Alias, TV, Writing

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Taken’ (3×16)

If there is one character who has been left behind the most in the structural changes to Season Three of Alias, it is Marcus Dixon.

Alias has always struggled with how to integrate Dixon in many ways. He began as Sydney’s loyal partner in Season One, a good friend and older brother proxy who provided counsel and advice; a good man unaware of how he was being duped by SD-6. That season at least flirted with him exposing Syd’s secret that provided solid drama but then the first half of Season Two barely even utilises him. Phase One arguably contains the finest material Carl Lumbly—a great actor for someone so underused, as he recently proved on Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—to chew on, as Dixon’s world comes tumbling down. Season Two just then compounds the misery and trauma on Dixon to the point he almost breaks, and only just comes through the other side with his wife murdered and him on the verge of suicide.

Season Three has so much else going on, from a character and narrative perspective, that it again struggles to figure out how Dixon integrates into the post-Julia Thorne dynamic. Making him the new boss, the new Kendall/Jack replacement in the CIA Rotunda, in a sense works. It is logical from a development perspective – he has the experience. But it not only reduces Lumbly to largely an exposition role, delivering mission briefings, it also restrains him. Dixon feels, in the first half of Season Three, relatively inert. He is even essentially written out of the Prelude-arc, as Syd goes on the run, when logically he should have been there with Jack & Vaughn fighting to get Syd away from the NSC. Only in Full Disclosure does Dixon actively show a level of forward motion, of the kind of action-based autonomy we saw in the first two seasons, when he joins Syd to help destroy the Rambaldi baby making machine. “It’s personal for me too” he promises Syd, though it feels more like a reminder to the audience.

Taken is designed to rebalance the scales, to invest us once again in Dixon as a character and a father. The problem is that because he’s spent so long being inert, Taken’s attempt to tether him to the ongoing mythology comes off as frighteningly melodramatic.

In many ways, Taken is an example of Alias largely on auto-pilot, as it moves to reintegrate the mid-section of the season after Full Disclosure back into the nebulous web of the Rambaldi mythology.

Facade really did show quite what Alias was capable of when it engaged with smart plotting and threw away the majority of ongoing beats to the storytelling. This is not to say the series’ mythological underpinnings are a bad thing—some of the show’s finest hours concern Rambaldi—but there is little particularly exhilarating about Taken. It exists in no small part to establish characters and plotlines that will have greater impact later on – Sloane in prison, Senator Reed, the Rambaldi Cube etc… – and struggles to define itself even to the degree After Six or Blowback did, as much as they were fairly disposable and throwaway hours of Alias. You would be hard pressed to find one Alias fan who could point to Taken and find an example of a moment from the series that truly stands out.

Again, Carl Lumbly suffers, because while this is ostensibly a Dixon-centric episode, the opposite is actually true.

J. R. Orci’s script is more interested in everything around Dixon. The abduction of his children Steven & Robin is just the catalyst to allow the Covenant to get their hands on Rambaldi arcanum rather than serving as the emotional core of the episode itself. Taken believes that lots of scenes of Dixon screaming in terror down corridors calling his children’s name is enough to tether audiences to his panic, but it’s not, largely because almost nothing has been developed previously with Dixon’s family since the death of his wife to make us care. We should be horrified that Steven & Robin have been kidnapped, in the way we actually were horrified when Diane was blown up in Endgame, but there is no connection. We appreciate Sark and the Covenant are horrible people for abducting children, and through lines Dixon says such as “they wanted me to watch my children die”, but they’re just words. We don’t see it. We don’t feel it.

This connects to the broader continuing problem about the Covenant – they mean nothing. They are empty in a way Alias villains haven’t been in the past. We understood the urbane, sinister callousness of the Alliance on some level, even if their members are mysterious. We saw the Machiavellian strides of Irina and Sloane even if her methods remain enigmatic. But we still have no real idea who the Covenant are beyond being embodied by the swaggering Sark and sultry, slinky Lauren.

Here, they morph into a terror organisation once again, demanding the US government release ten Covenant operatives who are prisoners of various world governments, but they’re empty demands. Who are these people? Why do the Covenant want them released? Why even do they want the Rambaldi Cube? Sure, we know on some they are Rambaldi fanatics after Full Disclosure but nothing they do holds weight. Smoke and mirrors can be fine but the Covenant doesn’t even have a reflection at this point, still. For this to be the case three quarters of a season in is simply poor writing.

Taken shows how Orci and the other writers of Alias are more concerned with the internal CIA workings, and the ongoing romantic entanglements, than they are looking outward and trying to figure out who the Covenant are and what they really stand for.

Another familial element is introduced here in Senator Reed, Lauren’s elderly, obstructionist father (played by the ever slick Raymond J. Barry, in a role that recalls his previous turn as a Senator on Alias’ chief inspiration The X-Files), who provides the kind of internal government antagonism we have seen previously in characters such as Deputy Director Brandon from Countdown or even Assistant Director Kendall. Alias enjoys this kind of figure – the outsourced governmental jobsworth who just gets in the way of Syd, Jack and here Dixon doing what they do best: ignoring the rules and doing things their own way. The fact characters like Reed tend to be brittle and rather dismissive of the interrelationships and character we know and love only helps matters. We’re not supposed to agree with these characters. We’re supposed to find them a pesky annoyance.

Reed actually brings a little of the geopolitical realities of government into Alias as he describes appeasing Washington over Sark’s extradition as a factor in the Rotunda’s continued survival. “They’re expecting results, and delivering them will strengthen my case when the appropriations bill for your task force comes before my committee next month.” This never really goes anywhere as a veiled threat, and Alias would never let technicalities of law and government get in the way of a good story, but it’s intriguing to even have this discussed on the show. It is perhaps a nod toward Alias’ exploration of deep government in American politics toward the end of Season Three with the Trust, especially as Reed sees little compunction in employing the ‘Inferno protocol’, a known torture technique, on the captured Sark. “Mr. Sark is not being classified as a prisoner of war. He has no protections under the Geneva Convention.” is Reed’s justification, one Jack seems okay with, although Syd with her moral fortitude is not.

Again, this positions Alias in the post-9/11 space of rendition, extradition and torture, which we saw clearly in Breaking Point and is becoming part of the series’ deeper identity. A running theme across the third season is an American government beneath the CIA almost; covert black ops organisations, off the grid, with powerful resources, bending laws and constitutions for their own ends. Had the series had the strength of its convictions to follow through on the season’s cliffhanger, too, this would all have been even more powerful, but… that’s a story for later.

Right now, Taken positions the Covenant as terrorists extremists happy to kidnap innocent children as bargaining chips, even threatening to kill them, while we are supposed to both find Reed’s notions unpalatable—especially when he seems quite prepared to let Dixon’s kids be casualties of a bigger conflict—while also accepting the rather simplistic idea of the Covenant being solely ‘evil’. Even if Alias isn’t a series with a great deal of nuance, it has dealt with this ideas with greater skill and subtlety in the past.

We are perhaps supposed to believe Lauren, as the female side of Sark’s cheesy villainy, could be a redeeming factor for the Covenant’s awfulness, but moments such as where she chastises Sark for his callousness over Dixon’s panic are just so out of left field. “That man is living through his worst nightmare. You might consider losing the sarcasm.” This is a woman who we have seen kill in cold blood, cheat on her husband, lie and corrupt her colleagues (here she somehow manages to help Sark escape by hacking Judy Barnett’s CIA account, which is a rabbit hole it makes no sense to go down…). For her to suddenly show a flicker of humanity for Dixon’s kidnapped children just seems weirdly out of character, given how vampish Lauren increasingly becomes. Here she largely nonetheless remains a background menace, plotting and scheming in the shadows, as the other narratives swirl and circle around her.

As previously stated, the Rambaldi mythology makes a proper reintroduction here and already it appears to be morphing into a new phase after Full Disclosure, and tethering back to the continued elephant in Alias’ writing room: the absent Irina Derevko. The arcane Cube with Irina’s name etched on it further suggests the kind of direct connective between Syd’s family and Rambaldi that will become increasingly apparent as the season wears on, and it’s a very nicely constructed artifact in production terms, but here it remains little more than a MacGuffin in which to centralise what the Covenant are seeking.

It is disappointing that the series throws away the gold mine possibilities of Project Black Hole, the DSR base in the Nevada Desert that Kendall mentioned in Full Disclosure as containing “every artefact collected on or about Milo Rambaldi since the 1940s”. The intention was for us to see the base in Full Disclosure, and Kendall bring Syd to this collection of artefacts, but for time and financial reasons the scenes had to be removed. We get a snapshot of what that would have looked like here as Syd & Dixon infiltrate the base – call backs to The Prophecy and the original manuscript; the ampule from The Box, or the weapon of mass combustion, as it were, that we saw in Firebomb. Yet it lacks the sense of potentially Spielbergian wonder or scale Alias could have imbued with such a trove, even on a meagre TV budget.

A sidebar, but I ended up doing much more with this concept in my scripted spin-off fan fiction series, The DSR, which utilised Project Black Hole as the base of operations for Kendall’s organisation. Strangely, he seems to have been replaced here by a rather anodyne employee called Erin – perhaps Terry O’Quinn was unavailable or it was such a small part they didn’t see the point in asking him in to do it. Either way, the DSR’s very clear links to the Area 51 UFO mythology—a secret American government base covertly operating in the Nevada desert, with a mass of conspiratorial arcanum going back to the 1940s—deserved a great deal more coverage in the lore of Alias, and it gets it in my spin-off. Which you can read if you follow this handy link

Ultimately, the DSR—who we never really see again in Alias bizarrely—are an example of how the series sometimes wastes opportunities that could have expanded the series’ mythos. Given Reed’s presence and the continued ideas of powerful American government entities operating covertly, the DSR could have become a broader part of Alias’ exploration of these areas. In the end, it would rather spend more time on the already fairly dull Sark & Lauren dynamic, or even the fairly pointless Sloane & Barnett romance, which dies a necessary death here after Alias finds a pretty flimsy and quick way—given everything else that has happened—to get Sloane locked up and in prison for the first time.

Even that is quite lacklustre, especially as Taken chooses to rehash the moment Dixon almost vengefully murdered an imprisoned Will in Second Double, only for Syd to talk him out of it, with Sloane here. In some ways it’s a scene a long time coming but you really felt Dixon’s raw fury in Second Double. Here, it’s just histrionic. “The mistake I made was not putting a bullet in your head three years ago when I had the chance.” It feels like a scene that should have happened a season ago.

Indeed, you could argue that Taken is just a watered down remake, in some ways, of Season Two’s much more effective Countdown. Dixon there is filled with rage and uncontrolled anger that Syd has to try and talk him down from, coupled with self-medication, but it connects given how much he has been through. Taken tries to capture that same innate panic whenever something happens to his family that turns him from strong, taciturn support into a raging mess lacking objectivity, but it just doesn’t hold up.

You know Dixon’s teenage children aren’t going to be murdered on a show like Alias. Whereas Diane’s death was a bold and horrible move which resonated. Season Three is just constantly looking to the past to try and give Dixon narrative worth that means anything; look at the awful retcon in Full Disclosure that he knew all about Syd’s missing time but was ordered to keep quiet. That was purely to find a tether to SD-6, give him a reason to empathise with Syd’s plight in a way he couldn’t do previously. That, too, never rang true.

In the end, Taken never truly adds up to a great deal of substance. It is a functional episode designed to move the chess pieces of the broader narrative into positions that are necessary – Sloane locked up, Rambaldi back in play, Jack now suspicious of Lauren given he overhears her say a line to Vaughn that he previously heard Sark say to whoever his CIA contact is. Yet on its own terms, Taken fails to stand out. It pretends to service Dixon as a character but, in truth, merely uses Dixon’s familial plight as a mechanism to move those chess pieces. It is not satisfying character development. It says nothing particularly about Dixon except he cares about his children and would break the law to protect them, which happens all of the time in Alias. It wastes Carl Lumbly when, as an actor, he could do so much more.

Honestly, you’d be better served watching Liam Neeson in Taken or the Steven Spielberg alien drama of the same name. Trust me, you’ll have a better time with both.

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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