ALIAS – ‘Remnants’ (3×10 – 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…

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, as the saying goes, and Remnants is perhaps the chief example of that with Alias up to this point.

The return of Will Tippin, as played by Bradley Cooper, is an unexpected boon to an episode that arrives right in the middle of one of Alias’ most rollercoaster, knotty and complicated story arc resolutions, as Sydney’s lost time begins to unfurl itself as weaved closely into the advancing stages of the Rambaldi mythology. Will did not need to exist within the tapestry of Remnants; from a narrative point of view, another character could have logically filled the position Will does here, either another guest character or one of the main cast. Yet the manner in which writer Jeff Pinkner finds a way to reintroduce Will, provide details of how his life has changed in the ensuing two years, and tether him to the ongoing plot of Syd’s missing time, the ‘death’ of Andrian Lazarey, and ultimately the Rambaldi mythos, is surprisingly adept. It’s a reach but it’s not a crowbar.

The title itself doubles down on what Remnants essentially concerns: Alias coming to terms, finally, with the consequences and fallout from Season Two. The Nemesis sets the scene for this by reintroducing Allison Doren, and Remnants pays it all off by adding Will to the concoction. Will becomes not just the key to unlocking Syd’s lost two years, but the emotional mechanism for her to break down and come to terms with the trauma of being transformed into her dark reflection. In Conscious she kills that id, destroys the idea of Julia Thorne, the sinister double, in order to ultimately access and re-connect with Will, and he serves a function beyond exposition or narrative connectivity to what the Covenant are planning to provide both a balm, a hint of salvation, and indeed a moment of pause and reflection. Will allows her, for the first time in a long time, to briefly be just ‘Sydney’.

Remnants is all about Alias’ continuing mission, one it has been engaging with on some level since Phase One, to let go of both its own past and, more generally, the 1990s it was born from.

Will’s transformation as a character is the first significant example of how Remnants works to shed the skin of the show Alias once used to be.

When last we saw Will, he was awkwardly attempting to fit within Syd’s espionage world as a CIA researcher turning field agent, but the entire plot line was justified on the basis of finding a means for Bradley Cooper to not feel extraneous in the way Merrin Dungey’s Francie had done for almost two seasons, and facilitate his narrative usefulness as a means of Sloane’s unit stealing information from and spying on the CIA through his conditioning by Francie’s sinister double Allison. The Telling could easily have killed Will, a door the Season Two finale very deliberately left open, until by The Two the writing staff had decided to keep him alive even despite Cooper having left the show. Given Alias never went down the road of a love triangle story between he, Syd & Vaughn, it could be argued Will’s purpose was fulfilled by the end of even the first season.

J. J. Abrams has discussed this in the context of reports that Cooper asked to leave the show before he was fired, given how dissatisfied he was:

I think that’s right, only in that we weren’t coming up with things that were worthy of him, and he was sitting around in many episodes doing very little. It felt like that kind of relationship where you both love each other, but you both realize for various righteous reasons that it’s not quite working out. And you both come to a meeting with the same intention. That’s sort of what happened. It was very hard to go back to the domestic stories when there is a nuke in Los Angeles somewhere. It was a really tricky plate to spin.

Remnants proves there was some level of innate, perhaps instinctive wisdom in keeping Will alive, because Cooper’s reappearance in this episode very quickly makes you realise as a viewer just how well the actor and Jennifer Garner work together, and if you free Will of knotty, complicated plotting, the character has a preppy charisma about him that is lighter than Vaughn’s brooding pragmatism without being comic or nerdy a la Marshall. Will plays an engaging middle in Remnants as he is recast, in witness protection with a new identity in rural Wisconsin, as an everyman; he is a construction site worker, an everyman being encouraged by his co-workers to ask out a local girl, a painter, and seems freer with the sinister intensity of his life as a city journalist and later CIA asset behind him.

You almost feel sad for Will when that black cloud immediately reappears on Syd’s return to his life, arriving with the tonnage of a detonation given he has spent years believing she was dead. Having trained a little in spy craft, Will immediately—and understandably—snaps back into the paranoia that Syd might be a double here to kill him, and we see just how much has changed for the character. Will was born in a sense of latent, overhanging 1970s conspiracy and paranoia as I have discussed before; a shaggy, Gen-X Bob Woodward with surfer boy good looks and a nose for trouble, indeed Remnants plays into conspiracy tropes as we later see Jack, Vaughn and Sloane gather for clandestine conversations in sharp government suits and clothing in a shady city back alley.

The episode is suffused with conspiracy and paranoia from all areas.

Nonetheless, Will has shed the skin of that former life having just survived the consequences of it, and Remnants feels like the logical next step in Syd & Will’s relationship after his admission in Second Double, while on the run framed as a terrorist, that “meeting you destroyed my life”. To Syd though, “you’re my best friend, you’re my oldest friend” she tells him on proving who she is (and tellingly she does this by recounting what happened when he had his first interview as a working journalist, in another call back to the past), filled with emotions she can finally express now she has been reunited with him. Given the placement of the episode in a season rushing head-long toward a mid-point conclusion, currently holding half a dozen balls in the air, it is refreshingly surprising at just how much time Remnants affords to giving Syd & Will the place to explore where they are on a personal and psychological level.

Syd is, perhaps with good reason, at a personal low point. The man she loved has married another woman, she has come to terms with a whole other life she lived over two years she can’t remember as an assassin, and she still has no real idea who the Covenant are or what they want. “I’ve never been a depressed person” she admits, before declaring herself ‘alone’. Syd might be surrounded by family and friends willing to risk their lives to save her from the NSA or the Covenant but this feeling rings true. Will fills a space on a deeper emotional level that has been absent since Vaughn vacated it, and it therefore makes sense why the moment might lead to sex. Is Will a touch mercenary for not pushing Syd away at her most vulnerable? Maybe. One senses this scene could play out differently nowadays, even despite Syd making the first move.

What perhaps tempers this moment, and why it makes sense, is that it never becomes a feature of the story at large. Will admits “I’ve been waiting to do that for, like, eight years…”, proving to an extent that he had no issue taking advantage of Syd’s drunk and emotional state, but their sex actually seems to galvanise Syd and pull her out of the funk she had been experiencing. It’s the shot, the booster, that allows her to make the connection to the bank in Graz, and Pinkner nicely ends the episode on the parting gag about how they never had the expected conversation about their night of passion. “I kinda like that” Will says. Me too. It prevents Alias veering too heavily into soapy melodrama or the consequences of a hook up that has no long term bearing on her relationship with Vaughn. He probably would never even have found out that it happened had she not told him in Crossings.

There is a sense that Will represents something more to Syd than mere friendship and emotional love, however, but also salvation, and this plays into the broader religious themes that are building in Alias and will reach a tipping point in Full Disclosure very soon. When Syd first sees Will in Room 47, she sees her friend not just back in the original, burned down homestead where she spent the first two seasons, but he is also bathed in a heavenly light. He appears saintly, canonised as part of Syd’s emotional memory that she had kept locked inside the deepest recesses of herself. “I fought myself. I killed myself” she admits to Jack, aware of what she experienced in Conscious, and shaken by it. Syd had to kill her id, kill Julia and the darkness, to reach the light of Will.

The mystery she is seeking also references religion: St. Aidan, which turns out to be the code name Will used for contacting Lazarey. Why does Alias frame these characters in these terms? It perhaps goes back to Syd’s internal battle and the duality inherent in this season’s structure. Will is the salvation of emotion while Lazarey is the salvation of knowledge. He being alive suggests he is able to explain the conspiracy surrounding Syd’s missing time, and quite what she did in those years. Both characters provide the rapture Syd needs in order to move on from different perspectives. On a moral level, it’s also therefore quite interesting that Will is grappling with his own duality, between right and wrong, as he is possessed with a murderous desire to kill Allison. “I always thought of myself as a pacifist” he admits, reflecting on this. Much, however, has changed, and Will’s duality tracks with numerous other characters in Remnants experiencing similar points of divergence.

While the fun of the episode lies in seeing Syd off with Will, Remnants has quite a lot of moving parts around those two characters that are rewarding in their own right. Pinkner has plenty of fun in placing Jack, Vaughn and Sloane together at various points, particularly the former two. The scene in which they attempt to sell a well-planned cover story for the NSA breakout to the slithery Robert Lindsay is a particular joy, especially in how Lindsay doesn’t remotely buy the theatre of it. “Fishing equipment? Nice detail”. It is Vaughn who has to temper Jack when Lindsay goads him, knowing full well that Jack is lying to him, and it leads to an almost inevitable arrest for the both of them. Even on the micro and personal level, however, Jack is strategising and thinking of repercussions, and drawing parallels and duality between the two of them, both now being men who lost women they loved who subsequently came back from the dead.

This also is establishing a key connective that will inform the main narrative toward the end of the season.

“I will not allow my daughter to become your mistress” is both a great line and an awful one from Jack, as it continues to suggest the level of unhealthy control the man has over a daughter he protects but also frequently psychologically manipulates and emotionally blackmails, and it suggests Syd has absolutely no agency of her own or moral fortitude (he should frankly know his own daughter better). Vaughn’s righteous indignation of this is for once really quite justified and only Victor Garber’s eternally haunted and noble portrayal of Jack gets the character through these kinds of moments. “Make her despise you, because your kindness tortures her” is another great Jack line, and plays into the broader theme of the episode in letting go of the previous seasons. Jack wants Vaughn to push Syd away, reject the dynamic they had in those previous years, to spare her from the pain and loneliness he is right that she feels, which Syd discusses with Will.

Aside from this, Sloane apparently is being faced with his own point of decision as regards who he is, when Lindsay blackmails him into the apparent assassination of Syd. Quite a few maddening loose ends are left dangling here that a more rigorously plotted series would be brought to account over (just what are Sloane’s “extra-curricular activities” and why does this evidence just disappear when Lindsay is dead? And just how did Sloane get the Rambaldi device from under everyone’s noses?), but on a thematic level it tracks. This episode sees Sloane at his most nebulous and enigmatic, and while on a conscious level we know he is unlikely to actually kill the lead character of the show, it is never quite clear he has used Lindsay’s own dirty money to pay for the man’s murder until the shooter moves his aim. Then you wonder quite how you didn’t see that coming from the very beginning.

This too, however, sees an evolution from the Sloane we knew in Season Two. Remnants at points seems to deliberately invoke that darker, villainous aspect of Sloane. When the assassin references him being a humanitarian, Sloane says “you’re a smarter man than that” and then walks away with a slight grin, as if both Ron Rifkin and the character are aware that Sloane is playing ‘Season Two Sloane’ here. Or is he? Is this still the same man? Is the ‘Season Three Sloane’ the lie? The fact he happily kills Lindsay, awful as the man was, suggests maybe so. As an aside, it always makes me laugh when Syd marches up to Sloane and declares “You murdered Robert Lindsay!” because there is a British character actor of the exact same name, and it always for some reason makes me think of him…

If we are seeing Sloane divest some of the Season Two trappings, then here too we find Sark recognising with a past he has only hinted at in previous seasons as he comes face to face with his father Lazarey. He presents Lazarey as an abuser as a child who abandoned him, and Lazarey never denies it but reminds him that a heavy inheritance made up for it. He believes he was a good man for wanting Sark to have his significant fortune and casts himself perhaps as the agent of salvation he was to Syd, framing the enemy in suitably Biblical terms. “The Covenant… they are true evil” he tells Sark, who perhaps affirms his own transformation into a darker being than he was in earlier seasons as he blow torches Lazarey with a vengeful relish. “You wouldn’t do something like this… not to your own father” the man declares but Sark does. A little bit of the villainous charmer we knew dies here today as he fulfils his own desire for vengeance.

“I was an apparatchik by profession but a Romanov by blood” Lazarey tells his son, which is interesting in itself as a statement about how Alias views Russian politics from an American perspective. Apparatchik as a term has now passed into the political lexicon as a derogatory term for a functionary (or a ‘jobsworth’ as we term in Britain, somebody who executes their role without any nuance or appreciation of appeasing others) but during the Soviet Union, it referred to someone who was an active part of the Communist Party. James Billington has described the apparatchik as:

A man not of grand plans, but a hundred carefully executed details.

What does this say about Lazarey? That he conformed to the ruthless, non-individualist excesses of the Soviet machine while retaining his own personal sovereignty and connection to the Romanov royal line who were ruthlessly purged in the October Revolution by Lenin in the 1920s that led directly to the formation of the Soviet state. Alias is beginning to transform from a post-Cold War series, framed by two latent superpowers, into a world with darker and more opaque enemies so it would make sense that Lazarey would frame the Covenant, already being presented as the new face of Russia in the series—an unknown quantity circa 2003-2004—as a threat. They are neither Soviet nor Romanov but something else entirely. Something new and evolving. Something unholy, even. Something to fear.

Who might this sound like to the American psyche of the time?

On a broader level, it’s worth considering just how Will and Francie/Allison’s evolution between Truth Be Told and Remnants reflects just how much Alias has itself changed.

Francie began as the trusted friend boasting relationship anxieties but otherwise seemed financially and emotionally secure, especially for a black woman in early 2000s Los Angeles. Will was an up and coming journalist gifted with talent, irritating to some no doubt but intrepid to others, who revelled in the dual privilege of a white middle-class upbringing and catalogue model good looks. As Alias weathered the storm of American trauma between 2001-2003, Francie is murdered, Allison emerges as the twisted, vicious visage of the best friend and lover, and Will is abducted, beaten, disgraced (and robbed of his vocation), brainwashed, imprisoned, framed and stabbed, before being completely cast aside.

As an aside, one feels even more for Merrin Dungey than Bradley Cooper in this episode, as Allison reappears almost literally just to be finally and definitively killed off. Her return, as the vampish bad girl to Sark’s bad boy, makes almost no sense in the context of The Nemesis, which ended with the strong suggestion Allison was both fuelled up by a Rambaldi revival serum and capable of almost superhuman acts of strength, and indeed that she would return in a significant way as a foil for Syd in future episodes. Neither turn out to be the case. Will is able to stab her to death after a brief scuffle and while it provides a textural circularity to events in The Telling, and a beyond the grave moment of justice with his literal gut punch line “this is for Francie”, you are left ever more feeling Allison should never have returned for Season Three at all. Period.

Returning to Will, did he ever really come to terms with the fallout from Season Two? Remnants suggests not and only the catharsis of Syd’s return, their one night stand, and ultimately getting to actualise his revenge fantasy are what allow him to move into the space where he might ask the local, girl next door out. Crucially, however, Will leaves the stage aware that such darkness, the realisation of Allison’s death, has no payoff. “It’s just as empty as the dreams. There’s no satisfaction, there’s nothing”. On a micro level, Will represents a vengeful middle-America looking for the causal factor of 9/11, getting to execute that vengeance, and finding no answers, and no salvation, in that moment. What he does get is what Syd starts to find by the end of this episode, and Alias is reaching – closure, on the first two seasons at least, and the transition toward a ‘new normal’.

“It seems like everything is falling back into place” Syd remarks as she finally steps back into the CIA Rotunda, her name as a fugitive cleared, and several of the ongoing plot lines moving toward resolution. Season Three is settling back into place, into the new status quo that existed before Prelude. All that’s left is Syd’s, and Alias’, reckoning with narratives and ideas and themes that have existed for multiple seasons.

There will never be an episode of Alias quite like Full Disclosure again and, like Phase One for the second season, the series will never be quite the same after Syd uncovers the mystery of Julia Thorne…

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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