ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – 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…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

The ending of second seasons of television are frequently landmark moments for their shows. It serves as the point that series’ often choose to reinvent themselves, take stock at where they’ve ended up over two years, and frequently take some of their biggest and boldest creative steps.

Alias’ chief inspiration, The X-Files, moved the stakes of its storytelling up a notch with Anasazi, kicking off a trilogy of episodes which deepened the scope of the mythology in play forevermore. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which would end after seven seasons only two weeks after The Telling aired, moved the teenage angst the first two seasons were built on into a much darker realm in the two-parter Innocence. Many shows frequently re-conceptualise their entire mythology; Lost, for example, resets the board in Live Together, Die Alone after a second season which doubles down on the arcane mystery of the DHARMA Initiative while Fringe fully embraces the parallel universe concept that had been bubbling since the show began in Over There. These series came in the slipstream of Alias, of course, but they form part of a trend in cult, genre fiction for the third season of a show serving as a turning point. The Telling, even after half a season of turning points, certainly fits that bill.

In this day and age, in the wake of series such as Game of Thrones or Westworld which often turned their season finales into feature-length events, Second Double and The Telling would likely have formed the basis of a single, eighty minute episode as opposed to an awkwardly paced, not quite two-part but two-part finale. Second Double focuses heavily on Will and unfurling those revelations while The Telling angles the story more back toward trying to provide some kind of conclusive point between Syd and Irina, or Jack and Sloane, while tying off the snowballing loose ends that have been established over half a season which has scrambled, largely successfully, to craft a recognisable series from the embers of Phase One. With Abrams back writing and directing, for the last time until Season Four’s semi-reboot Authorised Personnel Only, the stakes are high. He really strives for The Telling to go out with a bang. 

It is, however, a bit of a strange season finale because it never feels in any way particularly conclusive, certainly not in the manner Phase One did in how it tied off the first era of the series. The Telling is indicative of a series that remains in a state of transition and while Alias certainly can never quite go back to what it once was after the two-year time jump of the cliffhanger, it remains by the end still a show that is edging towards a format and structure to define itself with in the same way it did in Season One. Arguably, the entirety of Season Three reflects that problem. The storytelling is less immediate and less propulsive than the final third of Season Two, but Season Three feels like a way station toward the show Alias will eventually become in Season Four, which fully managed to reinvent the concept. The Telling is thrilling, and it contains more than its fair share of payoff, but it all comes with a disclaimer: we’re only halfway there, still.

Cliffhangers, of course, are the norm at this stage in cult television. Arguably, in the age of streaming services, direct cliffhanger endings have become to a degree passe, certainly to the degree they might be employed by shows like The X-Files (with Anasazi ending with Mulder seemingly being burned alive in a train car) or Star Trek: The Next Generation, which would almost always end a season on the first of a two-part story. Alias does this with Almost Thirty Years, which immediately continues in The Enemy Walks In. The Telling employs the same structure but with a much bigger shock, one The Two does immediately pick up on but a time jump for Sydney provides the audience with a much larger narrative shift for us to hook onto than Irina revealing herself for the first time. That was an inevitable way to end the season. The two-year time jump is a massive, unexpected left turn largely designed to help the show attempt to reboot for the next season.

Michael Vartan has discussed how innovative the twist of the ending felt to the cast:

I thought it was great. You know, so many unanswered questions. It lent itself to so many diverse and vast storylines. We didn’t know what direction J.J. was going to take it, in but I thought that episode — that scene when I find her again after two years in some downtown Hong Kong apartment and now I’m married to another woman — was one of the most emotional scenes I shot on the show. Ken Olin directed that episode, and it was really, really heavy. For a minute there, you stopped feeling like you were making a TV show. It felt like we were shooting Sophie’s Choice or something.

The decision to jump the series two years into the future at the end of The Telling is quite a landmark moment for Alias, and maybe for cult television in general, but I’ll circle back to that. It is worth beforehand exploring quite what The Telling manages to achieve as a season finale in its own right.

What do people remember The Telling for? It is almost certainly not the Rambaldi mythology, or what Sloane is doing, or even Irina’s constant vacillating between honesty and lies. People remember the episode for the fight between Syd and Evil Francie in the final act, and perhaps rightly so. It is quite expertly staged with a near-Hitchcockian proficiency. What’s great about the scene is that it functions almost like an epilogue. Syd and the team have saved Jack, had a big Mexico City shootout, stopped Sloane activating the Rambaldi device, battled Irina, and they come back down to earth a little. Vaughn even says to Syd “another day…” when she anxiously recounts all of the loose ends still hanging in those final moments, given nothing essentially has been resolved. The bad guys are at large, as is a possible Rambaldi device of presumed mass destruction. The next episode surely will deal with that, right?

That’s the beauty of the staging. Abrams strips away Michael Giacchino’s frequently wonderful score and allows the casual realisation to play out for Syd, thanks to Will’s panicked answer phone message, that her best friend is the doubled Helix agent. Garner’s controlled facial response is masterful, as she conveys a range of emotions she cannot exude – anger, fear, worry, shock, all in a good ten to fifteen second shoot close up on her face that Abrams allows to linger. It’s these moments, the Hitchockian ‘bomb under the table’ tension, which make the scene fly, even more than the superbly staged fight scene. It’s almost certain the effectiveness of Abrams’ direction here, in how he crafts a brutal battle for Syd unlike anything we’ve yet seen, is partly what landed him the Mission Impossible III directing gig with Tom Cruise and set his film career going. The Telling’s final act feels like a calling card for a bigger canvas.

Merrin Dungey recalls how technical the staging of these scenes was in comparison to how the show was traditionally shot:

We rehearsed a lot… It was so choreographed, and the fight was actually a hell of a lot longer. We had to cut some of it. There was a whole thing where I was like going to be on a harness and do a flying — I can’t remember what it’s called — but this like flying kick to her chest, and we had to cut it [for time]. I mean each day when we shot it was a 16- or 17-hour day.

This fight is probably the only truly cathartic, conclusive aspect of The Telling. We have spent half a season waiting for the other shoe to drop with Evil Francie and while it is entertaining to see Will realise earlier in the episode—indeed one of the most haunting lines is his “Was it always you… Allison?”, implying Will was never sure the real Francie ever existed and maybe she was a double all along—the real punch comes from Syd figuring it out, and how she will respond. “Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream” is an immortal line for Alias, and a brilliant way of Abrams bringing together the two aspects these first two seasons straddled: Syd’s spy world and her home life. For this fight to take place in a homestead that represented security, normalcy and safety for so long, with her best friend doubled and her other best friend possibly dead, is extremely satisfying as a viewer.

Should the character of Allison Doren have been revived for Season Three’s The Nemesis? That’s an open question I’ll get into when discussing that episode but there is a finality to Syd’s home life here which nicely prefigures how the cliffhanger upends her entire existence, at home and at work. It is perhaps fitting that Allison turns out to be alive, as does Will, allowing for Syd to achieve some post-Season Two closure with two of her best friends. Nevertheless, it robs The Telling a little of the power that final act provides.

And really, while The Telling is a thrilling watch, everything else is a propulsive road to almost nowhere. The Rambaldi narrative is very much running in one place at this stage, with the promise of A Free Agent and Firebomb, as Rambaldi’s work is reconceptualised as a post-9/11 fear of weapons of mass destruction, never truly capitalised on. Countdown certainly teases that aspect but, if anything, maybe that episodes’ sense of stakes should have been ported into The Telling. Imagine if Jack had been abducted by Sloane who, according to a Rambaldi manuscript, was set to activate an apocalyptic moment? We later learn in Season Three that the device, Il Dire, tells Sloane about how to find his daughter Nadia, but what if The Telling had seen him learn about her existence through that device in the finale instead of the scenes in Tibet? We would have been robbed of Sloane’s intriguing journey in Countdown, and admittedly it’s a journey that revives his faith in Rambaldi, but it leaves The Telling dangling more than it should have been.

Compare this to Almost Thirty Years, which saw Syd & Vaughn reach Taipei both to rescue Will and stop the Red Ball device in the end. There is a flow and structure to those climactic beats which make more sense than The Telling, and while we never learn what the Red Ball is in that episode, Syd’s actions are rewarded by the Irina revelation. What are the stakes and rewards for stopping Sloane in The Telling? Jack has been abducted, sure, but everything remains too etherial and mysterious even for Alias’ own good. Jack hears Il Dire working through a wall, allowing the audience to wonder quite what the machine might be without providing any concrete explanations or even theories. Sloane talks in riddles, festooned with the calm knowledge of a man who, for now, knows the future. “I’ve seen things recently. I’ve seen what’s possible. There’s a change coming, Jack. Something even I couldn’t imagine”. Jack provides some clarity for audiences about Rambaldi filling a void for him but it doesn’t seem enough. Abrams holds too much back in these moments, especially for a finale.

The same can be said for how Syd interacts with Irina. There is a sense Abrams and the producers of Alias understand they may not get Lena Olin back for the next season, which turns out to be the case for much longer than the show anticipates. Irina doesn’t just vanish as a regular, she just *vanishes* for almost two seasons, forcing the series to awkwardly adapt storylines to fit around her absence which doesn’t entirely make sense. Nevertheless, they seem keen to provide a circular capstone to Irina and Syd’s relationship in The Telling, with Irina explaining what her plan was and how she did have the feels for her family while it was all happening: “When the time came for my escape, it was painful because my love for you, for your father, was not a contrivance”. The only problem is that how Irina has been used in the back half of the season *has* been a contrivance, to some extent.

I’ve said this before but to some degree, Irina’s storyline ended after Passage. She made the peace with the husband and daughter she left behind in those episodes and while A Dark Turn made sense in terms of her character, she is oddly far less interesting a character in episodes such as Endgame or Second Double when, divorced from Syd’s life, she is simply playing the role of super villain. Olin’s performance has always been resonant and personal and enigmatic, and she looks far more disinterested when Irina is just ‘the bad guy’. Sloane works far better in such a role because we have always known him as a distant, enigmatic villain. Irina was established as someone more nebulous and complicated and The Telling, to the show’s credit, tries to get back to that and resolve it. The problem is that she just comes off as inconsistent, and because we know so little about who she really is, and what she wants, it’s hard to get a beat on the emotion behind what she does. We’re as confused as Syd and it works less successfully with Irina than it does for Sloane.

Alias does and doesn’t learn this lesson with Irina. When she does reappear in Search and Rescue, she is used extremely well as a dangerous anti-hero at the end of Season Four, and to a similar degree in Season Five’s Maternal Instinct, but the series finale All The Time in the World learns nothing from the Season Two episodes where Irina was left to shoulder the villainy. The Telling straddles both extremes. Irina says goodbye to an extent in The Telling, even with the door left open for her return. She excuses herself from the narrative by calling back to The Prophecy, the first time Alias has done this in *far* too long, and seceding herself from the story by doling out a key piece of mythology. “Sloane believes he’s been chosen to realize the word of Rambaldi. But you, too, have been chosen. It’s you in the prophecy, Sydney, not me. Only you can stop him.”

Again, in terms of the mythology, this is intentionally nebulous, and Syd is so disinterested in any Rambaldi arcanum she is never going to want to find out quite what Irina means. We know that the Rambaldi prophecy suggested Syd might be a threat to national security, but Masquerade suggested that had been negated. Syd concluded it had to be Irina in that prophecy and it was, of course, her way of believing her mother was alive at the end of Season One. Why Season Two never explores Irina in relation to that prophecy until this moment is, honestly, baffling, and speaks to the earlier concerns about Season Two having no roadmap whatsoever as to what Rambaldi means or where it was going. Irina throws this back at Syd out of nowhere and expects the audience to run with it, but there is no grounding for it. It floats away in the air as swiftly as Sloane’s proclamations to Jack about ‘change’. In truth, it simply feels like Abrams is asking questions nobody has yet figured out the answers to.

We have discussed in the review of Trust Me about the Greek mythological and Christian connections to Syd’s journey, ideas which become more crucial and apparent in the structure of Season Three, but Paul Zinder in his essay ‘Sydney Bristow’s Full Disclosure: Mythic Structure and the Fear of Motherhood’ in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, has argued about the shared role of Demeter between Syd and Irina which changes in The Telling:

Their biological bond anchors Irina to the Demeter role even before she is reunited with her daughter in the series. Several early episodes include moments that establish the Irina/Demeter affiliation. In A Broken Heart, Jack dreams of Irina while undergoing a psychological evaluation, only to watch her become Sydney when she turns around to face him, suggesting that mother and daughter, like Demeter and Persephone, are ‘interchangeable’. During one of Sydney’s visits to Irina’s cell, her mother tucks her own hair behind her ear, mimicking her daughter’s action from moments before (Trust Me). As Sydney stands at the glass wall separating her from her mother, a reflection of Irina creates a dual image (Cipher), which anticipates an eventual passing of the Demeter archetype from mother to daughter. When Irina assures her that “it’s you… not me”, before she disappears off the side of the office building in The Telling, she cedes the Demeter role to her daughter, whose Season Three narrative includes many references to the ancient myth.

Though these connections are not present enough to be made by audiences generally, they speak to a level of closure between Syd and Irina that, to some extent, feels overdue. The sweet spot for the interaction between those two characters was between The Enemy Walks In and the end of Passage, and never again will we ever really see Syd and Irina on screen together in such a dramatically satisfying way. It might even have been to the show’s benefit had Irina not survived The Telling, in retrospect. She becomes, in the wake of Season Two, more of a narrative problem than a boon.

One of the more successful aspects of The Telling are the inter-relationships. There are nice seeds for the eventual Marshall and Carrie Bowman relationship. We get some enjoyable light relief between Weiss and characters such as Marshall and Will. There is even some enjoyable snark between Kendall and NSA Director Brandon you almost wish the show could have done more with. Abrams is good at this. He seems to understand the Syd and Vaughn dynamic better than many of the writers on the show. Here, knowing the rug he will pull from under them in the final scene, provides a relationship goal for the characters which gets them, emotionally, through the trauma and exhaustion of Sloane, Irina, Evil Francie, all of it: a trip to Santa Barbara.

The writing staff subsequently understand the power of this as a totem given how Season Four ends with them finally going on that trip, having over two seasons reached the point they were at in The Telling before the fight (before a far less effective rug pull). “We have to start thinking more positively” Syd claims, and you believe it. The Telling sees Syd and Vaughn relaxing into their relationship nicely, which makes the tragedy of the climactic scene even more effective. “Vaughn… why are you wearing that ring?” becomes even sadder given they had *almost* made it as a couple through the other side of the drama.

It was also quite an inspired choice to have Vaughn be the person who meets her in Hong Kong for this exact reason. It could have been Jack but the scene wouldn’t have been nearly as emotional. Jack would have played it more straight, more formal, and probably angrier or more about the conspiracy behind it, whereas Vaughn is just conflicted and devastated at what this does to his life, and hers. “We thought you were dead. They asked me to come back to… to explain”. You can see why Vartan was so enamoured of this scene because I’m sure he was ever better in the part than in this moment. It is played with such quiet and stillness as to let the power of the shock twist stand, and the emotion carry it. There will be time for questions and explanations later—the most we get is that Will survived, somehow—right now, we need to process just what this means, given how context the entire development is. We are as confused and lost as Syd.

In that sense, The Telling ends with a cliffhanger designed to place the audience once again in line with the show’s main character for the next season. For most of the series’ life, we have been one step ahead of someone in Alias. We knew Syd and Jack were double agents before Sloane. We knew that Sark had offered Sloane something in The Counteragent. We knew that Francie was dead and had been doubled. We knew that Will was being brainwashed. We knew that the apocalyptic event in Countdown involved Sloane. We knew that Will had found out the truth about Francie. The final moments of The Telling reset the board. For the first time in the show’s history, we are level with Syd. We don’t know anything more than she does, and that’s exciting and enticing as a viewer going into a new season, even with a myriad of questions still on the board and unresolved.

The Telling, therefore, is not as rounded and effective a climactic beat to Season Two as Almost Thirty Years was to Season One, but it ends a rollercoaster of a season in appropriate fashion. The cliffhanger throws us off the ride and lands us in unfamiliar, mysterious territory. If only Season Three had managed to live up to that promise…

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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