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 on one level Prelude could appear a functional, necessary episode of Alias, it is quite stealthily both a well constructed and quite important piece, in terms of Season Three and the larger context of the show.
The word ‘prelude’ brings immediate connotations to mind, particularly in the world of music where it is frequently a means to describe the introductory opening or movement in an opera or concert or, more specifically in terms of a dictionary definition, an action that serves to introduce another event of greater importance. The first six episodes have, in that sense, served as the prelude to Prelude itself, and by default Season Three itself. J. R. Orci’s script deliberately tethers Sydney’s ongoing arc back to The Two, back to Succession, back to seeds in the very opening episodes in order to further make the point: the events of Prelude have been inevitable since the very beginning.
Prelude also continues to demonstrate how Alias has moved away from the structure that defined it across particularly the first season and a half, whereby Sydney would likely travel to at least two global locations as part of a mission in shorter bursts.
Prelude frames the first half of the episode around the Beijing mission, allows Syd one of the more protracted and technically adept fight scenes in the series, and then allows the back half of the hour to be devoted to a series of falling dominoes, revelations clicking together, and characters having to make immediate changes to their situation as the impending status quo for the next four episodes—one of Alias’ more tightly constricted and dense story arcs—stitches itself together. Prelude is the perfect title for an episode which is about payoff that informs bigger, concentrated narrative developments to come, at the expense—at points—of Alias’ house style.
Unexpectedly, it is also an hour packed with allusions, character development that foreshadows plot mechanics to come further down the line, and takes the strongest cue from its primary TV inspiration perhaps yet.
While Alias enjoys revelling in arcanum, mythology and prophecy, it rarely delves into the subconscious and dreamlike to the degree we see in Prelude and particularly Conscious in two episodes’ time.
Prelude begins with another prophecy coming true, that of the war veteran in Succession who promised Syd that she would begin dreaming in relation to her missing time, and Prelude reconstitutes and contextualises images we first, briefly, glimpsed as she stirred in The Two – church bells, fallen angels, and a developing sense of religious iconography connected to the mystery of Syd’s missing time. The symbols become literal at the end but they begin as metaphysical whispers of truth she cannot access, before morphing into nightmarish representations of what her subconscious is trying to explain. She wakes up on a medical bed, ‘heavenly’ light shining on her, before pulling an unceasing cord from the scar on her stomach as her panic rises.
If we look at this moment in the context of what we learn in Full Disclosure, it becomes readily apparent this cord is umbilical, and symbolically represents the fertility stolen from Syd by agents of the Covenant, but we have no reference point for that here. Alias has given us few clues as to the nature of what they did to Syd over the past six episodes, concerned as the narrative has been on the duality of Julia Thorne, and what she actively did during those years as opposed to what was done to her. Prelude heavily suggests this, however, and if we consider these scenes from the perspective of Alias’ chief inspiration, The X-Files, we can uncover even more clues as to the nature of what happened to Syd.
Early in the second season of The X-Files, our female FBI agent lead, Dana Scully, is abducted from her home by Duane Barry, a former FBI agent/escaped mental patient and disappears for a period of time, only to reappear and just about survive her ordeal. Given the nature of that series, we never truly learn who abducted Scully and precisely why, but the series suggests rather than extra-terrestrial kidnappers, Scully is taken by a conspiracy of men who use her as part of medical experiments involving genetics, ovum and pregnancy. We learn in the fourth season that her ovum were stolen and stored in a government lab, and in the fifth season that they were used to create a clone child as part of an alien-human hybridisation program. Scully later falls pregnant with a child, seemingly miraculously, and her pregnancy is targeted by sinister forces. Alias will take a cue from this itself with Syd’s pregnancy in the final season.
If we consider the similarities, they’re quite striking, and we will go into the comparisons further when they are revealed in Full Disclosure, but Prelude heavily takes a cue from Scully’s experience in The X-Files with this symbolism.
Syd, like Scully, suffers the disorientation and fear of lost time, of missing time, of possible physical abuse from unknown agents, and seeks the equivalent of regression hypnotherapy Scully undergoes early in the third season with the neurostimulation therapy that her doctor, Siegel, advises against. He feels like a character ported out of The X-Files himself as he shows her the example of Kenneth Blake, a CIA officer who vanished for years and tortured in North Korea, only to be left brain damaged in a padded cell after neurostimulation. His backstory is, tellingly, remarkably similar to that of Duane Barry, which can be no coincidence. “I’d consider death as an option before this procedure” Siegel suggests.
This constitutes another blockage to Syd’s discovery of her missing time in a season which has been designed to have the agency of those revelations stripped away from her up to this point. She is told about Julia Thorne. She stumbles into Simon Walker and that backstory. She is told the Covenant want something from her memory by Allison. Syd has discovered nothing herself thus far, which increases her anxiety and leaves her open to the kind of manipulation suggested by Arvin Sloane’s actions here, which I have long been suspicious of (we’ll come to this later). Prelude, once again, sees Syd in danger of having these memories torn from her mind, as the threat of the NSA grows, Lauren’s investigation deepens, and attempts by the conclusion to give Syd that agency back, ostensibly, as she heads to Rome in search of answers.
Along the way, Prelude nevertheless does a fine job of stringing together numerous plot lines that have developed over the last six episodes.
The writing staff continue having fun, for one thing, with Sloane’s steady reintegration into the CIA establishment.
The Nemesis had him turn double agent. Prelude, for the first time, brings him into the CIA homestead, the rotunda, and despite being treated akin to a terrorist with a hood over his head, confidential information sequestered, and staff put on alert, Sloane having reached this point where he is actively being debriefed alongside the characters who spent half a season hunting him as the world’s foremost super villain, is a quite remarkable feat of narrative gymnastics by the Alias team. “I always knew you were destined for great things” Sloane magnanimously tells a stone-faced Dixon, facing him down as boss, roles reversed. But he knows, and Ron Rifkin plays him as a man who knows, just how much has changed to have him be where he is.
“First you were evil, now you’re good, so you claim, not that I don’t trust you—“ Marshall gabbles, once again serving as something of a Greek chorus for an audience who don’t know, much like Syd in particular, whether Sloane is servicing some larger plan or not, and the writers are having fun playing with those expectations and throwing Sloane into plot situations where he actively antagonises and repulses Syd with how she has to deal with him. Rifkin is clearly having fun, as are writers like Orci positioning Sloane closer to the main players, and giving him a bigger stake in the action. In hindsight, you feel they would have realised, through episodes such as this, just how more valuable Sloane is as a character when he’s with Syd or Jack or Dixon etc… as opposed to elsewhere, and it likely influenced his place in how Season Four reconfigures the series.
Good value comes from Syd and Sloane’s mission in Beijing, she forced to pose as the secretary of a man the Chinese Minister Sloane schmoozes describes as “the model of humanitarian achievement” in his efforts. Sloane, to his credit, refuses to indulge in the man’s suggestive innuendo that Syd “does more for you than type”, which might not have been the case in earlier seasons where you sense he is creeping around Syd as much as showing a twisted fatherly concern. Season Three ultimately goes for broke in positioning Sloane as that alternate father figure given the Nadia storyline, so this makes sense in that context.
Nevertheless, Syd’s distaste as she has to dance the Blue Danube Waltz with Sloane is an entertaining capstone on how she’s had to deal with him, compromise with the man she hates the most, since Repercussions. He at least allows her to slap him in the kisser to help aid their mission!
Prelude at this point sections off into becoming an episode of two halves, and really should not work as well, structurally, as it turns out to do.
The first half is largely a traditional Alias mission storyline, as Syd and Sloane are dispatched to prevent the Covenant getting hold of the MAZER, a classic piece of near-future Alias technology – a pinpoint microwave laser which China intends to mount on a defence satellite array to use as an assassination program from space, allowing them to kill people indiscriminately and make it look like natural causes. It’s quite curious how Season Three has switched, largely, to Eastern powers attempting to develop weapons of murder or destruction rather than the assortment of terrorist groups or rogue actors seen in the first two seasons. We have already seen how Russia are apparently infiltrated and co-opted by the Covenant, and now China are up to no good – despite geopolitically circa 2003 positioned as nowhere near the existential American threat they are today.
Prelude nonetheless only sees the MAZER as a means to an end to throw Syd into a mission, one where she dresses as a ninja and becomes embroiled in a fight involving both martial arts and swords which is extended further than traditional mission fights are – this one goes on even longer than her second tussle with Allison in The Nemesis, and feels far more skilfully constructed. One wonders if this sequence exists, pivoted largely halfway through Prelude, because of the unusual cluster of episodes set to follow which break from the series’ established format until Crossings in four episodes’ time.
Prelude is the last time we see Syd on mission until after the Julia Thorne arc is concluded, and the fight seems designed to placate fans who might have otherwise baulked at such a protracted run where Syd is not operating to standard parameters.
Beyond the sequence, Prelude turns into a domino effect of revelations and plot developments that have built across the season as the lies come apart, truths are revealed, and Syd is forced—in a story development that evokes the end of Q&A back in the first season—to actively go on the run in order to escape the clutches of the NSA who now, knowing the truth about Julia, actively consider her a terrorist. Along the way, Orci wonderfully reminds us why Jack is not only Alias’ secret weapon but also the show’s darkest, morally compromised character, as he has Vaughn & Lauren briefly kidnapped to stop them reaching the imprisoned Javier Perez—returning from the Simon Walker arc—before he can get to him and fake his ‘suicide’, preventing him revealing the truth about Julia to the NSA.
Alias is now self-aware enough to understand Jack’s sinister side, with Michael Giacchino’s music ramping up ominously as Jack approaches Perez’s cell. We never see him kill the man, but we don’t have to. We saw what he did to Stephen Haladki. We saw what he was prepared to do to Irina in Dead Drop. If anything, seeing the disturbing aftermath of his visit to Perez only adds dimensions to how twisted the character can be, and allows for extra fire between he and Vaughn as the latter calls him out on his actions and Jack doesn’t even bother denying it. Vaughn’s promise to kill him if he ever endangers Lauren’s life again allows for a savage retort from Jack which prefigures Vaughn’s arc later in the season. “Then perhaps you finally understand the moral compromises you make when someone you love is in danger”. Vaughn has always been holier than thou about these issues but Prelude sows the first seeds of his gradual development into Jack by the end of the season.
When covering The Prophecy, we discussed Paul Zinder’s grand unifying theory of Sydney’s position as representative of Persephone’s journey in Greek myth as it relates to Judeo-Christian theology, as in his essay Sydney Bristow’s ‘Full Disclosure’: Mythic Structure and the Fear of Motherhood, he makes the point of Vaughn’s own position in this mythical regard:
Michael Vaughn functions as Sydney’s disciple throughout the Old Testament of Alias. Vaughn’s devotion to Sydney borders on religious. Vaughn’s eventual betrayal of Sydney mimics Peter’s betrayal of Christ. Both men deny their redeemers, Vaughn throughout his marriage to Lauren Reed. His fervour for his Messiah, however, discounts this matrimonial pledge. After Sydney’s resurrection, Vaughn unlawfully orders a plane to hasten her to the eternal city of Rome, assisting in her escape from the government.
Vaughn, by the end, has reached a crossroads in the awkward dynamic between the two women he loves which has formed the crux point of this season’s arc.
Lauren knows he knew about Julia, thanks to Sark—despite Perez’ death—cluing the NSA in, and she actively asks the question that has been on her mind since Syd returned. “Do you still love her?”. Now, her first scene with Sark is one which suggests the writing staff had not, by this point, decided on Lauren’s twist. She surely would have known Syd was Julia all along and everything she did was theatre? It is possibly she is pretending to be shocked, pretending to be scared of Sark, pretending to be devastated Vaughn lied at her, but… it’s a stretch. Without the context of what comes later, it works well, but once we know the truth about Lauren, it is yet another aspect of her story that just doesn’t fully add up.
Nevertheless, Vaughn is conflicted. He loves Lauren but he also loves Syd, and their scene before her departure—almost Casablanca-style, on the tarmac, despite some very dodgy CGI—underscores his feelings. “Even though everything’s changed, some things don’t. I’m not going to lose you twice”. It’s a very nice scene, with a beautiful rendition of their love theme by Giacchino, and one of the better romantic points between Syd & Vaughn because they remain parted. It has the tension and crackle of their pre-romantic moments across the first two seasons, a dynamic Alias has since sorely lacked.
Which brings us to the climax, one that mirrors elements of the opening, as Syd follows instructions from a letter she herself, as Julia, apparently sent Sloane just before she woke up in Hong Kong which leads her to an apartment in Rome, with a key in tow. The big question, from a narrative point of view, is quite what role Sloane plays in this. Did Julia use him to direct Syd to the apartment? Or does Sloane plant everything, fake her handwriting, as part of a scheme to ensure he or the Covenant eventually get to the Rambaldi cube? In hindsight, is this the work of either Irina or even Elena Derevko, creating the cypher text, to trick Sloane themselves.
We will never know, and it’s hard to know if the writers themselves knew, but it is the only factor in which Sloane connects ultimately to the revelations in Full Disclosure that we know of. “There was a time you trusted me” Sloane claims, wistfully, to Syd before giving her the letter. “That was before I knew who you were. That was before I knew who I was” Syd replies. Why would she think differently even as Julia? Why would she entrust Sloane with this task?
As part of Zinder’s theory of the Greek mythical subtext to the show, there are suggestions Sloane is fulfilling a deeper mythological role in his offer here:
Mankind suffers on the brink of extinction due to the drought instituted by Demeter, forcing Zeus to act. He orders Hades to release Persephone to her mother, but his belated demand ties his daughter to Hades forever. Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds given her by Hades, which condemned her to revisit the Underworld for four months every year, before again returning above ground. Sloane (Hades) offers Sydney his own pomegranate seeds by handing her the coordinates of Lazarey’s severed hand, directing her journey to a terrifying past. Sydney’s continued relationship with Sloane imposes a frequent return to the Underworld.
In this sense, we can interpret the Underworld as Rome, ironically the seat of the Vatican and a direct connective to the heavens, and particularly where Syd is heading as the unanswered questions that Prelude doesn’t provide snowball toward the inevitable point of Syd’s arrest by the climax. She is pulled inexorably away from her own agency in uncovering the dreams and symbolism in her subconscious, and the meaning of the red and white angels—confirmed as representing the religious architecture Syd sees through her Rome apartment window—and toward the rendition of her memory.
Syd will get another chance to take back control of her subconscious, but first she will be tested to breaking point…
Check out our other reviews of Alias Season 3 here: