ALIAS – ‘Masquerade’ (1×18 – Review)

Masquerade operates in a tricky position within the scope of Alias’ debut season and, arguably, marks the beginning of what in any other series would be a clear, delineated two-part episode.

Alias may appear ostensibly to be a highly serialised, propulsive rocket of a series, but it has flirted with trying to tell smaller, condensed arcs within that broader structure, often connecting episodes with specific themes or characters. Color-Blind and Reckoning, for instance, which focused on Sydney Bristow coming face to face with her fiancee Danny’s assassin; Mea Culpa and Spirit, which dealt primarily with a mole hunt in SD-6, and of course The Box which actually *was* a two-part episode and condensed Alias’ format down in a way the show would never as tightly repeat again, despite directly playing off a major narrative beat in the previous episode.

Masquerade is the beginning of such a double episode and the epilogue to, essentially, a three-part story.

While Alias is primarily inspired by escapist espionage adventure movies, and updates pulp 1960’s concepts for a 21st century audience, it also takes a significant cue from many of the successful series of the 90’s which, for the most part, fused ongoing serialisation with the established, historic stand-alone formula – The X-Files in particular. That show would focus its mythology quite specifically in two or three-part stories at key points each season, with the rest functioning as episodes you could theoretically watch out of sequence, and would play well to attract financial syndication upon hitting a hundred saleable episodes.

Peter Suderman discusses this for Vox while considering how The X-Files changed the serialised model for good:

Even on long-running, critically acclaimed series, just about every episode had to stand entirely alone, with few references, if any, to previous events. Sure, there were exceptions — Hill Street BluesTwin Peaks, soap operas — but the default for many if not most scripted series was that each episode existed in a kind of narrative vacuum. There were reasons for this, of course: Broadcast networks, which produced the vast majority of scripted series, sought to appeal to the largest possible number of people, and execs generally feared that multi-episode storylines would not only confuse existing viewers who missed an installment or two, but also prevent new viewers from jumping in. DVRs and streaming services had yet to come online, so producers could not expect that viewers would be able to see every episode of a series. But the results could be dramatically frustrating, if not downright weird. Major life events and dramatic choices that you’d think would have far-reaching ripple effects might occur one week and then be totally ignored the following week, and sometimes for the rest of the series. Pilot episodes provided setups, and established series often took their premises and character relationships for granted, assuming that viewers would know the basics but little else. It was as if every episode were a second episode.

Alias existed still in that TV model of aiming for syndication but telling a connected, twenty-two part overarching narrative at the same time, and is one of the first series with its opening season to successfully achieve it.Masquerade, however, is one of those episodes, as indeed is Snowman, the episode that directly follows it, that simply would not end up being made in the modern era of ten to thirteen episode seasons. It would be deemed disposable.

This is not to say that Masquerade is a bad episode of television or indeed Alias. It isn’t, indeed it works perfectly well, better in many respects than some of the rockier earlier first season episodes of the show in which the balance of mythology, serialisation and Alias’ unusual internal narrative structure were being figured out as the writers went on (though as I have previously commented, what’s remarkable about Alias is how fully formed most of it was right out the traps). Masquerade simply has a great deal to achieve across its 42 minutes of running time, with the first act alone busy in load bearing the fallout from the mountain of plot and revelations that have spiralled around across The Prophecy and the end of Q&A.

For a start, Masquerade has to begin by dealing with the major plot point Q&A established but decided not to finish on, perhaps wisely deciding that ending on Syd’s realisation that her mother is probably alive would be the stronger closing scene. Masquerade begins with Syd climbing Mount Subasio in Italy, watching the sunrise, and thereby seemingly negating Rambaldi’s presumably apocalyptic prophecy the FBI had interpreted to mean Syd was a major threat to national security. It allows writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to swiftly ensure Syd is back at SD-6, back at the CIA, and her cover and the show’s central double agent concept can proceed unabated. It swiftly writes the series out of a major corner.

Quite why Masquerade chooses to forgo a pre-credits sequence and roll straight into this after the previously section isn’t clear, but it isn’t quite as simple as throwing Syd back into a traditional mission and continuing with the status quo. Alias is already growing past the point each episode can easily do that without a weight of narrative and character complications, given the immense level of backstory and mystery which is being thrown out hither and thither with abandon as we enter the final third of the season. Masquerade closes off the Rambaldi shenanigans and instantly throws Syd right into the deeper personal fallout of the revelation her KGB spy mother is not six feet under.

Specifically, Orci and Kurtzman’s script now reveals that her survival has been a fairly open secret at the CIA for decades, with an internal commission formed in the wake of her car accident in 1981 concluding she didn’t die and was extracted back to Russia. Arvin Sloane, before he turned to the dark side, was part of this commission and knew Laura—or Irina Derevko as the show reveals on a screen and not yet in dialogue—was alive, but he kept it from Jack Bristow. For twenty years. Even for Alias, which twists and turns the narrative every which way but loose, it is almost impossible to swallow that someone as devious and in his own way corrupt as Jack would never have discovered this. It does the character a major disservice.

The problem will this flood of personal and narrative revelation is that it feels very much like Alias catching up on itself. That Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman—once they figured out the exact dynamics of how Syd’s mysterious mother survived by the end of Q&A—decided to unload a stack of backstory which clarifies and explains the internal mechanics of what Irina was doing in the US, her connection to the looming uber-villain and season bogeyman Khasinau, and how the CIA dealt with the fallout. There is a lot of intriguing history about Jack following the car accident we hear only in dialogue, or via a relatively cliched scene of Syd finding Jack at the bottom of a glass later in the episode. It’s almost too much for the weight of Masquerade to bear.

It does track with the clear through line of the season for Sydney – first discovering the truth about her mother, then learning she is still alive, and finally becoming determined to embark on a quest to find her, even if she is quote on quote a ‘bad guy’. This is understandable, as is Jack’s terrified response at the prospect of Irina being able to voice an alternate argument to the soul-shredding betrayal he has lived with for twenty years. “What could she ever say that would satisfy you?” Jack emotionally voices, in that noble, yet trapped like a haunted, wounded bear kind of manner that Victor Garber was peerless at for five seasons. His very real fear that Syd could even forgive Irina sets up, in one conversation, the entire spine of Season 2.

You can feel Kurtzman and Orci relishing the prospect of writing more scenes of ‘creepy Sloane’ acting as an unnerving blend of proxy father figure and slightly lecherous boss with Syd, as she is forced to appeal to him for support in the prospect of tracking Irina down. Sloane quietly delights in telling Syd that Jack was suspected of treason after she vanished and ended up in solitary for six months, which surely did Jack’s ability to fully communicate on an emotional and human level no favours (though this too you suspect the writers hadn’t figured out during the points Syd was questioning Jack’s loyalty in The Confession). “A daughter has a right to know her mother” Sloane whispers, goading Syd’s potentially reckless quest for answers in opposition to Jack’s natural temperance.

All this is unloaded onto the audience within the first fifteen minutes, when by all rights it probably should have made up the lion’s share of an entire episode, but then Masquerade expects you to divert away and slot back into the established SD-6 mission formula with Syd going on a Khasinau-related mission to recover a microchip from a Viennese ball. This is where the internal narrative construction of Alias proves a blessing and a curse, and you half wonder if episodes like this, which are perfectly propulsive and effective in and of their own right, nonetheless factored into ABC’s executive decision for Alias to truncate its complicated double agent plot midway through Season 2. Masquerade has to serve multiple masters in terms of story and character.

Which brings us to agent Noah Hicks, who Syd appropriately (given we later learn he is not all he seems) reconnects with during a masked ball (though as they were intimate for some time it’s strange they don’t immediately recognise each others voices). Peter Berg becomes the latest in a long line of recognisable American film or character actors to appear on Alias, even in its first season; Berg by this point was known as the director of Very Bad Things in 1998 and would later go on to create successful series Friday Night Lights, and direct numerous fairly sizeable Hollywood pictures such as Hancock, Battleship and Deepwater Horizon, amongst others. Berg is no A-list celebrity guest star along the lines of Tarantino or Roger Moore, but he is and was recognisable.

It therefore makes sense that Berg would play a character who holds some import for Sydney as opposed to a random villain, and Noah swiftly becomes a fairly cliched character trope – the ex-boyfriend who inveigles his way back into the protagonists life. Noah is an SD-6 agent who Syd and Dixon worked with five years ago before he volunteered for a deep cover assignment because, as he puts it, he was too in love with Syd to stay. While Berg and Jennifer Garner have effective chemistry, and Noah is the kind of quietly confident yet appropriately sensitive, capable masculine figure Syd would be attracted to across the course of the series, you know from the outset that Berg is a recurring guest star at best and there is no sense of permanence to any of this relationship.

This again is where Alias is struggling occasionally to throw off the shackles of the existing stand-alone television formula it is breaking out of with its serialised focus. Noah is precisely the kind of character you could imagine popping up in a Star Trek episode for example, let’s say an old flame of Deanna Troi; he charms her for an episode, winds up Commander Riker, she falls head over heels back in love with him, he turns out to be an alien bad guy or a traitor or any variation of antagonist, he ends up arrested/leaving ship/dying, Troi is heartbroken… and then he is never mentioned again in the entire series. The same, ultimately, ends up true of Noah. He was a key part of Syd’s past—indeed he plays a central role in the prequel novels starting with Recruited—but he ends up meaning nothing in the context of her future.

In more of a stand-alone series where the rules dictate that these kind of one-shot characters would make a dent in a main player’s life for a brief amount of time and the audience accepted it, this would be less of a problem, but Alias does not want to be that kind of show. Characters are developing. In this episode alone, Syd remarks to Jack, wounded after the Irina revelation, that she has grown more comfortable talking to him (Jack’s brusque reply of “What’s happening between us Sydney is temporary” sums him up entirely). Yet we are simultaneously supposed to accept Syd could be charmed again by Noah, despite the fact we have seen her attachment to Vaughn grow and grow across the season; they may not be yet at the point of romance but their awkwardness in discussing Noah over these two episodes proves they’re not far away.

Noah seems overtly designed across Masquerade, in fact, to serve as some kind of classic, all-American gentleman spy. When interrogated by SD-6’s marvellously ghoulish McCullough, Noah refuses to explain to them his feelings for Syd: “Where I come from, a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell”. He is unafraid to stand up to Sloane and call him on his BS, far more than other agents, and he seems directly reverse engineered to be charming as well as rugged and capable. He’s almost a male ‘Mary Sue’ in some ways, or at the very least a veritable knight in shining armour who can provide Syd with an escape from a life she is trapped in for all manner of reasons; the final Arkhangelsk mission involving cry-chambers and ‘photo refractive crystal cubes’ equally seems designed to allow Noah to rescue Syd from a mission she, otherwise, could have efficiently undertaken alone or with Dixon.

Masquerade just accepts you to buy all this relationship very very quickly, to the point you can roll with Syd deciding to sleep with him at the, uh… climax. It never rings true. Noah has a function we will see in Snowman which serves as a mirror to the Jack and Irina backstory, but here the ending feels like a fairly obvious way to ‘sex up’ Syd, who by necessity as a grieving young woman has been fairly chaste across Alias so far, even while dressing up in skimpy costumes week on week. Noah is in the end just a ‘rebound’ flirtation, even while the series tries to sell him as much more. You wonder even if Noah was partly a test to see if the Syd/Vaughn romantic dynamic could work, and the show would survive them in a relationship while on missions – to which the answer ends up being… sort of…

In fairness to Masquerade, the mission Noah embarks on with Syd does at least tie into the primary narrative both concerning the hunt for Khasinau, the Rambaldi mythology, and the search for answers about Irina, but it is all fairly tangential and could have been incorporated into a different style of episode without the central romantic dynamic and the ex-boyfriend trope. Masquerade is not quite as disposable as Snowman ends up being, but it doesn’t quite come together for the simple fact it needs to service a broader storyline, factor in numerous backstory revelations, and at the same time juggle development for both Syd and Jack in particular.

Though stronger and more self-assured than earlier episodes of the season, Masquerade doesn’t quite know whether it’s a stand-alone story or heavy mythological episode. In many ways it is both, and that’s why it struggles to fully come together.

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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