Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘Succession’ (3×02 – Review)

In 2018, we began a deep-dive TV review series looking at J.J. Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, we’ll be looking at Season Three’s 22-episode run in detail…

While in one respect Succession is the unofficial second part of Season Three’s introduction, it works to engage in Alias’ tricky new mission statement of fusing seriality and stand alone storytelling.

The final episode penned by the duo of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, both destined for greater cinematic and TV success, Succession’s very teaser balances these two aspects. On the one hand it provides a ‘cold open’, with the two CIA agents in Berlin trapped in a lift that rather plummeting—as we saw last season in A Dark Turn—to the ground is rather inverted, the agents lifted off by helicopter and abducted by air. The episode then plunges us headlong into a follow-up from the climactic moment of The Two, where Syd learned she murdered a man in her missing years, Andrian Lazarey. Her scene with Jack underlines that, once again, the Bristow’s will compartmentalise and keep secrets from the CIA as they search for the truth, by now as much an Alias trope as an IMF mole is to a Mission Impossible film.

Succession works, alongside this, to try and encourage Sydney to return to some level of normalcy. “For now, you deserve to get on with your life” suggests Jack, after making his daughter complicit in cover up of a murder from America’s most powerful intelligence agency, which almost seems like a mixed message. In reality, this is Orci & Kurtzman encouraging the audience to further accept the new status quo for Syd as the dust settles from the events of The Telling, our characters begin working themselves into their new clothes on this shifted chess board of alliances and villains, and Alias suggests it will try and have its cake and eat it: remove Syd from the complexity of working as a double agent while still doubling down on mystery and mythology.

By the end of Succession, however, all of those new pieces have slotted into place, even if it takes until the very final few moments of the episode to do it.

One of the core ideas underpinning Succession cuts, in truth, to one of Alias’ central recurring motifs: morality, and specifically in this case Sydney’s own moral compass as she faces the reality that she killed a man in cold blood.

Having this be the first key revelation of what happened to Sydney makes a lot of sense in the context of the series. Over the first two seasons, Syd has constantly been restrained by her own moral compromise despite being faced with a litany of people who have betrayed, abused or outright almost killed her, including both of her parents, Sloane particularly, or characters such as her ex-lover Noah Hicks from Masquerade & Snowman. Despite Jack’s frequent absence of a moral compass when working to protect his daughter and Irina’s unrepentant selfishness and shifting, nebulous motivations, Syd has always maintained a moral steadfastness which underpins Alias. She skirts self-righteousness at times as a result but almost always shows that while she has traits of Jack & Irina, she remains her own person.

Lazarey’s murder throws all of this into doubt. “I don’t trust myself right now” she claims, even as Jack attempts to assuage her latent guilt by suggesting she was not in control of her actions and her lack of memory recuses her from culpability, but Syd visibly struggles to believe this. Sharon Sutherland & Sarah Swan expand on this in their essay ‘The Good, The Bad & the Justified: Moral Ambiguity in Alias’:

As she watches the video of herself slitting the man’s throat, her feelings of shock and dismay are obvious. She assesses her moral responsibility immediately, deciding that her killing an unarmed man is inexcusable. She assumes, in keeping with the standard notion of criminal law, that unless there is an immediate threat to her life, the killing is not justified. The killing was apparently not self-defence, and Sydney cannot comprehend another moral justification for what she has done. Interestingly, at this point in the series, the audience trusts Sydney more than she trusts herself. As our hero, we believe that Sydney will act in morally acceptable ways.

Sutherland & Swan make the point that Sydney, as a defined hero as opposed to the kind of anti-hero we might see in a Tony Soprano or Walter White, is never read textually by the audience as someone who would be capable of murdering an innocent with intent, and this is why the choice by J. J. Abrams and his writing team to have Sydney believe she killed someone, in perhaps the manner Irina might have done when working for the KGB, plays into the broader thematic ideas of the series in terms of family dysfunction. Now we have met Sydney’s parents, and understand them as people in the context of their daughter, the logical next question is whether Sydney will become them.

Succession, with the central mystery of Syd’s lost time, poses the moral question of whether she already has, and it is as troubling to the audience as it is to Syd herself.

The episode confirms several aspects, of course, which ameliorate Syd’s moral concern.

It by and large tells us that the mysterious new Covenant enemy abducted Syd after her home was set ablaze following the climax of The Telling, and in the unexpected confrontation with the creepy old Russian doctor, Madrcyzk (genre veteran Bill Bolender) at the end, Orci & Kurtzman suggest that there was some level of conditioning involved—“you never broke”—which further gives Syd hope that perhaps she was not conventionally responsible for whatever the Covenant had her do. Nonetheless, it provides Syd with a solid level of emotional angst beneath all of the other open emotional issues she has across this packed episode – whether coming to terms with Vaughn’s choices, or confronting the toxicity of Robert Lindsey.

The latter is particularly interesting in the context of Syd’s moral compromise, as we very swiftly realise Lindsey is a turbo-charged, entitled version of last season’s Kendall. Even when the Covenant threaten the CIA with ominous, nerve-shredding demands “We claim responsibility for this act of aggression against the world’s remaining superpower. Who we are is unimportant, what we represent is unimportant, what we want is to be heard”, and return the head of kidnapped agent Peter Klein in a box (a very Se7en moment), Lindsey still refuses to hold steadfast to non-negotiation. He considers Sark a commodity in trade and that “the burden of criminal justice” is not enough to prevent him being traded, given he’s been bled of all intelligence over the last two years. Dixon has no choice but to go along with his seeming intent on trading Sark.

In an interesting side note, while the Covenant as a concept will ultimately peter out into nothing as the writers struggle to agree on what they look like, their positioning as a major threat to America’s unipolar dominance in the wake of 9/11 is interesting. The Alliance and SD-6 were Cold War hangover organisations, who never worked in the post-9/11 landscape Alias was forged within and were very easily dismantled, and Sloane’s & Irina’s position as series villains saw them more as zealots given how tied into the Rambaldi mythology they were. The Covenant hold the promise here of truly representing a post-9/11 threat within Alias’ hyper-real universe; the name conveying a sense of religious fundamentalism and possible fanaticism. The fact Jack suggests they are “a loose affiliation of Russian nationalists comprised of former central committee members and retired KGB” nonetheless undercuts this, suggesting Alias once again is being defined by the latent post-Cold War ideological divide of East & West.

Back to Lindsey, and Syd’s repulsion at his moral vacillating. He even attempts to embroil Dixon in his immorality by encouraging they trust Sloane’s intelligence, but Dixon thankfully snaps back his suggestion he trusts the man. “For the record, I don’t. I never will”. Syd, however, sees right through Lindsey, and once he sabotages the CIA’s own operation to trade Sark, a plan which badly backfires, in the standout scene of the episode Syd confronts him in the men’s room and actively challenges his own dominant masculinity, throwing out zingers such as “I’m not impressed by the fact you play golf with the President” (which feels oddly resonant in this day and age…) or “Give me an object lesson in the abuse of power. Show me how it’s done”, when Lindsey threatens to throw her in jail. It’s an electric scene which displays Syd’s moral determination to do the right thing, even when she has her own moral issue hanging over her head. 

Lindsey assigning Lauren in his place, however, is his vicious sweet revenge for Syd asserting her own femininity, which Simon Brown & Stacey Abbott discuss in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies:

Sydney struggles daily to assert her own agency from within a series of male-dominated espionage institutions (SD-6, the CIA, APO) as well as the spy genre itself. While Sydney does not overthrow such agencies, the series’ juxtaposition of the conventions of the spy genre with melodrama offers a space for its heroine to regularly challenge and undermine them by offering a vision of the new heroine: a heroine strong enough in mind and body to confront her male superior, in the men’s restroom, in order to challenge his competency when his political machinations compromise one of her missions. Here the narrative’s position within this male-dominated environment enables Sydney to undermine patriarchy on its own terrain as she challenges Lindsey’s position as a politician and a man.

One of the reasons the first half of Season Three works immeasurably better than the back half is that you can tell Abrams and his team understood the roadmap of what would happen, and indeed what did happen between The Telling and The Two. Given Kendall’s final lines in The Telling, Abrams foreshadowed Full Disclosure before Season Three even started, and while undoubtedly the writers were not entirely sure when Syd would get there, Succession is a good example of clear foreshadowing and character development with purpose, perhaps indeed to the clearest degree since the end of Season One and, possibly, ever in the show’s life. These first eleven episodes tell a clear, steadily unfurling picture of Syd’s lost time, and puts into further stark relief just how much the later ‘Passenger’ arc trips over itself from episode to episode.

Succession is concerned with seeding many of these plot points that will circle back later in the season.

Sark’s return as Lazarey’s son & his bankrolling of the Covenant; the mystery of Dr. Madrcyzk and his relationship to Sydney; and, finally, the introduction of Lauren Reed (perhaps the only aspect of this initial season arc the writers hadn’t mapped out well enough). Yet at the same time, it continues to provide some level of closure on Season Two. Syd moves into a new apartment, with Weiss awkwardly moving into the personal friend role once occupied by the sadly departed Will – poor Greg Grunberg in these early episodes has to proxy scenes that Will & Vaughn & even Dixon would have occupied, and he’s not having nearly as much fun as when he’s Vaughn’s sarcastic sidekick or goofing off with Marshall. “All my friends are just gone” Syd laments. It was also good to see her bring up with Sark how she knows he and Sloane murdered Francie, whose character oddly has a deeper resonance now she’s dead than ever when she was alive.

This is one of the few episodes of Season Three, particularly in this first half, where Sark actually works as a character, in a season which largely does him so little favour that the writers barely use him as a result in the final two seasons. Sark works in Succession as a key function of the main plot regarding the CIA, tethers to the mysterious new villains, and is given a direct personal connection to the enigma that is the murdered Lazarey. Making him a descendant of the Romanovs, the Russian royal family of their pre-revolutionary past, is an amusing wink to David Anders’ intentionally aristocratic lilt and adds to his innate mystique. Though Sark is a function of the narrative here, when Alias allows him to be more than just a baddie for Syd to best on mission or the henchman of either Sloane or Irina, he shines a little more.

Succession also does Vaughn more favours than The Two did, where Abrams was at pains to portray him in the worst possible light. Orci & Kurtzman work to redeem him as Weiss apologises for him, and Syd begins to thaw upon learning Vaughn essentially had a nervous, near psychotic breakdown following her death (the beginnings of which we saw in flashback in The Two as he wept in her burned apartment). “I was so in love with you, it nearly killed me” Vaughn claims and Syd buys it, appeasing the shippers everywhere. Jack remains cold as ice, in an enjoyable moment of blanking the man once Vaughn returns to the CIA, as if to remind the audience that despite his apologies, Vaughn still moved on in the manner Jack refused to do when Irina ‘died’. 

In hindsight, whether planned or not, this is the beginning of an arc for Vaughn in which he mirrors Jack’s dark journey by the end of Season Three and only just escapes it. There is also some retrospective foreshadowing of the eventual end of Season Four twist with Vaughn teaching French, but there is no way the writing team had planned that far ahead! Morality and compromise continue, through these characters, and via the narrative choices within the storytelling, to serve as Succession’s central thematic drive.

Sydney early on finds Klein’s head in a mucky Munich porn cinema (Marshall handily pointing out the film playing is ‘Penal Code Part Deux’, which I doubt is better than Part Un…). Sark is blackmailed out of his near billion-dollar inheritance by the slimy Ushek San’ko. Lindsey betrays his own operatives, as discussed earlier. Syd even ends up going undercover in Frankfurt to find the last kidnapped agent as a drop out Harvard chemistry major who Marshall suggests “got kicked out because she was synthesising ecstasy in her dorm room”. Moral vacuity is everywhere. And this isn’t even coming to Sloane, who Jack in a wonderful scene confronts, accuses and then promises revenge upon, despite Sloane repeating the assertions—indeed almost to the dialogue—he gave Syd in The Two. “You don’t really expect me to believe you’ve changed?” he suggests, speaking for the audience.

Amusingly, through Jack, Orci & Kurtzman also confront a narrative elephant in the room for Alias’ third season: Sloane’s Rambaldi device, and how his repeated claim that it just told him to spread ‘peace’ isn’t washing with anyone. “Personally, I would have found it anticlimactic” Jack says and it’s hard not to laugh out loud, especially when he likens Sloane’s revelation to something you could get in a fortune cookie. He’s speaking to something metatextual here; the audience’s expectation that Sloane’s device would have delivered something apocalyptic and destructive, when in reality it did the opposite. While Alias builds itself on such narrative subversion, always looking for an emotional tether to its characters rather than one geared around plot, Jack’s suggestion that Sloane’s device did not provide that payoff he expected parallels our audience feelings that Season Three was not the next stage of the story we might have imagined.

These long-sparring ‘frenemies’ once again underscore the moral battle at the centre of Succession, as Sloane once again tries to convince everyone around him that he is the hero of his own story, at which point Jack tries to combat his own moral demons by suggesting all of his morally questionable actions have been to protect his daughter “you don’t have the same excuse”. Jack is lying to himself to some degree, indulging a fantasy that Syd’s vulnerability right now is allowing himself to propagate, given he equally—through message board chat rooms—is maintaining some kind of long distance relationship with a seemingly concerned Irina, in hiding, who it is intimated he became romantic with once again in the two year gap, despite her multiple betrayals. At least Sloane is openly morally questionable. Jack tries to hide his own vacuum behind Syd.

In order to externalise Syd’s own fear that her moral compass might be compromised, Orci & Kurtzman place her into a therapy situation for other service men and women who lost periods of time, as mandated by Dixon. If Syd’s visions of a bright white light and mysterious figures potentially experimenting on her in The Two recalled Dana Scully’s abduction in The X-Files (not to mention Syd waking up with an unexplained stomach scar), Succession’s regression therapy and Syd encountering other victims of what looks now to be kidnapping and memory wiping by the Covenant (at this point at least), once again recalls one of the main storylines of The X-Files, and these parallels will continue. “Dreams start yet, nightmares? They will” promises one of the group, underscoring Syd’s ominous battle with her own subconscious to come.

Succession has a great deal to accomplish and does so, for the most part, with a successful semblance of balance, but now the central themes, core mysteries and character positions for the season have been established, what comes next serves as one of Sydney’s greatest challenges: the other woman. It is neatly encapsulated by one word, the final word, and one loaded with all kinds of meaning and expectation.


Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here:

  • The Two
  • Succession
  • Reunion
  • A Missing Link
  • Repercussions
  • The Nemesis
  • Prelude
  • Breaking Point
  • Conscious
  • Remnants
  • Full Disclosure
  • Crossings
  • After Six
  • Blowback
  • Facade
  • Taken
  • The Frame
  • Unveiled
  • Hourglass
  • Blood Ties
  • Legacy
  • Resurrection

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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