Alias S1E04: “Have you ever spied on anyone?”

He looks tense

Tense. I’d describe season one, episode four of Alias as damn tense. With each episode, tension is building, even though it’s so early in the series. And that is a large part of what makes me want to watch more, probably a bigger part than the actual cliffhangers, which tend to get resolved quickly in the early parts of the next episode. Spoilers for season one, episode four after the break.

A friend of mine suggested that I provide a link to a recap of each episode, just so that if you’re not watching Alias along with me (it aired a long time ago, after all) it’ll be easy to catch up. I’m all about helping you guys out, so here’s the link. Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn’t have great recaps for Alias, so I’ll just find links each week as I go along.

Tension, tension everywhere!

Tension in Alias comes from many different parts of the show. Specifically, there’s Will’s investigation into Danny’s murder, which is becoming a highlight of each episode as we learn small but curious pieces of the puzzle. There’s Sydney’s relationship with her father, which produced the extremely mind-bendingly subtextual conversation before Jack went to see the psych guy. As I watched it, I boggled a bit at the amount of tension between Sydney and Jack as they spoke, and it really speaks to how well Alias has developed its characters and story in so few episodes.

And throughout the episode, you see results of the tension. It’s getting to Sydney—she breaks down with Vaughn—and Jack—he stands Sydney up for dinner and isn’t as prepared as he thought he was in the psych evaluation. Sydney and her dad are, bit by bit, losing their spy cool that they’ve developed during their careers as spies. This lends more weight to the lighter parts of the show, such as the standalone missions that don’t relate to Rambaldi.

One example of a standout element of the weekly spy mission was the death of Mokhtar. Sydney and Dixon smiling and generally being really happy to see him made his death that much more potent and transformed a dull mission-of-the-week into a catalyst for Sydney really questioning what she’s doing with the CIA and with SD-6. She’s trying to figure out what doing the right thing is, and whether the price (the casualties and repercussions of each mission: in this episode, Mokhtar’s death and giving the correct numbers to SD-6) is worth it. I’m sure we’ll revisit this idea.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Without Mokhtar’s death, this mission unfortunately didn’t grab my attention as much as the Rambaldi numbers at the beginning of the episode. That it began with a “meanwhile” from Sloane didn’t help much either. The best standalone missions will be those that have strong ties to longer story arcs or that have interesting, complex counter-missions. Like when Sydney had to give the data to Vaughn at the airport and get it back before leaving. That really makes you care about each mission, because it raises the risk of Sydney’s double agent life being exposed.

Scopes. (No, not the Monkey Trial.)

Alias benefits from its premise. It’s a procedural, and it involves law enforcement types to a degree, and it’s a spy show. And although Alias likes to stick to its formula (each episode has a gadget description, a mission description, Sydney using the gadgets, and then Sydney fighting, along with some other things) one thing makes this show stand out, and it’s scope. We’re not stuck in a city, a country, a job, or even a hairstyle. (Except Dixon, his hair doesn’t change much.)

The fact that we can go to Spain or Egypt or France or anywhere in the world, really, makes missions feel different even if the underlying stories repeat themselves. We haven’t seen much repetition yet, but I’m guessing the standalone spy missions might get that way at some point. Being able to set them anywhere in the world sets them apart from each other in a way that’s not possible on smaller-scope shows like Law & Order or even country-spanning procedurals like Criminal Minds can do.

Doctor Who is a great example of this. When your scope is all of space and time, well, you can do basically anything you want. And something I’ll touch on when this happens in Alias (hasn’t really yet) is how often large-scope shows set episodes in the backyards of the characters instead of out in the world/universe. See the amount of Doctor Who and Stargate SG-1 episodes that take place on Earth, and never feel like they suffer for it.

Some highlights/notes:

  • The psych evaluation being a creepy psych evaluation, and not just a guy in a suit asking Jack questions about how he feels about Sydney did well at adding some depth to the evil organization that is SD-6.
  • The little B-story with Sydney spying with Francie was amusing, even if it wasn’t very joke heavy. Just the premise of it was great.
  • Why did Sydney call Vaughn on what was essentially a social call, especially after chewing out the incompetent spy boss for doing the same thing last week? Either the writers forgot, or she’s really losing her cool.
  • We’re learning parts of the mystery at a quick pace, and the characters don’t mess around with the questions they ask, especially Will, who’s hotter and hotter on the trail of SD-6 every week. Compared with Lost’s pace at answering questions, Alias goes a mile a minute.
  • If you know of anyone else writing reviews of Alias these days, or even just great reviews from when the show was on the air, I’d love to know about them.
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