Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×20: ‘Blood Ties’ (TV Review)

There is a darkness that pervades Blood Ties that feels quite rare for Alias.

At this stage, the season is at the height of complication turning into resolution. A cavalcade of revelations regarding the Rambaldi mythology have been unfurled over the last few episodes, a barrage of detail that the first two seasons didn’t come close to unloading. Blood Ties adds even more layers, revealing quite who the Passenger is in terms of Rambaldi’s mythological context.

We know Sydney has a sister and here we meet her and get a name – Nadia, played by Mia Maestro for the rest of the season, the entirety of the fourth and once or twice in the fifth. Lauren is fully exposed here and stops pretending she’s not a pantomime villainess, breaking away from the CIA fully to become what she tried to hide earlier in the season – Sark’s partner in crime. Almost everything is now out in the open and the dominoes are starting to fall.

There is, within this, a real nastiness buried inside Blood Ties which reflects the road Alias has travelled from the rather pulpy, bright and colourful series we saw particularly at the beginning to a show buried under a huge amount of revelation and laboured with a great deal of bruised and battered characters. Chiefly, this is realised in how Vaughn, already having to try and hide how angry and emotionally wounded he is by Lauren’s betrayal, being physically tortured by in part the woman he used to love.

We also see how Syd is cautious at the prospect of meeting Nadia, lacking the optimism and hope she felt when getting to know Irina, expecting betrayal. Even Sloane goes into the dark heart of the US government, exposing a cabal who he blackmails through a threat of revealing their dark deeds and the “unseemly predilections” of their children. We are a world away from the Alias of Syd running around in three inch heels while napalm explodes around her.

Though Blood Ties manages to be quite effective in places, stating true to its brooding nature and offering several momentous scenes, it nonetheless feels like a show Alias, on some level, never wanted to become.

As much as the latter half of Season Three is one of the worst stretches of Alias, it does at least very specifically dial into the core familial dynamic of the series – fathers and daughters.

We discussed in Hourglass how logical a development it was for Sydney to be gifted a sister and Blood Ties builds the anticipation for Syd and indeed we as an audience to finally meet her, meet the Passenger she is known as, in a way we haven’t seen previously with any other character. The moment where Syd finds her in Chechnya (in a facility that had strong echoes of where Syd herself infiltrated and was imprisoned in Reckoning & Color Blind) is slow and deliberate, carefully pushing the camera around a curtain—in line with Syd—so we meet Nadia at the exact same moment as our main character.

Irina, after all, remained a surprise, even though Q&A established the probability she was alive; nobody quite expected her to be revealed as ‘The Man’. Nadia, in contrast, is the MacGuffin of the third season in the manner previous years have employed an artefact – the Red Ball, Il Dire etc… Season Three personalised Rambaldi to a degree never before seen in the series by tying Syd’s journey, on a biological and bloodline level, directly to his mythological mystery. We therefore are engineered to anticipate her both as a character and as a source of revelation.

Blood Ties certainly promotes the latter as opposed to the former in this case. Sloane adds to the Rambaldi mythos by suggesting the Passenger, when injected with a special elixir (one we saw him testing on himself in After Six), can channel a message directly from Rambaldi himself that is “the key to Rambaldi’s endgame”. Alias here shows up the functional flaw in this type of plotting by having every answer lead to another question, a structure Lost would adopt and then later meta-textually interrogate in a way Alias is unable to do.

Here, writer J. R. Orci is locked into the relentless forward plotting of the Rambaldi mystery that hasn’t been fully worked out and is now scrambling to make each step lead to another step and eventually, by Resurrection, that house of cards completely collapses in on itself. It maintains its form in Blood Ties because the episode manages to keep the narrative moving forward as the search for Nadia, again through arcane means such as satellites reading brainwaves that feels completely unnecessary, drives the actions of Jack, Syd and Sloane.

Speaking of the latter, there was, of course, a beautiful irony in how Jack resurrected Sloane in Blood Ties, lacing a glass of wine with tetrodotoxin that was designed to counteract the lethal injection. Sloane faked his wife Emily’s death in precisely the same way in Almost Thirty Years, over an urbane dinner with wine, and like Jack didn’t bring the audience in on the dupe until later. Jack tells Sloane it was a call back to a moment when they served in Vietnam, toasting Syd’s birth, but on a broader level Alias is playing with these kind of reverberations into the series’ past.

Moreover, the term ‘resurrection’ for Sloane is key, and perhaps something we will explore further in discussing the series finale, but Alias very much wants to draw a Christ parallel (or perhaps a Rambaldi parallel) with Sloane dying, strapped onto a Cross-shaped chair, and later being brought back from death by a ‘disciple’ to continue his work. Or perhaps the more appropriate description here would be an Anti-Christ parallel. This will layer into the conclusive aspects of the Rambaldi mythology not just at the end of the season but over the entire shape of it.

Though the Rambaldi revelations are arguably overloaded, Sloane’s key involvement in these final episodes of the season continues to be among his more enjoyable of certainly this season. Alias has struggled at points this season to logically integrate Sloane into the action but him confronting the Trust, getting to showboat and magnanimously waffle in his own way as part of a mission he’s running, is a joy, thanks to how much Ron Rifkin has fun chewing the scenery. “The cover story that you plan on releasing: Arvin Sloane killed in a boating accident off the coast of Saint-Lucien, tragic with a slight taint of overly extravagant lifestyle.”

This is great because it tracks with the public image Sloane has had to maintain as head of Omnifam this season, the ‘fallen Angel’, and as a cover story has a strong echo of how Robert Maxwell, the corrupt British media baron, met his death in 1991. This is pure coincidence but given his daughter is Ghislaine Maxwell, a woman embroiled in the horrendous Jeffrey Epstein scandal over the last couple of years, it suggests Sloane is confronting a world in the Trust of powerful, shadowy figures who live alongside American virtue on one hand and the darkest of underworlds on the other.

Alias makes this literal. The Trust are, it is fair to comment, modelled in no small degree after the Syndicate, the cabal of conspiratorial old men in The X-Files who were plotting with extra-terrestrial invaders to help them colonise and enslave the Earth. They were presented in that show’s third season as a group inside plush offices in New York City, dressed in fine suits, hiding in plain sight. If the Alliance had the dressed up urbanity of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from the James Bond series, the Trust have the sinister, underground American anonymity of the Syndicate – indeed Sloane’s entire mission is to retina scan and identify them.

You can certainly imagine Senator Reed having fitted this collection like a glove. The Trust aren’t in league with aliens but they do have a resting interest in Rambaldi (for purposes unknown) and were willing to use and then kill Sloane to achieve it. “I will not be blackmailed by a petty criminal” Trust member Marlon Bell declares as Sloane threatens to expose them all, having risen from the dead – Bell even sees him like a spectre of his own, a ghost haunting the Capitol steps in Washington D.C.

Sloane has always been resolutely apolitical as a character. We have discussed this before, way back in Spirit, where Sloane mentioned the point he stood by the Lincoln Memorial and “could feel a darkness coming”. He soon after betrayed the CIA, and his country, by working for the Alliance, and despite having a grounding in American spy craft, and making a deal with an American Syndicate of power brokers within the government system, Sloane nonetheless still remains decidedly non-American and non-partisan. He really is an outsider, and not just because he is technically a reformed terrorist.

The Trust represent the pure inside of American corruption and power; they live, heck, underneath the Smithsonian, one of the key symbols of American knowledge and prosperity. They are the dark heart of American power in the sense they wish to ‘know’ Rambaldi, and control that knowledge for their own purposes, and much like the Syndicate they too do this in plain sight while remaining far more anonymous than Sloane—as a global supervillain with a public profile, a Lex Luthor—will ever have. We will return to this later but this is another reason why Jack would have made far more sense as a member of the Trust or a secret organisation like it than Sloane, because he really does represent that anonymity. Sloane is too grandstanding, which he displays when he confronts the Trust. He takes a delight in working to bring them down.

The sadness is that we never really get to see the Trust again.

Alias reconstructs them in a sense with the Prophet Five organisation in Season Five, but there is a purity about the concept of the Trust that deserved far deeper exploration, especially given how Alias exists in that post-1990s space of conspiracy theory and latent 1970s paranoia. That has served as a core factor in the DNA of a series all about secrets, doubles, betrayals and indeed the corruption of American virtue by the Other. We saw it with SD-6. We saw it through what happens to Syd as Julia Thorne. And the Trust could have shown the corrupted flip side of the American institutions, especially after 9/11, that Alias has tried to protect as inviolate. Instead, it throws the Trust away quite abruptly.

It is not just Sloane and the Trust who provide an extra layer of Rambaldi revelation in Blood Ties, as Alias finally pulls the trigger on an element of backstory it has clearly been dying to explore since the very beginning: the mysterious fate of Bill Vaughn. Drafting back in Richard Roundtree as Thomas Brill from Breaking Point, Vaughn learns—out of nowhere—that the story he, and we, always believed true about Bill’s death is false. He didn’t die chasing down Irina. He died protecting baby Nadia, the Passenger. He was a Follower of Rambaldi. “He broke her out of KGB custody, but he didn’t trust the CIA either, so he took her somewhere where she would be safe, with other Followers.”

Even if you take into account the sizeable Vaughn retcon at the end of Season Four, this is a whopper of a personal character revelation, and it smacks of another twist in terms of the series’ underlying mythology that was not remotely thought out in Season One as Bill Vaughn was positioned as being the murdered victim of Irina, chasing her after she was exposed. This explanation fits the Season Three narrative but doesn’t align at all with what we previously knew, and is in many ways a retcon itself. It adds mystery but the jury is surely out on whether this complication was necessary at all.

Was this designed purely to serve as the catalyst for Vaughn to be tortured? It’s hard to imagine there would have been a rational excuse for Sark to capture and torture him without him wanting to know the location of the Passenger. Side note, but if the Followers always knew where the Passenger was, why did anyone—including Sloane—need to use Il Dire to get the DNA and get the Restoration to get the Hourglass and on and on and on? Why not just get one of the Followers to tell them? That’s surely a short cut that would have much easier to figure out.

Again, Alias invites us not to look too deep at this stage and engage in surface impressions. The show needs Vaughn to have information, or appear to, so he can be tortured and we can continue his voyage into a darkness of his own, as he finally comes to face to face with the twisted visage of Covenant-assassin Lauren, and she attempts to convince him she still cares. “For me our marriage was real, the only real thing in my life”. She claims, but are we really supposed to believe that, or believe she’s lying as usual?

It’s hard to know if even Alias really knows the answer to this question either, given how wildly inconsistently written Sark & Lauren have been in particularly the second half of this year. Orci is next in a line of scribes who appear to want us to question if Lauren is truly evil or has a redemptive quality but she bounces around at the mercy of the plot, and the show has so much going on it barely has time to flesh her out, that it’s impossible to get a beat on her. Just because she bickers with Sark about giving Vaughn the dreaded “Inferno protocol” doesn’t mean she is suddenly secretly on the side of angels.

As for Sark, well… how far we have come. What happened to the cheeky dapper chappie from earlier seasons? In Blood Ties he’s just a rather sadistic torturer enjoying the long personal animus, indeed jealousy, he has had against Vaughn while in a position of power. “I’m going to enjoy this far more than I should” he admits early on. A shame the same can’t be said for the audience with these scenes!

Blood Ties does provide Syd with a greater stake in the story as a character than we’ve seen in recent episodes, where she has fairly passively been caught up in events that would have happened whether she was involved or not—often, but not always, the death knell for a story (see Raiders of the Lost Ark for an interesting debate on this). This episode provides her with impetus in finding a sister she is both cautious about, given her genesis, and excited to know. “When Will used to talk about his sister Amy, he was always so exasperated. He said she was a flake. He told me I was lucky to be an only child, but I knew he was lying. He loved her. I always wondered what they had.”

There has always been a certain loneliness about Syd, part of that yearning for a more traditional family life, and having a sister is part of that reconstruction she is working across the series to create – fostering a potential husband, repairing the relationship with her father, attempting to know the mother who was essentially taken from her. It’s why her eggs being stolen by the Covenant is an even greater existential threat than it already would be – it’s a deliberate sabotage of her natural role as a mother, that she eventually cultivates as Alias’ broader remit to repair the nuclear family in the post-Cold War age.

There is a touching moment too in how Jack quietly clarifies, to Syd and the audience, that Sloane is not her father. It would have been the bitterest pill for the audience to swallow, much darker than the revelation in The X-Files that Fox Mulder was the Cigarette-Smoking Man’s biological son (and even that is semi-apocryphal), and it was the right choice not to rob Jack of his patrilineal connection to Syd. It would have weakened the core emotional dynamic the series rests on between them, even though Jack reaffirms his bond either way.

“I had our medical files examined. Our relationship is clear. But I wanted you to know, during that brief time before I was reassured my feelings for you never changed.” It’s a sweet example of how Jack, in his own closed off manner, loves Syd more than anything and it serves as a spark of brightness in an often relentlessly gloomy episode, especially as Syd’s own excitement at her new sibling is tempered by Vaughn’s revelation that he picked up from Brill, via his long dead father: “I met someone who told me the prophecy. The Passenger and the Chosen One shall battle; neither will survive.”

Even as Nadia becomes a main character in Season Four, and is humanised to a significant extent from the half-drugged Argentine intelligent agent she is here, that sense of foreboding rooted in Blood Ties carries across the entirety of the next season as Syd is determined to ignore Rambaldi’s work and prophecy. We will discuss at a later date just how the Chosen One & the Passenger represents a renewed clash between symbols of East & West, the latent geopolitical spectre of the US & Russia fighting over the fate of the world, but right now Blood Ties is all about establishing the key, personalised aspects to the Rambaldi mythology that will drive the final two episodes of the season, and the ultimately quite aimless and nebulous conclusion to a season that needed a greater hand on the narrative tiller.

It rarely gets as dark as Blood Ties though. And for Alias, that is not necessarily to the show’s benefit.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

DIRECTOR: Jack Bender

WRITER: J. R. Orci

CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, David Anders, Melissa George, Greg Grunberg, Justin Theroux, Djimon Hounsou


Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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