Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘Reunion’ (3×03 – 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…

Reunion is a classic example of Alias on auto-pilot, delivering the kind of throwaway hour of the series filled with scenes and moments most fans probably barely remember.

This makes a degree of sense given how The Two and Succession both had an enormous job to perform of establishing the new status quo of Season Three’s altered landscape, provide Sydney with a set of core new arcs for her character, and re-introduce both our long-term supporting players and crucial new additions, such as Vaughn’s wife, NSC agent Lauren Reed. Reunion is, therefore, the first conventional episode of Alias’ much truncated ‘stand-alone’ structure, although from the season premiere J. J. Abrams established that Alias, by its very nature, will never be entirely a contained episodic series of old. Jeff Pinkner’s first script of the season shows off that new structural format; a central ‘espionage of the week’ plotline flanked by a number of ongoing character and story arcs.

The worrying part of this is just how anodyne Reunion turns out to be as an episode. It reminded me of Season Two’s third episode, Cipher, which perhaps stands as the most disposable story in that otherwise propulsive season, and while Reunion is perhaps given a run for its money this season for that accolade by outings such as Crossings or Taken, and does at least contain the last vestiges of narrative establishment for this season with Syd and Lauren’s interaction, much like Cipher it contains several relatively unmemorable missions and Sark operating in a barely sketched, ‘rent a baddie’ role. Reunion simply feels like a collection of necessary character beats for the seasonal arc stitched together by a thin main story which, ultimately, means nothing to the show as a whole.

Reunion stands as probably the least thrilling or dynamic hour of the season’s first half, even if it at least has some element of necessary form and function.

Pinkner’s episode does, of course, provide our first proper introduction to the character of Lauren, as played by new cast addition Melissa George.

Now, as a British viewer, George was a recognisable face from, the Australian soap opera Home & Away, which alongside rival Neighbours would be on hard rotation on British television across the 1990s. Beyond that, George had begun to carve herself an interesting film career upon moving to Hollywood, appearing in Alex Proyas’ strange Dark City, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive among others – quite the arrival, working for some of the most innovative filmmakers in the business. Yet George didn’t quite break through into cinematic superstardom as other Antipodean’s such as Nicole Kidman or later Margot Robbie, mainly following Alias with headline roles in cult or horror pictures after appearing in the unremarkable remake of The Amityville Horror (though some, such as Triangle, were rather good).

In fact, George auditioned several years earlier for the role of Sydney, only to be cast on ABC’s lesser well known and shorter lived series Thieves instead. When Lauren came along, it was perhaps a touch of destiny that saw George finally attach herself to Alias, by this point an established series which had, ever so slightly, missed the zeitgeist window. Most shows that break out into pop culture fame, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files, have made it into the lexicon by their third year, replete with fan favourites, established communities and catchphrases. Alias would never quite have the latter, and while it did have the former—such as message board forums abuzz with activity at the time—it was never to the same extent as some of its inspirations, or even shows to come. George was jumping onto a moving train which was liked, admired often by critics, but not exactly a cultural sensation. This, in theory, gave Lauren as a character room to breathe.

George discussed with Michael Ausiello of TV Guide as the season began her hopes for the character:

I’m not going to make her unlovable. Every woman can relate to being married to somebody [with] another woman [in the picture], and that’s basically what is going to be going on. And she’s a very ambitious, very strong, very intelligent woman; she’s not going to let too much go past her. And she’s very protective of her man, as every woman would be. But at the same time, she really looks up to Jennifer’s character. She knows about her, she’s read about her, so there’s that whole thing going on as well. I think she’s going to be fighting a lot of emotions.

Ausiello’s next question, his inference of these comments, is whether Lauren is destined to be a villainess, and while George’s answer is coy as you’d expect, there is a genuinely good chance she wasn’t aware of the twist ending of Full Disclosure until she was given the script. She plays Lauren, therefore, from Reunion across the first half of the season, without the pretext knowledge of who the character really is.

We will discuss Lauren in the last half of Season Three later in these reviews, but it is not unfair to suggest that George ends up playing two distinct characters in Alias; the psychopathic, murderous, sexually immoral assassin, and in this first half of the season, an intelligence agent caught in the most, as Marshall tactlessly suggests, “awkward!”, situation in the workplace you can imagine – working alongside the supposedly dead woman who your husband adored. There is a touch of Daphne du Maurier about the whole thing, if Rebecca had returned from the dead and turned out to be the hero. In Reunion, George’s sympathetic if slightly patronising portrayal suggests there will be some meat to chew on with Lauren, and that she won’t be simply drawn as a figure for fandom to hate, as the woman between Syd & Vaughn’s romantic relationship.

Pinkner works to try and characterise Lauren beyond being ‘the other woman’ in Reunion (even if technically that role belongs to Syd now), allowing several scenes between she and Vaughn alone to try and establish her as a character in her own right. She attempts to be gracious to Syd, recognising the difficulty inherent in the space they are sharing, but the show—quite hilariously in many ways—doubles, nay triples, down on the many reasons Syd has to hate the woman. She is not just Vaughn’s wife, she is also Lindsey’s NSC stooge sent in to investigate Lazarey’s death, not to mention the woman who helped negotiate Sloane’s pardon agreement. It’s as if Lauren being Mrs Vaughn wasn’t enough and the writers felt she needed professional narrative reasons why Lauren might end up at odds with Syd. “No one would blame us if we hated each other” Lauren later suggests. Certainly not the fans. They’re being bated for potential confrontation.

This happens quicker than you might expect in Reunion, during their first mission briefing in fact, when Lauren argues that technology is capable of leaps that Syd isn’t aware of given her two year absence, tools which could have collapsed SD-6 and the Alliance far quicker than Syd ever managed. “Do me a favour and don’t revise history that I lived through!” Syd counters, reminding everyone, not just Lauren, that they have become inured to the harsh realities of history that remains fresh in Syd’s mind and has receded for everyone else. Lauren exemplifies this as a character in this episode, that sense of change, that sense of the CIA players—all except Jack—in some sense revising and editing everything that happened in the first two seasons to fit how radically different their current situation is. “Sloane is a necessary evil” Dixon states here. Can you imagine the Dixon of Countdown saying that?

There is some logic to this. Time does change perspective, and time is something Syd has lacked.

The mention of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with Syd lamenting that she lost a first edition of the book given to her by Irina when she was a child in the house fire, is pointed in Reunion, as Syd very much fell down her own rabbit hole between Seasons Two and Three, one she is only just climbing out of. Like Alice, Syd is curious, emerging into a strange wonderland populated with people she knows yet doesn’t know, or will have to learn to know again. On mission, for example, she is forced to turn away when she & Vaughn get changed in a lift, their personal situation no longer warranting such physical exposure. Everything that Syd knew and understood is gone, even her own memory, and as befitting the show’s concept, Reunion further illustrates how she adopted a new ‘alias’ in those two years who killed at least one man.

It’s no wonder we see her early on getting drunk in her new apartment with Weiss, in a sequence which strangely mirrors another third episode, this time from Season One, Parity, where she and Will got drunk and bonded. With Weiss, the sexual aspect is stripped away and he remains performing the role Bradley Cooper essayed for two seasons (almost as if Alias never understood quite what they had with Will, eh?), serving as Syd’s emotional confidante as she works through the grief she feels for her relationship with Vaughn. There is an ugly side to how Weiss is being portrayed this season, which becomes apparent in Reunion – a focus on his weight. After comments made in The Two, this is again referred to here as Weiss on mission suggests “That’s double chin angle for me, not good”. Alias has a rather negative perception of body image, weirdly. The treatment of Weiss here gives the impression that unless you’re statuesque like Syd, a bombshell like Lauren, boyish and slick like Sark or a chiselled hunk a la Vaughn, you’re relegated to a sub-division of usefulness.

This is nothing new to Alias. We might laugh week in week out at Marshall’s charming nerdery—thanks in no small part by how engaging Kevin Weisman is in the role—but Marshall remains a horrendous cliche of a basement dwelling Uber-geek. His relationship with Carrie feels more like appeasement than any suggestion he is ‘normal’. Look at the former computer hacker felon who Jack enlists here to help him plant the ‘polyphonic worm’ which scrambles Marshall’s Syd-exposing software; he is almost a carbon copy of the Holden Genler character Sloane murders in The Getaway, the same kind of physically unattractive, morally dubious cyber-manchild who reinforces Alias’ ethnic and physical prejudices. If you’re not (largely) white, slim and workout in the glossy world of Alias, you can’t be the hero. You can be the comedy sidekick, or the emotional support, but Weiss is never going to be caught between two women or be presented, as Vaughn is here while helping Syd on mission as Lauren watches on, indispensable in or out of the field. On hearing the name Medusa, Weiss even says “Sounds like the myth of my college girlfriend. She actually dumped me for a roadie at a Duran Duran concert”. These are aspects of Alias that are more deeply apparent with distance than at the time, but they make already fairly average hours like Reunion harder to swallow.

Aside from these interpersonal issues, Reunion falls back again on latently placing the Russians as geopolitical enemies, although not quite in the same manner as previous seasons.

The weekly, disposable goon, Major Boris Oransky—a paltry villain even in the lexicon of ‘one and gone’ Alias bad guys—is a rogue element from the Russian government, disgraced and dishonourably discharged, who now throws his lot in with Sark and the Covenant lurking behind him to recover Medusa, the anti-satellite tech ‘MacGuffin’ presents here—which like the Greek mythical creature uses a beam to knock out or ‘turn to stone’ satellite networks. Why the episode wasn’t called Medusa, who knows?

The Russians are expressly not to blame here, indeed Oransky even crashes a satellite into Moscow, triggering a just-aborted nuclear response (although the scale of this and how quickly it’s cast aside reminded me of when 24 detonated a nuke in Los Angeles four episodes into a season and then basically forgot about it, remember that?). Dixon points out that while the Russians openly oppose the existence of the Medusa technology, “they’re not about to admit having it”. So Alias plays it safe, here, safer than the days of proxy-KGB agencies such as K-Directorate running around. The Russians are as much victims here of extremist terrorists as the Americans would be. The fact Weiss asks “why don’t we call the Kremlin and tell them what’s up?” is also suggestive of a time in which American-Russian relations were more convivial and open.

Reunion is also one of those Alias episode that lays everything on so thick you wonder if it credits the audience with the same intelligence that it did in the early days, asking them to accept its knotty and convoluted concept. The use of Patsy Cline’s ‘She’s Got You’ at the beginning, with her literally singing the line ‘she’s got you’ as Syd walks in on Vaughn & Lauren; or Syd’s ridiculous costume for her Mexico-based mission, one in which she proves how terrible a spy she is—and how clearly out of place she looks—when Oransky spots her spying in an instant. “Gringo in the poncho!” he shouts, which could be one of the worst lines in any Alias script ever. “This is the worst disguise yet” Syd moans, clearly having edited history herself and forgotten Dixon’s hideous get up in …So It Begins or his DJ in A Higher Echelon.

Pinkner has more fun with how he utilises both Jack & Sloane here, each in their own way completely on brand. 

Jack is doing what he does best – bucking authority and downright breaking intelligence laws that would, in the real world, get him locked up multiple times over, as he secretly counteracts Lauren, the NSC & Marshall’s efforts to expose Syd as Lazarey’s murderer. The whole sub-plot, even down to Michael Giacchino’s re-used cues, smacks of Jack’s attempts to subvert Ariana Kane’s SD-6 investigation in A Higher Echelon, just with fewer in the way of stakes. The episode attempts to cross cut between Jack’s criminal conduct and Syd/Vaughn’s climactic mission to develop tension, but it never really works as both narratives are entirely unconnected. The stakes feel manufactured. Plus, as regards Marshall’s software program, Dixon would blatantly have recognised Syd from what is rendered. The fact he or no one else does is a willing blind spot of Clark Kent/Superman in the Christopher Reeve-era proportions.

Sloane, meanwhile, is shameless in how he revels in his new role as humanitarian saviour. Syd is at pains to remind everyone that Sloane gave them intelligence to allow the CIA to wipe out his competition (whether true or not), and looks galled when Sloane refuses to help them break into the Russian Science Ministry—with whom he has ties due to his cancer research of all things—to recover Medusa. “I am under no obligation to assist you or anyone else to break the law” he has the nerve to say, before utterly messing with Vaughn’s head in relation to the difficulty of negotiating his current wife and former lover in the work space. We don’t yet know if Sloane remains a villain or not (chances are the writing staff haven’t figured it out yet either), but he completely seems to have the world around his little finger. “Mr Sloane is an amazing man, and a great friend of science” a Russian delegate suggests. Syd mutters it under her breath afterward in disbelief.

Reunion, by the end, manages to conclude the opening introductory salvo of establishment for Season Three. All the pieces are now in place, the key relationships and plots established. Syd’s character arc across this episode is reflected in how it concludes with Weiss gifting her the Alice in Wonderland book. Symbolically, through this totem, Syd is reclaiming not just her memory of the past, but her tether and connection to it given how lost she feels. “It’s a third edition” Weiss quips, apologetically, and the suggestion is that Syd may never be able to return to the life she had, but that’s ok. She can make peace with that. Her reunion is with this book and, symbolically, her life before the fire and her disappearance.

Having begun to acclimatise, now she must face her recent past, the memories she doesn’t yet have, which are set to collide into her in dramatic fashion…

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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