Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Facade’ (3×15)

When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.

Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.

Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?

Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.

In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.

Let’s not kid ourselves, however. Facade only exists in the shape and format it does because of one man: Ricky Gervais.

It is easy to forget just how popular Gervais was at the point Facade was produced. The Office, his British comedy series co-written with Stephen Merchant in which he starred, became almost instantly a seminal television series at the turn of the 2000s, and transformed Gervais instantaneously from a cult, fringe comedian making filthy jokes and intentionally dark, semi-spoof chat shows for Channel 4 (see The 11 O’Clock Show & Meet Ricky Gervais specifically) into not just a British but transatlantic household name. Gervais’ rise was meteoric even by modern standards, and rarely did comedians behind who would become iconic comedy characters—as his painfully uncool, tragic-comic office boss David Brent is—rocket into the public consciousness in the way he did. There remains something bizarre about it even now, you sense even to Gervais himself. Only James Corden has perhaps exceeded him in a similar, breakout American regard.

Nonetheless, as 2004 beckoned, The Office had set in stone a place amongst the all-timers with a finale at Christmas 2003 that was pitch-perfect and at the point fans would have loved more; the far more prolific in terms of longevity and some would say quality American remake of The Office was in production, Gervais was fielding movie offers, and he was schmoozing the Hollywood glitterati he would over the next fifteen years glide between as he worked in America and the U.K., alienating as many people as became fans with his comedic style and combative personality. Everyone was watching to see what he would do next. Almost nobody would have guessed that one of his first moves would be to play a vicious Irish terrorist on Alias, a series not just well into a third season without guarantee of a fourth, but a show nowhere near the same level of cultural consciousness as other series of the time – The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, 24 etc… (Gervais would briefly cameo on the latter eventually too).

Gervais has talked a little about the slightly unreal experience:

It’s so like the opposite to ‘The Office.’ It’s $2 million an episode as opposed to $200,000 an episode. There’s special effects, there’s stunts. All that pressure, it’s like being in school when you can’t laugh in assembly. It’s all so expensive and all so important that I think it’s the child in me. I was laughing at all the serious faces. Every time they looked at me in a serious way, I died laughing. It’s the first thing I’ve done that I didn’t write myself, so it was sort of a baptism of fire.

Facade really shouldn’t work at all based on Gervais’ casting, primarily because it could not be shot more through the detached, Hollywood lens in terms of how American productions historically saw the U.K. and particularly Ireland.

For one thing, Gervais has absolutely no Irish heritage. He doesn’t look Irish and he doesn’t sound Irish. He is also, to put it charitably, not an actor in the traditional sense of the word. Gervais plays extensions of the comic persona that, for the most part, are extensions of his own sense of humour – you can see this in everyone from Brent to Extras’ Andy Millman to After Life’s Tony. When he does try to act, you get Derek. In  Alias, he does try to act because he’s playing an actual character. And he’s terrible. Uniformly terrible. Ryan isn’t menacing, he isn’t scary, he isn’t convincing as a terrorist in any conceivable way. Gervais chews up and vomits out lines that a younger Gabriel Byrne or Liam Cunningham, as examples, might have gnawed on and enriched.

Gervais just sounds constantly painfully aware of his own shortcomings, and just how bizarrely out of his depth this whole endeavour is.

This is sadly lost to the ages now it appears, as it can’t even be found in the wilds of YouTube, but British TV channel Bravo—which aired Alias Season Three exclusively back in 2004, an example of just how cult the show already had become internationally—aired a tie-in documentary to Facade called ‘Alias Ricky Gervais’ which took a behind the scenes look at Gervais on set filming Facade. It’s a fascinating slice of Alias history filled with interviews from the cast discussing Gervais and how baffled even they seem to be that he’s there. Gervais corpses every five minutes, seriously annoying director Jack Bender (just to prove how early 00s this is, Gervais makes homophobic jibes about his surname); he comments how weird it is that none of the cast shoot scenes wearing shoes as it adds extra noise; and in a hilarious moment, he banters with a perplexed Victor Garber about playing Puss in Boots in Bognor. Everything about the documentary displays just how odd Gervais in Alias is, and it’s wonderful. I hope one day it resurfaces.

It’s worth remembering that almost no previous piece of Alias stunt casting built an episode around the guest star in quite this way. Roger Moore & Faye Dunaway served as florid but component elements to the ongoing Alliance narratives. Christian Slater was amidst the Sloane-Irina arc of the second season. Even Quentin Tarantino, as jazzy and memorable as he is in The Box, factored into the bigger storyline of SD-6 under siege and the Rambaldi mythology. Ethan Hawke in Double Agent is the one possible previous exception, with his doubled CIA agent James Lennox having the clearest character arc within that episode, but even that example didn’t feel built around Hawke in the same way. Facade seems constructed, soup to nuts, as a vehicle for Gervais to play a character entirely against type in the wake of becoming a global comedy sensation and a brand all his own. A cynic might suggest J.J. Abrams exploited this to boost Alias’ flagging position within the cultural consciousness.

If you try and approach Facade outside of this context, it doesn’t make a huge degree of sense to place Gervais in the role of Daniel Ryan, billed as a highly dangerous Northern Irish terrorist with a background in the Royal Navy who is capable of building a ‘quantum entanglement’ bomb, ie. a bomb that theoretically cannot be defused. Gervais in a role like this, immediately after playing a hapless middle-aged man from Berkshire unable to effectively even run a small time paper merchants, feels intentionally hilarious. Gervais does his best to take the role of Ryan seriously and actually have a stab at being menacing or cunning and entirely different from the David Brent character he is known as, but there remains in every scene the lurking grimace of a comedian—less an actor—who appreciates how absurd this all is.

Around him, all of the cliches are employed to represent Northern Ireland and the IRA.

Belfast is almost provincial. Ryan lives in a pub playing ‘Whiskey in the Jar’, full of darts and beer. It is the American gaze on Irish culture, compounded by not having an actor remotely Irish play the most Irish role the series has ever presented. Alias finds it easier to play with broader geopolitical arenas than it does specific political entities. ‘The Russians’ are always condensed down into agents of sinister enigma such as the Covenant or K-Directorate. Alias largely avoids ‘The Chinese’. The problem with Ireland is that you can’t really avoid the IRA as an entity and Alias is perhaps too flimsy a series to tackle a serious terrorist organisation without seeming trite. Facade mostly treats Ryan as a rogue entity but it does frame his stance as post-Good Friday agreement, thereby tethering his actions to Irish politics.

From the American perspective, by 2003 the Irish question had been if not solved then placated. The Good Friday Agreement, set in stone in 1998 through the work of British Prime Minister Tony Blair & US President Bill Clinton, effectively ended what had been known for decades as ‘The Troubles’, the sectarian violence between Protestant Catholics and Unionists that extended into the British mainland with a series of vicious, memorable attacks on cities and even high profile assassinations.

The IRA across the 1990s particularly were a significant Hollywood ‘bad guy’ organisation, appearing in everything from Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game to Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, but they too often placed the villains of such movies, mostly challenged by virtuous British or American forces, as rogue elements. Nobody wanted to call out the IRA too directly as a terror organisation, for fear of triggering issues within Irish politics, but Hollywood enjoyed painting Irish terrorists as a hybrid of impassioned freedom fighters spliced with psychotic killers. Most examples lacked any nuance as to the complexity of the Irish situation.

Alias, perhaps wisely, elects to avoid it altogether. Ryan is picked up in quaint old Ireland but his previous IRA connections serve merely as a backdrop to how valuable he is to the Covenant, who better reflect the kind of chameleonic threat for an age where Irish terrorism, after Good Friday, didn’t exist in quite the same way. Ryan is presented as someone who wanted to continue the fight but he never seems impassioned about the Troubles or the struggle for Irish republicanism. Sloane describes his brother as “the political one”. His motives are purely personal, fixed on vengeance.

This, too, turns out to be a wise choice, and having Ryan’s brother Christopher be the man Julia Thorne killed in Full Disclosure turns out to be the rarest of things – a satisfying answer to a question that could easily have done unanswered. It provides Syd with a personal connection to Ryan and fuels the climactic act with deeper significance, as Ryan schemes and takes advantage of the evolving situation involving his bomb to expose his brother’s killer and take his revenge. While Alias might chicken out of truly doing anything meaningful about the Irish situation, this choice feels more attuned to how the series tells its stories.

Facade also reintroduces a character who you might not necessarily have expected to return in Leonid Lysanker, played by Griffin Dunne, and last seen as the Covenant defector who Syd & Vaughn just managed to extract in Crossings. Lysanker serves a function in the story, as the contact Ryan knows of old who helps the CIA sell the con-job they put on the terrorist, but they manage to flesh the character out a little more as a Russian idealist. “I believe in America” he claims, before rattling off archaic pop culture reference points. Lysanker seems to yearn for an America that no longer quite exists, the one he hinted at with the provincial awareness of a man who has been in Russia or North Korea too long. It’s a shame we don’t have a better understanding of who the Covenant are or what they represent, as it would better inform quite what Lysanker is running away from.

Though the landscape is worse in 2021, America in 2003 was not even an idealised land to embrace anymore, so this serves to enhance how out of time Lysanker actually is.

Characterisation in Facade nonetheless is secondary to the mechanics of the storytelling from R. J. Gaborno & Christopher Hollier, which very deliberately engage in the chief inspiration for Alias as a whole: Mission Impossible. It is quite surprising that Abrams didn’t at least write Facade, if not direct, because Facade is the closest Alias ever gets to recreating Bruce Geller’s 1960s cult series. In that show, the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) would often stage a highly elaborate, theatrical scenario in order to gain intelligence or trick someone villainous etc… and the entire team would play different ‘roles’ in the execution of their mission.

This is precisely what happens in Facade as the Rotunda team stage a fake kidnapping of Ryan, place him in a fake hotel pretending to be Moscow, and employ Syd & Vaughn in particular performative roles in order to prevent Ryan’s second bomb going off. Even Lysanker is playing a curated version of himself, in on the rouse. It is pure theatre geared around the manipulation of Ryan and, in that sense, at points it plays more theatrically than any Alias episode to date, as the narrative twists and turns.

The episode gets enjoyable mileage out of the characters adopting these guises. Weiss, shot seemingly dead in a Mission Impossible-style ‘fake out’, suggests he is “Method acting” – referencing the Lee Strasberg style of theatre that trickled into cinema from the 1950s onwards through actors such as Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and lately Daniel Day Lewis; the immersion into a role to the point you truly become detached from yourself on screen. The opposite, in all honesty, to how Gervais plays Daniel Ryan.

Equally, in Syd’s guise as Emma, she revives the symbolic ‘red hair’ do memorably adopted in Truth Be Told as we were introduced to the character, as the show calls back to its roots. Perhaps the most enjoyable theatre goes to Vaughn, however, who gets to pretend to be Sark – plummy accent and all. Michael Vartan’s British brogue might be Keanu Reeves-levels of bad, and he simply doesn’t possess the charisma to even act Vaughn playing Sark as deliberately cunning and charming as David Anders, but Facade takes the opportunity of placing Vaughn out of his comfort zone and playing who is being lined up as his professional, and even sexual, nemesis as the season develops.

What surprises about Facade ultimately, however, is the emotional component and how well it, unexpectedly, connects back to Sydney and the consequences of her missing two years. This is a facet of the season that was in danger of being ignored to the detriment of the series, as Season 3 has worked so hard in the last few episodes to return the series to the central Syd/Vaughn romantic entanglement. In doing so, the show has paid mere lip service to the emotional consequences of Full Disclosure and the revelations within.

Alias never really sees Syd grapple with the Rambaldi horrors in that episode but here, at least, through Ryan we get a manifestation of Julia’s legacy. There is no ambiguity after all – she murdered Christopher Ryan, and she did it as Sydney Bristow, consciously, in order to survive. “My brother was innocent” Ryan claims, and the probability is Christopher had killed his fair share of innocent people himself as an IRA member, but we don’t know. We only have Ryan’s bias to go on but it’s enough to inform the important emotional reverberation to the episode – how this affects Syd.

“They did things to me, the Covenant… that I will never get over…” Syd tells Ryan, and it’s an important admission, because to the series’ credit Syd isn’t quite the same character after the Julia Thorne arc. Weighed down by all the loss and death she’s experienced, she presents with a deeper sense of melancholy and mournful bearing at points in later seasons than she did at the beginning. Syd admitting that she feels as much of a victim in some ways as Ryan and his brother is an important admission, for Syd and the show, given how much moral fortitude she has always carried (unless she decides the rules need bending).

Look at how she was prepared to never forgive Jack for how he tried to frame Irina in Dead Drop, or how horrified she is when Dixon unwittingly blows up the CIA agents in Doppleganger. Lives matter to Syd. Choices matter. And she chose to kill a man in cold blood while deep undercover. She can’t remove that stain. And Facade is an unexpected reminder of that crime, one she will only be punished for in her mind. Syd breaks down and cries at the end and it’s not just about Christopher Ryan but the whole experience. It’s cathartic in some ways. And it’s telling Jack, her true rock, is the one she goes to for solace.

Despite the sadness of Facade’s ending, it is nevertheless a hugely enjoyable, neatly plotted romp of an episode for the most part, which proves just how well Alias could have employed stand-alone storytelling if it had really tried more often. Season Four does so, of course, but many of those episodes lack the heft or even the tension in Facade as the characters have to try and second guess Daniel Ryan as they construct their web of lies. There are no sub plots. There are bare mentions of ongoing mythology & narrative (Sloane in bed with Barnett, the first reference to Lauren’s father being a Senator etc…). Everything remains focused and compressed into the central storyline and it’s a rare treat, building to a climax that is both intense and comedic in equal measure. Even Ricky Gervais’ game, but ultimately poorly acted turn in his role as Ryan, cannot scupper what stands as one of the strongest singular episodes of Alias’ third season, and the series in general.

We should enjoy it, because the mythology is about to ramp up once again as the season heads into a final third which, in broad strokes, represents Alias at perhaps its nadir…

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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