ALIAS – ‘Reckoning’ (1×06 – 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 JJ 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.

Technically, however, that isn’t the episode’s function. Jesse Alexander’s debut script for the show picks up more directly from Doppleganger than the end of that episode may have suggested, before, once again, leaping off into a completely different storyline. This one does, however, more directly lead into the next episode, Color Blind, and that episode does not dispose of the narrative established within Reckoning in the first ten minutes like every episode of Alias has since the beginning. The entire story in Color Blind is teed up directly by how Reckoning ends, and Alexander finishes on two cliffhangers instead of one – not only Syd’s disturbing discovery in the Romanian asylum but also Sloane’s realisation SD-6 is being hacked and they may have a mole.

Though not as well structured as Doppleganger, or even as key to the show’s mythology as an episode like Parity, Reckoning is important for continuing to establish how Sydney is a protagonist without any sense of detached perspective inside the complicated web she is weaving. This becomes clear from her devastated reaction to the deaths of the CIA team at the Badenweiler plant, which she has to desperately hide from Dixon as she runs away from the explosion – a symbolic representation of her own flight mechanism in response. There is a nicely shot moment where Dixon is beating up bad guys on their tail while the camera focuses in foreground on Syd, struggling to hold it together, crippled by the knowledge those men died because Dixon didn’t know what *she* did.

Once again, Vaughn is the one to provide that necessary perspective when Syd’s reaction to their deaths is a continued belief Dixon needs to be brought in on the truth about SD-6. “Those men died for their country” is Vaughn’s response when Syd suggests they died for nothing, which ties into the quieter exploration of Vaughn’s own character we see in Reckoning. He confesses, for the first time, that his father was a CIA agent who died in the line of duty and while the episode lays it on a bit thick, Vaughn attending the funeral of the CIA agents and reassuring a heartbroken little boy is a reflection of his own past. It also further positions Alias as a patriotic, post-9/11 symbol of a wounded America; the CIA aren’t the shadowy spooks of an X-Files world – here they’re the heroes.

As a counterpoint, Alias continues establishing one of the consistent threads the show is returning to almost every single episode – the Russians are still the enemy; whether via Syd’s investigation of the mysterious FBI Agent Calder, who died in the same car crash her mother Laura did in 1981, a man who it seems was a KGB spy-hunter; or the sinister Dr. Kresnik in the Romanian asylum who toward the climax the CIA discern is working for K-Directorate – basically the KGB with a less directly antagonistic name in the Alias spy-world, the same agency Syd’s rival Anna Espinosa works for. “Maybe he’s still working for Russia!” Syd wonders aloud to Vaughn about Jack, as she puts what will turn out to be erroneous pieces together, displaying a paranoia which tracks with the latent Cold War fear inherent in the show’s DNA.

The show even goes one step further with the Russian connection when the character of Martin Shepard is revealed toward the end, played by the show’s first, legitimate international guest star, John Hannah. Shepard is very much a ‘Manchurian Candidate’, indeed it’s a wonder the show doesn’t directly reference John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film given how aware of pop-culture it can sometimes be; hell Vaughn gives Sydney a bug disguised as a literal bug at one point in this episode – that’s how post-modern Alias can be sometimes! The Manchurian Candidate, anyway, revolved around an American platoon brainwashed by a Soviet mind-control program to be sleeper agents who can be activated to kill major American targets by a code or phrase once on home soil – which is precisely what Shepard is and, surprise surprise, Russia are trying to control him, in this case with the John Donne poem ‘No Man is an Island’ being the trigger in a nice beat of poetic culture.

What Alexander’s script does, returning to Jack, is try and make us look the wrong way where he’s concerned. Though this episode takes him out of his cover, Jennings Aerospace, and back into SD-6 where he acts as much of a mission debrief expositor as Sloane has done, Jack is still the distant, enigmatic and dangerous figure neither we nor Syd truly know. Is he still KGB? Did he kill Calder because he was onto him? Did he kill his wife? Heck, at this stage you still may be wondering if he killed Danny, though the show will put paid to that theory in Color Blind. Nonetheless, Jack feels as much of a device to explore Syd and the show’s actualised fear about the enemy within as he is the character he will steadily become – which isn’t a criticism, despite sounding that way.

Reckoning was written by Jesse Alexander, and outside of Jeff Pinkner he would script more Alias episodes than any other writer, staying with the series as a producer across the show’s five years. Alexander wrote episodes which cut to the heart of the kind of pop-cultural and complicated storytelling the show would deliver; The Box, the show’s first two-part episode and probably the best episodes of the first season; A Dark Turn which really explores the Jack/Irina relationship in more detail than many other episodes; Full Disclosure, which deconstructs half a season’s worth of storytelling, the list goes on. Alexander will then take these skills onto hit shows such as Heroes, Hannibal and most recently Star Trek: Discovery and American Gods, for which he is now the show runner for Season 2 after Bryan Fuller’s departure.

In other words, Alexander seems to already keenly understand these characters and how the key to the entire heart of Alias are those central relationships, none more so than that of Syd & Jack. He will continue to tug at and test their dynamic as Syd becomes more and more convinced Jack is a bad guy, but Reckoning affords us the chance to see more of the caring Jack that his function undercover means he’s had little chance as yet to show. “Every time I think I know how awful you are, I learn something worse” Syd says to him, and in this episode she is incredibly harsh on Jack, even without understanding the full context and detail of what he’s involved in. She jumps to a great deal of conclusions based on more than a few spurious facts.

Though at times he can be quite earnest and grating, Vaughn’s function as her constant works well at points where he seems like the only person who can penetrate her stubbornness – admonishing her for telling Jack she believes she knows he’s a spy when he asked her not to and reminding her she needs to control her instincts. It’s a good lesson and an important one that Jack, in his own unique cutting way, suggests she should understand better given it was her recklessness which led to Danny’s murder. “What you think you know, you DON’T know!” he claims, almost in sheer frustration. Jack knows she doesn’t have clearance to know what happened to Calder & Laura, but she can only see the betrayal of lies when it comes to truths in her own life.

When you look back at these early episodes, it’s quite remarkable just how ‘by the book’ Jack actually is. It takes fully becoming part of Syd’s life, both inside and outside of work, for him to become the kind of agent who in Dead Drop will try and rig explosives that could have killed good guys to frame Irina as betraying the CIA, or going completely off-book in the two years Syd is missing between Seasons 2 & 3 to the point the NSC throw him in prison. Reckoning is setting this up but it feels like the revelation in The Confession where he finally admits to Syd about her mother is the trigger for Jack to truly emerge from his chrysalis when it comes to Syd; he’ll never fully emerge emotionally, but losing the burden of such a massive secret, and witnessing Syd’s bravery in dealing with it, almost certainly inspires him.

Less inspiring in this episode are some of the surrounding details, outside of Syd’s character journey, which continue to show Alias is a series struggling a touch with quite what it wants to be. The entire Francie plot comes to a level of initial closure as she gets the powerfully underwhelming reveal that her boyfriend Charlie isn’t cheating on her but wants to be… a singer? Okay. If you were feeling charitable, you could suggest Charlie’s storyline is entirely designed as a narrative parallel to Syd’s life, about becoming someone else and hiding it; his family wanted him to be a lawyer but he’s been chasing his dream, though he has felt as though he needed to conceal it from his loved ones. But every time this thematic idea is constructed, the question remains… why should we care?

It comes down to quite how the characters in Syd’s life outside of SD-6 or the CIA are working at this stage. Will, though he was disliked strongly by the fanbase for much of the two seasons he was a regular (no doubt because he challenged the ‘ship’ of Syd/Vaughn), works because though he is not involved in Syd’s life and the main crux of the show, we have knowledge he doesn’t to a degree; we don’t quite understand the Eloise Kurtz mystery/conspiracy, but those paying attention know Kate Jones is a Syd alias and obviously it all goes back to Danny’s murder, which goes back to SD-6. Will has a direct, understandable arc in the series. But what about Francie? Outside of being Syd’s best friend, what is her function?

The show will grapple with this, honestly, right up to the point they kill her off, and give Merrin Dungey the chance to play a far more interesting character. Francie was intended to marry Charlie originally in season finale Almost Thirty Years, and Dungey is optimistic about her characters future in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:

Francie needed something else to happen in her story line because if she married Charlie, what would happen with her relationship with Sydney? If I’m married and having kids while she’s off on missions, it’d splinter our friendship, it’d be a constant reflection of the things Sydney doesn’t have. Now, I think my character will get stronger and be more a part of Sydney’s world.

In the end, this prediction goes to Will rather than Francie, which makes far more sense; Will is a journalist, he has active skills and a function in the story, whereas Francie is useful only in the sense that she allows Syd to have some semblance of normality in her crazy, secret lifestyle. The problem is that the moment you start giving Francie a storyline of her own, with zero connection to Syd’s, you just end up wondering what the point is and feeling like Francie & Charlie and all of this fairly warm focused, preppy late 90’s relationship stuff should be on a show which isn’t about global supervillains and 15th century prophets. It will take the writers a little longer, but they’ll get to this realisation with Charlie in particular long before the season finale.

The other aspect which drags Reckoning down somewhat is one of its missions. Now. Let’s bear in mind that we’re not dealing with hard-hitting realism with Alias as I make this complaint. It’s a silly, colourful spy show ultimately. That being said, Alias pushes its luck repeatedly when it comes to portraying other nations, countries and cities. London will be revisited a few times over the series’ run but here you hope the attempt to craft a London art gallery, ran by a man named John Smythe (yes, Smythe, who no one in England has been called since 1789), as a retro 60’s, swinging London hot spot, reincarnated, was intentional because if not… well, the production team really need to get on a plane at some point.

It does contrast quite vividly with where Syd ends up for the climax of the episode, a dour and impoverished Romanian mental asylum, but again Alias attempts to balance a sense of clear iconographic understanding of place (often through Michael Giacchino’s excellent but leading music) with being outright cliched and stereotypical; everything about the stylistic touches of the asylum screams of Russia, from the music to the post-Soviet state of depressed visual decay. Even the plot leading up to this, with faceless spy rival FTL attempting to get hold of a code machine jamming espionage communications, is yet another Cold War story you sense Mission: Impossible may have done a variant of thirty five years earlier.

Nevertheless, Reckoning ends with one of the strongest denouements the show has given us yet, with its penchant of building toward and establishing cliffhangers. The structure of the final five minutes, as Syd’s partner Fisher (an Alias ‘redshirt’ basically, to use a Star Trek parlance) is under suspicion, the CIA learn Syd is in more danger than she realises, and Marshall detects the CIA leak, escalates with foreboding violin music to a reveal which screams horror movie more than B-movie spy action. It’s already turning out to be an interesting mission for Syd; Shepard knows her from somewhere and there are similarities with quite how she later finds her sister Nadia Santos in Blood Ties. The final moment, however, is yet another effective and disturbing way to close out the episode.

Alias continues building, episode by episode, laying foundation upon foundation. Even if not all of the constituent elements always work or fuse together, the confidence of a series building to a reckoning all of its own remains strong.

Check out more reviews of Season 1 of Alias here:

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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