The halfway point of the first season of Alias also feels, appropriately, like the point of no return.
The Confession is an episode which essentially concludes the beginning of J.J. Abrams’ series. It serves as a marker between two distinct periods, in a different way to how Season 2’s Phase One will mark the show, but in an important manner nonetheless. The Confession marks Alias as being defined as ‘pre’ Sydney knowing the truth about her mother, and ‘post’ Sydney knowing the truth about her mother, because that revelation completely and utterly changes Alias forever.
It is the key to Syd’s entire life – her past, her present and her future, and for all of the revelations and twists Alias will deploy over the five years of its existence, Sydney learning her beloved, venerated mother Laura who died when she was a little girl was in fact a KGB double agent, is the most powerful.
It’s the revelation we should have seen coming all along.
And yet we didn’t.
The Confession, though bringing to a head the ongoing mystery about whether Syd’s father Jack Bristow is or was a KGB agent, still lands the Laura reveal as a massive surprise twist, both to us and indeed to Syd herself. The clues were, of course, there all along – the fact the cyrillic codes containing KGB orders were inside books that Laura received, the fact Jack desperately wanted to keep Sydney out of being a double agent for SD-6, and indeed how broken he is as an individual – more broken than he should be, even for a widower. Yet the show, quite skilfully, both distracted us with half a dozen other storylines and made us look the other way and question Jack, without ever quite casting him as ‘the bad guy’. It shouldn’t land with quite the impact it does, and yet you feel Syd’s utter confusion and devastation by the end.
The Confession is very much framed around the relationship between Syd and Jack, which is appropriate given the piece attempts to build you up toward a revelation about Jack that doesn’t land in the way you might expect. The cliffhanger of Spirit established the stakes of Jack being placed by renegade arms dealer Ineni Hassan in the position of having to kill Syd to prove his loyalty, but as I commented previously, this was as weak a cliffhanger as it ends up being a resolution. Syd, as the lead character, isn’t going to die and nor does anything in Jack’s relationship with her or sense of personal morality suggest he would countenance shooting her either. Co-writers Abrams and Daniel Arkin very swiftly get them out of the problem.
It does allow Alias to show Jack both on a mission and being as physical as the job requires, neither of which we have seen of Jack up to this point (and which the series will do much more of as the show progresses). It is certainly the first time Syd sees Jack ‘in the field’ as it were, and she is struck by some level of hero worship at what she sees, as she later describes to Vaughn in the debrief: “He was like a pro, he was good”. It also helps further cloud the issue around Jack and his loyalties, given he admits—when Syd asks—that he didn’t tell her about who SD-6 really was because he didn’t want her to know the truth about who he was, and what he did. “There are so many things I should probably do, as a father. Things I should ask and say…” he later admits, in a quiet and heartbreaking moment Victor Garber plays so well.
Garber talks in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion about how Abrams clued him in on the Laura revelation and it served to open up how to play Jack for him:
I didn’t know at the beginning of the season, but it was very helpful when it was revealed to me that she married [Jack] to get information. It helped me to give Jack a level of despair and sadness that was even deeper than what I’d been exploring. This guy is operating from a place of pain and that information fed that.
What is interesting about Syd’s rescue of Jack from Hassan in Cuba is how it makes her rethink her own personal morality about the choices Jack made in Spirit in order to save her life from the SD-6 mole hunt, and how he sacrificed Anthony Russek falsely to preserve her cover. With Jack in danger, Syd knew she would probably make the same call, and it’s the first indication of how Jack’s presence starts changing and to a degree hardening Syd’s own sense of professional distance. There’s a strong case to be made that she becomes less directly emotional across the run of the series and will take risks and go ‘off book’ much more in later seasons in precisely the way Jack does, if it protects those she loves. She never goes as far as Jack but sometimes comes close.
Speaking of personal morality, The Confession throws up more contextual questions about Vaughn, which are thrown even more sharply into focus with the benefit of hindsight. We learn that Vaughn’s father Bill was one of the agents killed by the KGB double agent who was receiving the cyrillic codes, all of which contained the names of CIA agents who would be assassinated. Now ostensibly, the suggestion is that Vaughn believes Jack to be his father’s killer, but honestly knowing what we know about Vaughn’s own dual identity, he must at this point have both been aware of the existence of Irina Derevko (the real name of Syd’s mother) and that she murdered his father. The episode presents him as someone looking to solve the riddle of who killed his father: “It’s been a mystery in the agency for two decades, who murdered those officers?”.
We have to factor in production realities here when it comes to Vaughn. There is no question that the revelation which drops at the end of Season 4 about his identity, and his motivations, were what you could consider Alias’ greatest ‘retcon’. If you’re not familiar with that term when it comes to television and storytelling, here’s a textbook definition, taken from Merriam-Webster:
Retcon is a shortened form of retroactive continuity, and refers to a literary device in which the form or content of a previously established narrative is changed. Retcons are often encountered in serial formats such as comic books or television series, where they serve as a means of allowing the work’s creators to create a parallel universe, reintroduce a character, or explore plot lines that would otherwise be in conflict with the work. Essentially, a retcon allows an author to have his or her cake and eat it too, as it enables the return of dead characters, the revision of unpopular elements of a work, and a general disregard for reality.
The revelation at the end of Season 4 finale Before the Flood that Vaughn isn’t even the character’s real name, and the subsequent Season 5 revelations that he was all along investigating a secret group of powerful international government figures interested in the Rambaldi mystery called ‘Prophet Five’, comes out of nowhere in the context of what we know about Vaughn. You can connect certain dots, and in my Alias analysis I will attempt to do so, that suggest Vaughn has a propensity for subterfuge, particularly where Irina Derevko and his father is concerned, but it is extremely unlikely at the point of writing The Confession that the Alias writers room had a secret life for Vaughn in their back pocket. Vaughn’s fate is absolutely a retcon in action.
Yet in The Confession, we see the first signs that he can be cunning and duplicitous, even to Sydney. He records the conversation in which she admits, should she learn Jack was a KGB double agent, she would expose him to the CIA, and though he doesn’t use it and confesses to Syd, the intention is more than enough. Indeed, if we are to consider the eventual revelations about Vaughn in context, the man is as skilled a manipulator and game theorist as Jack himself, given how he manages to keep secret an entire identity from the CIA, from Syd, even later apparently from his own duplicitous wife Lauren Reed. The only person who ever seems to have known the truth about who he really is turns out to be, ironically enough, Irina.
If, therefore, Vaughn is quite the emotional Machavelli, did he record the conversation and then confess his actions to Syd as a form of psychological manipulation? Doing so both prevents him taking action which would have seen Syd likely never trust him again but equally, upon dropping the revelation his father was one of the murdered agents, he knows that would be enough of a personalisation to change Syd’s mind. Remember, before this, Syd seems set on not exposing Jack to the CIA, mainly out of clearly not wanting to lose a father she is slowly starting to see in a different way. She suggests to Vaughn those KGB directives were old and he snaps back: “There’s no statute of limitation on murder”. Vaughn wants to expose these truths and he’ll do whatever he can to get Syd in the position he needs in order to do it.
This is another reason why I never fully bought the romance between Syd & Vaughn. The show does a good job of making it very Whedon-esque, full of passion and heartbreak, but Vaughn at times is a little bit of a calculating sociopath. The Confession is the first example of manipulation but it is far from the last – he lies to Syd again in a similar way in A Dark Turn, to the point he even ends up internally investigated by the CIA itself; in Countdown he’s prepared to turn in Dixon for taking stimulants against Syd’s wishes; and let’s not kid ourselves – both Jack and Syd have a point in Season 3 when they talk about how quickly Vaughn moved on and remarried after Syd goes missing. The show attempts to suggest Vaughn emotionally broke down beforehand but still… coupled with the fact we later learn he lied about his entire life to Syd for years, it’s hard to really believe Syd would continue to trust him as implicitly as she does.
Vaughn’s own psychology in this regard could also be why he falls for Hassan’s own manipulation when it comes to the climax, and Syd becoming trapped in the Cretian missile silo. Vaughn spends the entire episode attempting to convince the captured Hassan he needs to make a deal and help Syd take down his (creepy) successor, Minos Sakulos, from taking over the business. Abrams & Arkin even use this as an opportunity to creep in some of that post-9/11 anxiety with the character of the Middle Eastern arms dealer. “Under the Patriot Act of 2001, you’re not going anywhere” Vaughn quotes at a man who looks, with his disguise, almost certainly not un-coincidentally like Saddam Hussein – at this point still alive, well and committing genocide as leader of Iraq. Though Hassan is a fairly lukewarm, disposable villain (who we never see again after this), he represents a broader fear Alias will toy with as time goes on.
Nonetheless, Hassan manages to dupe Vaughn in attempting to get his family protection and safety, perhaps exploiting a blind spot in Vaughn’s own psyche when it comes to family ties. He operates from a place of being a young boy who had his father torn away from him at a young age, thanks to something he never understood. He doesn’t see Hassan’s own duplicity coming and it’s telling at how Vaughn might be calculating, but he too personalises professional situations in as reckless as way as we have seen Syd herself do. The Confession is really quite illuminating about his character, as much as it ends up being about Syd or Jack’s.
What’s also telling is how Syd, in one of my favourite moments from the episode, goes to Will when she needs solace. She doesn’t tell him what’s wrong, she can’t tell him, but she just wants to be in his home, in a place of safety, and Will doesn’t press it. He just holds her. If you can’t tell I’m a Syd/Will shipper by this point, this scene confirms for me that the real constant in her life was always Will. The series really starts to get away from that in the second half of Season 1, as Syd’s attraction to Vaughn amps up and they grow increasingly closer as we edge into Season 2, and it’s a shame. This episode manages to take a break and a breather from Will’s own ongoing narrative but allows this important, sweetly played and necessary emotional scene.
The Confession is also the first episode to completely dispense with using Francie and honestly… hands up if you noticed. Nope? Me neither. The fact only eleven episodes in Alias is proving it doesn’t need Francie, one of the shows regular characters, in any way shape or form, is a very telling indication of how incidental she would increasingly become until the radical alteration of Merrin Dungey’s presence on the show midway through Season 2. The Confession ends up being an episode which very heavily centres on one or two central storylines in a manner many other previous episodes have avoided – no Will plot, little of Sloane, no sense of the Rambaldi mythology, and purely a focus on Syd, Jack and Vaughn. It manages to work in doing so.
Though not by the sum of its parts a classic episode of Alias, The Confession is a supremely important lynchpin to Season 1 of the show. It is functional in the sense of how, almost ominously, it is geared around the revelation in the final minute of the episode, which blows open the doors of the series and directly leads into the two most exciting, and two of the best, episodes Alias will ever produce. It establishes the groundwork for a more expansive and involving second half of the first season which deepens both the character work and the mythology at the heart of the show, and leaves behind much of the playing for time we have seen over particularly the last few episodes.
Alias will never be the same after The Confession. Time to open the box…
★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Harry Winer
WRITER: Daniel Arkin
CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 1 of Alias here: