is an descendent of Rambaldi and tied in to whatever arcane mythological plan he had as a quasi-God figure in the series across centuries. She gains a secret sister, Nadia, and the audience are teased in Blowback with the possibility that Sloane is actually her biological father.
These aspects in themselves are not inherently bad ideas and to a degree are logical in terms of mythological storytelling. The X-Files did exactly this from its third season onwards, tethering what was an external mythology into a Campbellian struggle between family dynasties around which the fate of the world was entangled. It makes sense for a show like Alias at this stage of its life cycle. Where it goes wrong is in how unformed Rambaldi is as a mythological narrative. Having not mapped his grand plan out in detail, Season Three is left to provide alternate endgames that never fit together. Full Disclosure suggests that Syd, as Rambaldi’s prophesied ‘Chosen One’, would serve as the vessel through her stolen eggs to conceive a child of Rambaldi.
Yet Blood Ties suggests that the Chosen One is destined to battle the ‘Passenger’, aka her sister Nadia, around an attempt to find and locate Rambaldi’s actual consciousness in what, for all intents and purposes, sounds like it would lead to his resurrection. The pieces never fit, indeed the baby idea is completely discarded and never discussed again, which is really quite remarkable given how powerful an idea that is.
Season Three ultimately uses Rambaldi merely as the hook on which to peg the familial drama as Lauren grows more and more sadistic, Syd & Vaughn etc… grow more and more suspicious.
Ultimately the series descends into a murk and darkness that is so far removed from the series’ origins—and even the melancholic start to Season Three after Syd’s missing two years—the show ends up almost unrecognisable by the time Sloane is blackmailing corrupt U.S. government officials and Vaughn is being engineered to murder and dispose of his duplicitous wife. Resurrection night sound like a bravura end to the Rambaldi mystery but it ends up more of a play on Death Wish, as the season descends into a rather grim and disturbing revenge thriller in which not even the actors look like they’re having much fun. Vaughn’s descent into the abyss makes sense as a way of re-telling Jack’s backstory in a modern day context but everything about it is grimy, unseemly and honestly lacking anything in the way of Alias’ balance of high drama and perky escapism. Season Three entirely loses its way.
This is not to say Season Three lacks merit. Thematically, a lot of it works. There are strong episodes, such as the aforementioned run midway through and strong stand-alone pieces such as Facade, which manages to turn a wonky performance by special guest star Ricky Gervais into a compelling example of what Alias could be if it truly detached from the serialised rabbit holes it frequently goes down, and which Season Four will attempt to also recapture (though it rarely does so with the narrative panache of Facade). Yet the season lacks either the confidence and freshness of Season One, or the simple excitement of Season Two in how it weaved together the resolution of established plot lines with strong character development. Season Three resets the game, and places many characters in fascinating new situations—take Sloane as a reformed, media friendly head of a global philanthropic organisation—but the game turns out to be much less interesting and often far more frustrating.
The Covenant is a scattershot, massively underwritten source of villainy, and Sark & Lauren very quickly become a bad guy/girl dynamic that are far less fun to hate than they should be.
The straw that breaks the camel’s back is, arguably, the ending.
Season Four will deliver the most baffling, incongruous twist the show will ever do in its own finale Before the Flood, granted, but Season Three’s is almost insulting in just how it tries to undercut and transform the best dynamic in the entire show: the often sad, tragic father-daughter relationship between Syd & Jack. After everything she goes through this season, just as she perhaps finds possible equilibrium, Resurrection lands a nonsensical twist designed to reconceptualise the entire backstory of the series… a twist that is never even followed through on. That’s a story for when we cover Season Four, as Alias attempts to dig itself out the hole Season Three buries the show in—and almost to its credit succeeds—but Season Three takes away a great deal of the series’ goodwill from an audience who might get Syd & Vaughn back together, but at what greater cost?
As Alias’ third season ends, so begins the beginning of the show’s end, even when Season Four desperately tries to return the show to first principles. Season Three does damage that, in truth, Alias will never manage to recover from.
Check out our reviews of Alias Season 3 here: