When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.
Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.
This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow J.J. Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you don’t see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.
It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.
Abrams, as a storyteller very in tune with mystery, mythology and archetypal heroic journeys, understands the power in symbolism and the cyclical nature of storytelling.
The heart of the Rambaldi mythology, which underpins the episode without devouring it (as it will later season finales), is concentric and circular in both demotic representation and literal manifestation; Jack and Will over the last two episodes have been talking about the ‘Circumference’, which the captured (thankfully alive, if badly broken) Will is painfully tortured over here. It is to some degree a meaningless MacGuffin in the end, an enigmatic concept the Rambaldi device we see in Almost Thirty Years doesn’t need to function, but it quite literally suggests the sense of Alias returning to where it began. The finale parallels, in many senses, the pilot episode Truth Be Told.
For a start, the Rambaldi device at the end of the episode, a spherical red ball, turns out to simply be a much bigger version of the ‘Mueller Device’ from Truth Be Told (so named because Abrams probably hadn’t fully figured Rambaldi out at that point). A strange, water-filled device built underneath a Taipei (another call back to the pilot) nightclub, built from hidden Rambaldi designs. The purpose won’t begin to become apparent until Season 2’s The Counteragent, while the context isn’t revealed until Season 4 finale Before the Flood far into the show’s future, but it almost doesn’t matter. It represents something bigger and more symbolic. The idea that Alias will always, in the end, return to the beginning. While the show arguably develops a mythology that becomes too unwieldy for its own good after this point, Alias never quite forgets its roots, even by the time the show is almost unrecognisable.
From a more immediate storytelling point of view, Almost Thirty Years brings back the sinister figure known as Suit & Glasses (played with wonderfully quiet menace by Ric Young), this time to torture Will rather than Sydney, in much the same room as we first saw him in Truth Be Told. Young elaborates a little on the method he undertook in playing the character in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:
I really mediated a lot about this part. I imagined this monk-like figure sitting absolutely still and just building up his energy until the moment comes when he’s called for his missions and he comes into the outer world and then goes back into his own world. He comes from that dark place of timelessness and he moves in a very etherial way, nothing is quite real and yet it is real. So, when I first got that, there was a lot of turning inwards to find that very dark place—and really enlighten it. There’s a Zen-sort of energy about this man who’s very convinced about what he’s doing and spiritual about it—he uses his inner power.
Young also talks about how he believes the man would always be a mystery, which in some sense is compromised in later appearances, particularly Season 3’s Legacy which makes the terrible mistake of actually giving him a name, but Suit & Glasses stands out immediately as one of Alias’ more terrifying and unknowable villains. Outside of major recurring players or big name guest stars, Alias often would fall back on villain tropes or cliches – the sharp suit wearing goons, bland mercenaries, slick rich dilettantes etc… to fill out missions and points of combat for Sydney, so with Suit & Glasses it’s gratifying to witness a character who urbanely represents a kind of primal, sophisticated evil. You may never hear a creepier “hello” put to film than the one he greets Will with.
Almost Thirty Years has a circuitousness about the episode while also edging narratives closer and closer to a paradigm that in Season 2 will shift at first, before directly imploding and changing completely midway through the season.
Final episodes of seasons often have a tricky balance they need to maintain, and Alias being such a serialised show has more of a difficult balance than most. A season finale needs to conclusively reward the viewer for investing in the season while, if the show is returning, put enough pieces on the board to make a viewer want to come back again for another run of episodes. This is why many shows—genre shows in particular—end on direct cliff-hangers, a term which moved into the popular lexicon precisely because it left audiences on the edge of a story. The X-Files’ Season 3 finale Talitha Cumi is one example, or Breaking Bad’s Season 3 finale Full Measure another; these episodes directly leave characters or scenarios in a place where the narrative will pick up on them moments later in the following season.
It’s a tactic that has grown less common as years have passed, with many shows choosing more of a broad or thematic cliffhanger—take Game of Thrones’ Season 7 finale The Dragon and the Wolf—but it is a tactic that Alias most certainly employs here.
There has to be trial and tribulation for Syd first, however, before she is gifted the revelation about Irina in those final moments, and her motivations come together as one neat mission statement in this finale: Syd needs to find Khasinau, no longer just to keep her SD-6 and CIA roles on the bubble, or learn more about where her mother is, but to rescue Will from the world he has steadily become immersed in across the season. Abrams very elegantly combines these strands as Sark calls Syd at home, breaking a sanctity no other villain previously has (Sloane will do the same in Season 2), and puts her on a mission eventually with Jack that will mean working behind the backs of not just SD-6 but also the CIA to achieve their goal.
This feels like a logical culmination of how Syd and Jack have developed their relationship across the season. As I’ve mentioned previously, the core relationship in Alias across the five seasons is that of Syd and Jack – it is a story about a woman reconnecting with her father, coming to terms with her mother and being a mother, and reaching a point where she can leave them behind and start her own, far more functional family unit. Broadly, if you rip away with ‘spy-fi’ dressing, that’s the core of Sydney’s overarching narrative. Jack’s, in contrast, is rediscovering his own lost humanity after his family unit imploded through Syd and the work they do, and Season 1 has nicely stitched them both together as a highly dysfunctional father-daughter unit reeling from secrets in their pasts bubbling up and over.
“Do you have any close friends? People you love?” Syd asks Jack, when he is unsure about rescuing Will, but of course he will help her. Jack would go up against the entire planet to help or protect Sydney, and this is heavily foreshadowed in The Solution when Devlin brings him to task over his ruthless treatment of Stephen Haladki in Q&A. Given how Jack will later quite brutally execute Haladki once he admits to being Khasinau’s CIA mole—something Jack guessed several episodes ago—we see the ultimate action that Jack is prepared to take for his daughter: cold blooded murder. Alias gives Jack something of a free pass for Haladki, given how loathsome the character is, but does get into his murderous lack of morality in early Season 2 when he’s prepared to kill Irina as part of a mission.
It’s a side of the character you’d find harder to forgive if not for Victor Garner’s darkly noble performance.
Fathers and their dubious morality is something Alias will return to again and again across the run of the series, and here to some extent it mirrors Jack with Sloane, especially as Syd is forced to approach him like a surrogate daughter as part of a covert (and quite brilliantly constructed) mission to record his voice as part of an algorithm to break into an SD-6 facility. Syd has to pretend to value Sloane’s cod-fatherly opinion and even asks him: “Did you and Emily ever think about having children?”. You wonder if Abrams by this point had thought up Syd’s secret sister Nadia because otherwise, unknowingly, it’s some brilliant foreshadowing for revelations later in the series’ run. It is likely simply here a way of underscoring Sloane’s creepy paternal instinct for Sydney that Alias has played with since the beginning. Sloane declares watching her grow up was “As rewarding as having a child of my own”. Yuck.
Sloane here takes steps which both serve to increasingly humanise him as a husband and, theoretically, confirm his status as a true super-villain in waiting. Arguably the finest moment in Almost Thirty Years is where Sloane tells Emily, no longer dying remember, the truth about his involvement in the Alliance. It overlays some thick Natalie Merchant but removes the sound from dialogue clearly written and performed, as Amy Irving reacts with absolute disbelief and horror, as Sloane desperately tries to explain. We are left to guess at precisely what he says (and Season 2 makes it clear what we think is happening here isn’t really what’s happening here…), but it’s a touch from Abrams which adds an artistry and power to what otherwise could have been a wordy and anticlimactic scene, with Sloane repeating what we already know.
It seems, here, that Sloane is prepared to sacrifice Emily to become an Alliance partner, and help them fight the “corruption, infighting and fear” that is threatening the organisation. Sloane’s claim that Khasinau represents a “new world” is clearly indicative of the changes political power dynamic of the post-Cold War and now post-9/11 world. The Alliance are a cabal of old men being picked away at by dynamic, unknowable new threats built on extremist agendas—in this case Rambaldi—that go way beyond the controlled system of power the Alliance built itself on as the Berlin Wall began to fall. The Alliance imagined it could fill the power vacuum left by the Soviet Union but now finds the centre cannot hold. Sloane imagines himself, at least at this point, as the saviour of this old system – an old man who understands new ideas.
Dyrk Ashton suggests that Alias represents an early example of post-truth thinking in exploring a post-9/11 paradigm in his essay ‘Reflections of Deleuze: An Alias-ed Critique of Truth’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies:
The events of 9/11 have shaken up our foundations of comfort and security. This can be seen as a wake-up call, forcing us to perceive a different reality of the world where anything can happen at any time. Alias, airing in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers, reflects this new reality. But a world where anything can happen at any time means not just that every moment has potential for bad things to happen, but also the potential for good, for growth, for change, for creativity. The world of Alias may be an uncomfortable one of uncertainty and insecurity, but it is not all doom and gloom. It is a world of ever-present possibility where truth can be created and re-created in every successive present moment.
You can sense Alias winking and nodding at these perceptions of truth, and how it as a series plays off shows such as The X-Files in how it depicts these changing paradigms. At one point, recovering a piece of CIA information, Jack walks through a warehouse filled with files and case numbers which feels enormously reminiscent of the government warehouse the Cigarette-Smoking Man deposited evidence in The X-Files Pilot and first season finale The Erlenmeyer Flask. In that earlier show, with the government a distrustful and unknowable entity, our heroes were on the outside but in Alias, Jack is one of our heroes and has such governmental access. As a man of secrets, and ruthless ends, with dysfunctional relationships with his family and a capacity for murder, what truly makes him much different from the Smoking Man except we know his name?
Does Alias accept that the ends justify the means as government agents in the same way the X-Files’ Syndicate of old men do? The Alias equivalent of that might be more of a James Bond cabal of global elites controlling the world, less bent on keeping truths from the world as opposed to secretly running everything, but the true differences between these organisations, or characters like Sloane, or Jack, or the Alliance’s Alain Christophe, are not starkly different. Alias simply operates with, as Ashton suggests, a belief that such ends and such truths can be for a greater good, an optimism The X-Files has never shared. That show existed in a world that seemed perennially doomed – it was not if, but when everything was lost. Alias believes a hero like Sydney Bristow can save us.
Us, in this instance, being her friend Will. Bradley Cooper, who of course has gone on to an A-list Hollywood career, would not always be gifted of the greatest material as Syd’s best friend, but he certainly fills the surrogate role of a real human being thrown into a situation he is hugely out of his depth within. Abrams doesn’t shy away from the torture of the moment either; Suit & Glasses ripping out Will’s teeth feels like Marathon Man—in which Dustin Hoffman’s average New York joe is captured and dentally tortured by Laurence Olivier’s terrifying escaped Nazi—on speed. While he is gifted of some retribution and agency toward the end, Will’s utter terror and pain at the situation grounds Alias in the real, despite how fantastical the entire situation technically is.
Ultimately, Alias may hint at the government not having our best interests at heart, but it refuses to outwardly suggest this may be the case. Jack asks Devlin “we’re friends, you and I? You’d consider us friends?” and Devlin essentially turns a blind eye to Jack being suspected as the mole the CIA have been hunting, while Vaughn ultimately abandons his determination to not make his role personal and joins Syd in the final rescue mission. His motivations are not just simply because of his unspoken feelings for her either, also because his father—a CIA agent who was killed years before, a character more important than we think at this stage—towed the line too heavily. “He was a company man but it killed him”. We’ll get onto how this doesn’t quite track with Vaughn’s ultimate backstory another time but it suggests, as the season has worked to remind us, the CIA in the world of Alias are largely made up of ‘good guys’.
The bad guys are more archetypal and distant. Sark is a remote, mysterious, clipped-glass accent presumably British man. Khasinau is a Russian, a former Soviet officer, the epitome of the Cold War enemy in the American psyche who is now transforming and evolving into a 21st century threat. Khasinau even has a hidden lair underneath Taipei, building his possible super-weapon, to the degree he almost appears akin to more of a Bond villain – he’s more of a Blofeld in the latter half of Season 1 than anyone in the Alliance, even if they reflect S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Blofeld perhaps with a touch of religiosity about him, given Haladki’s final claims to Jack that “Khasinau’s the future. He can save you”. When he says Khasinau, in a brilliant moment of irony where Jack is concerned, whether he knows it or not, he means Irina.
Season 2 will explore this fanatical, faithful devotion to Irina a little more, but a lot is left to the imagination, as Abrams angles the character in more of a relatable direction, but it plays into the aforementioned Rambaldi mythos in an indirect way. It’s ironic that Rambaldi is not mentioned all that often despite Khasinau’s actions being all about building one of his devices, the culmination of most of the Rambaldi steps across Season 1. It is probably the best use of the Rambaldi mythology – central, important, mysterious but not existing at the expense of a thrilling character journey or climactic beat, which is what Almost Thirty Years delivers under the Taipei club. Syd essentially has to rescue one important man in her life and risk losing another.
Vaughn’s possible death, consumed by a powerful wall of strange, black Rambaldi water, is an arresting image after the excellent visual of Syd charging down the corridor in slow motion to techno music as the water pulsates behind her. In some respects, you almost wish Vaughn had died here, as it could have added a real punch to the episode and going into Season 2 – Syd gets Irina back but Vaughn has to be sacrificed for it. Season 2 could then have logically explored a Syd/Will romantic attachment. Sadly, fans were already too invested in the Syd/Vaughn will they/won’t they to allow this. Vaughn turning up, a little incredulously, in Season 2 premiere The Enemy Walks In, is unsurprising.
Ultimately, Almost Thirty Years delivers as a season finale. It collects most of the ongoing plot strands from the season and ties them together, allows for some powerful character moments, striking visual images, some slick creative choices and strong dialogue to make for a hugely satisfying payoff to the building, escalating plot threads of the season. You do wish that Irina had been cast in advance of Season 2’s production and we could have had Lena Olin’s voice match up to Irina’s heard here, as the Irina here has a much more pronounced Russian brogue, but it is a minor critique. It takes little away from the striking final reveal, which remains one of the best end points to a season out there. It culminates what the show has been doing and tees up a whole new, crucial and thrilling character.
This is how you end a season. It’s a shame Alias never quite manages to pull the same magic trick twice.
★ ★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Ken Olin
WRITER: J. J. Abrams
CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey, David Anders
Check out more reviews of Season 1 of Alias here: