Advertisements

Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies

ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

Advertisements

ALIAS – ‘Second Double’ (2×21 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Though not officially classed as a two-part season finale for Alias, Second Double originally aired on the same night as The Telling, which gives the structure of this episode very much the feeling of a story that is inextricably linked.

Second Double operates on multiple fronts, as both the beginning of a season finale tying together numerous threads which have unfurled across the latter half of Season Two, and as a direct sequel of sorts to Double Agent, which introduced the central idea of Project Helix and the doubling technology. Crystal Nix Hines’ teleplay, from a story by Breen Frazier (though it is likely this was heavily or at least partially re-written by J.J. Abrams in advance of the finale), reasserts the significance of this plot strand by finally starting to pay off the Evil Francie storyline that has been nicely cooking since the end of Phase One. It is satisfying for the audience to see Syd and the main characters around her starting to catch up with us, given we have been a step ahead and aware of Francie’s death and Will being compromised for the last third of the season.

In that sense, Second Double feels more like the beginning of a boulder running downhill which the last couple of episodes have been steadily pushing back up the hill following the climactic point of Truth Takes Time. Endgame and Countdown were both transitory episodes in which our principle villains didn’t make significant strides in their master plan and which focuses more on character or theme – the duality of Elsa and Neil Caplan, or Dixon and Sloane’s voyages of post-traumatic discovery. Second Double from the very beginning kicks over some dominoes, having the CIA close in on the mole who has influenced events in A Dark Turn and Endgame, which dovetails with Irina and Sark, in particular, having to compromise, gamble and adapt to stay one step ahead of Sydney and her colleagues.

Consequently, Second Double feels too inextricably linked with the episode to come to feel entirely functional as an episode of its own, but it threads numerous character beats and ongoing plots to quite fast-paced, thrilling effect. Much like Truth Takes Time, it once again personalises all of the espionage scheming and threats to national security to make for a story that resonates for our protagonist.

ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st. …

ALIAS – ‘Endgame’ (2×19 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

You might not think it, but ‘Endgame’ is a surprisingly common episode title in genre fiction, and not just for the final episodes of seasons or even series.

Star Trek: Voyager memorably uses ‘Endgame’ as the title of its series finale, of course, and Highlander manages to squeeze a film subtitle out of it (although we know that story never really ends…), as recently has the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its epic Avengers finale. Numerous films, however, share the title, and Alias is by no means is the first series to deploy it. The seventeenth episode of The X-Files Season Two has the title End Game, and it crops up in shows as varied as Kyle XY, the BBC’s Holby City, The Equaliser, Babylon-5, Law and Order: SVU, Stargate SG-1 and on and on and on. It suggests finality and is described, frequently, as analogous to chess or games along similar lines. The endgame is the final stage of a game in which few of the cards remain.

That feels fairly appropriate to Alias at this stage because as we enter the last few episodes of Season Two, particularly after the shattering events of Truth Takes Time, a sense of tragic finality is falling across the series. Emily is dead and Sloane, consequently, has suffered a powerful loss at the very point he was on a high – he had facilitated Irina’s escape, he was assembling Rambaldi’s work, and Emily was even prepared to forgive him his trespasses out of her love for him. Her death sends him down a path of no return. Sydney, at the same time, has lost another mother in her life. Dixon has killed an innocent woman and is struggling to come to terms with his role in that. An ending feels in sight for these characters, even if Alias uses this point to pivot many of them again in a direction we didn’t, earlier in the season, see coming. Endgame also, along the way, manages to make a literal use of the title and weave it into the plot.

Endgame, while doing so, also manages to pick up and return to more of a stand-alone story thread that Alias didn’t necessarily need to focus on again, but serves as a key thematic point to explore that is resonating right now across the entire series: the security and fallibility of the American nuclear family.

ALIAS – ‘Firebomb’ (2×16 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Though a series born in the wake of the devastating attack on New York in September 2001, Alias was always a series that glanced the other way from that existential trauma. Firebomb begins to see a turn back toward that direction.

A Free Agent worked to establish the new status quo for the show and its characters in the post-Phase One world, placing Sydney Bristow on a new quest not as a double agent but rather a reluctant operative in the CIA dedicated to bringing to justice the man who killed her fiancé, her former SD-6 boss Arvin Sloane. The episode ends with her coming close, facing off inside a Swiss bank Sloane is robbing—himself utilising an alias—as a way of marking how Season Two will, despite shooting off into a variety of different directions in the final third, arc itself around the CIA’s hunt for Sloane, and their determination to prevent him completing his quest to understand the work of prophet Milo Rambaldi.

In that sense, Alias immediately gets the opportunity to streamline the concept that ABC has, in time, become weary of, with the show costing almost 2 million dollars an episode without the ratings improving to show for it. Not even a post-Super Bowl slot for arguably one of the best crafted episodes the show would ever do in Phase One was enough to justify the series’ existence. The network would remain committed to being in business with JJ Abrams, but the show needed to adjust direction. A Free Agent gives a taster of what that new direction could be – less tangled in terms of narrative structure but filled with character complications and ongoing storylines. Firebomb is, essentially, the second part of establishing this new template for how Alias will operate this season, picking up on Sydney cornering Sloane and playing out the first cat and mouse chase between them.

Where Firebomb stands out, despite being an episode of transition and establishment, still working in fixing the new paradigm of Sloane in opposition to Sydney and our heroes, it fully begins to embrace Alias’ position as a post-9/11 series, acknowledging the wider geopolitical landscape around it.

ALIAS – ‘Double Agent (2×14 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If we can consider Phase One to be a second pilot for Alias, then Double Agent faces an even trickier job than following up the biggest episode of the series to date. It also has to reset the board and establish the kind of series Alias will be in future.

Or, at least, in theory. Double Agent kind of doesn’t do that. It is a strange episode in some respects. Originally designed to slot in after The Getaway, Double Agent is without question the most standalone episode Alias has ever done to date. If it wasn’t for the key MacGuffin of Project Helix being crucial to the denouement of the season, it could be considered fairly disposable, focusing primarily as it does on the guest character of CIA agent James Lennox and his entanglement with the facial and bodily reconstruction technology that causes such problems for our CIA heroes in this story. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine just how writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci could have penned this episode in the same way were it *before* Phase One.

For one thing, there seems no logical way SD-6 or the Alliance could have functioned in this story and for it to have made sense, and one wonders if Kurtzman-Counter & Orci had to re-write and re-structure the story to eliminate the traditional constructs of the pre-Phase One storytelling style – SD-6 mission, Sydney’s counter-mission, and multiple narratives balancing alongside that central thrust. As it turns out, Double Agent operates in a strange nether space between Phase One and A Free Agent. Double Agent has the briefest of cameos from Sloane. No Sark. No Irina. No Marshall or especially Dixon, in limbo as they transition into their new CIA roles. “They’ll be in debrief for a while. Meanwhile, Sloane’s been put on Interpol’s most wanted list” Vaughn claims, allowing the story to continue unabated.

Nevertheless, Double Agent is too awkwardly placed, despite spinning a good yarn, to really answer the question of what kind of show Alias will be. Perhaps in step with the world of Alias, it’s almost deliberately a sleight of hand.

ALIAS – ‘Phase One’ (2×13 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.

It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air *after* Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…

…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.

As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.

ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 1’ (2×08 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If the first seven episodes of Alias Season Two deal with the fallout from Season One and establish the narrative and character arcs of the second season, Passage is arguably the two-part episode which kickstarts the beginning of the end of the series we have come to know up to this point.

The change is evident right away with the lack of a pre-credits sequence explaining the concept of the show, as every episode up to this point has in some manner included. This could have been a decision designed to afford the show greater running time, having to worry about those concerns as a network series, or equally it could simply show the confidence Alias now has that the audience will be keeping up enough with a standard ‘previously on…’ segment. The stabilisers are now off. Even the slippery Mr Sark, who we see in a brief car dual alongside Sydney Bristow which recalls a much cheaper version of the car chase in Mission Impossible II, is blasting out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic ‘Bad Moon Rising’ on the stereo. “I see a pale moon rising… I see trouble on the way…”.

Everything about Passage, immediately, is foreshadowing significant change on the horizon. Syd is now working with one of her key antagonists in Sark, though she very quickly establishes a Mutually Assured Destruction quid pro quo with him as regards the truth about her role as a double agent. “If you burn me, I burn you”. His presence, nevertheless, moves a bad guy into her orbit in a way the series has not previously attempted. As Sark arrives, the stakes also massively raise as Passage introduces a big gun: nuclear weapons. Sure, Syd may have casually defused a nuke early on in Season One’s So It Begins…, but here it matters. Passage considers stolen nuclear weapons big enough, Thunderball-style, to warrant a broader, two-part canvas.

Passage, in that sense, mirrors the key Season One two-part story The Box, even if they go about their business very different. They both change the game in several ways. They are both points of no return. …

ALIAS – ‘The Indicator’ (2×05 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

ALIAS – ‘Dead Drop’ (2×04 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.