Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×21: ‘Legacy’ (TV Review)

For all of the jigsaw pieces that make up the Rambaldi puzzle, Legacy works to boil the mythology down into a simplistic revelation.

Once again, Rambaldi’s endgame is about a message rather than a physical gain. Il Dire at the end of Season Two, though we didn’t know it at the time, was designed to reveal a simple truth to Sloane, and all we had in The Telling was Irina’s assertion that he believed he was supposed to realise the ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Words. Knowledge. Sacred information.

Legacy repeats this but rather than Sloane assembling a machine, his conduit is now a person in his daughter, Nadia, injected here with a magical elixir designed to ‘remotely’ channel that ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Again, the answer leads to another question, in the boon they later search for in Resurrection and later The Descent, but the legacy of Rambaldi appears to be coming, appropriately, full circle. Once the puzzle pieces are assembled, all roads seem to lead back to the prophet himself.

This is quite appropriate for Alias in how, from the very beginning of the Rambaldi mythology in Parity, he has been positioned as the series’ God-figure; an unknowable creation, off stage, influencing everything the main characters do. Sloane’s faith, Irina’s past, Sark’s extremism, and on and on – everything traces back to the ‘search’ for Rambaldi, the search for a secular God who holds information, knowledge and great power.

Legacy, however, suggests said power does not just come from within, but from the very bloodline associated with Sydney herself. Season Three concludes the transmogrification in this episode of Alias’ mythology from an outward quest for truth into an internal search for knowledge, as Nadia’s channeling and the continued revelations about Irina’s history regarding her birth unfurl to connect the extended family at the heart of the drama to these mythological stakes.

Legacy, like many of these late Season Three episodes, still has way too much happening for its own good as a compelling piece of drama, but it does contextualise the snowballing effect of the Rambaldi quest.

The inward search for Rambaldi concerns one of Alias’ more fascinating, and probably more outlandish and quasi-supernatural, ideas: genetic memory.

Marshall describes what Sloane is doing to Nadia with the elixir as such: “I believe the fluid contains a stored memory, a muscle memory. Now, this fluid that you brought back contains protein strains, and when injected the protein moves into the cerebral cortex. Theoretically it could trigger an individual to execute a prerecorded series of non-cognitive actions… touch-typing or playing a musical instrument, or…” “Drawing” is how Syd finishes the thought, referring to what we see is an equation Nadia is sketching while under the influence of the elixir. What we are seeing here is more than the Jungian ‘collective unconscious’, the inherited intuitions and wisdom of the past through memory, but rather a direct historical connective embedded through a specific, even in some ways holy and sacred, genetic code. It is purposeful and targeted.

Genetic memory is not a concept solely defined by Alias, and has been discussed and theorised about by numerous scientists across the decades. As far back as 1940, a Dr. William Carpenter, comparing mathematician Zerah Colburn’s ability to process numbers to Mozart’s musical compositional genius, discussed the theory:

In each of the foregoing cases, then, we have a peculiar example of the possession of an extraordinary congenital aptitude for certain mental activity, which showed itself at so early a period as to exclude the notion that it could have been acquired by the experience of the individual. To such congenital gifts we give the name of intuitions: it can scarcely be questioned that like the instincts of the lower animals, they are the expressions of constitutional tendencies embodied in the organism of the individuals who manifest them.

Perhaps the most high profile example of genetic memory presented in recent fiction, and set after Alias’ own lifespan, is the video game series Assassin’s Creed, developed by Ubisoft from 2008 onwards.

Conceptually, the series is rooted in the idea of ancestral memory being exploited by and carried through into the present. Using technology called the Animus, which plugs a person into their own latent recorded ancestral memory within their DNA strand, Assassin’s Creed tells a long-form story spanning the whole of human history – from Ancient Greece through to Victorian England – depicting a battle between Templars (or earlier Ancients) and the Assassins, a cadre trained to root out and destroy oppressive organisations looking to exploit the secrets and mysteries of an ancient civilisation before recorded history—known alternately as the Precursors or Isu—in order to control the world. The premise sees modern day avatars explore the genetic memories of their ancestor Assassins in order to help find ancient relics or uncover secrets that aid their mission to stop a devious, oppressive corporation in the modern day.

On some level, there are similarities here. The Covenant, for all they even exist come Legacy on a structural level (given they seem entirely represented at this point by Sark & Lauren), are the sinister organisation looking to exploit if not ancient then certainly arcane, unknown technology as part of a broader remit to, presumably, control the world (this is never explicit but surely that’s the goal of any evil villainous group such as this?). The Assassins, in theory, are Syd and or Nadia, tethered to bloodlines that hold memory and power.

The difference is that the elixir does not unlock Rambaldi’s memories as opposed to the kind of latent abilities Carpenter discussed, which then leads to knowledge through Nadia. She becomes a conduit for a higher power, in many respects. She is simply a vessel for Rambaldi’s word as opposed to a window to the past, which remember Sloane told Jack in The Telling he originally thought Il Dire was. “It is so much more than that” he added. Now we know what he meant. Il Dire didn’t provide a window, it provided in Nadia a doorway.

Let’s unpack this. If Marshall is correct, then Rambaldi found a way not only to muscle memory draw the equation—coordinates that Syd later learns will lead directly to Rambaldi himself, in some form—and encode it into his DNA, passing down the centuries a genetic remnant through multiple generations until it could be activated. This confirms an aspect of the mythology that has previously only been suggested – that Syd, Nadia and by extension the Derevko side of the family, are direct descendant of Rambaldi himself.

The entire mythology, in which case, has to be framed in completely different terms and, perhaps, more logical terms if we look at Alias’ DNA more broadly – that of an extended family drama stretching across not just decades but centuries, in which Rambaldi created innovations and wrote prophecies that directly concerned his own descendants. We never quite understand the means in which Rambaldi was able to do this, whether he actually was able to “know God”, as Sloane puts in in Parity, but it does explain aspects that have been layered in since the beginning.

If Rambaldi saw the future, he appears to have experienced visions of Sydney and Nadia, and indeed Irina. He perhaps even knew their names, given Irina’s was inscribed on the Rambaldi box that led to Nadia’s unveiling, yet he also couches them in mythical nomenclature – the Chosen One, the Passenger etc – perhaps as a means of concealing them from those who were never meant to realise his word. Rambaldi reached out to Sloane in Countdown and gave him direct information that tethers him to the mythology, suggesting Rambaldi wanted him to find Nadia, and retrieve the message that leads to him.

So maybe Sloane really was ‘chosen’ by Rambaldi, as Irina suggested in The Telling. Perhaps Rambaldi wasn’t actually a good guy himself, which certainly brings this mythology in line, as we have seen previously, with The X-Files and how that series approached the central mytharc; and to some degree Babylon-5 which also set a key precedent in making the central mythological core of the series about, on a personal level, the main characters.

This was probably inevitable, for numerous reasons. How do you craft a compelling mythology that is not rooted in the personal journey of the main characters? Lost did this to some extent, given how external and uncanny some of its mythology was, but even that series ultimately tied a core part of the backstory into a temporal paradox directly concerning the primary characters. The X-Files moved from being a relatively stand-alone supernatural take on the procedural cop show into a vast, Campbellian family saga in which the fate of the world was connected to the long held familial secrets of the Mulder family.

Alias was always heading in the direction of Rambaldi growing less and less external the more we uncovered aspects of it. Legacy nonetheless suggests Rambaldi’s own legacy, tied to Irina’s & Sloane’s, might be less than altruistic and encourages us to question what was probably in plain sight given episodes such as Fire Bomb – that Rambaldi wasn’t channeling God but rather his opposite. Why else would Alias’ already sanctified Luciferian figure, Sloane, be the one seemingly destined to deliver his message?

Sloane justifies his actions here, his exploitation of Nadia moments after having met her, by quoting scripture and referencing the ‘Binding of Isaac’ from Genesis. “When Abraham was asked to take his only child, Isaac, and offer him up to God, he didn’t hesitate. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. And it was only then that the angel came. But Abraham had to be willing to make this unbearable choice.” Ultimately, Abraham saw a messenger who interrupted his attempted sacrifice, a messenger from God, and he sacrificed a ram instead of his son.

Nadia interprets the messenger as Sloane’s angel and once again, in their exchanges, we see just how fallen Sloane is in this regard. Sloane considers his daughter a necessary sacrifice and we are reminded of how ultimately committed he is to his faith in Rambaldi, of the word he has followed for decades, a word we won’t truly understand his need for until the tragic In Dreams. Alexander attempts to paint Sloane as perhaps lacking the iron will to truly sacrifice Nadia to ‘find’ Rambaldi, with the cruel and empty zealotry of Sark & Lauren filling his place, but the intent is there. Legacy fully recommits Sloane to his search for Rambaldi now he has found Nadia.

One aspect of Nadia being revealed that intrigues, and again is an area you almost wish Alias had the time to further explore, is the Novgorod facility in Russia, where we learn that the Soviet Union ran secret Rambaldi research and conducted tests on the Passenger when she was a child. This tracks with Kishell’s claim in The Frame that Stalin was interested in Rambaldi, and the old footage videos of a child Nadia being experimented upon are a great piece of mythological arcanum. Given the Soviets did actually conduct tests on remote viewing and other psychological studies that skirted the fringes of the paranormal, as Alias has always done with Rambaldi, it makes sense that the Russians would have tried to discover Rambaldi’s secret truth themselves.

The return of Katya Derevko, last seen in Crossings, certainly adds another layer of complication to the mythology surrounding the consistently absent Irina, while also posing more tricky questions. Katya provides details we never previously knew: “When your mother returned to Russia, she was immediately apprehended. Her loyalties were questionable. After a few months in jail, he gave birth to a little girl. That girl was one day old when she was taken away from your mother. The only reason I joined the Russian Secret Service was to help Irina find her younger daughter.”

One question that comes out of this, and where the mythology struggles to connect up, is why Irina would have needed to assemble Il Dire if she already knew Nadia was the Passenger. Was she working with Sloane in order to assemble and then destroy it before he could learn about his daughter? Given Nadia hadn’t been imagined when The Telling or any of Season Two was written, this is pure retroactive speculation, but Alias often struggles to make logical character motivations fit when you look deeper at the plotting of the Rambaldi narrative.

Katya’s presence is fun, given how Isabella Rossellini eats up the screen with a playful, overt sexuality that differs from Lena Olin’s cooler enigma, but everything about her appearance once again screams an unspoken truth: this should have been Irina in this part, if slightly re-written perhaps. Imagine the power of the moment Katya strides into Novgorod, in slow motion, in full SVR dress uniform, if it had been Lena Olin as Irina? It would have blown our socks off. Katya is a second prize character, purely designed to try and explain the motivations of the character who should really be there, and thanks to behind the scenes reasons isn’t. There are far more egregious reasons for Irina’s absence to come but Legacy feels pointedly the kind of episode where Irina’s non-appearance makes little sense, even if Search and Rescue tries later to frame a logical explanation for it.

While the main narrative of Legacy concerns sacrifice in the name of faith, the secondary plot focuses on Vaughn’s psychology in the emotional aftermath of Lauren’s betrayal and being stabbed, almost to death, by Sark in Blood Ties. Fuelled with rage, he loses anything in the way of perspective about the bigger picture – at one point angry when Weiss claims DOD satellites “were tied up over a nuclear test site in the Baltics” rather than tasked to look for Lauren.

This further displays Alias’ transition from geopolitical narratives to personalised action dramatics – that Vaughn has no interest in global security in the post-Cold War sphere, and even less interest in Rambaldi it seems, than getting his own personal revenge. It’s an extension of what we saw in Countdown last season with Dixon after the death of Diane; how he treats a returning Suit & Glasses (aka Dr. Jiang Lee) is comparable to Dixon’s beat down of Vargas in that episode, only fuelled with a deeper nihilistic viciousness as Vaughn gets happy with acid.

On a side note, how disappointing is it that Suit & Glasses is brought back in this manner?

Firstly, he gets the aforementioned name. As discussed previously in A Higher Echelon, his nameless moniker added a level of enigma to the character equivalent to The X-Files’ Cigarette-Smoking Man, and while bringing him back in a different context as a victim to almost pay for the sins of his torture—“remember me? Taipei? Red hair? You liked my teeth” Syd reminds him—it serves to reduce the character to a mere footnote; a snivelling, terrified doctor doing weird fish experiments in Cuba rather than a chilling menace wheeled out by villains when they need a job done. It speaks to Season Three’s determination to call back to almost everything and throw old faces or guest stars into the pot when they really don’t need to be there – just look at Vivica A. Fox, making an utterly pointless return here as After Six’s oddball security system designer Toni Cummings. 

Returning to Vaughn, Legacy leaves no ambiguity in the character arc in play here, one that Season Three has layered in across the run of the twenty two episodes: Vaughn is becoming Jack, indeed with Jack’s goading. Or more appropriately, a Jack in the early 1980s immediately after Irina’s exposure and betrayal. “Your rage is seething under the surface. I know because I’ve been there. And I promise you… If you don’t resolve this as quickly and expediently as possible, it will spill over to every aspect of your life” Jack tells him, and the almost perverted aspect of this entire storyline is in Jack’s very visible revenge fantasy catharsis he is playing out through Vaughn, a man so blindsided by anger—and bruised ego, frankly—that he ultimately allows Jack to push him further into illegal action – the planned, calculated execution and disposal of Lauren. The problem Alias has, on a moral level, is Syd attempting to question these ethics when Lauren has not been presented with any significant shades of grey.

Syd, as always, exists as the moral line that numerous characters keep crossing. It is usually Jack in this situation, taking matters into his own hands for what he perceives to be the greater good, but as Vaughn displays similar behaviour, she is disturbed at the lengths he goes with Lee to get the information he needs. Yet we are still supposed to consider Lauren a threat, as she continues to exist in a pantomime evil space with Sark. The messaging is confused.

Are we supposed to root for Vaughn or feel he has gone too far? Syd’s reaction suggests the latter but if Lauren was a character with deeper nuance, it might be a stronger point to make. As it turns out, it is hard truly to deny that Lauren should live given how many people she has killed and the awful things she has been party to. The parallel is more keenly felt in Vaughn’s continued rejection of becoming Jack against his growing realisation that in order to get the closure he seeks, an absolute and total break from the past, he might have to commit murder.

The finale Resurrection goes even further with this, transforming Alias into a decidedly queasy revenge fantasy thriller in part, but Legacy sows the seeds for a storyline that feels so distant and far away from the series’ origins it could be a completely different show. We are bogged down in such and murk and mire at this point, the story thick with mythology while the characters are laboured with angry and personal quests for justice and vengeance, the series seems to have entirely lost any sense of its own ridiculousness. We see flashes of it – much as Cummings’ appearance could have been chopped, her strange flirtation/professional courting of Marshall is the kind of fairly natural comedy moment Season Three has sorely missed as we have gone down the Rambaldi & Lauren rabbit hole, and points toward the kind of show Alias really should reformat and head back towards, which to an extent it does in the subsequent season.

Ultimately, Legacy lays the foundations for a final episode which is less ramping up for a climactic finish and rather pummelling the audience into submission for a dour denouement, filled with reckonings and unfinished, dangling pieces. Legacy also doesn’t feel like the first part of a finale in the same way Rendezvous or Second Double did. It is quite contained and different to Resurrection in many respects and, in some ways, operates in a stronger fashion as a season finale, given it culminates the Rambaldi mythology of the season for the most part. It leaves the final episode to concentrate on what Alias still considers to be, after all of the enormous narrative and mythological twists and turns of the season, to be the main focus of Season Three: the Syd/Vaughn/Lauren triangle, now about to reach a bitter and rather vicious conclusion considering where the season started.

Brace yourselves, folks, as we’re about to suffer the worst season finale Alias will ever produce…

★ ★ ★

DIRECTOR: Lawrence Trilling

WRITER: Jesse Alexander

CAST: Jennifer Garner, Ron Rifkin, Victor Garber, Kevin Weisman, Carl Lumbly, Michael Vartan, David Anders, Melissa George, Greg Grunberg, Vivica A. Fox, Isabella Rossellini, Mia Maestro


Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

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