Series Retrospective: ALIAS – ‘The Nemesis’ (3×06 – 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…

The Nemesis reminded me of Double Agent, from Alias’ second season. Partly for picking up on threads established in that episode, but also in how it straddles serialisation and stand-alone storytelling.

While in some respects, The Nemesis diverges from the ongoing character arc for Sydney and the mythology around her missing time, in other ways it is central to everything we’ve experienced in the previous five episodes. Repercussions suggested Sydney needed to face the consequences of the two years we skipped, and the climactic beat of The Telling, after A Missing Link placed significant moral compromise in our mind about what Syd might have become, or had to become, in those missing years. The Nemesis contextualises this by framing an episode almost entirely around the lingering elements of Season Two. Crystal Nix Hines’ script is almost a sequel to both The Telling and the relentless final third of the second season as a whole, pulling us back into that paradigm after Season Three launched into a new direction. Even the final scenes of the episode contain the same music and tempo as the end of the previous year.

Yet simultaneously, it takes broader steps to what is now an inevitable confrontation between Sydney and the NSC, with Lauren’s investigation into the Lazarey murder taking significant strides in the sub-plot of this episode. Strip that away and The Nemesis could have been, for all intents and purposes, a relatively stand-alone episode that simply works at those Season Two threads, but Nix Hines does an admirable job of tying the stylistics of these two different seasons together across this hour, even if the constituent parts of Syd’s reunion with the villainous Allison Doren struggle to live up to their promise. The Nemesis is designed to serve as, essentially, the concluding beat of the season’s first act before Prelude sends us thundering into the next one.

It’s a strange balance, overall, and one that is only partially successful.

Let’s get the big question out of the way first: did Allison need to come back after The Telling?

The answer is no. She didn’t.

Season Two explained everything we needed to know about a character Merrin Dungey likely had more fun playing in half a season than she ever did who she was doubled to replace, Francie, but who was designed to be a threadbare approximation of Syd’s duality, the second in a series of characters who will oppose Syd and represent essentially the same thing – the darkness to her light. Anna, Lauren, Nadia, to an extent Irina and so on. Alias is built heavily on the purity of Syd being contrasted by an ‘other’ able to encapsulate her darker id, which is precisely why the mystery of her life as Julia is probably Syd’s most interesting character arc across the entire show. It is all about an internal battle between good and evil as opposed to Syd simply facing an external representation of it, and Allison’s reappearance now as little more than an extravagantly dressed, coiffured mega-bitch just further underlines how underwhelming she is as a character.

Allison only really works as the Hitchcockian ‘Bomb under the table’ waiting to go off, as she was in Season Two; a thrilling plot device of expectation that Abrams and his writers skilfully, and without too heavy a hand, weaved into the fabric of the last third of that season. We knew Francie was dead (and The Nemesis shows us the killing, which in some ways punctuates the arresting shock of it from Phase One – Allison even describes her as “a casualty of circumstance” by which, on a meta level, she means Alias’ future). We knew she was in league with Sloane and Sark and killed Dixon’s wife and was brainwashing Will, but Abrams waited until almost the very last second to explode that bomb.

The result was the icing on the cake of the season, arguably the strongest fight sequence Alias ever does (The Nemesis attempts a watered down Round 2 which pales in comparison), and a truly emotional and well-earned denouement to two seasons of storytelling. Allison had served her purpose after that fight. The two bullets in her chest should have been enough, and the fact The Nemesis has to rely on Allison clumsily laying out how there is suddenly (hurrah!) a Rambaldi formula that regenerated her is the laziest of writing to lever Dungey back into the fabric of a season that really didn’t need her.

A mythological side note, but this is a good example of how Alias quite egregiously picks and chooses with the Rambaldi mythology in almost every season except Season Four, where you feel the narrative has been worked out in advance. If the original Rambaldi manuscript from Season One (now used as a catch all whenever someone needs a machine or a device etc…) contained a formula for cellular regeneration, what exactly is the Horizon all about in Season Five? Isn’t Allison proof that essentially that regenerative liquid Rambaldi developed already exists?

Allison isn’t as specific as claiming she died and was revived but this sounds not far off, given the presumed fatality of her wounds. Rambaldi here is a convenience in order to resurrect the character to full health, and indeed beyond that if her Hulk-like escape at the climax is anything to go by, but one that is entirely discarded and forgotten once the use is over. Considering this is our first proper use of Rambaldi in Season Three, it’s a quite underwhelming return for everyone’s favourite NostraVinci. It’s also meant to play into a weird fait accompli as to how Syd both broke and healed Allison which completely falls flat.

Returning to Allison, her motivations here are purely built on a threadbare, basic essential: revenge against Sydney both for beating her in The Telling and destroying the Helix technology that could have rid her of Francie’s face. That’s it. Nothing else, bar a quick shag with Sark, who always seemed far more invested—even in Season Two—in the idea of a relationship with Allison than she ever does with him. Sark is many things but he’s not an out and out psychopath as Allison has become thanks to the abuses of Project Christmas, and the big mystery of how she ended up connected to the nebulous forces around the Covenant.

Sark genuinely does seem to care for her in The Nemesis but if anything it’s another example, where he’s concerned, of just how much the writers bounce him around in Season Three as a season regular to wherever he’s needed. Sark is, essentially, the face of the Covenant given who they are is never truly fully worked out and he lurches from random villain for hire, teaming up with Allison, until he finally lands on the really quite awful dynamic with Lauren we have to suffer for half a season as any logical, decent characterisation she had built up is stripped away. But that’s a story for later…

If there is one character Nix Hines really seems to understand how to write, it’s Eric Weiss, who gets a string of excellent one liners and observations across The Nemesis. His and Marshall’s fun moments of comedy are counterbalanced by a horrendously cheesy nightclub set piece in which Vaughn actually, in a moment stolen from Octopussy, zooms in on an ample bosom while on mission and quips “those breasts are real”. Yep! Side note, but it is remarkable how much sweeter Vaughn ends up being when around Marshall; take the cute scene of Marshall’s intended proposal song to Carrie “you’re the micro in my chip, the giga in my byte…”. Marshall’s impossible to hate nerdy charm brings out Vaughn’s polite warmth in a very engaging way. The show really should have done more with these two.

Anyway, back to Weiss’ neat one liners, one of which relates to both Sark & Allison and Vaughn & Lauren. “Don’t poop where you sleep” he comments to an angst ridden Vaughn, struggling with the reality of compartmentalising secrets from his wife, but he’s right. Sark and Allison might be thinly characterised as villains, and as partners, but it feels like a dynamic doomed to failure – despite confiding in Allison a motivation for the season that we rarely feel resonate, even if it dovetails with Lauren’s sub-plot here: finding out who killed his father Lazarey.

The problem is that Allison never truly feels like much of a threat, rather a glitzy guest star turn for Dungey so they can wheel in an Alias O.G. for a final roll of the dice – except, of course, it isn’t final, and she pops up again for a genuinely pointless and hugely anticlimactic coda in Remnants, which sours the pill even more. The Nemesis just ends up being a dry run for the kind of plots the back half of Season Three would indulge once Sark & Lauren team up – the bad guy and bad girl causing mischief. It could have been anyone in the bad guy role here. Indeed, in Season Four when Anna Espinosa, much more intriguing a character, finally returns to fill that void, the result is infinitely more interesting. Allison’s return is just a mistake that leads, ultimately, nowhere.

Even Dungey herself believes more could have been done with the returning character than we saw on screen:

My greatest, not regret, but disappointment, I guess, is I feel like the Allison Doren storyline never… I’d rather you sew it up completely… It was great to come back for two of those episodes in Season 3, but I still feel like, “Is she dead? Did she die? Like, what happened?” …I think that there could have been other ways in which Allison Doren could have been used.

This is a telling statement because it speaks to how Alias sometimes struggled to resolve the conflict it faced, from a structural perspective, of balancing historical conventions of guest roles with the modern vicissitudes of cable-era television.

Were Alias produced today, Allison would likely have ended up part of a broader ensemble where she would have been fleshed out as an antagonist. As Alias aired, audiences were only starting to warm up to the idea of investing in anti-heroes on television, thanks in no small part to The Sopranos, which expertly depicts an assortment of characters far from black and white in their goodness and personal motivations. Despite being pulp escapism, and boasting characters such as Jack and Sloane who do subscribe to this manner of characterisation, Alias often has no idea how to write throwaway villains without making them seem pantomime. It is a constant problem they tackle with Sark (only David Anders’ performance often saving the day), that they end up facing with Lauren, and that they face with Allison here. Dungey senses it. If Alias had been willing to invest, Allison could have turned out to be a nuanced, complicated reflection of Syd. It just wasn’t meant to be.

The only saving grace to this plot line is what it affords Arvin Sloane, and by extension Syd now operating as his handler.

Repercussions might not have utilised Sloane brilliantly but it did establish a short-term arc for Sloane which is great fun – him flipping into a double agent for the Covenant and the CIA in a direct homage to Syd’s role across the first season and a half. It allows Nix Hines to double down on the references to the second season as Sloane positively revels in the role he has crafted himself in relation to the CIA: naming the password for his intel ‘Credit Dauphine’ (“for old time’s sake” he quips to a far from charmed Syd), acting almost halcyon and admiring of the old days “the way you would walk into my office, look me in the eyes and lie to me…”, or discussing his late wife Emily and his melancholy for the relationship and trust he once had (or believed he had) with Jack and Syd. “Perhaps I can get it back someday?” Sloane asks, wanly, before Syd delights in promising him that will never happen (and, despite the tiniest wobble later in the series, she largely keeps that promise).

In another side note, there are some strange affectations with Sloane in this episode, some of which are later explained, others which remain offbeat. Sloane for one thing keeps attempting to start conversations that go nowhere, particularly with Syd; he fails to goad her into the kind of manipulation regarding Vaughn that worked on Lauren in Reunion, and while on mission he quips “I was very patriotic once…” as he wonders if he ever told Syd about his time in the CIA. They are playful and strange moments which oddly work as Sloane’s non-sequiturs, and perhaps examples of Syd being one of the few people he cannot emotionally compromise. Moreover, we see Sloane drinking a lot of water in this episode. It is too frequent not to be noticeable and one wonders why this was so pronounced unless the writers knew where the Rambaldi narrative was going in Season Four. We’ll return to this next season, but it is some strong, if unintentional, foreshadowing…

These references to the second season are intentionally placed within The Nemesis as part of the broader exploration of the consequences and fallout from the events of the stretch of episodes which change Alias’ direction for the remainder of its run. Sloane admits he misses Emily, and seeks a redemption the writers will toy with giving him for the next two and a half seasons; Syd has to become the role Vaughn was to her in dealing with Sloane, as he inveigles himself back with his former subordinates—Sark and Allison—by pretending to be faking his reform as a philanthropist while remaining loyal to the dark forces of the Covenant.

We even see that Dixon, despite transforming into an exposition-laden boss role within the series, has not forgotten his wife’s murder in Endgame, stunning Syd when he tells her to execute Allison rather than bring her in, considering it a personal opportunity for both of them. “I want that bitch dead” is one of the coldest moments in the series, and one of Dixon’s best.

Jennifer R. Young argues in her essay Alias’ Inversion of White Heroes and Brown Foes that this is an example of Dixon’s deeper emotional intelligence than many of the other primary characters:

Dixon is not an angry man. However, he is subjected to the most cruelty. His wife is murdered in Endgame; his children are kidnapped in Taken; he gets attacked or shot (several episodes) or falls victim to toxic chemicals in Tuesday. Despite all of these trials, Dixon keeps his poise, a mark of a mature agent who tries to keep the balance between right and wrong. At the same time, this episode proves Dixon is no pushover. Through these moments Dixon is given equal depth in his emotional representation as the series’ main characters, Sydney, Vaughn and Sloane. In fact, next to Sydney, he appears to be the most in touch with his emotions (in a productive sense) while the others repress or compartmentalise their emotions.

This is an astute observation because that is precisely what Vaughn does during this episode, and he loses complete control over in the second half of the season. Taken, in fact, struggles because of how overwrought Dixon tips considering how balanced he has remained for much of this season, but in hindsight The Nemesis throws this into relief. It suggests that imbalance is there, and Dixon is simply keeping a lid on it, lest we get a reprise of his lowest ebb in Countdown.

The Nemesis finds its more intriguing moments in these smaller beats around the main action, such as Lauren’s aforementioned sub-plot. She too, in another example of Alias’ duality, is having to lie to Vaughn as he is to her, and it fuels her own investigation into Julia with a deeper layer of tension to what might otherwise have been throwaway scenes. They further illuminate the broader geopolitical sense across this episode—indeed across this season—that Russia is losing control of the Soviet-era foundations of security it was built on across the 20th century, in this pre-Vladimir Putin era.

The Covenant are seeking a ‘skeleton key’ that would give them access to Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal, while NSC director Robert Lindsay (a welcome return for Kurt Fuller) suggests the Covenant are so deep inside the Russian government they are preventing Russian intelligence from revealing what they know about Lazarey’s killer – an extraordinary level of reach neither the Alliance nor SD-6 could boast.

Lauren’s contact, later, is heavily intimated to be a Russian diplomat who is covertly providing the NSC with information because he knows his country are now being controlled by the Covenant (and with the benefit of foresight, you wonder if Covenant agents even knew who worked for the organisation, given Lauren is not recognised as being one of their agents when she speaks to this guy). Season Three has thus far worked hard to suggest Russia as a compromised entity while heavily suggesting the Covenant have Russian ties (Sank’o & Dr Madrcyzk from Succession, or Lazarey himself), despite not framing the organisation as an understandable villain in the manner they did the Alliance or even Irina’s outfit.

This adds to that growing concern, a post-9/11 anxiety, that the established geopolitical order is falling apart, with America itself open to corruption and compromise as a result. Alias frequently returns to that well – SD-6 the enemy within, the Helix doubling technology, even Julia Thorne; the idea that our own values and constructs are thin and wearing down under the weight of nebulous, shadowy forces.

In truth, The Nemesis in this regard should work better as an episode, yet the primary narrative is weak. Allison shows off with some impressive skills crashing through lifts and some strong outfits, but she never fulfils the promise of being a true ‘nemesis’ in the classical sense of the word. Alias wants to play her up as Syd’s mortal enemy, and keeps her alive for that exact reason. “She did this” Syd ominously declares as Michael Giacchino’s music swells at the climactic beat, suggesting a hell of an antagonist to come who just… never materialises.

Did the plan change? Was Allison meant to be the one who kills Lazarey at the end of Full Disclosure rather than Lauren, allowing her to fill the role Melissa George ends up playing and prefiguring an ultimate show down in Resurrection? When you think about it, this makes far more sense than the Lauren twist, which devalues a character who worked well in the first half and could have served a more nuanced purpose.

We will likely never know. In the end, rather than establishing narratives to come, The Nemesis feels more like a harbinger of the elements Alias will double down on later this season that make it almost fatally lose its way.

Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 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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