ALIAS – ‘Conscious’ (3×09 – 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…

Conscious operates in quite a formative space, not just for Alias but many of the works from J. J. Abrams production house that would overlap and follow it.

After the grim but effective exploration in Breaking Point of Alias’s position externally as a post-9/11 series rocked by the traumatic mass hysteria of terrorism on American soil, Conscious moves inward. It contextualises many of the thematic ideas not just of the third season but of Alias as a whole, specifically the inherent duality behind the concept. Sydney Bristow spends her life being two different people, herself and whatever ‘alias’ she adopts week by week on mission. When the narrative structure disappeared after Phase One that enabled this, Season Two brought in the Helix doubling technology and established, particularly by The Telling, two sides of a psychological join in Allison/Francie – the darkness and the light. Season Three brought that inherent duality into Syd’s character herself through her missing time and Julia Thorne, apparently an externalisation of the darkest impulses that the show has worried about since the beginning.

It’s worth noting in many ways that Alias has always been a little bit obsessed with the idea of the virtuous American mother/wife/girlfriend being not what they seem, and in Syd’s case it also extends to the idea of the hero being corrupted. The revelations about Laura Bristow, the lionised, dead before her time image of the perfect American wife, shatter that visage with the reality of the duplicitous, enigmatic Irina Derevko. Allison Doren murders the innocent, unaware Francie and works to corrupt the CIA’s operation from within through assassination and brainwashing, prepping Will Tippin as a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ in the making (fitting given the character was built on cinematic conspiracy templates). Julia Thorne is the ultimate expression of the fear about Sydney, that she might be an Irina in the making, or a programmed assassin, or a 500 year old prophesied bringer of mass destruction. Conscious is Alias’s psychological method of coming to terms with this anxiety, especially after Breaking Point.

What Syd finds as she enters the recesses of her subconscious manages to both forward the key narrative arc of the third season while making explicit the core thematic idea of the entire show: the greater enemy is within, not without.

Considering the third season of Alias contains some of the series’ weakest storytelling in places, it’s quite remarkable just how skilled Conscious, and the episode that precedes it, works to–much like the middle of Season Two–threaten to upend the entire concept of the show.

Sydney and the family and colleagues around her are now fugitives, on the run.

Dixon is arrested and in a CIA jail, on trumped up charges that feel as much like Robert Lindsey being vindictive after Syd’s fake co-ordinates send his CIA strike team to a liquor store in Simi Valley (also it allows them to give poor, underused Carl Lumbly something to do). Lauren has torpedoed her NSA career after the events of Camp Williams. Even Sloane is now on the team, Syd rather incredulous to see him helping out, and swallowing the need for gratitude like the bitterest of pills. There seems no way out, at this point, for Syd and her band of renegades without Alias once again morphing into an entirely different show, yet you never quite get the sense we are dealing with another Phase One here. Conscious balances a great deal but Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s script is more about Syd’s internal revelation than an external game change.

You do get the sense at points with Conscious that the Julia Thorne revelations we are building toward in Full Disclosure are built on a fairly reactionary plotting process. Sloane apparently has access, through his foundation, to the revolutionary amnesia work of Dr. Brezzel, and Syd quite logically asks why he wouldn’t mention this before. “I didn’t think you’d be willing to accept my help” makes sense but also feels convenient. His role in the missing time never quite makes sense, which I discussed in Prelude, and here when Lindsey presents Sloane with blackmail proof of his ‘endgame’ (a moment which evokes Sark bringing the proposal to Sloane in The Counteragent which we can infer leads to the events of Phase One), it is hard to imagine Abrams & his staff knew at that moment quite what Sloane’s ultimate game plan by the end of this season was. Those surrounding plot points add to Conscious’ level of free forming narrative, of spiralling into unconscious revelation, and some of this is without doubt intentional. 

In one respect, you can see ideas being placed and narratives forming. We see Dixon’s young children again, Steven & Robin, giving him a level of characterisation lost since Season Two as he has been transformed into an exposition cypher, witnessing him as a father as a precursor to how his children will be threatened in Taken later on this season. Dixon also shows wonderful iron in dealing with Lindsey, adding to the sense of him as an extremist antagonist by directly comparing him to, what we could describe as, ‘peak’ Sloane: “I’ve known men like you. Men who pretend to be patriots. You are always revealed”. Remember last season when Syd described Sloane as hiding his criminal activity “behind the flag”? Lindsey very much does the same.

Come the point he’s actively engaging Sloane in a secret plot to assassinate Sydney, any ambiguity the man exists as some kind of avatar for questionable national security practices go out the window. Lindsey is now just a bad guy and even before we see how Sloane plays this out in Remnants, the man practically signs his death warrant in this episode. Much like the free-wheeling aspects of Syd’s subconscious, Lindsey is a crook rapidly running out of road, and desperately trying to shore up his surroundings as everything collapses around him. Dixon might be in the cell but he’s far more insightful and assured, ready to just wait it all out.

There are also interesting developments in how Jack talks about, and considers, Sloane, certainly after his actions and his confessions in Breaking Point. He defends him as instrumental in Syd’s escape and suggests by giving them everything they need to send him back to prison by breaking the law “he’s put his life in our hands”. This displays a considered change from Jack’s near murderous antipathy toward the man we saw in Succession, and plays nicely with the ongoing relationship the two of them have. Much like Irina, Sloane at times is a blind spot for Jack, who perhaps wants to believe, far more than his daughter, that the man is capable of redemption. Conscious does counter this with the genuine uncertainty as to whether Sloane, who is otherwise helping parrot the lie that the Covenant broke Syd out, might betray them to Lindsey. The reminder of the unseen Rambaldi device, aka Il Dire, from The Telling, as a bargaining chip, further adds to the mystery. The episode does a good job of suggesting Sloane’s friendly intentions on one hand before sowing doubt on the other.

Speaking of Rambaldi, Conscious provides the first significant aspect of the show’s dormant mythology, outside of a brief reference in The Nemesis, since the end of the second season. The discovery of Andrian Lazarey’s severed hand (a very Se7en-style, ‘head in the box’ moment) in the San Andreas fault, marked with the <O> symbol of Rambaldi, reminds us that such arcanum lurks behind the mystery of Syd’s lost time. Sloane suggests the mark denotes membership of “the Magnific Order of Rambaldi”, which frames for the first time those we have seen in Alias’ history carrying the mark—such as Anna Espinosa for instance—as part of a specific group, who would later be expanded into the more catch-all ‘Followers of Rambaldi’, an organisation devoted to protecting and secreting Rambaldi’s works. Given Sloane and Irina’s determination to expose such ancient secrets, it is strange we see or hear so little of this order, with scant information and context for them doled out over the next two seasons.

It is, yet again, another sprinkling of deeper mythology Alias stumbles into, trips over, and never really props up with any consistency.

The same could be said for the number 47, key to Rambaldi’s mythology, which makes a key appearance here as the symbolic, classic J. J. Abrams ‘mystery box’ within Syd’s dream state – a room containing a secret. Paul Zinder in his essay Sydney’s Bristow’s Full Disclosure makes direct connections between this number and the Judeo-Christian component to Syd’s story arc and the Rambaldi mythos:

The number 47 combines two noteworthy Christian numbers, 40 and 7, The number 40 connotes an extended ordeal. Moses spends forty days on Mount Sinai, the raining of forty days and forty nights causes Noah’s flood, and Satan tempts Christ for forty days in the wilderness. Biblical writers used the number 7 to denote ‘completion and perfection’. Sydney’s tortured search for her missing years (her ‘ordeal’) and her eventual realisation that Rambaldi chose her as the mother of his second coming (his ‘completion’) substantiate the potential reasoning behind the prophecy’s page number.

We will delve much more deeply into this when discussing Full Disclosure, but there are some fascinating connectives to be drawn between how Conscious actually unlocks the subconscious connection between Syd and Rambaldi, and the forces around her directing them, as Sergio Angelini explains in their essay Endoscopic Spies: Mapping the Internal Landscape of Alias:

In Nietzschean terms the synthesis of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies is what we should aspire to, and Sydney is thus placed between the emotional frigidity of Jack and the technological monotheism of Marshall on one side and the passionate but inherently irrational followers of Rambaldi like Sloane or Irina on the other. As Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche postulated, ‘the double ambiguity of truth and semblance, compels us to something that is neither one nor the other…’, a dichotomy that can only be resolved through action and the abolition of absolutes. Thus Sydney’s ultimate role is to mediate these competing impulses within the drama, which of course is why both sides hunger for her, her body and her mind.

This reading is particularly fascinating because it places Sydney at the very epicentre of Alias as more than just a protagonist who the narrative needs to flow through, but a conduit between two varying states of essentially science and faith which Rambaldi, with all his scientific brilliance contrasted with possibly God-given, supernatural insight, has always embodied. Conscious is one of the first episodes to pierce that veil.

In this sense, parts of Conscious remind me less of the regression hypnotherapy espoused in The X-Files (which Succession and Prelude hinted at), grounded in rational, scientific exploration of hidden memory, but rather the dream logic of Dale Cooper’s dreams in Twin Peaks or even the quasi-dreamspace sojourns of Don Draper in Mad Men to come. Once Syd is under the influence provided by neuroscientist Dr. Brazel, she no longer inhabits the physical, rational world, and while Brazel guides a little, Syd often does not feel in control of the dreams and visions she is provided. It feels as though she has entered a different realm within her own memory, or her dreams, or both, in which her role as the object, the possession of Alias, can be rationalised and defined according to her own psychological state. Even physics goes out of the window when she first fights Lauren and then herself, presaging (on a much much more scaled down level) the heightened reality of Inception.

Of course the series Alias most influences with Syd’s journey here is a later J. J. Abrams devised series, Fringe, a show which brings together the narrative pacing of Alias, the philosophy of Lost and the procedural structure of The X-Files into a largely successful melting pot, even if Fringe never quite reaches the ecstatic points of creative brilliance in both of those forebears. Brazel (side note: Abrams would later give the same surname Laurence Fishburne’s hard ass IMF boss in Mission Impossible III) is entirely a precursor to Fringe’s Dr. Walter Bishop (a truly fantastic creation played beautifully by John Noble); a new age Timothy Leary zapped out of the late 1960s operating on the fringes of what his tenure would allow him to get away with, exiled to a warehouse in New Haven (bastion of Yale University) with a Porsche a much younger man should be driving and a student, Kaya (Erica Leehrsen – best known for a key role in Blair Witch: Book of Shadows), in his drug-addled thrall who he is likely sleeping with.

Brazel being played, in another example of Alias’ stunt casting, by esteemed director David Cronenberg is no accident either. Cronenberg, best known for mind-bending pictures such as The Fly, Videodrome and ExistenZ, has great fun here sending up the slightly stoned psychological genius whose eccentricity has pushed him to the fringes of acceptability after, as he describes, a car accident transformed him from a philosopher treating head trauma patients into one, at which point he had an epiphany. “Our dreams are a-priory and a-posteriorly, which means our dreams contain our memories – there’s a shared reservoir”, after which he started exploring ways for the conscious to enter the sub-conscious, with a readily applied cocktail of drugs to ease the process.

This is all one step away from Walter immersing FBI agent Olivia Dunham in the tank of water in order to access her own dream memory state, and you can draw a clear creative line between Conscious and some of Fringe’s formative ideas.

What also intrigues about Brazel’s concepts is in how it could well link to the idea introduced later in Season Three regarding Rambaldi’s ‘genetic memory’, encoded strains of DNA able to pass down information or even direct memories to successive generations. An idea explored much more deeply in the video game series Assassin’s Creed, it is one we will talk more about in Legacy later in the season, but the seeds are planted here for what will become a vein of pseudo-science explored in tandem with Rambaldi’s mythology across the season. If Syd’s secret sister Nadia is later induced into divination, Syd’s own contact with the metaphysical world comes through her experience here, one she admits she doesn’t entirely understand. “It won’t necessarily be real?” she asks. “It will be to you” Brazel claims, and despite Jack and Vaughn’s expressions considering the man a whack job, none of them are left with much choice if they want to understand Syd’s lost time before Lindsey forcibly pulls it from her.

The entirety of Syd’s dream state deserves exploring in some depth as it contains a fusion of traditional, subverted Alias moments with some intriguing sub-conscious imagery.

Her first journey into the sub-conscious well presages the opening of the Lost pilot episode to come, as Syd’s eye flashes open as she enters the underworld. She logically extrapolates a fake reality, what would have made sense as the next scene after she shoots Allison after their fight in The Telling – Vaughn, rescuing her in an ambulance, providing context and revelation about what happened and promising their romantic trip away, the one they never got to have. She kisses him and, in the ultimate dream to nightmare scenario he morphs into Sloane. Syd recoils in horror and terror and this serves as the first indication of her struggle to find a semblance of truth on this level. “You are in control of your environment” Brazel tells Syd but, again, this doesn’t entirely seem the case.

He explains to Jack & Vaughn, watching on, that Syd’s mind can construct memories of what might have been happening around her even when her eyes are closed, and this accounts for Syd looking down on her body and witnessing black clad men scooping her up from her shattered apartment and transporting her into a red room (another Twin Peaks allusion, perhaps). Syd now has the signature red hair as shadowy figures in black circle her, perhaps representing the Covenant. These are oblique but understandable visions but she then enters what Brazel describes as “a tangent” as she morphs into her younger self at a birthday party; an idyllic scenario in the middle of a green park as Jack, younger and dressed like the porto-typical American father figure, encourages her to cut her cake. She does, it turns to blood, and into a severed hand, before Lazarey appears.

These are clear cut extrapolations in Syd’s mind that revert to some of the basic anxieties and principles on which Alias is founded.

The idea of childhood which was compromised and tainted by pain and darkness, indeed founded on lies and misdirection. Michael Giacchino’s unerring score in these scenes adds to the jarring incongruity of an imagined birthday party shattered when a cake morphs into a bloody visage, an image of childhood innocence compromised in precisely the same way Jack abused his daughter, certainly in terms of parenthood, by conditioning her into a secret spy program as we saw in The Indicator. So much of the underpinning psychology of Alias goes back to youth, to childhood, to the decay and implosion of the American family structure, and Syd’s sub-conscious is haunted by a childhood just as lost as the two years between The Telling and The Two.

We then see Syd return to her adult form, as she enters a facility and tracks the Covenant men (presumably) down a corridor where her prone ‘past’ form is wheeled into Room 47. Passage into that room is denied. The virtuous Syd, dressed all in white, must face a symbolic challenge in order to gain entry – Lauren, dressed all in black, delivering the creepiest whisper of her name and urging Syd to follow her through plastic sheeting which keeps her nemesis oblique. This works on multiple levels. Honestly, you could have seen Lauren substituted here for Merrin Dungey as Allison, or even Lena Olin as Irina, but Lauren works better. They might be reaching a rapprochement of sorts in the real world (where Lauren is now helping sell the lie about the Covenant to Lindsey, after Syd gives her a shiner for first helping get her locked up) but Lauren retains that sense of mystery for Syd that positions her well initially in this role as gatekeeper.

For one thing, Lauren herself represents challenge. She is the wife of the man Syd loves, who she kisses passionately on waking from her first voyage into her underworld, convinced she is in a dream state where “we can do whatever we want”. Lauren in black as the ‘enemy’ is of course in hindsight foreshadowing for the upcoming revelations about her loyalty, but this feels less interesting than Lauren’s position as the figure who blocks Syd from the truth that lies in Room 47, or the apparent truth at least. “Trust me, you don’t want to be here” Lauren claims, before beating Syd out of her dream reverie, and almost giving her real world cardiac arrest in the process. Brazel affirms that this does not directly correspond to Lauren but rather she represents something else: “Masked figures, shapeshifters, they first appear as one person, your mother, an old classmate—“ he begins, making the point that has already been hinted at in an earlier point of the dream.

As she enters the facility, Syd watches herself wheeled away from a towering staircase on which multiple versions of herself appear, almost as time-lapsed versions of herself. Doubles. Lauren is the visual representation of her own barrier toward the truth in Room 47, the truth of her lost time. “That’s enough questions” her darker self, Syd having fully morphed from Lauren into herself, claims after confirming facts Syd already knew and had repressed: the Covenant did take her, and it’s no accident she can’t remember what happened. Syd is more in control of her environment than it appeared, it’s just her sub-conscious rather than conscious mind in control. Syd has to literally battle, and shoot herself (in precisely the same way she shot Allison in The Telling), to regain control of those central revelations.

It’s interesting how Brazel seems to suggest that Syd’s process is compromising traditional expectations of this kind of experimentation, as he realises she is both dreaming and tapping into memory at the same time. “That just doesn’t happen”. This could be another example of how Alias’ dream logic is operating perhaps, at points, just beyond the point of reason in Conscious. Syd, on returning to the sub-conscious, finds herself in an old 1950s car being driven by Dixon, once again placed in the role of an ally she understands, but she later passes by Weiss and Marshall, smoking and playing cards (on a table with the Rambaldi clock from Time Will Tell present), both acting very much like boorish male archetypes. They tell her to “check the kitchen” for what she’s looking for, which perhaps suggests a casual misogyny that Syd feels exposed to as a woman fighting in a man’s world.

Dyrk Ashton in his essay Reflections of Deleuze directly draws a connection between the eponymous French philosopher, Georges Deleuze, and Alias’ perception of the world through the series’ use of doubles.

[He wrote] that the Second World War brought about a changed perception of the world, particularly as a result of the Holocaust and use of atomic bombs in Japan. The world was suddenly a place where the impossible was possible; the horrific an immediate and very real prospect. The comfortable, secure, common sense Truth of the world had been called into question. According to Deleuze, there were films that emerged in the late 1940s that conveyed this changed perception, in part, through the presentation of what Deleuze describes as ‘reflections’, which are essentially doubled images. The appearance of doubles in Alias can be seen as a sign of similar changes in our perception in the wake of the bombing of the Twin Towers. The world of Alias can be read through the cinematic philosophy of Deleuze as a ‘proliferation of doubles’ – a world of doubled, duplicitous, even multiplicitous, reflected images.

While we have seen doubles before on Alias, and we will see them again at multiple points across the next two seasons, Conscious brings to bear all of these ideas in not just a literal but metaphorical, metaphysical fashion, directly correlating Syd’s search for what echoes a Judaeo-Christian Truth—given the use of Rambaldi’s 47—but equally allowing the episode to drill down into the core, essential constructs of the entire narrative revolving around Syd’s lost time, and her anxiety about both her own true self, her dark id, her corrupted mirror image, and the fear of what the Truth itself may bring. Not to mention further enhancing Alias’ position within a post-9/11 space, carrying through Breaking Point’s corruption of the rule of law into a sub-conscious, metaphysical space.

By the time Syd breaks through, and flings open the doors to Room 47, what lies beyond is almost immaterial. Alias has reached a point where revelation has combined with mythic subtext, a journey into the mind and the self, destroying the dark reflection she has combated in different manifestations since the series began, and Conscious actually works to transform the series to, itself, a different state of consciousness. It is free-wheeling, spiralling into the next plot point, but it is done with such skill you never see the join. Even if the promise of what lies beyond that door can never quite match up to expectations, and given Syd’s ominous, emotional glimpse into the light, certainly ends up subverting them, what matters is that the door has been opened.

On that basis, Conscious is the second triumph for Alias in a row and, again, one of the show’s finest hours.

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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