Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×22: ‘Resurrection’ (TV Review)

Resurrection is the strangest and least effective season finale Alias ever delivers, existing as a visible consequence of how the latter half of Season Three has been structured.

Ostensibly, it has all of the accoutrements you might expect from a finale of television for a cult, genre network show. In the opening five minutes, the CIA Rotunda—our base for the last two seasons—is attacked and partially destroyed, if not as comprehensively as their future operations centre APO in Reprisal. Our villains hit the nerve centre of our characters world, attacking the very institution they represent, and almost murdering Marshall, a character so beloved and sweet, any kind of violence towards him can only be described as pure evil. The episode then focuses on resolving the central emotional and physical conflict at the heart of the season – Lauren’s betrayal of Vaughn, and where Sydney sits as the woman in the very middle of it.

The reason Resurrection is vastly less successful than either Almost Thirty Years or The Telling is that it fails, unlike those episodes, to balance such personal drama with a broader escalation of the mythology, and simply descends into a rather aimless mire of grim violence and retribution than leans more toward a 1970s Michael Winner revenge fantasy picture than anything Alias would normally produce. Almost Thirty Years brought the burgeoning mythology full circle and provided Syd with the prospect of losing Vaughn. The Telling brought the Rambaldi hunt to a crescendo and then devoted a final act to a deeply satisfying, thrilling and cathartic battle between Syd and the woman who had killed and doubled her best friend. 

Resurrection sees the Rambaldi story peter out, parked for a future season, before the episode dives headfirst into a dark, bitter, aimless climax topped off with a twist that, even before what comes next, makes very little sense.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×10: ‘Remnants’ (TV Review)

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, as the saying goes, and Remnants is perhaps the chief example of that with Alias up to this point.

The return of Will Tippin, as played by Bradley Cooper, is an unexpected boon to an episode that arrives right in the middle of one of Alias’ most rollercoaster, knotty and complicated story arc resolutions, as Sydney’s lost time begins to unfurl itself as weaved closely into the advancing stages of the Rambaldi mythology. Will did not need to exist within the tapestry of Remnants; from a narrative point of view, another character could have logically filled the position Will does here, either another guest character or one of the main cast. Yet the manner in which writer Jeff Pinkner finds a way to reintroduce Will, provide details of how his life has changed in the ensuing two years, and tether him to the ongoing plot of Syd’s missing time, the ‘death’ of Andrian Lazarey, and ultimately the Rambaldi mythos, is surprisingly adept. It’s a reach but it’s not a crowbar.

The title itself doubles down on what Remnants essentially concerns: Alias coming to terms, finally, with the consequences and fallout from Season Two. The Nemesis sets the scene for this by reintroducing Allison Doren, and Remnants pays it all off by adding Will to the concoction. Will becomes not just the key to unlocking Syd’s lost two years, but the emotional mechanism for her to break down and come to terms with the trauma of being transformed into her dark reflection. In Conscious she kills that id, destroys the idea of Julia Thorne, the sinister double, in order to ultimately access and re-connect with Will, and he serves a function beyond exposition or narrative connectivity to what the Covenant are planning to provide both a balm, a hint of salvation, and indeed a moment of pause and reflection. Will allows her, for the first time in a long time, to briefly be just ‘Sydney’.

Remnants is all about Alias’ continuing mission, one it has been engaging with on some level since Phase One, to let go of both its own past and, more generally, the 1990s it was born from.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×03: ‘Reunion’ (TV Review)

Reunion is a classic example of Alias on auto-pilot, delivering the kind of throwaway hour of the series filled with scenes and moments most fans probably barely remember.

This makes a degree of sense given how The Two and Succession both had an enormous job to perform of establishing the new status quo of Season Three’s altered landscape, provide Sydney with a set of core new arcs for her character, and re-introduce both our long-term supporting players and crucial new additions, such as Vaughn’s wife, NSC agent Lauren Reed. Reunion is, therefore, the first conventional episode of Alias’ much truncated ‘stand-alone’ structure, although from the season premiere J. J. Abrams established that Alias, by its very nature, will never be entirely a contained episodic series of old. Jeff Pinkner’s first script of the season shows off that new structural format; a central ‘espionage of the week’ plotline flanked by a number of ongoing character and story arcs.

The worrying part of this is just how anodyne Reunion turns out to be as an episode. It reminded me of Season Two’s third episode, Cipher, which perhaps stands as the most disposable story in that otherwise propulsive season, and while Reunion is perhaps given a run for its money this season for that accolade by outings such as Crossings or Taken, and does at least contain the last vestiges of narrative establishment for this season with Syd and Lauren’s interaction, much like Cipher it contains several relatively unmemorable missions and Sark operating in a barely sketched, ‘rent a baddie’ role. Reunion simply feels like a collection of necessary character beats for the seasonal arc stitched together by a thin main story which, ultimately, means nothing to the show as a whole.

Reunion stands as probably the least thrilling or dynamic hour of the season’s first half, even if it at least has some element of necessary form and function.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×05: ‘The Indicator’ (TV Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×19: ‘Snowman’ (TV Review)

If Masquerade was a busy episode of Alias that needed to function as both ostensibly the beginning of a two-part episode, and deal with the reverberations from the mid-section of the run, then Snowman ranks as one of the most disposable outings in Alias’ debut season.

Snowman in any other series would have been a two-part episode expressly designed for our protagonist Sydney Bristow to enjoy a brief romantic attachment that would in no way impinge on the formula of the show. As discussed in Masquerade, this kind of plot device would often be deployed in TV shows across the 1990’s which balanced stand-alone storytelling with a level of narrative serialisation; any number of Star Trek characters across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager or Enterprise for example as one of the worst offenders for this trope. The problem with the character who serves this function in Alias, Noah Hicks, and the problem with Snowman in general, is that it has to function within a broader ongoing serialised narrative that is ramping up for the climactic beats of the season.

By this point in the twenty-two episode season, Sydney is simultaneously balancing her role as a double agent for the CIA inside the sinister SD-6, reeling from the revelations that her mother was secretly a KGB agent but is also in fact still alive, now aware she is central to an arcane, esoteric prophecy by a 15th century genius who predicted she could be some kind of human weapon of mass destruction and she is having to keep all of this secret from her two best friends, plus has steadily been developing an attachment to her CIA handler which goes beyond professional concern. Where exactly could any kind of meaningful love story fit amidst such a dense stack of open and ongoing plot lines? Especially when each episode has to service the majority of them at once.

Snowman ends up being an episode which focuses on the one story element that, in the long run, is never going to matter.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×09: ‘Mea Culpa’ (TV Review)

Mea Culpa is the first episode of Alias to begin the internal, psychological exploration of Arvin Sloane.

The episode also feels positioned at a crossroads point for the first season in terms of where the overarching narrative is going. Everything at this stage is waiting for the next big plot shoe to drop. The Rambaldi mythology, now established, is completely left behind after Time Will Tell brought into play what will become the key text of Alias’ mytharc going forward; the suspicions around Jack being a KGB mole remain hovering in the ether; Will’s investigation into Danny’s death is at the point Will is capable of contextualising everything across the last nine episodes to a tech support guy; and the SD-6 probe into a mole which has circled for the last three episodes remains ongoing.

Mea Culpa isn’t quite the episode to pull the trigger on the next stage for all of these plotlines, but it begins the first tentative steps in that direction.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×08: ‘Time Will Tell’ (TV Review)

Time Will Tell is another important episode of Alias when it comes to establishing and contextualising the mythology of the show and how it directly relates to, particularly, our protagonist Sydney Bristow. With a title both figurative and literal, this episode brings into focus Alias’ growing preoccupation with time, and just how directly the past influences the present.

Jeff Pinkner’s first script for the series, continuing the steady roll out of Bad Robot creatives who will all go onto major recognisable projects in the future, operates very much as a sequel to the third episode Parity, and the pre-credits sequence of A Broken Heart. Time Will Tell very much illuminates just how Alias, while a highly serialised show, remains indebted to its principal influence, The X-Files, in the structural manner it approaches the mythology at the show’s heart – the search for the work of 15th century ‘prophet’ Milo Rambaldi.

While the previous four episodes all continued the ongoing narrative sub-plots and storylines for the characters and the complicated double-agent situation Sydney finds herself in, only two of them concern Rambaldi, and in both cases he is very much background.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×06: ‘Reckoning’ (TV Review)

Alias is steadily building toward a larger point of revelation across its first season, as the title of Reckoning alludes to. Thematically, the journey of super-spy double agent Sydney Bristow continues to be about her own understanding of the bigger picture, and her place within it.

The complexities of the narrative inside J.J. Abrams show even facilitate, starting with Reckoning, a change to the recap preamble of the series’ concept. I’ve talked about how Alias doesn’t just employ a ‘previously’ recap akin to many other TV shows, but starts with a bigger explanation and contextualisation of the broader story the serialised narrative is telling. Here, Alias expands that recap by weaving the scene-setting around the four key characters at the outset of the series – Syd, her handler Michael Vaughn, her boss Arvin Sloane and her father Jack Bristow, the recap showing their faces and names just in case the people at the back AREN’T QUITE GETTING IT. I can’t recall another show which ever quite felt the need to prime the audience week by week with so much detail before even the previously recap.

Perhaps the choice was made because even just six episodes in, Alias is already starting to grow quite knotty and dense, and the show hasn’t even scratched the surface yet in many ways. Reckoning has a multitude of narratives bubbling away – Syd’s suspicion that Jack may have been working for the KGB, Vaughn and the CIA’s slow-burning backdoor hack into SD-6 established in the previous episode Doppleganger, Francie’s uncertainty about her boyfriend Charlie, Will’s investigation into the Kate Jones mystery. That’s just for starters, before any of the main episodic missions for Sydney are even covered, though really so far they have largely just been window-dressing around which the series can delve into these deeper storylines and building character arcs.

Reckoning, if anything, feels like the first example of what would have been a traditional two-part episode of a more conventional network TV show version of Alias.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×03: ‘Parity’ (TV Review)

If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss. 

The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season.

It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years.

Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.

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