A J. Black

Author: Myth-Building in Modern Media | Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcaster: @motionpicspod @wemadethispod | Occasionally go outside.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blood Ties’ (3×20)

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.

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.

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.

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.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Taken’ (3×16)

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.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Facade’ (3×15)

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.

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)

The opening episode of The Office establishes, in broad strokes, the majority of storylines and thematic ideas that will run across the entirety of the two series and fourteen episodes of the show’s run.

Downsize first and foremost introduces the key, signature character of David Brent, our protagonist as played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais, and placed him in context. Brent, almost immediately, works as a comedic creation. Gervais, and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant, provide an opening scene which gives us a very clear flavour of who Brent is – a self-aggrandising joker desperate to impress, yet without the arrogance that would distance him from the audience. Gervais plays Brent so painfully cheesy and wilfully, blissfully unaware of how uncool he is, that you can’t help but immediately find him funny. His opening monologue, delivered to an incumbent forklift driver called Alex, is a perfect introduction.

Gervais and Merchant then swiftly introduce the office setting that will be crucial in their depiction of a workplace purgatory; a status quo of middle England static inertia, characterised in how drab Slough—the location of paper merchants Wernham Hogg—is presented in the credits. Concrete edifices, a holdover from the brutalist architecture of the 1960s that infested towns across England; roundabouts; eternally overcast skies; and finally the view of an office building that could be any industrial estate in the country. The interior is equally unremarkable, and indeed was constructed as a set around a largely defunct office space that Gervais & Merchant wanted to retain the shabbiness off – a sense of eternal coffee stains and badly cleaned interiors. The employees themselves appear lifeless and drained of energy for their work.

It is perhaps the introductory to camera moment for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), one of the audiences’ relatable surrogates, that perhaps sums up the initial impression of the setting of this new comedy. “I’m a sales rep, which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it to them and whether they can pay for it… and I’m boring myself talking about it…”

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14)

While it is tempting to consider the mid-stretch of Alias Season Three as a devolution of complexity and craft, in which the show spins its wheels, Blowback does at least attempt to adopt a tried and tested narrative trope in which to tell a fairly bland espionage story.

It splits the episode between two perspectives, that of Vaughn and Lauren, as writer Laurence Andries charts the continued, steady self-destruction of their marriage, even before the truth about Lauren’s duplicity emerges. We see the same mission, as the CIA unit attempt to stop the Covenant stealing a ‘plasma charge’ from an unseen Philippine terrorist outfit called Shining Sword, from each of their vantage points, with Vaughn blissfully unaware that his wife is one of the Covenant agents he and Syd are chasing down. In this, the audience are ahead of our heroes and complicit in Lauren’s continued duplicity, but Blowback looks to try and depict the cracks in their marriage, in true Alias fashion, through high-concept spy theatrics.

Andries chooses to borrow from Rashomon, the classic 1950 Japanese drama from auteur Akira Kurosawa, which is generally considered one of the first significant pieces of on-screen fiction to manipulate both time and perspective in the story of two men recounting the interlinked stories of a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter, as their narratives re-tell the same events and overlap, each providing a unique and often self-serving perspective on what happened. Rashomon brilliantly plays with perceptions and highlights the nature of subjectivity, in how we are often the heroes of our own story, and it simply takes a tweak in how an event is observed to alter the context of the entire meaning of the moment. It is a compelling and philosophical piece of work.

Blowback is, to be charitable, neither, but it should be commended for experimentation and working to frame Vaughn and Lauren’s place in relation to their work and life through such a prism. It is a clever way to show just how intertwined their professional lives are at this stage.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘After Six’ (3×13)

In many ways, After Six can be considered indicative of the kind of fan-baiting series Alias became in Season Three after the daring apogee of Full Disclosure, a sign of what it runs arms-opened toward in the latter half of the season.

Crossings established that Syd & Vaughn were not going to remain apart as per the new, Julia Thorne-era paradigm, and that the writers were determined to find a way to untie the difficult knots of storytelling that had replaced the UST of the early seasons with a trauma-driven, grief-stricken change in circumstance preventing them being together. Work would need to be done in order to return them to a romantic state, work that takes the rest of the season in all honesty, but Alias would be intent on giving the fans what they wanted: the SVR (Syd-Vaughn Romance). Season Three, as a result, begins in After Six to deliberately angle the series away from Syd & Jack’s relationship as the dramatic focal point, as it is when Alias operates at its best, toward what becomes a knotty quadrangle.

Having Lauren turn out to be a Covenant agent is not a bad twist in and of itself, indeed it makes a modicum of sense on several thematic levels for Alias as will become apparent in what happens to Vaughn’s character at the back end of the season. However, it very deliberately is a convenient way to lessen the problematic moral realities of Syd & Vaughn becoming romantically involved when one of them is married. After Six begins to explore this but everything is offset by how immediately pantomime Lauren becomes as she partners, both literally and sexually, with Sark across this episode. She wears dark eye shadow. She tries out revealing lingerie. She seduces Covenant bosses and savagely murders them. In perhaps one of Alias’ most chilling moments, Lauren watches Sark strangle a man to death while having a casual, loving phone check in with her husband, talking about making them some supper.

After Six, therefore, begins the recalibration of Alias into a more simplistic series driven by sex, betrayal and more traditional forms of spy plotting. It is sporadically entertaining but, at this stage, that’s about all.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12)

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.