Page 47, unexpectedly, turns out to be the first Will Tippin-centric episode of Alias.
As the show moves into the second half of the first season, J.J. Abrams and his team of writers (including this episodes’ co-writer Jeff Pinkner) are working hard to try and draw together and assemble the disparate threads coursing across Season 1 in the wake of the game-changing The Box two-parter, which amped up the threat to Sydney Bristow’s life and career while dealing with the series’ biggest revelation to date. The Coup served as an epilogue concerned with the knock-on effects and consequences of those episodes while equally working to tie off loose ends dangling across the first thirteen episodes. Page 47, in some sense, does the same.
Looking back at Season 1, it really does quite acutely feel like pre-The Box and post-The Box in how the writing staff approach their storytelling. Not that serviceable episodes such as Page 47 are vastly different but they feel more unified in terms of where the primary storylines are headed. Before The Box, Alias worked consistently to figure out what kinds of stories it wanted to tell, having Syd face a litany of rent-a-baddies on a consistent basis. The missions felt more throwaway, the Rambaldi mythology more separate, and characters such as Anna Espinosa less defined.
After The Box, something changes. Everything feels more in line with a plan and a direction.
This is apparent in an episode like Page 47, which is far from one of those Alias episodes you are likely to remember with the same kind of fondness as The Box, or Time Will Tell, or the pilot episode Truth Be Told. What it does have, however, is that sense of growing unity and consistency in terms of where Abrams and Pinkner are taking the narrative and the arc of Syd and, particularly in this case, Will. Page 47 pulls together Will’s entire character arc to date and pushes it very clearly in the direction of the final few episodes of the season, and toward Will’s function in Season 2.
Will has been one of the strangest elements of Alias since the beginning. It often feels like he operates in an entirely different show. Francie as a character suffers from this problem but she functions primarily as a mirror for Sydney’s personal anxieties and life choices as opposed to a character in her own right – The Coup proves that trying to give Francie that level of direct characterisation doesn’t work; she is not a strong enough character, nor does her function work in the global idea of what Alias is. That’s not the case with Will. Will’s arc directly connects to Sydney’s, except neither of them realise it. His story is one the audience have been one step ahead of both Will and Sydney on from the first few episodes of the season.
Ostensibly, Will functions as the ‘everyman’ figure in Alias, positioned as the dogged journalist detective attempting to piece together the mystery Sydney is involved in while characterised as a shaggy-dog, post-90’s blend of The X-Files’ Fox Mulder and All the President’s Men’s Bob Woodward, except shot through with a latent 90’s Generation X sun kissed Californian grunge. Will, in theory, is our way in, but the reason his arc doesn’t entirely work is because we as an audience are already in, thanks to Syd. If she was a mysterious character, and her world more opaque, Will’s investigation would mean more to the audience. Rather his whole arc seems to be designed to get him to the realisation of Syd’s secret life rather than our realisation, and that’s where it falls down.
This could account for why he was a hugely divisive, if not outright hated, figure in Alias fandom from the beginning, as writer Jesse Alexander discusses in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:
At least towards the end of the season we didn’t have that vehemence we had at the beginning. ‘Just kill him and get it over with!’. That was incredible for us because the staff *loves* him. He’s a great actor, he’s fun, he brings a great side to the show. It might just have been that viewers were protective of Sydney. After all, Sydney had asked him to stop investigating Danny’s death, so he was acting in opposition to our main character. But Will cares about Sydney, he was doing things for the right reasons. But how to tell the best version of that story, but to properly serve Will’s character, was the most intense thing we had to deal with all year.
Realistically, Will was vilified because he was a potential interruptor across Season 1 of the brewing ‘ship’ between Syd and Vaughn, which Abrams and his writers have increasingly started amping up since The Box as the chemistry between Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan (who would have a real world romance during filming) intensifies. The sub-plot for Will in Page 47 concerns his ongoing attempts to start something romantic between he and Syd and take their relationship to another level, even after the awkward disaster of their kiss in Parity. He does himself no favours as a decent guy in how he treats his student intern, Jenny – quite rightly getting the boot from her as a result.
Did we talk about how Will was sleeping with his student intern? A bit like how everyone seems cool with Ross Geller in Friends sleeping with his college student, maybe we should politely side step these slightly skeevy traits in otherwise decent American guys (much as Ross was a blatant sociopath, but that’s a different discussion!).
In several ways, Page 47 is working hard, as The Coup did with Francie, to try and steer Will’s narrative into Syd’s ongoing story. A problem with this otherwise strong opening season has been how diffuse the arcs of the two friends in Syd’s life have been and how distracting focus on them can be from what Alias is best at – mystery, espionage escapism, and mythology. Abrams and Pinkner here are finally tethering Will’s feelings for Sydney to the main plot, as Vaughn shows visible jealousy in learning Syd is taking Will to her dinner/mission to Arvin Sloane’s house, and Will’s ongoing, adjacent SD-6 investigation to the broader, watchful eye of Sloane himself.
This is interesting and a long time coming because you sense that the writers were never quite sure how far they wanted to push Will’s investigation in the early half of the season. While we know who killed Danny, and the role of Eloise Kurtz in that conspiracy, Will’s dogged investigations that lead to David McNeil, the software developer framed by SD-6 for murdering his wife, always seemed on the periphery of relevant revelation, at least to the audience. What could Will expose that we, or Sydney, did not already know about SD-6? In truth, Will’s story never quite answers that question with great satisfaction but here, at least, it places him on a course which makes sense: the Alliance.
“A name is all Tippin needs” declares a concerned Sloane to Jack, wanting to have the reporter killed for finding McNeil and, as we saw in The Coup when Will goes on a mini, Syd-style mission of his own, directly accessing software which connects to SD-6 in a closer manner than he’s ever reached before. Will does get that name: Alain Christophe. We will come to know him as one of the chief architects of the Alliance, and thus far we have only heard Sloane reporting to him via phone at the end of Reckoning, but Will directly connects Christophe to the CIA and information we already know from Jack – how the Alliance was formed when a group of intelligence operatives toward the end of the Cold War went rogue, including Sloane.
In terms of key information about the major organised crime figures behind SD-6, this is a pretty huge find by Will, but this is never truly capitalised on. While we do see Christophe once or twice, neither he nor the Alliance are ever of much interest to Abrams and his writers, who are in Season 2 far more focused on Sloane and the newcomer Irina Derevko. This is no bad thing in and of itself, but Will’s discovery by this point should really pack more of a punch and hold greater weight, especially given how concerned Sloane is about what he’s learning. Yet it doesn’t.
In that same conversation with Jack, Sloane coyly reminds him: “I’m sure you’ll agree, there are some truths that Sydney must never learn”. Aside from the fact this makes Jack complicit in further secrets, and in context it hints at the closing revelation of the episode (though it seems unlikely Sloane and Jack were referring to that), Sloane’s comments appear to directly suggest that Will may be about to discover a secret Syd must never find out. That’s not the case. Will’s arc, following being threatened and backing off from helping McNeil after a disguised Jack threatens to kill his family (and even, perversely, Syd), becomes centred on Will being endangered in order for him to discover Syd’s double life, as opposed to discovering something truly of import to the bigger narrative in play.
This is handled somewhat better in Season 2 when Will starts digging into ‘Project Christmas’, but it feels a wasted opportunity here to push him into more of a central role in the back half of the season. It’s like the writers just get cold feet, with Will essentially relegated into the background until the final couple of episodes. It’s a shame because the confluence of events which leads to Syd bringing Will to Sloane’s house, as part of a mission, right in the middle of Sloane unknowingly holding Will’s life in his hands, is some fine narrative construction. “You’re doing *what*?” is Jack’s response when Syd tells him she’s bringing Will and that says it all. It allows for some excellent, layered drama.
Page 47 of course, in many respects, is as much about Sloane and his own quest as it is about Will’s investigation.
This is essentially a soft ‘part one’ of a loose, key Rambaldi mythology trilogy, with this and Q&A bookending the crucial mythology tale, The Prophecy, in the middle. Page 47 refers to the blank page on the Rambaldi manuscript, which The Man was after in The Coup and which we now know the ampule McKenas Cole broke into SD-6 for in The Box is used to reveal the secret contents of the page. Page 47 strings together, by the end, every thread which has been established from Parity, through Time Will Tell, and into the last few episodes. The final revelation is what the entire mythology, up to this point, has been building towards.
Before we get to that, let’s talk about Sloane, because Page 47 is the first episode which truly establishes the Rambaldi zealot who blossoms across the second season. It feels like it has taken Abrams and the writers a while to realise this about Sloane, his interest in Rambaldi. In Parity he seems casual about the mystery to the point of disinterested, and while in The Box he is determined to protect the Rambaldi artefact in his vault, and in The Coup he frames the entire search for The Man around ensuring they get to Rambaldi first, Page 47 is the first episode where Sloane shows active fascination and wonderment about the mystery.
“Who was this man, Sydney? What did he see? What did Rambaldi see?” Sloane leafs through the manuscript, talking reverentially about how men would die (and have died) for what he holds in his hands, and admits “it’s becoming an obsession for me”. Now Sloane is underplaying here, or more likely the writers have not yet tracked back just his history with the Rambaldi mythology. By Season 2, as A Free Agent explains, he has spent decades trying to uncover his secrets. Season 4’s In Dreams, as the writers work to humanise and redeem the character, will reveal a secret daughter, Jacqueline, whose death in infancy turns Sloane, to cope with his grief, to the Rambaldi mystery. Page 47 merely establishes that Sloane is curious and, more over, that he *believes*.
Belief is central to the Rambaldi mystery, mythology and theology that underpins Alias. The Prophecy blows open the mixture of Judeo-Christian and Greek mythic symbolism of Alias, but Page 47 establishes some of these ideas in how Sloane is framed. Paul Zinder, in his article ‘Sydney Bristow’s Full Disclosure’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, frames Sloane in the context of a Luciferian, Old Testament adversary to Sydney’s messiah:
Sloane is former CIA, a fallen angel, with ties to both the Alliance and the Covenant. Early Alias binds Sloane to Old Testament iconography. As the Old Testament Satan ‘intervenes as a disturbance and hindrance to the natural order of living’, Arvin Sloane serves as Sydney’s ‘metaphysical foe of a peaceful life’ during the first two seasons of Alias.
We will discuss these overt Biblical connections further while considering The Prophecy but these allusions to a Satanic force in Sloane’s character are interesting when you consider what his wife Emily discusses during the dinner, referencing the article for which Will is winning a Caplan Award (in an in-show nod to producer Sarah Caplan). The story is told of a Mexican immigrant fruit picker, Luis Marona, who is illegally smuggled into the States by a trafficker and later stages an uprising due to his terrible living and working conditions which sees the trafficker jailed. Emily refers to him as a ‘monster’. “He was the Devil. He was literally the Devil.” Will adds.
The framing of the scene makes it quite clear they’re talking about Sloane rather than the slave driver. “If you spoke out against him, he would have you killed” Emily points out. Will has no idea Sloane is ready to kill him for exposing SD-6, which McNeil tries to convince Will later is his ‘insurance policy’, while Syd and Jack exchange knowing glances. Sloane himself almost seems aware of this metaphorical underpinning in how he calmly and dispassionately reacts to the story, clearly aware of the allusions, even if the storytellers themselves are not. This is the same man who, earlier, we see with cold callousness order the execution of an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Page 47 is actively positioning Sloane further into the space he will inhabit across Season 2, as the significant primary antagonist of Alias. In many ways, this is already clear, given how Syd is as focused on taking him down as she is SD-6 for killing Danny, but The Prophecy will soon reveal acutely just how ‘middle management’ Sloane effectively is when it comes to the Alliance. SD-6 is just an ‘arm of the monster’, as Vaughn described it in So It Begins…, which means Sloane is just a cog in a bigger machine. As a result, he’s been a vicious organised criminal in Season 1 but little more. Page 47 is the first episode to suggest Sloane’s aspirations, his vision and his characterisation, are broader and much darker.
This is the first episode to frame him as the Devil, not just what or who he represents.
It also gives Sydney an interesting moral quandary to chew on. Page 47 allows for one of the cleverest and most interesting uses of the standard mission construct, in making a dinner with Sloane layered with several instances of tension. Will being present, given his investigation, is one – he has no idea who Sloane is or what he’s involved in. Syd needing to swop out the Rambaldi manuscript page is another. There is a moment where Sloane sees her leaving his study which is truly heart in mouth – did he see what she was doing? The direction and Ron Rifkin’s reaction is delightfully ambiguous and open ended.
Yet behind all of this is how Vaughn wants to use Syd’s attachment to Emily in order to get in Sloane’s house to plant a bug and this provides her with a significant moral problem of the kind she rarely has when given a counter mission. Further contrasting the Devil allusions with Sloane, Emily is painted as fragile, kind and angelic. Though we have heard reference to her in earlier episodes, Page 47 confirms Emily is not only dying of cancer but that she has a long-standing bond with Sydney, one that goes back long before both her recruitment into SD-6 and her realisation of the truth behind the organisation. Season 2 will go further in painting Emily as the mother figure Syd never had, but their bond is well defined in Page 47.
This is what makes Vaughn’s reaction frankly so insensitive and certainly cuts to the selfishness inherent in the character which at times makes it harder to get behind why Syd would be drawn to him as opposed to the kind natured Will. It also further displays how Vaughn is more like Jack than he would care to admit. “This is hardly the darkest decision you’ve ever had to make” Vaughn states to try and ameliorate how unreasonable he is being, ignoring completely Syd’s emotional and personal reaction to using Emily when she will have no idea about it. “This isn’t a logistical question, this is a moral one” Syd retorts, and this reaffirms her role as the steadfast moral centre in Alias. It also further contrasts her with the inherent immorality of Sloane.
Emily, in that sense, is the breakwater between them, and frequently serves from here on in as the only moral compass Sloane has – indeed that intensifies once he loses her after Season 2’s Truth Takes Time. While her connection to Sydney does come a little out of left field, it makes sense in the larger context of where the story is going. J.J. Abrams has talked about how he always imagined the season would end with Syd facing her secretly-alive mother, and there are already suggestions the writers have figured out The Man is one and the same person, so introducing a maternal figure for Syd who can act as that mirror against her own past experience does work for dramatic purposes.
Page 47 is yet another episode of Alias which peppers itself with pop culture references which play to the in-house nerdiness of a writing staff raised on movies and television. Will wants to take Syd to a screening of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest to celebrate his award. Marshall happily does (terrible) Henry Higgins impressions and talks about his favourite Rex Harrison movies. And in one of the most interesting, throwaway exchanges, at the start of the primary standard mission in Tunisia, Syd asks Dixon of her skimpy get-up as her surveils her via binoculars: “Who do you like better? Mary Ann or Ginger?”.
This is a reference to a well-known pop-psychological question presented to American male audiences as an insight into their character, and how they regard particular female stereotypes. It comes from two characters on the popular 1960’s TV series Gilligan’s Island, Ginger (played by Tina Louise) and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), both of whom were attractive women with completely opposite stereotypical personalities. Ginger was the firebrand, Mary Ann the homemaker. Whichever of the two, as a man, you were more attracted to, theoretically reveals not just the kind of attributes you look for in a woman, but reflects on your own sensibilities as a man. It is a debate, when asked, people are still having to this day.
She either would have been the girlfriend, (or) she’d have been your best friend. I wouldn’t have tried to take your boyfriend away from you. I’d have gone to the prom. I cook, I clean — I do it all.
Alias does not linger to ponder the question but it is interesting that Abrams and Pinkner include the line in their script, as it suggests a knowing understanding of the male gaze that Alias, on many occasions, is guilty of proffering. No aspersions are cast on Dixon through the question, as Syd asks it with a knowing wink, but Dixon would certainly be of the age, as roughly a teenage boy when Gilligan’s Island aired, to get the reference and roughly have an answer. Syd, in many respects, inverts both the Ginger and Mary Ann stereotypes; she is a strong and sensitive women, both masculine and feminine, and serves as an example of how series such as Alias and Buffy around this era were working to redefine how strong female icons were represented on television.
Truthfully, Alias is not always this aware of itself, occasionally slipping a touch into lasciviousness where Jennifer Garner is concerned, but it remains a curious inclusion in an otherwise functional episode. Page 47 continues to pull all of the continuing threads together as the second half of the season builds, with only minor incongruities – such as the strange revelation that Sark has a strong connection to Galway in Ireland, a fact which is never brought up again when the character returns later for more than just a walk on appearance. The writers are still testing out ideas and possibilities, even as they’re building more of a consistent framework following the events of mid-season.
The final scene is, naturally, the most exciting moment and one which puts a fascinating full stop on Page 47, and to some extent the Rambaldi mythology to date. The revelation that the page, when exposed, holds an accurate sketch of Sydney’s face is as strong a “WHAT?” moment for the audience as it is Syd, a moment which is utterly without any level of context at this stage. We are as in the dark as our heroine about what this means, but it immediately works to invest the audience in a mythology that, thus far, has been arcane and fairly background. Now we know it directly connects to Sydney, somehow, and that makes it personal.
It also leads us into what could be one of the defining episodes of Alias across the entire five seasons. In that sense, Page 47 is little more than an hors d’oeuvre.
★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Ken Olin
WRITER: Jeff Pinkner
CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey, David Anders
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 1 of Alias here: