ALIAS – ‘The Solution’ (1×20 – Review)

The season finale of Alias’ premiere year may technically be Almost Thirty Years but in real terms, The Solution marks the beginning of the end.

Specifically, a three-part end to the season, building off everything we have seen so far and drawing many of the lingering narrative threads together in an attempt to provide some level off satisfying payoff while simultaneously delivering a springboard into the coming second season. The Solution is a good example of how Alias both holds to and breaks from the traditional stand-alone/ongoing serialisation structure of shows past. It both could not exist without many of the preceding nineteen episodes before it and equally it feels contained within the confines of its three-part climactic storyline. 

Alias by this point understands it has a great deal of balls in the air and story threads it needs to either start taking to the next level or justifiably paying off. This was a major problem with Snowman, the previous episode; it spun the show’s wheels, focusing on an extraneous central romantic entanglement which means little beyond serving as a thematic parallel, at the expense of getting on with most of the story in play. The Solution begins to correct that immediately. It ramps up the search for Khasinau. It reintroduces the Rambaldi mythology. It spirals back around to Sloane’s relationship with his wife Emily and his dealings with the Alliance and it kicks back into gear the simmering Will investigating SD-6 plot line, which ends up being a major factor in how Season 1 comes to an end. 

In short, while not necessarily much more than a protracted Act One, The Solution corrects most of the problems from the previous episode or two.

Cementing its status as the first part, unofficially, of an extended finale, The Solution presses forward by reminding Sydney Bristow of where she began. For the first time, even having left the majority of her college student story behind, Syd is back in the first aid van on campus with Vaughn, who reminds her of the progress she has made in taking down SD-6 over the course of the first season. This directly ties back to a memorable moment at the beginning of only the show’s second episode, So It Begins… as Vaughn makes Syd aware of just how much work she has to do. Back then Vaughn treated her as if she was naive. Now he’s reassuring her how much has changed, for the better, even if there is still a long way to go.

Syd’s faith has been dented of course by the climactic events of Snowman, which revealed her ex-boyfriend and resurgent beau Noah Hicks to be shadowy international assassin (somewhat unconvincingly, it might be added). Noah died at her hand, falling on the knife he was brandishing after a fight, and Syd blames herself for a death she feels mixed emotions of sadness and betrayal about. “It’s becoming a part of me” she worries, admitting she is struggling to know who to trust anymore. Though Vaughn, in quite black and white terms reassures her “Hicks was a bad guy”, Syd clearly worries she is becoming, or could become, her father Jack – suspicious, unable to form attachments, and embittered by deep seated emotional betrayal. Thematically the show will more acutely explore this through Vaughn himself in Season 3, but the flickers of this are present in The Solution.

Betrayal, or the fear of betrayal, serves as the hinge point for The Solution and in many respects the final two episodes of Season 1. It is altogether probably Alias’ most consistently pervasive theme over its five years, which makes sense given the espionage concept and shifting alliances that snake across the series. The Solution does not have a neat and clean through line in how it explores this theme across the episode, mainly because writer John Eisendrath effectively has a bullet point sheet of plot strands to advance where they need to be by the end of the hour, but there is some consistency in the main stories in terms of what the characters are going through. The Solution sees numerous of Alias’ characters being placed in situations that will forever alter their circumstances.

The first is Will Tippin, whose character arc has essentially been in a holding pattern since Page 47 squared the focus on his bubbling investigative journalist plot line that has built across the season. That episode put a pin in his investigation into SD-6 thanks to the covert intervention of Jack, sparing his life unwittingly from Sloane, but in hindsight it feels as much to enable the emerge of the dominant Rambaldi prophecy and revelations about Irina being alive as truly satisfying Will’s story. His arc is only really important when it corresponds to the broader narrative, and that has led to fairly inconsistent character work with Will across the season. In truth, JJ Abrams nor his writing staff *ever* really figure out what to do with Will, which becomes very apparent in Season 2. The fact Will is dragged back into his investigation here upon finding out Jack abducted and scared him off makes sense, because Page 47 never truly felt like appropriate closure for a story that has built across the season for Will.

Will of course does what he always does when the writers need him to – throw himself into the cross hairs of danger in order to forward the narrative, which is exactly what he does in approaching Jack and telling him about his unknown contact. “Convince me through some sick, bizarre twist of fate that you and I are on the same side” Will asks. When Jack finally indulges him, Will wants to know if he has been betrayed by the one person he has done this all for, asking “Does Sydney know?”. Jack has to lie to him, naturally, but by this point Will learning the truth about Syd is almost an inevitability. It’s just about when the other shoe drops. The only problem with this entire plot is that you never entirely believe Will’s arc was thought through to truly payoff in this way from the beginning of the season. The writers have ridden their luck a little with many of the other narratives, which have led them to bring Will closer to the other threads at this point.

Far smoother when it comes to payoff is the development of the Sloane and Emily story thread, which does feel more carefully and deliberately planned across the season. Emily is an unusual character in some respects. She exists purely to add a human dimension and distinct shade of grey to who otherwise in Sloane could very easily be a heartless supervillain of the highest order. Ron Rifkin enjoys the ambiguity in his performance as Sloane, often twisting interactions with Syd and Jack that appear kindly or altruistic to his own will, but with Emily there is no manipulation, no front. He genuinely appears to love his wife and Alias, to its credit, never compromises on that. Which makes the prospect Sloane may have to allow the Alliance to murder his already dying-of-cancer wife when she reveals to Syd she knows about SD-6 all that more brutal a plot point for Sloane.

This is all compounded by the fact Emily is totally in the dark that Arvin is a bad guy. She knows he is deep in intelligence but believes SD-6 to be part of the CIA, as Syd did. “My only regret is that I can’t tell him how proud I am” she declares, without a trace of irony. Emily has no idea everything Sloane says or does is tracked and recorded (they even have a camera in the hospital room where she’s dying) by a global crime organisation who eliminate anyone who has any knowledge of their operations. “Information about SD-6 must be treated like a virus” Jack tells Syd of the Alliance rationale, when she refuses to believe they would kill the wife of a man like Sloane. Ultimately rank makes no different – the Alliance will kill Emily just as dispassionately as they murdered Danny.

Coming to understand this about the Alliance, it becomes apparent just how directly Alias is drawing parallels between their operation and a totalitarian regime. In Masquerade, Jack talks about how the operation being ran by shadowy enemy Alexander Khasinau is akin to a fledgling government, but the Alliance runs its SD cells and controls its employees with the same bureaucratic control of a very well established system. They may not have a direct totemic leader as such, a man whom they are under the thrall of, but they make collectivised decisions which leave no margin for dissent or autonomy. As we saw in The Prophecy, they take votes about major decisions such as going to war against other organisations of magnitude. They monitor every move their major operatives make. And they don’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets close to them – even Kaplan Award winning journalists they’re prepared to martyr.

You wonder if with the Alliance, Alias is latently depicting a Soviet paradigm. Everything about their organisation is a Cold War hangover, a rather dispassionate and almost corporate manifestation of evil, in which vaguely ethnic old white men make collectivised decisions which encourage significant amounts of repression. They don’t need a Stalinist figurehead, they could very easily be a post-Stalinist Politburo, a group of old men who existed in an age of cold warfare (Jack does describe them in The Prophecy as “cold warriors who prefer the paradigm of detente”) who are now propagating an international operation which is being etched away at by modern threats and more chaotic systems. The irony therefore of their greatest challenger being a cabal led by a former Soviet Lieutenant Colonel is fairly powerful, and almost certainly intentional.

The Solution, however, gives Sloane a reason to disobey and even openly conflict with the Alliance, if anything the one man who for any other circumstance would remain completely loyal and resolute. He reacts like a cornered animal at the very suggestion by the head of Alliance security (played by a wasted Tony Amendola of Stargate SG-1 fame, in a one-shot, one scene role) that they may have to kill Emily. “I am not just going to sit back and allow you to eliminate her” Sloane says, fully aware the Alliance will hear such dissent. While the script goes out of the way to pose the open question as to whether Sloane might betray his wife in order to further his Alliance standing, Eisendrath also reminds us of how Sloane betrayed his friend Jean Briault and was betrayed *by* Edward Poole in The Prophecy, as if to underscore the point: Sloane cannot betray anyone without consequences.

We also find the episode working to try and establish the idea, that will start to pay off across the next two episodes, that Dixon and Syd may end up in opposition. The climactic, cliffhanging mission directly suggests that Dixon is about to expose Syd, after they both arrive in Algiers on the same mission from opposite ends – Syd working on the hunt for Khasinau for the CIA, Dixon working to retrieve the Rambaldi ampule for SD-6. This serves as a fairly stark reminder that, on a technical level, Dixon is a criminal mercenary, even if he doesn’t know it. While Syd goes undercover (in which could be Alias’ most misjudged costume and makeup choices yet…) backed up by Vaughn’s team secretly to meet Sark, Dixon comes in strong-armed in order to steal what he needs.

The cliffhanger feels oddly reminiscent of the final beat to Spirit, where Syd was at gunpoint, forced into a choice and backed into a corner, but in a situation you’re pretty confident she can fight her way out of. This will prove to be the case in how Rendezvous picks up from this final beat, and it speaks to how The Solution, after one or two format breaking or bending episodes with some unconventional mission aspects (Q&A in particular), reverts to standard Syd on mission formula. It’s telling that, already, Alias is starting to become less thrilling when it employs the storytelling mission mechanics from earlier in the season. The show has already evolved to a point the missions in The Solution feel arbitrary.

The Solution, ultimately, is a necessary step in beginning the wrap up and climax of Alias’ first season, a season which by any stretch of the imagination has constructed a vast amount of interlaced narratives and character journeys which the show was always going to need to begin stitching together. Though it makes for an episode which is less individualised and more the sum of its parts, The Solution has enough going on, and enough it sets in motion, to serve as an entertaining kickstart to the strongest season finale in Alias’ entire run.

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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