Mea Culpa is the first episode of Alias to begin the internal, psychological exploration of Arvin Sloane.
The episode also feels positioned at a crossroads point for the first season in terms of where the overarching narrative is going. Everything at this stage is waiting for the next big plot shoe to drop. The Rambaldi mythology, now established, is completely left behind after Time Will Tell brought into play what will become the key text of Alias’ mytharc going forward; the suspicions around Jack being a KGB mole remain hovering in the ether; Will’s investigation into Danny’s death is at the point Will is capable of contextualising everything across the last nine episodes to a tech support guy; and the SD-6 probe into a mole which has circled for the last three episodes remains ongoing.
Mea Culpa isn’t quite the episode to pull the trigger on the next stage for all of these plotlines, but it begins the first tentative steps in that direction.
If Rambaldi and Jack’s mysterious past are left behind here, the focus is principally squared on SD-6 and their mole hunt across Mea Culpa, once Sydney has climbed out of the dark abyss we last saw her plummet towards at the end of Time Will Tell. The serialised, baton-passing nature of the season plotting becomes apparent in how the cliffhanger to Jeff Pinkner’s script is resolved here by co-writers Debra J. Fisher & Erica Messer. Pinkner ended what looked to be the conclusive confrontation between Syd & Anna Espinosa by having Syd plunge toward what would be anyone else’s death. Fisher & Messer simply have Syd miraculously survive by her foot catching in the rope ladder she did battle with Anna on. Even for Alias, it stretches credulity, but does show how these writers were interested in different ideas for their joint script.
Mea Culpa’s opening few minutes oddly mirror, in fact, the climax of the entire series in Season 5’s finale All the Time in the World. Syd’s discovery of a shot in the chest Dixon on the slopes of Mount Aconcagua, having climbed out of an underground Rambaldi bunker, could well have been shot in the same region that Syd & Vaughn find Rambaldi’s tomb and Jack makes his final stand – Syd is even dressed in a similar fashion as she worriedly tends Dixon’s prone form to how she last sees Jack. These are almost certainly unintentional similarities but the writers already clearly are aware of how emotionally Syd reacts to her loved ones (which very much includes Dixon) being imperilled in such a potentially fatalistic manner. It’s already in her DNA.
Once again, this leads her to a choice which will have significant consequences for her role as a double agent inside SD-6: making the call to save Dixon using her CIA code name, ‘Freelancer’. While this plot point won’t directly affect Sydney until the end of the season, it plays into the broader, central concern of Mea Culpa – the question of Sydney’s loyalty by SD-6 itself, and specifically how that plays into her relationship with Sloane. We will see how it affects her dynamic with Dixon in Almost Thirty Years and then more directly after the events of Season 2’s Phase One, but Mea Culpa is the first episode to start digging into the Syd & Sloane relationship, and particularly shade in some hints about Sloane himself.
We haven’t talked much about Sloane yet because there hasn’t been a great deal to say. We know he is married. We know he has some level of interest in Rambaldi, but at this stage it feels far more throwaway than we will later see to be the case. We know he has a close dynamic with Jack, bordering on friendship. We also know he is a ruthless organised crime figure, as Reckoning in particular demonstrated with how he deploys Jack to deal with Schiller\Kelvin. Beyond that, we know very little. Sloane ostensibly is the grand villain of the piece but he has also been shown, on some level, to be middle management – he reports to the shadowy, unseen Alliance and it appears has a limited amount of agency in terms of what he can have SD-6 do. That is further demonstrated here by the presence of Tobin Bell’s Karl Dreyer.
Dreyer oddly feels like a dry run for the more memorable Season 2 guest character Ariana Kane, played by screen legend Faye Dunaway; she ends up on Jack’s trail as a mole in the same way Dreyer here is convinced Syd is not who she says she is, but while Kane felt like a character to some degree in her own right thanks to Dunaway’s playfulness, Bell’s Dreyer is designed far more as a function to explore Sloane’s own position in SD-6 and how he thinks of himself when it comes to Syd. “We all have our specialities. This is mine” Dreyer claims when Sloane refuses to believe his assertion, based on the lie detector test Syd believes she passed in Time Will Tell, that Syd is guilty because her answers are ‘too perfect’. Sloane cannot, however, dismiss Dreyer out of hand – he ultimately needs to prove to the forces above him that he’s right and Dreyer is wrong.
This brings up the eternal question of whether Sloane always honestly suspected Syd (and Jack) of being up to no good. Season 2 seems to suggest he doesn’t find out the truth until The Counteragent but Alias repeatedly, perhaps thanks to Ron Rifkin’s wonderfully mercurial performance, suggests that Sloane doesn’t always believe everything either of them say. The reality is – Sloane would be suspicious, as a man of Machiavellian intelligence, because Syd does often look shifty, if not outright guilty. Dreyer is right when he points out Syd has either failed or missed things on missions she shouldn’t have and either Sloane always knew deep down he was being betrayed and turned a blind eye out of affection, or that blind eye in fact was a massive blind spot. Alias never quite answers that definitively.
In testing Syd’s loyalty here through the Donati Park dead drop mission, Sloane ends up dropping some more tantalising backstory in a revealing conversation he has with Syd. There have been hints he sees himself as a twisted father figure to Syd across the season so far but Mea Culpa makes this explicit. “I don’t blame you for not talking to me the way you used to” he admits, after killing Danny, suggesting Syd—before Danny died and she learned the truth about SD-6—may have used Sloane as a proxy father figure as Jack distanced himself. Sloane even claims he begged Security Section, the assassination arm of SD-6, not to kill Danny – could this be true? Did the Alliance rules about keeping secret their organisation mean he had no choice but to have Martin Shepard kill Danny? Would Sloane not have had him killed otherwise?
It raises a question about the internal mechanics of SD-6 as an organisation, which again have only been lightly sketched in. We know SD-6 is just one of numerous Alliance ‘cells’ but it has appeared to operate with a global scope, despite being located in Los Angeles. It suggests all of the cells—including SD-4 which is based in Rome and ran by a man named Spinelli, we find out here—have a global reach in terms of criminal activity, but we never see any of these cells in operation. The closest we ever get is Roger Moore’s turn as SD-9 head Edward Poole in The Prophecy, but that’s fairly scant. SD-6 therefore is further being established as part of a bigger, connected chain, where the Alliance have the final say – Sloane may not even always have full command of what Security Section do and do not action on behalf of the agency he runs.
Beyond this, for the first time, Sloane gives some broader detail about his history. Spirit, the next episode, will dig a little deeper into this, but we find out he met Jack at the CIA, at Langley (the name of CIA Headquarters), in 1971 – that he knew Syd’s mother and was at her parents wedding. This takes Syd visibly by surprise, she having no idea Jack & Sloane’s association went back that far, that the two are in fact lifelong friends. Alias will explore this in much greater detail as the show wears on but it further contextualises Sloane as a ‘fallen angel’ of sorts – a CIA agent turned organised crime boss, now framed often visually by the show as a ‘Devil’ figure. Spirit further explores these allusions but Mea Culpa is the first to fully suggest them outright.
Sloane also tells Syd the depth of his affection, in typically creepy terms: “I’ve known you since you were a baby. I was out of the country for most of your childhood, various assignments, but I kept tabs on you. I checked in in my own way. I always thought of you as my daughter, even from the beginning”. Season 3’s Blowback comes back to this in a major way, in a different context, but Alias very much here adds shades to Sloane which will come to define and haunt his relationship with Syd for the duration of the entire series. Syd always remains, if not repulsed, then deeply suspicious of Sloane, but he never stops seeing her as ‘his little girl’. It makes their complicated, ongoing dynamic even more layered, and plays deeply into the psychology of fatherhood and obsession that underpins Sloane’s psyche, the reasons for which the show will dig into as the series evolves.
These revelations also help explain why Jack knows that Sloane’s seeming attempt to assassinate Syd is all part of a complicated bluff to get Dreyer and the Alliance off his back: “I know how Sloane works! He’s bluffing!” Jack declares to a sceptical Vaughn in a well-executed sequence which, again, places Syd’s destiny in the hands of both of the key men in her life – the suitor and the protector. Jack turns out to be right, of course. Not that it completely throws Dreyer off the scent, and through Marshall he is playing his own tactical game to expose Syd for the mole he’s convinced she is, knowing he will have to end run an increasingly frustrated Sloane. Rifkin adds a quietly menacing tone when Sloane warns Dreyer to “stop questioning every decision I make”.
Dreyer even questions Sloane about what he is ‘hiding’ when it comes to Syd, and this plays into the bigger Season 2 narrative we see as Sloane attempts to extricate himself from the Alliance, again underscoring that while he may in principal be the villain, he remains only a functionary inside a much bigger machine. The Alliance won’t even allow his secret protection of Syd (and Jack) thanks to what we now know to be a lifelong relationship with the Bristow family. While ostensibly Sloane appears to be willing to sacrifice or kill Syd to protect SD-6, Mea Culpa is the first episode to suggest this is not entirely the case. This could even connect back to the title itself, and its Latin etymology.
Mea Culpa means ‘through my fault’ and is roughly translated to be an acknowledgment of having done wrong. It traditionally is used in a religious context, as part of a prayer of confession, used at the beginning of Mass or when receiving the sacrament of Penance. It can also be used as an admission of having made a mistake that could have been avoided. The exact meaning and reference to this episode of Alias directly is, on some level, ambiguous itself, but we can reasonably infer that it refers to Sloane’s decision to test Syd’s loyalty which, on the face of it, could lead to mistakes on both sides – Syd’s death or Syd’s extraction, proving she’s a mole. Alternatively, it could correspond to Syd’s mistake in using the ‘Freelancer’ call sign and getting CIA help to rescue Dixon.
Either way, Mea Culpa revolves around lies and continuing falsehoods which grow ever more complicated week on week. Syd has to lie to Diane Dixon about why her husband was shot, claiming it to be the result of industrial espionage with robbers looking for bank codes (which, ironically, turns out to be very similar to Ineni Hassan’s machinations Syd ends up dealing with in the spy narrative of the episode). She has to lie to Will and Francie, both of whom of course know Dixon as Syd’s friend from ‘the bank’, and Will even displays a logical, continued sense of disbelief about just how much misfortune is landing on Syd’s lap.
This makes sense given the journalistic instincts which further drive Will’s story in this episode. Fisher & Messer handily have Will explain to his tech guy, Neville, the entire conspiracy he has been investigating up to this point, largely as a means to explain it back to an audience who may already be struggling to keep up with Alias’ labyrinthian sense of storytelling. The show continues to operate as a post-90’s X-Files with Will’s storyline in this episode; Neville feels as grunge a version of that series’ Lone Gunmen as Marshall does Bond’s Q, describing the bug as “the Next Gen’s Next Gen”, a component of Micromechanical Systems technology, which he also describes by the commonly used MEMS acronym.
MEMS, roughly described, is the technology of microscopic devices, particularly those with moving parts. They are a fusion of nanotechnology and nanoelectromechanical systems (known as NEMS). Highly complex and advanced in their design, MEMS are precisely the kind of example of real-world high-technology which Alias utilises on a regular basis, but this unusually has some grounding in real science as opposed to the gadgets deployed by Marshall, or particularly the fringe, near supernatural devices created by Rambaldi. The MEMS bug, regardless, helps further plunge Will down the rabbit hole of knowledge once he makes contact with his own ‘Deep Throat’, if ever more comparisons with The X-Files or the 1970’s conspiracy thriller were needed.
“How far are you willing to go, Mr Tippin?” the voice asks and it’s at this moment Will becomes Alias’ Fox Mulder, immersing himself into a world he doesn’t understand and is way out of his depth in. It’s also intriguing how, in a pop-cultural discussion about movies with Francie, Will describes Howard Hawks’ 1940 picture His Girl Friday as the direct inspiration for him becoming a reporter; while the post-90’s, hipster aspect of Will & Francie hanging around watching old films is definitely cliche, the romantic screwball nature of that film plays into the idea Will is indulging something of an journalistic fantasy with this investigation, and doesn’t quite understand just how lethal what he’s looking into really is.
These narratives dominate Mea Culpa for the most part, with the actual espionage narrative playing second fiddle to the fears that Syd will be exposed as a double, Sloane’s machinations, and Will’s investigations. The series brings back the character of Ineni Hassan, the powerful arms dealer seen in So It Begins… and the beginning of Parity without bringing him back in the flesh, but Alias uses him as a way of tapping into the other political aspect, outside of post-Cold War paranoia, that the series is conscious of: post-9/11 paranoia. Hassan is a terrorist who, much like many following the attack in New York, has had his assets frozen by the US government but is attempting to unfreeze his fortunes in order to potentially partner with a ‘hostile’ Middle Eastern country and supply them with arms that reasonably could be used against the West.
While Jack, knowingly giving Syd a look as he does, couches this in Hassan being “brought to face justice”, SD-6 of course are not interested in such principles and instead their interest goes back to So It Begins… and one of the other actions Dreyer is suspicious of – Syd finding and disrupting Hassan’s plans to sell a nuclear weapon hidden by Russians on US soil. It’s another part of the bigger game being played by SD-6 and the Alliance with their own enemies, not in fact enemies of the ‘state’ they’re trying to bring down, and we see that Syd is finally starting to understand the magnitude of what she & Vaughn are trying to unpick: “It’s going to take forever to bring them down” she admits to him. Vaughn has essentially been telling her this from the beginning.
Mea Culpa, therefore, feels like a standard ‘bridging’ episode of storytelling, which you find in the majority of ongoing serialised narratives – whether 10 episodes or, like Alias, 22. While not a standout piece which will be remembered for the ages, Fisher & Messer’s script (yet another written by female writers in an era where their presence in ‘genre’ fiction is seldom) serves a purpose as part of the bigger whole, continuing to push forward and advance the swirling narratives Alias is balancing. It stands out for allowing Ron Rifkin to begin the steady process of exploring Sloane, digging into who will become arguably Alias’ most fascinating creation, and laying continued track across the board.
What happens to Syd in the final moments, mirroring the events of Truth Be Told, the pilot episode, have felt inevitable since the very beginning. Alias may just have gotten to that point quicker than viewers may have imagined, and this time there’s no heroic Jack immediately around the corner to save her.
★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Ken Olin
WRITERS: Erica Messer & Debra J. Fisher
CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey, Tobin Bell
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 1 of Alias here: