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Worthwhile TV #1: Truth Be Told

In many regards the first episode of Alias was also the best, not because it was the most polished, the wittiest, or the most innovative. It is polished, it is witty, and if not innovative it is at least narratively interesting. Also: an apology to rodents.

I came to Alias in a round about way, not through the first few seasons, not through word of mouth, but by accident, through a failed attempt to watch Lost.

It was January of 2005, I was in Idaho, and I misread the 8m/9c—8p.m. Mountain, 9p.m. Central—designation. The result was that I missed the year's first episode of Lost, but instead of turning off the TV I sat down and watched episode 1 of season 4 of Alias, which introduced me to Sydney, Vaughn, and a bunch of other characters, as well as games of dress-up and role-playing.

I returned to Madison and made the decision to start from the beginning, so I recorded, so to speak, season 4 as it aired, and worked my way through the previous three seasons episode by episode. Much of season 2 I watched during marathon weekend or at least Tuesday and Thursday sittings. I was not teaching those days. At the same time I had decided to watch Stargates SG1 and Atlantis following the same methodology, and to that end I borrowed several seasons of DVDs from Di.

So it was that I came to and come to season 1 episode 1 again. This is one of the few Alias episodes not to start in the standard way, with some flashback/review, a this is Sydney and her fate setup, etc. Season 2 episode 13, which I should discuss in a separate entry, likewise has curious credits. Here it makes sense; there is no flashback to be had, and if one is viewing Alias naively, for the first time, either when it first aired or somehow later but without really knowing the setup, it is wise to jump into it without the background, the setup, much of which is explained in this about sixty-five minute premiere.

We begin with Sydney facing gentle torture; water dunking. Unidentified Asian guards throw her into a chair, slap her, and tie her hands behind her back. Something menacing lurks behind a closed door, and she trembles.


Act I. A different door opens and a white-haired, balding professor with bow-tie and sweater enters an academic hall, light pouring in through windows, books along walls, and notifies Sydney that time is up—she is writing an essay exam, and perhaps that torture scene was merely that which was running through her mind as she took the exam, a metaphor for testing, so to speak.

The gentle academic scenes continue, this time outside, as she complains about her performance on the exam. It is mentioned that she works at a bank. She walks with her boyfriend, who proposes on the quad by singing loudly and publicly to her—“Build me up, buttercup baby!”—and she says yes. From torture to a different sort of embarrassing torture, perhaps.

We shift then to Francie, we hear of Will, get a reference to her estranged father—with a great flashback to fiance Danny calling him—and her deceased mother, who would be so proud of her. Victor Garber's very dry delivery, cruelty, and wit is introduced.

Then Sydney goes to work at the bank, though we quickly learn that the bank is merely a front, and that she is a spy, an intelligence agent of sorts. Her partner, Dixon, is introduced, and then Sloan and Marshall during a briefing, along with the Rambaldi device that will feature so prominently not only in this episode, or even this season, but throughout the series. One of fiction's greatest MacGuffins. During the briefing we get examples of Marshall's geeky wit and his technological creations, a variation on a scene & theme that will accompany most episodes the first season and during many of the later episodes.

Off on the mission, but not before talking to Will, and his ambivalent feelings toward his friend are made evident. And not before Sydney returns home, studies, makes out with her fiance, and determines that if she is to be married to Danny, she can no longer lie to him about what she does, so, she makes sure they cannot be overheard with listening devices and tells him the truth in the shower.

He walks out; we shift scenes.

Our glasses-wearing Asian torturer walks in and administers truth serum. We'll see much more of him as the series progresses. Sydney is sweating; dripping with water, and in the scene before she was in the shower, likewise dripping.

Back to Danny, this time by way of exposition about how she became a spy, working for the CIA, and this is, of course, information that would interest her interrogator. She and Danny are standing near oil rigs overlooking L.A.; this location is used many more times whenever characters need to speak without fear of being overheard. Not only does she work for the CIA, she works for SD-6, a covert branch.

She and Dixon go on their mission, infiltrate a fancy party, undertake some subterfuge in a foreign language or two, and as Dixon creates a diversion she seeks out the target. Mr. Interrogator is seen in the frame.

Now we cut back and forth between the mission and Danny, drunk, on the phone, leaving her a message. Music pulses. The various aspects of Sydney's life, the professional and the domestic, come into contact and conflict for the first time.

She begins to run out of time, and on her way up she encounters the interrogator (Dr. Zhang Lee), and so fakes an accent and meek demeanor, getting away. It is now that we know that the previous scenes with Mr. Interrogator were not in any way previous; he does not recognize her, nor she him.

Sloan talks with Sydney's father; we discover that he does not, indeed, sell air plane parts, and instead works for SD-6. For the first time we also feel that SD-6 is not so innocent, sinister, even.

Mission accomplished she returns to L.A., goes to Danny's apartment, which has been ransacked, and she finds him dead, in the tub, bloody, and she screams silently before letting out a wounded wail.

We next see her, frantic, in her Toytota 4x4, and, bloody, she confronts Sloan, who, coldly, turns the table, and informs her that she, not he, killed Danny.

After a psych evaluation she goes outside, only to see her vehicle towed.

Act II. Back to Dr. Lee, and as she hits rock bottom she is, while be interrogated, under the influence of drugs, a certain numbness implied. When she refuses to help he pulls out tools to extract her teeth; we then shift to Danny's funeral, and a number of scenes showing her mourning process. She goes through the motions, she has her wine, but the pain is not dulled. We return to the professor, this time lecturing, beginning with the quote “She loved a man, and she lost him.” As has been the case throughout the episode, the transitions between scenes are not merely ways of shifting location or time, that is, they are not just syntactic and necessary, but the connections between them demonstrate not just connection but interconnection.

Three months have passed, she has not returned to SD-6, Dixon tries to convince her, the MacGuffin is mentioned again, she is needed, another agent is dead, etc. There is an implied threat; if she does not return, SD-6 will eliminate her as a liability.

She returns to a different vehicle, a truck, in an underground garage, and escapes an assassination attempt. We not only have a great chase and fight scene, demonstrating her ingenuity (using her cell phone as a distraction, a decoy of sorts), but she is suddenly rescued by her father.

Revelation the 2nd or 3rd—first we thought father Jack sold airplane parts; then we realize he works for SD-6 (but Sydney does not know this); and now she 1) learns that he works for SD-6, and 2) that SD-6 is not part of the CIA, but, rather, is a terrorist organization. This revelation is a crushing blow, she does not know for whom she really works, and so when the scene returns to the torturer, how is she supposed to answer the question, “Who do you work for?”

Her father wants her to go into hiding, leave the country, etc., but instead she decides to return to Taipei to complete the mission SD-6 had planned for her, that is to say, remove the bounty from her head.

Begin Act III.

She uses Will's sister's passport and credit card to get herself abroad, gets into the building where the MacGuffin is held, and—alas!—gets herself captured.

Her torture scenes and the real time plot come together; the interrogation scenes, we see, had been flash-forwards, not flash-backs, not dreams.

Now to bring it all together, she escapes, beats her captors to a pulp, retrieves the plot device, returns to L.A., plop the device on Sloan's desk, announces, “I'm back,” and “I'm taking the week off. I've got midterms.”

And now the denouement: she goes to the real CIA, gives them what she knows, and becomes a double agent. This introduces us to Vaughn and Weiss. We learn, too, just before the show ends, that her father, likewise, is a double agent for the CIA.

If in fact there is any weakness to the episode it is in this conclusion, and not as part of this episode, per se, but rather it is a trend that develops: Sydney more than once finds out something about her father that displeases or disgusts her, and she vows never to speak to him again, never to forgive him, etc., and of course, she does, often later in the episode or in the next episode. Her own fickleness is, I would say, the one trait about her and the show that I do not care for.

It's a trait shared by her and Buffy.

The plot to this episode reflects three psychological conditions for Sydney: busy and juggling many parts of her life, disillusioned, and determined. The narrative aspect I enjoy most deals with the integration of the Dr. Lee torture scenes with the rest of the plot. The two converge as the episode progresses, but at the same time they run parallel, such that, for example, his injecting her with truth serum corresponds in the other plot thread with her telling someone the truth about what she does. While this sort of parallelism perhaps seems like Composition 101, it is, at the same time, exactly the care to structure and detail lacking in standard television and movie fare, and while its appearance here does not transform Alias into awarding-winning literature, it does set it apart from and above its contemporaries. The characters, tropes, quirks, and devices on display here return in later episodes and later seasons, making this first episode not just a pilot or premiere, but a standard by which what follows can be judged and a microcosm of the Alias world.

While it is true that I in many ways dislike both Sydney and Buffy, I will refrain from calling them rats, rodents, rodent-brained, and the like.

Hatred for rodents runs so high in our society that just the other day a snorkeler was shot in the face because he apparently resembled a swimming rodent. We should not only question why the shooter made the mistake in the first place, but why it would be okay to shoot a swimming rodent and not a human. These poor, maligned animals are misunderstood and deserve our understanding and our apologies.

Wet rat—this is how we referred to my schnauzer, Katie, when she ran through the sprinklers, received a bath, or in some other way became soaked with water. Why did a friend refer to her hamster as Little Man and in so doing tie his manhood to his rodent size? I would at this time like to apologize for my previous insults to rodents.

—February 11 2007