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I've already picked three great episodes of Alias from seasons 1 and 2. All of season 2 is a highlight reel of sorts, however, and much the same could be said for season 1. A few of the recurring themes and their development, over the next several seasons, interest me here. Spoilers within.
The anthology Glorifying Terrorism by Rackstraw Press (“created in response to the Terrorism Act of 2006”) contains work by Ken MacLeod, and that alone is enough for me to recommend it. It is, however, also politically relevant, and the moronic anti-terrorism laws passed in the U.K. are merely siblings to those in force in this country. Big brother's twin?
Back to Alias.
There is no consensus but many argue that Alias jumped the shark in season 3. I am not one who argues such, and I'm not sure it ever jumped, per se, though I was not satisfied with the final episode, but I blame the conclusion of season five more on the network and the decision to cancel the show—with the requisite need to wrap things up—than with poor decisions internal to the show.
Season one and the first half of season two is about the Alliance, season 2 brings in Irena Derevko (Lena Olin) as Sydney's so-evil-we-love-her mother and the latter half deals with the aftermath of the Alliance's fall. What season three brings us is a reboot on several fronts.
When Alias began it took place more-or-less in the now of when it was being produced, but in cliff-hanger and continuity episodes, especially toward the end of each season, at most days pass between episodes whereas a week of time passes between airings, and so after more than two years of production not nearly as much time had passed in the Alias universe. By setting season 3 about two years later we get back in the here-and-now. The Sydney-Vaughan romantic tension that had been allowed to turn into romance was reset by having Vaughan marry in the meantime.
Seasons 4 also introduced a reboot of sorts, and season 5 provided a gap at the end of the first episode—4 months—which not only advanced the calendar in the show's universe but also allowed the pregnancies of Sydney Bristow and Jennifer Garner to better synchronize for plot and production purposes.
III. Theme and Variations
But these three later seasons not only served as series reboots, they also served as themes on a variation, attempts to explore or at least exploit the first season's conceits in a new way. The original setup was that Sydney worked as a double agent for the CIA within the SD-6 cell. Sydney originally does not know that she works for the “bad guys.” In season three, now that SD-6 and the Alliance are gone, this series conceit cannot work, unless inverted, and here we not only have a new Big Bad—The Covenant—but a new double agent, this time, however, it's not Sydney, but rather the woman she loves to hate, her former boyfriend's wife, Lauren.
This is part of the theme-and-variations theme works on two fronts, however, for not only do we have Lauren the double agent, whose actions lead to multiple instances of near-discovery as well as failed missions for the CIA, but Lauren is a name conveniently close to Laura, Irena's cover when she was married to Jack, and just as Jack did not realize that his wife was a traitor, neither does Vaughan. And as Vaughan shoots his wife at the end of the season, so it seems (as we learn at the beginning of season 4) did Jack.
The other conceit was that Sydney worked for a black-ops, off-the-books branch of the agency; the season 4 reboot turns SD-6 into a CIA reality and reestablishes some of the earlier character roles if not dynamics, for Sloan is once again in charge.
These two premises of the first season are combined in season 5 with Sydney taking on the Vaughan role (see: episode 6, “Solo”), for we are introduced to Rachel Gibson (Rachel Nichols), who is a combination Sydney and Marshall and who, like Sydney at the beginning of the series, believes she works for a covert branch of the CIA but who is instead working for the season's Big Bad Guys. Her double-agent status lasts part of an episode until she is discovered and her bosses try to cover their trail by killing all her coworkers and destroying the evidence. Rachel, however, survives.
IV. Dysfunctional Relationships
The Hallmark of all of season 1 and most of season 2 is the juggling of three spheres of life: work, friends, and family. To the extent that the last three seasons lost something in comparison with the first two it is here, in particular insofar as the friends sphere of life disappears and the work and family aspects, already close, are merged for all practical purposes. It is this flattening that is the weakness of the later seasons.
I have a similar critique of the third X-Men movie by B. Ratner, for it flatten the levels of detail that B. Singer developed in the first two. In the world of Alias this can be seen not only in the realms of personal dynamics but also in the attention to detail when it comes to missions. Gone, in the later seasons, are the detailed overviews of op-tech provided by Marshall, and instead we have shorter introductions and pure techno-babble.
It would be foolish to claim that the tech of the first two seasons was not techno-babble, but whereas Rambaldi artifacts were MacGuffins and needed no or little detail, Marshall's op-tech detail was not trivial or excessive. Instead the explanations were plausible, and each of Marshall's devices was either itself a reasonable variation or adaptation of current technology or composed of parts that were. We see hints of this care about detail in the later seasons, such as in season 4 when Sydney is buried alive in Cuba, Marshall goes on a solo mission to rescue her, and he has to improvise a tracking device with a radio. For the most part, however, we just have Sydney or others employing mysterious Bond-tech that just works or fails as the plot requires. Insofar as many of the devices are just versions of similar items from previous seasons (ways to crack safes, something with which to clone a hard drive or copy a security card, etc.) this is understandable, but what it does is contribute to a shifting of meaning from the day-to-day work done by Sydney and the rest, their personal difficulties and quirks, problems on the job, etc., to the higher level of overarching plot.
To explain: When a random techno-babble device is itself explained as containing other parts or elements, or being a varation of something else we understand, then those parts are instrumentalized and the device itself is a meaning-carrier, even when and if it, too, is a tool or instrument for some other purpose. In later episodes so many of the elements, the devices and occasionally even characters, lack not so much details but details that are parts, which is to say, a greater level of detail. And without that level of detail these elements (objects or people) are merely plot devices, instruments to advance the greater plot. Naturally, one can reply, we're talking about made up technology in a TV fantasy: it's all instrumentalization, all illusion. That is true, but without that particular illusion (the attention to detail regarding fictional items) the day-to-day or the concrete loses its meaning relative to the macro-level of the plot, and insofar as these day-to-day elements of friends-family-work were what made the first two seasons work so well, we have to see their loss as what brought down the later seasons, even when in terms of technical skill, dialog, directing, plotting, and acting matters were as strong as ever.
I'll hold off discussing the details of the later seasons or particular episodes for now; I'll likely return to the self-reflection and wit of season 4 at a later date.
Remember to ask yourself, how skinny is too skinny?
—February 21 2007