ALIAS – ‘Truth Takes Time’ (2×18 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Truth Takes Time could have, and perhaps should have, become the catchphrase for Alias in the same manner ‘The Truth is Out There’ did for The X-Files. It certainly speaks to the ongoing reality of the series’ mystery box storytelling.

It was a phrase used by Irina Derevko back in The Enemy Walks In, after she saves Sydney’s life by shooting dead her confederate Alexander Khasinau. As if to underscore her words, she immediately turns herself into the CIA, confounding Syd, Jack and everyone involved in the hunt for her organisation. Truth, in this instance, is knowledge as fundamentally sacred as the Rambaldi mystery Irina is dedicated to solving. Irina’s message is that the search for truth is an ongoing process, that it exists itself as a quest, but one for Sydney. Irina could tell her an enormous amount of secrets, as there is the constant suggestion that she knows much more about the mythology behind Alias than she lets on, but she never does. This is, admittedly, partly for dramatic purposes, but there is something else going on.

Truth underscores this entire episode, beyond even the title, as Truth Takes Time is probably the most *personal* story certainly in Season Two of Alias, and perhaps at any point in the mythology. Most episodes across the first and second seasons, and in subsequent years, see Sydney & her colleagues facing threats that existentially represent old blocs or emerging enemies – SD-6, the Alliance, K-Directorate, even the Covenant or Prophet Five to come in future seasons. They are all impersonal structures, however, and while they contain characters who provide personal connections to our heroes, they are never functionally enemies we come to know or truly understand. In Truth Takes Time, our enemies are Sloane, Irina and Sark. Every interaction, every challenge, every reveal and every loss is deeply felt by everyone involved.

Every episode of Alias right now feels like a point of no return as the series quite masterfully reconceives itself as, this week, an espionage melodrama, and Truth Takes Time is no exception. Nothing is quite the same again by the end of this one.

J. R. Orci’s script goes out of the way to add an ominous feeling to Truth Takes Time in a different manner to Jesse Alexander’s work on A Dark Turn, by bringing back the in media res structure utilised so well in the pilot, and occasionally since, and which became a staple of storytelling from the J.J. Abrams stable.

In fact, it surely isn’t coincidence that the series pilot is called Truth Be Told, an episode which deployed the in media res technique (whereby we are dropped into the narrative at a key point and then pull back to see how we ended up there) with great effectiveness, introducing Sydney in the middle of being captured on mission. That episode *did* reveal truth, in that she learned about SD-6 and was set off on Alias’ initial quest, but Truth Takes Time reminds Sydney—and us—that the board has been reset. The rug was swept from under everyone by Sloane (and, as we find out here, Irina) working to destroy the Alliance, and we are now playing by their rules. Truth will be delineated as they see fit. Hence why bringing back the narrative technique, and showing Syd in fast pursuit of Irina and Sloane, and indeed (falsely) teasing Irina’s possible death, is a key reminder of how this macro conflict is rooted in the micro.

This becomes apparent in how the events of A Dark Turn affect the operational running of the CIA. Kendall is given a demotion by the unseen powers that be, with Jack being given the role of director. In some sense, this feels like Orci and the writing staff testing the water as to how well Jack functions as a character in the boss role, as he certainly has the experience and authority, but logically it is hard to countenance the idea that Jack would be promoted by the CIA after just weeks before, after Dead Drop, he is arrested for bombing a building and going off book to kill Irina. Moments like this are where you have to accept Alias is a hyper-real, fantasy version of intelligence work and roll with it, because the move is partly designed to try and redeem Jack’s function to an extent after Irina’s betrayal. 

We learn he was one step ahead of her ‘turn’ and planted a tracking device on her during, it’s intimated, sexual intercourse, but this almost invalidates how Jack is suckered at the end of A Dark Turn. It is just about believable, given he has spent the entire season convinced Irina was ultimately going to betray them, but it feels like a contrived convenience to kickstart the hunt for Irina and Sloane that dominates Truth Takes Time in a way it never will again in the series. It does allow for some terrific tension between an aggrieved Kendall and a typically bullish Jack. “It’s not my intention to replace you. As soon as I’m satisfied that Derevko can never harm my daughter again, you’ll have your title back”. Seeing Victor Garber and Terry O’Quinn spar is worth its weight in gold, and Orci clearly writes toward their antipathy, which has brewed nicely across the season, tempered by a grudging respect.

Vaughn kind of gets a lucky ‘out’ after internal affairs discover he has been moonlighting to investigate Irina in A Dark Turn, just about managing to retain his operational functionality, but he too is vindicated and justified in his suspicions, and he begins to edge closer into Syd’s life. We won’t truly return to the idea of Vaughn not being the man we think he is until the final season. Instead, Orci continues the uncanny development of Evil Francie as just a little bit twisted in how she buys him a gift and very clearly low-key flirts with him at dinner. Syd notices. Will notices. Both think it’s weird. It’s a good example of how Alias is keeping this plotline on the bubble, even with a host of other plots going on. Again, it feeds into the idea everything now is personal.

Returning to Irina and Sloane, it’s telling that after this episode, both enemies start to go their separate ways, essentially, and undertake different paths, while the CIA’s focus is diversified across half a dozen strands in the remaining four episodes. Orci’s episode is the last time the crusade to stop Sloane and Irina as a dual threat is a laser-focused objective, and in some sense that makes it quite a unique and special episode of the series. Even the villainy itself here is personal. Established backstory has revealed by this point that Sloane would have known Irina well historically, but there is no suggestion until Truth Takes Time that he knew her as anyone beyond Laura Bristow, her cover identity. 

It’s been an open question as to whether Sloane knew that Irina was alive after her ‘death’ in 1981, or if he found out when Sydney and the CIA did. It certainly appears he discovered the truth about Syd & Jack’s double agent status when Irina had Sark pretend to kill him in The Counteragent, and then Sloane’s already in motion escape from the Alliance dovetailed with Irina’s suggestion they team up on the quest for Rambaldi’s truth, but they make for uneasy bedfellows with a suggestion not only of existent sexual frisson but also some kind of unspoken history (which Season Three turns into reality). “You may need to think of yourself as an honorable husband, a father figure. But I don’t. I will never see that man in you” Irina claims, when Sloane almost taunts her about he and Emily being surrogate parents to Syd in the intervening years. This ends up laying track for when we learn Irina and Sloane did, in fact, conceive a child, even if we learn very little about the circumstances of their union.

Emily is the other major factor in Truth Takes Time, in what will serve as Amy Irving’s final appearance in the role (bar flashback scenes in Season Four’s In Dreams). Though we have seen Emily at points across Season Two helping Sloane in his plot against the Alliance, she only appeared in oblique fashion – as a possible vision, a possible corpse, and eventually briefly at the end of The Getaway as we realise Sloane faked her death after the Alliance ordered him to kill her after she recovered from cancer in Almost Thirty Years. In some ways, Emily is an outlier in what she represents. She is the conscience and humanity of a character, in Sloane, who the show has worked hard to suggest doesn’t have one and is, almost literally, the Devil incarnate. How can the man who did what he did in Firebomb be the same loving husband we see in Truth Takes Time? It is difficult to square and the episode finally deals with that problem.

Truth Takes Time suggests Sloane is actually more conflicted in the life he wants to lead than we have at first imagined. The Getaway could have been his exit from the show, theoretically, living a peaceful life with Emily alive, off the grid, but instead he entered full super villain mode to hunt Rambaldi in the last few episodes while parking Emily inside their Tuscan villa, which he mentions to Sark that he purchased “six months ago” in A Free Agent. Sloane has therefore been planning for two eventualities – seeking Rambaldi in a race across the globe, and maintaining some semblance of a normal life that Emily, too, is kidding herself that they can have. This becomes clear to her once she realises not only is Laura Bristow alive (only knowing her as such) but that she was never who she said she was. Sloane claims he has only known she’s alive “a couple of months”, but who knows? Sloane tells her that is pursuing ‘truth’. “Good, well, that explains it all. I guess you and I are looking for the same thing!” Emily claims.

Orci’s episode very much works to draw a parallel in many ways between Emily and Syd, who she considered a daughter. You realise here that while Syd may have the innate skills of Irina, and had the espionage world drilled into her covertly from a young age by Jack, she modelled who she is after Emily as an example. “You’re in an impossible situation. At your funeral, I said that I’ve always thought of you as my real mother. I meant it.” Syd later tells her, underscoring this point, but they both share a naivety about the broader mythological world they inhabit. Syd still believes, even after her betrayal by Irina and telling Vaughn she knew she was naive, that Irina was trying to save her life in the Stuttgart lab before it blows up, leading her out to safety. Emily equally believes that Sloane is, at heart, a good man, even if she, too, betrays him upon learning the truth he bestows upon her. “When I found out I had cancer, Arvin was my tether to hope, to survival. And when I went into remission, he told me the truth. He asked for my forgiveness and promised he would make things right. He’s been my whole world for thirty years, he saved my life”.

In the end, too, Emily simply cannot bring herself to fully betray Sloane, tipping him off with enough time to escape the CIA—who come the closest here that they ever will to catching him—even though it gets her killed. There is a brilliant moment of acting from Ron Rifkin here as Emily reveals she has betrayed him to the CIA and a hint of fury crosses his face before it dissipates. Sloane’s love for Emily is the one true thing that carries him across the entire series, even after she is gone, even when he is doing terrible things as well as redeemable ones. It is a paradox that Alias never fully resolves, even if it tries to deal with it here, as Emily provides a logical counter to his misdeeds. “He rationalizes what he’s done. He says he’s doing it for us, for me. Even if I believe him, I won’t be the excuse for his crimes. I won’t live with that on my conscience”. Sloane is even prepared, it seems, to give up his quest for Emily, to sacrifice Rambaldi to be with her. He never truly gets the chance to see if he could have made that work.

Incidentally, we again here get a strong hint that Rambaldi’s quest is all about immortality. Time Will Tell (another title with a similar derivation to this episode) suggested Donati the clockmaker was hundreds of years old. Passage pt 2 revealed the Rambaldi flower that had existed for five hundred years. Here, Sloane suggests what he is looking for, his truth, will allow Emily to live cancer free “forever”. Rambaldi as a mythology will ebb and flow, twisting and turning over the seasons to whatever it needs to be for plot-purposes, but the first couple of seasons have a much clearer, regular through-line that Rambaldi’s mystery involves some kind of everlasting life. The fact the episode sees Sloane and Irina attacking an equivalent to the Human Genome Project in Germany, Brucker Biotech, makes an even more specific connection to the process of immortality. “Brucker sponsored genetic research, specifically the mapping of sequencing human chromosomes. But it’s rumored that they’ve catalogued the DNA of private citizens. Some say millions.” Will claims, and this will be specifically paid off soon in Countdown. Interestingly, just a month after Truth Takes Time aired, the Human Genome Project would be declared complete.

A sense of tragic irony therefore pervades the deeply personal revelations and turning points in Truth Takes Time. We know that the in media res tease will likely be some kind of double bluff but Emily’s demise almost seems pre-ordained the moment she learns the truth. Truth doesn’t just take time, but it means deadly consequences. Emily worked as an adjunct to Sloane when she didn’t really understand the work he was doing, even if she was passively willing to accept he did terrible things and killed people, but how could she have functioned as a kind-hearted civilian alongside Sloane? Would she go with him when he’s chatting up Pashtun warlords and sit quietly in the background? Emily’s death is a necessary catalyst to push Sloane further down what is at first a path of vengeance and later turns out to be one of introspection, self-discovery and regeneration. But killing Emily, let’s face it, is likely killing a puppy. It hurts and it just feels awful. And the fact Dixon pulled the trigger just makes it worse, not even thanks to the terrible consequences it will have for his life.

There’s something thrilling about Alias at this point. It is a series in the throes of change, morphing and adapting and to some degree making up the rules as it goes along, but the result is fascinating to watch. The storytelling has a richness to it, a sense that every week something new will be both paid off and established, and the sense that the writers will find a way to twist and turn the narrative to surprise and confound in equal measure. This will absolutely turn out to be the case for the final four episodes, but Truth Takes Time is still quite unique even within the scope of Alias. There will never be an episode quite like this again, in just how deeply it cuts to the bone of almost every major character – Syd, Jack, Irina, Sloane, Dixon. All of them lose something by the end. All of them see their circumstances changed.

The final moment, as Syd receives the morse code message from Irina spelling out the episode title, caps off the episode thematically. Truth is dangerous. Truth is mercurial. Truth will cost everyone. And Alias isn’t yet done with loss, tragedy and truth exploding in the face of many of its characters.

Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 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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