Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘A Missing Link’ (3×04 – 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…

Having established the base foundation of Season Three, Alias is free to begin assembling the building blocks in A Missing Link, the first episode that truly displays quite how the series’ new raison d’etre can successfully function.

The Two was burdened with grounding Sydney back in the world after her missing time, while Succession muddies the waters with introducing the central overarching antagonists of both Sark and the Covenant, before Reunion fairly awkwardly focuses on Lauren’s full arrival and how Syd can operate within these new dynamics. A Missing Link has the space, with all of this clear and out of the way, to laser focus into the central mystery of not just Sydney’s lost two years, but also the core existential idea of the series itself: the alias. Syd in this episode discovers she had an alias during her missing time she never even knew about: Julia. Quite who this woman is or was remains an enigma, but A Missing Link—as the title suggests—begins Syd’s, and our, process of sketching in those details.

In form and structure, A Missing Link feels perhaps the most Season One episode of Alias in a very long time.

Back in those early days of the show, we quite often had stories which saw Syd on an extended mission which connected over two episodes, and led to some very audience-baiting, adventure serial-style cliffhanger endings week on week with Syd directly in peril – take A Broken Heart into Doppleganger or Reckoning into Color Blind, for instance. The difference with A Missing Link, and where newly recruited writers Monica Breen & Alison Schapker develop this form, is that it affords Syd the opportunity to bed into her alias to a degree very few episodes in the show’s past have ever given her the space to do. Because her mission to infiltrate the cell of international super-thief Simon Walker directly connects to her missing time, A Missing Link manages to tether its main plot and Syd’s character arc into the broader ongoing mythology in more of an effective manner than any outing this season yet.

“Who the hell is Julia?”, as voiced by Weiss, becomes the central refrain of this episode, for the audience and for our main character.

There are several ongoing, concurrent threads running through A Missing Link, but a signature builds on a thematic idea laid down in Succession and developed here: were her morals so compromised during those missing two years that she became a cold-blooded assassin?

“I understand this haunts you” Jack claims, watching Syd’s obsession with the Lazarey murder video deepen as she searches for clues about what would make her commit such an act, but does Jack truly understand? This is a man we have witnessed kill in cold blood (see Stephen Haladki), even if it was for reasons he would classify as the greater good, but Syd retains a moral centre Jack has always lacked. It makes her redeemable, ultimately, in a manner Jack can simply never be, despite the goodness buried within his soul. Syd is asking all of the logical questions anyone in her position—if anyone ever would be in her unique position—would ask, but A Missing Link is entirely underpinned by Syd’s fear that as Julia (a name she unconvincingly manages to lip read Lazarey mouth on the video), that moral centre vanished.

Alias has always been, if not overtly, a series with Christian overtones and Syd’s personal sense of judgement and right/wrong is one of them, and this initial arc ends up heavily woven with Judeo-Christian mythology. Faith is frequently used in the show in proxy fashion, often via Sloane and Rambaldi, in order to explore these concerns, and Syd invokes it here too as she appeals to Laszlo Bogdan, the only member of Walker’s team never to have met Julia, on his death bed to help the CIA. “This is your last chance” Syd promises him to avoid a potential afterlife where he suffers for the consequences of stealing world-ending biological weapons that have ended up killing him when he was exposed to them. Syd imposes Christian moral judgement on Bogdan when she fears the absence of that in herself during her missing time, as the duality of her darker id—Julia—appeared to assert herself. Alias will exculpate her of that to an extent later in the season but such existential fear drives A Missing Link outside of the propulsive plotting.

It becomes most apparent, obviously, when Syd meets Walker—fully expecting to have to use her double agent skills honed over the years in SD-6–to infiltrate his crew, only to hide her shock when Walker passionately “kissed me like his prom date” as she later puts it, and she has to blag her way into the Julia role she is only just discovering existed. It’s a great moment and as a piece of plotting, it’s an impressive way to tell an Alias story while cutting to the very nub of the seasonal narrative and Syd’s character arc. “What? No future in murder?” Walker casually asks, confirming Julia was an assassin and deepening Syd’s fears in the bargain.

As an aside, Justin Theroux is excellent in the slimiest of roles, convincingly pulling off the kind of slick operator Syd might have been attracted to even while undercover and against her better judgement, while equally being a complete scumbag in the bargain. This begins his association with the Bad Robot stable that will pay dividends a decade later in his career-best role in Damon Lindelof’s superb The Leftovers. You also are left feeling like Julia’s adventures with Walker in those missing years would have made a great tie-in comic book series, and likely would have been turned into such had Alias been produced fifteen or twenty years later.

Walker’s primary function is, of course, to highlight the alien wilderness that is Syd’s missing two years, much of which remains a mystery beyond Full Disclosure’s mission to fill in the main gaps.

Just how deep in with Walker and his crew did Julia go? Enough to eternally stoke the jealous ire of Walker’s number two, Javier Perez (Clifton Collins Jr, later to crop up amongst other things as Nero’s second in command Ayel in the Star Trek 2009 reboot by J.J. Abrams, a similar role in fact to the one he plays here). There is a strong hint that Perez might be in love with Walker, and his jealousy extends beyond Julia’s sudden reappearance and suspicion at her as the golden girl. It lends the extended scenes with the crew an underlying frisson, while Syd’s undercover mission is fraught with challenges – stealing the necklace of the wealthy Spanish Princess in the exotic hotel under timed conditions (allowing for a sequence of Jennifer Garner in sexy swimwear that recalls Season 2’s Double Agent and its nod to Fast Times at Ridgemont High), or just about avoiding being made by a visiting Sark.

In another aside, the weapons Walker and his crew seek here reflect a deep-seated anxiety about pathogens and biological weaponry that feels more acute following the world-shattering reality of Covid-19. Walker’s team break into a Cannes lab doing research on “West Nile, HIV and Ebola”. The latter two are immediately recognisable, both incurable diseases which have ravaged African global south populations and in HIV’s case caused a significant physical and indeed moral panic across the Western world in the 1980s and into the 1990s. West Nile is perhaps the least well known, but the World Health Organisation provides some key context:

In 1999 a WNV circulating in Israel and Tunisia was imported in New York producing a large and dramatic outbreak that spread throughout the continental United States of America (USA) in the following years. The WNV outbreak in USA (1999-2010) highlighted that importation and establishment of vector-borne pathogens outside their current habitat represent a serious danger to the world.

West Nile continued to plague American citizens across the 2000s, after Alias’ run came to an end, as an example of a pre-pandemic outbreak akin to Avian Flu or SARS or Hantavirus; well-known diseases which were contained before they blew up into the kind of vector we saw with Covid-19, and given most of these other examples are far deadlier we should be thankful they didn’t trigger an outright global pandemic. By name checking these diseases, and suggesting the Covenant through Walker are seeking to create an “artificial pathogen” that can be weaponised against specific targets, Alias again transposes real emerging scientific threats to global health into post-Cold War, technologically advanced terrorist applications. It remains in the world of fantasy, and does not utilise bio-weapons in the same way as The X-Files’ alien viruses and pathogen outbreaks, but the existential threat certainly exists.

A Missing Link could, in alternate circumstances, have ended up as a single episode, and while Walker and his crew do play second fiddle to an extent in Repercussions next episode, the space Alias gives Syd’s first undercover mission as Julia allows us to invest a little more in the mystery of her relationship with Walker and the biological weapons heist they undertake. This is how Breen & Schapker manage to take the Season One precepts of the comic-book cliffhanger ending (very much in evidence here) and ground Syd with more of a meaningful story in terms of character work. Walker is fleshed out to a greater extent than previous visiting bad guys, indeed he also recalls Noah Hicks from Masquerade/Snowman, a two-part story which also had other narrative strands but front loaded Syd’s sexual reconnection with a man that turned out to be a bad guy. That story is inverted here, to an extent – Julia is, in theory, the bad girl in this scenario, and as Noah hid his ‘Snowman’ alias until the very last moment of that story, just before his death in fact, Syd has to wear Julia’s skin in order to succeed in her operation. She has to accept her own duality.

Another reason this episode works well is how that sense of innate duality is reflected in the aligning B-plot, with Vaughn, Lauren and indeed Sloane. Hindsight is 20/20 and on first watch, audiences had no idea about Lauren’s eventual dark turn, but A Missing Link perhaps contains the first seedling of it, or certainly that Lauren might not be as morally virtuous as Syd, when she clashes with Vaughn over his actions in destroying the Medusa software in Reunion. “Who cares about the details?” Vaughn suggests, which is a bit rich coming from someone who helped Syd take down the tentacled SD-6 where details were crucial, but on a meta level it perhaps speaks to the mindset of a writing staff who had stripped away an enormous amount of technical plot minutiae from Alias and were revelling in the opportunity to tell more straightforward stories. In terms of Lauren, however, it suggests a frustration that Vaughn destroyed useful information for the NSC, while with hindsight Lauren was clearly frustrated the Covenant hadn’t got their hands on it. “The better you do your job, the better I’ll do mine” she tells an incensed Vaughn, who always gets uppity & even more humourless when his personal ego is challenged.

These scenes might seem throwaway but they are the first evidence of cracks in the marriage. Not that Syd & Vaughn didn’t have clashes over how they operated when they were a couple—take how they disagreed over Dixon in Countdown for instance—but Vaughn was frequently on the other foot, challenging Syd’s propensity to bend or break the rules to protect those she loves (sound like anyone?). The only time she fully challenged him was in A Dark Turn, and that was about secrets rather than competence. Lauren fundamentally questions Vaughn’s actions here and accentuates her position as the outsider. This is only exacerbated when she visits Sloane for intel in Zurich, and he does some next level emotional trolling in their two scenes, pushing buttons with expert manipulative skill. He goes for two things he knows will trigger Lauren: Vaughn’s relationship with Syd and her nepotism. He compares the former to his relationship with Emily, one he increasingly evangelises and mythologises now she’s gone. “The kind of bond that even death couldn’t sever” he describes Syd & Vaughn. Lauren calls him out on his open manipulation—as Sloane doesn’t even pretend to be interested in the work—but it makes no odds. He just changes tack.

The other area he goes for is Lauren’s own competence, and here that duality becomes even more apparent.

If we later understand that Lauren, much like Julia, is two sides of a divided whole and the woman we’ve seen in the NSC was the alias, at this stage we see Lauren too is fighting her own level of self-worth and belief when Sloane mentions that her father, who we will see later in the season, is a U.S. Senator, and that he made sure Lauren wasn’t rated to operate in the field because he considered it too dangerous. “But you knew that, didn’t you?” he says with relish, aware she didn’t, or at least that she is pretending she didn’t. We will never know for sure. At this stage, having almost certainly not figured out Lauren’s twist, the writers operated on the assumption Lauren didn’t know, and the cracks in the marriage ended up being unintentional foreshadowing of her later Covenant affiliation. It works on both levels, however, to sow doubt in Lauren’s mind about Vaughn & Syd and her own ability as an agent. Sloane himself is operating out of a twisted loyalty to Syd, working to aid her by fuelling Lauren’s insecurity about Vaughn’s relationship with his ex, but you sense he also just enjoys this kind of psychological fuckery. Frankly, it’s also great to watch him do it!

What he doesn’t realise is that Syd & Vaughn themselves are struggling to find a space where they can work together with the same level of relaxed trust and security, and this feeds into the greater ongoing arc about the secret of Julia. In typical Jack style, game theorising three steps ahead, once Vaughn begins to figure out something is amiss after noting Syd’s lack of surprise when Walker called her Julia, he blows the whole kit kaboodle to Dixon, judging wisely that while Dixon might now be in charge and largely an exposition-led company man, he will buy into the secret as part of the greater good. This allows for the next skilled and clever plot development on the episodes part – forcing Vaughn to keep the truth about Julia secret from his own wife, thereby only exacerbating the tensions and cracks that are already beginning to show.

The manner in which A Missing Link unites all of these strands is impressive and once again evidence that this initial run of episodes, from a narrative perspective, has been well thought through. It will take time for Vaughn and Syd to reach equilibrium – she feels she can’t trust him because of Lauren, he feels she is punishing him for moving on. “Everything is personal” Syd claims and she’s right. Personal and professional have no distinction this season, but that’s always been the case with Alias. The way it manages to combine action theatrics, arch mythology and soapy melodrama is a major reason why it is frequently so entertaining, and it certainly is not the first series to blend such elements together – The X-Files did the same every time it enjoyed a ‘mythology’ episode.

This combination of melodramatic narrative with mythological plotting and our central character’s moral battle with her own duality comes to a head in one of the best episode to episode cliffhangers Alias has provided in a while.

Syd, in a moment of fragility, admits to Vaughn that “I have to know… what I did”, referring to Lazarey and her growing obsession, before she is forced when Walker’s crew—led by the suspicious Perez—capture Vaughn and prepare to kill him, to do precise what she seemingly did to Lazarey: commit murder. Anyone who watches television and understands the convention of shows such as Alias knows Vaughn will be back next week—something far less immediately apparent in the modern age, post-Sopranos, when main characters can die and be written out at almost any point—but this does not undercut the lethality and power of Syd being forced to stab Vaughn, with the intent to kill, in order to maintain her cover. It’s the perfect summation to an episode which has played with the moral weight of Syd’s soul and the very cost of her alias.

You are also left to wonder if she means it when she delivers, just before stabbing Vaughn, the dual-meaning line of “You never should have betrayed me”. If in that moment, in Syd’s mind, Vaughn got exactly what he deserved, and if her darker id had, momentarily, surfaced.

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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