ALIAS – ‘Full Disclosure’ (3×11 – 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…

Had Alias’ fifth and final season ran to twenty two episodes much like the rest of the series, Full Disclosure would have been the exact midway point of the show. We should consider it as such because only Phase One, the second season’s format shattering powerhouse, comes close to being the most important episode in the history of Alias.

There is so much to discuss around Full Disclosure, tackling the episode is almost daunting. It is not just a culmination of the first half of the third season but the entire Rambaldi mythology to date, at this point. The revelations and contextualisations of that mythology here do not make sense as a mid-season point of clarity, or even had they been placed at the end of Season Three. These are series ending secrets being revealed, theoretically, or narratives that one might have expected following The Prophecy and the cornerstone of the Rambaldi mythos established in the first season would have played out in the final season of Alias. The fact Full Disclosure is a necessary, swift wrap-up of an ongoing storyline that the previous ten episodes had unfurled is, in hindsight, quite criminal.

If this sounds like I am suggesting Full Disclosure is a supremely important episode to Alias, then you would be correct. It is. There is something quite staggering about it’s reach and effect, especially considering it was designed to fold up the unpopular Julia narrative and restore Sydney, and the series, to something approaching normality and a sense of security, when initially the plot was designed to run for the whole of the third season. It very much parallels Phase One in that regard as both were the result of network edicts to conclude complicated narratives that they feared were alienating the core audience. Phase One turned out as a genuinely brilliant, propulsive and clear hour of television, condensing and concluding the SD-6 storyline with remarkable brevity given what came before. The same can not be said of Full Disclosure.

The series, and Syd as a character, never reaches the layered and complicated intensity of this episode again. Everything that follows feels like an extended epilogue to the mythology and Sydney’s journey.

The fan reaction to the Julia Thorne plotline across Season Three was lukewarm at best, and it is not difficult to understand why.

To Alias’ credit, J. J. Abrams ensured Season Three rebooted with an entirely fresh mission statement after the thrilling but unwieldy climax of Season Two, where the show was on a boulder tumbling stagger down a path it simply could not have logically sustained into the next season. The Two, after the “you’ve been missing almost two years” jaw dropper at the end of The Telling, reset the board and placed Sydney Bristow in an entirely new paradigm. She was physically and metaphysically lost. There was an entirely new enemy. The established roles of many of the series’ characters had shifted dramatically. And, crucially to the shipper fanbase that heavily sustained Alias during the show’s run, the man she loved had met someone else and remarried.

Many of these choices made sense and were, in fact, examples of good dramatic practice. Sydney as a selfless, morally virtuous protagonist with everything going well in her life would have destroyed Alias, much as it might have pleased the kind of audience who receive dramatic text on a personal connection level. You see fans such as this frequently amongst major fandoms built on particular romantic connections – take Mulder and Scully from The X-Files as a good example, where some fans struggle to separate the character from the actor. While there is nothing wrong in such fans receiving these texts in this way, they often fundamentally ignore the key precept of drama: that characters have to overcome trials and tribulations that require narrative roadblocks, obstacles to the happiness they may or may not receive by the end of the series.

Full Disclosure frames Sydney as a character following the precepts of Joseph Campbell’s anthropological ‘heroes journey’, which I have written at length about in one of my books in how it relates to modern characters from American television. Sydney, in learning many of the secrets of her missing two years, visibly undertakes a journey we see in condensed, microcosm form which prescribes to the outward voyage that moves inward to a greater understanding and reckoning with the self, before actively destroying these inner demons and outer forces to achieve a level of peace. Full Disclosure encapsulates a catharsis Syd has been building toward across the entirety of the third season and, to an extent, the entirety of the series to date.

There is something both inelegant and brilliant about Full Disclosure as an episodic construction.

It is a recap show, bottle show, flashback story, concluding epic and establishing piece that weaves all of these distinct styles, many of which could be singular episodes in their own right, into a headlong rush of 42 minutes of television that plays out like an extended powerpoint presentation of everything we need to know about Syd’s missing two years in what, in any other circumstances, would be considered incredibly lazy storytelling and an enormous cheat. Yet, amazingly, Full Disclosure works from beginning to end. It is fascinating, complex, at times infuriating and nonsensical, and crammed with arcanum and ideas that tumble over each other, many never again picked up by Alias in one of the most egregious examples of the show ignoring some of its most fundamental key questions and issues.

Jesse Alexander, tasked with the unenviable job of condensing the mythology of Alias to date, had discussed how network edicts forced Full Disclosure into the shape we ultimately saw on screen.

This episode was a story that we had initially planned on revealing in stages but there was pressure from outside to really kind of wrap it up as quickly as possible and let people know what had happened to Sydney. So it was a real challenge to come up with the explanations for what had happened to her and why characters had done things in the past and who they were, and who the arm belonged to, and all that kind of stuff.

The nature of these ‘outside pressures’ remains a mystery but it is not hard to infer ABC were leaning down on Abrams and his team to untie yet another narrative knot they had, by default, tangled Alias into after the edict to streamline the second season. There are numerous direct connectives with Full Disclosure back to what I would argue is Alias’ chief direct inspiration, The X-Files, but it is interesting that Chris Carter’s series never found the same kind of external pressure to resolve a mythology that was far deeper and unwieldy than Alias’, and indeed he was able to reinvent and complicate that mythology numerous times. The closest episode to Full Disclosure in that series is Season 6’s Two Fathers/One Son, a two-part conclusion to the alien mytharc, but this was a natural creative choice rather than a directive.

There are perhaps two reasons why this differed for Alias.

Firstly, the series was never the kind of breakout phenomenon in the nature of The X-Files and by the third season was fully established as a relatively cult genre show with a dedicated fanbase unlikely to pick up a great deal many new viewers. Abrams was already hard at work developing Lost (which ironically would become the breakout show Alias never was) and Alias was forced to justify its continuing existence perhaps by dialling into the elements ABC believed the fans were there for – Sydney/Vaughn’s romance, action and spycraft, and interpersonal drama. There is a sense ABC never truly believed in the Rambaldi mythology, or believed it was any kind of hook for fans.

The other reason ties into Rambaldi and how, as a mythology, it was never entirely mapped out and thought through from the beginning. Abrams had key beats he eventually did manage to hit, upon returning to steer Season Four back toward Season One’s ‘red ball’, but Full Disclosure expressly attempts to draw a line back to The Prophecy, via The Telling, as what would be the first of three distinct explanations for the Rambaldi mystery. The second, in Before the Flood, is probably the one that makes the most sense within the context of the season. The third, in series finale All the Time in the World, is the cleanest and most obvious. The first, here in Full Disclosure, is by far and away the most interesting but it remains largely inconsistent with the elements of Rambaldi presented at points over the last two seasons. There is a sense nobody, not Abrams or Alexander, truly knows what Rambaldi really means. It feels rudderless.

It is worth asking at this point precisely what Rambaldi does mean come the end of Full Disclosure, because the answers point very specifically back to The X-Files and draw a great deal of parallels. Full Disclosure reveals that the Covenant kidnapped Sydney not just to condition her as Julia Thorne, but also to extract her ovum, convinced thanks to the prophecy that she was destined to bear the seed of Rambaldi’s ‘Second Coming’ by way of a child, who they would fertilise with Rambaldi’s secreted, protected DNA sample in the Cube that Syd & Andrian Lazarey find during those two years. Syd recites the key quatrain of Rambaldi’s prophecy that was first heard in The Prophecy and used as a justification by the DSR and CIA to consider Syd a potential terrorist threat in the wake of 9/11.

This woman here depicted shall possess unseen marks; signs that she will be the one to bring forth my works; bind them with fury; a burning anger unless prevented, she will bring the greatest power unto utter desolation.

If we can therefore translate the ‘bringing forth’ as the birth of a child, then the ‘works’ can be considered to be either the Rambaldi descendant or what that child will go on to create. This brings up a wealth of questions Alias never even hints at answering. Just how long term are the Covenant’s plans if they are working to engineer the baby of a 15th century prophet, and bring it to adulthood? What happens when the baby is grown? Does it also contain Rambaldi’s memories or genius to continue his work in the modern day? The series hints that this could be the case when Sloane experiments with ‘genetic memory’ later in the season in Legacy, and in The Descent he and Nadia find Rambaldi’s consciousness in the Sphere of Life, so is the Covenant’s plan to implant his consciousness into the child who would boast that genetic memory?

If this is the case, what on first glance appears to be the creation of an Anti-Christ figure in a Rambaldi child becomes, later, the literal raising of the Devil himself in reviving Rambaldi through a descendant body. Because at this stage, we are being led to consider Rambaldi far from the heretical figure who, as Sloane described in Parity, would allow us to “know God” through science, and rather a Luciferian figure of darkness upon the earth. Consider how his works are largely, at this stage, destructive. Firebomb allowed Sloane, positioned perhaps as his chief Satanic ‘familiar’ if not the Devil himself, to use a Rambaldi device to burn people alive in a church. Countdown suggested Rambaldi’s technology could coincide with an apocalyptic event. Lazarey describes the Covenant, a very name associated with a religious pact, as “true evil” in Remnants and Sark is certainly here equivalent to the agents of Satan helping to foster Damian in The Omen by working to create Rambaldi’s child.

Despite these distinctly Judaeo-Christian mythic archetypes, however, Alias remains as defiantly secular as it has always been. Kendall’s description of a ‘Second Coming’, and of the DNA Cube as the ‘Holy Grail’ to the Followers of Rambaldi is the most overt Biblical language we have seen in the series yet, with very clear connotations to the rebirth of Jesus Christ (even in Rambaldi is positioned as the opposite). The closest is Sydney’s description of Sloane rising up like “the Devil himself” to attack the church in Firebomb. Paul Zinder has written at length in his essay ‘Sydney Bristow’s Full Disclosure’ about this episode and the Greek, Hellenistic and Christian archetypes played out through this storyline, and he suggests Alias uses symbology, particularly Rambaldi’s symbol, in place of express religious expressions to denote these ideas:

As the triangle typifies the Holy Trinity in Christian art, the organisation of the shapes in the Rambaldi symbol points to a specific reading: if one partial triangle denotes Rambaldi and his unborn child, Sydney and her unborn child sit on the opposite side of the circle. The missing side of each triangle underlines Rambaldi’s recognition that science would make the Holy Spirit obsolete and that his offspring could be produced without the consent of the ‘Chosen One’. The Rambaldi symbol reads as a precursor to the Prophecy and the Covenant’s endeavours to force an Immaculate Conception in Full Disclosure.

Consent is a key word here and while Alias does not do nearly enough in the long run with the existential trauma Syd feels, and Jennifer Garner brilliantly acts (as does Terry O’Quinn), on learning her ovum have been extracted, the show does at least recognise this is a ‘rape’ in classical terms that cuts, literally and metaphorically, deep. It might be easy to suggest were Alias made today, Sydney experiencing this would be explored in more significant detail but The X-Files several years before Full Disclosure placed Dana Scully in an almost identical position and did explore the emotional and psychological fallout of Scully’s abduction perhaps leading her to never being able to have children. Much like Syd, she ultimately does become a mother but The X-Files certainly considers the possibility greater forces pursuing extremist ideologies might have prevented this.

There are strange similarities between Syd & Scully’s experiences here. Scully is traditionally considered to have been abducted by aliens during Season Two of The X-Files but as the series goes on, it is strongly suggested she was taken rather by the Syndicate, a conspiracy of human men working as collaborators with an alien force, and it is these forces who without consent both rob Scully of her ovum and even impregnate her. Either way, Scully never directly remembers her abduction experiences, despite regression hypnotherapy etc… 

Syd is also abducted by a conspiracy of what also look like men in Full Disclosure. We see her face a very Syndicate-esque cabal of Covenant operatives as Julia Thorne, as they compel her to kill an “unimportant man” to prove her loyalty. Much like the Cigarette-Smoking Man and his ilk in The X-Files, they remain decidedly shadowy and unknown, smoking and cloaked in darkness (except for one figure, voiced by Quentin Tarantino, who eagle eyed fans will certainly remember from The Box…). Syd also never fully remembers the trauma of her missing two years, even after Kendall’s Homeric description of her personal odyssey (which itself is based largely on Syd’s possibly distorted, subjective testimony). Neither Syd nor Scully will ever truly understand what happened to them during their missing time.

Alias both benefits and suffers from how these mythological aspects are handled.

The Covenant do not ultimately subscribe to the Syndicate as time goes on and vacillate in terms of their nature to fit the story. Succession presents them as a post-Cold War Russian crime organisation. Full Disclosure suggests they are a sinister quasi-religious cabal of “fanatical”, as Kendall describes their point of view, Rambaldi followers. Season Three later largely ejects any sense of broader organisation in favour of the evil duo team of Sark and Lauren, and Season Four retroactively suggests the Derevko family were behind the whole thing. It is almost a certainty that had Lena Olin been available to reprise her role as Syd’s mother Irina during Season Three, she could have ended up the face of the Covenant in some fashion.

Where the mystery works is precisely in how it presents Sydney as a tragic heroine with Greek mythical undertones who has been robbed not just of her child-bearing ability in this moment but also her agency as a woman. Alias does not explore the consequences of it in many ways but what the Covenant do to Sydney is profound, disturbing and hugely important to her character, even removed of the fanatical religious perspective. They essentially condition her into complicity into her own mythological rape. They never actually brainwash her into being Julia, thanks to Jack “hardwiring” her to stand up to conditioning through Project Christmas, but she becomes Julia anyway and actively murders a man to protect her cover, one she willingly goes along with upon seeing Vaughn has moved on personally.

This is truly fascinating and places the events of Conscious in a whole new light. Syd delved into her subconscious in order to ‘destroy’ Julia so she could reach enlightenment, to seek and remove the darker aspects of her nature fostered by the Covenant’s manipulation, but here in fact we learn Syd chose to become Julia in no small part. It is Syd who kills Christopher Ryan (his name later revealed in Facade as Julia comes back to haunt her). It is Syd who gives up the chance to return home to seek out Rambaldi’s Cube. She makes these choices and in the rather harrowing video Kendall shows her, in which Syd is faced by ‘Julia’, this becomes all too apparent. Syd as ‘Julia’ is not the woman who woke up in Hong Kong. She is emotionally traumatised. “I’ve seen too much” she declares before imploring Kendall “don’t ever tell me what I’ve been through”.

It is here that Syd & Scully’s experience diverge as Syd is found to have been directly complicit in the removal of her memories.

Alexander does connect a multitude of plotyloines and characters from across Season Three so far, including Lazarey and Simon Walker etc… but a great deal of Syd’s missing time remains nebulous. “Maybe there was another step, maybe there was someone else involved” Syd agonises over why she didn’t destroy the Cube, clearly aware of what the Covenant wanted to do with it. Prelude very obliquely hints that Irina was lurking in the background somewhere in these two years and Sloane’s actions remain open to question. He triggers the whole revelation of Julia Thorne off in Prelude, lets not forget, when he gives Syd the key he claims she sent him that sends her to Rome. But did she? Or was Sloane behind many of these plans initially?

We will never know because there is a sense the writers never knew, or if they did they were forced to let many of these answers go due to the network edicts. Alexander has claimed that the larger plot would have seen Syd go to the DSR’s base Project Black Hole and likely Kendall would have appeared for more episodes, and it is entirely possible some of these deeper and broader connections would have been explored to greater effect. The DSR and Kendall, in fact, are another major thread to this which connects back to The X-Files and how Alias in Full Disclosure leans into the realms of deep state theory. We last saw them appropriately in The Prophecy and never see them again (Before the Flood would have originally featured Kendall and the DSR but O’Quinn was busy filming Lost), but they are key to the construction around this episode.

At this stage, it would be remiss of me briefly to mention that after Alias came to an end, I dabbled in a long, script-based fan fiction project called ‘The DSR’ which served as a spin-off set in the world of Alias, featured Kendall as a main character, plus Carson Evans from The Prophecy, and explored in much greater detail many of the mysteries of this organisation left dangling. At a future date, I will go into more detail on the development of this project, but if anyone is curious about it, just follow this link. Though I would recommend finishing Alias before you read as, well, there be spoilers…

Marshall at one point describes the DSR as a “conspiracy theorists wet dream” and Full Disclosure certainly plays with these ideas. Project Black Hole (which we will eventually see, with far less mystique than it deserves, in Taken later in the season) is a secret facility in the Nevada desert where the DSR have been collecting Rambaldi artefacts and intelligence “since the 1940s”. If we line up Alias and The X-Files’ mythologies, Project Black Hole works as analogous to Area-51, the secret US government base where it is rumoured crashed alien technology has been stored since the 1940s, and particularly the legendary Roswell incident in New Mexico 1947. This arcanum serves as a backbone to The X-Files mythology and while Alias never features aliens, Rambaldi’s work might as well in some context be ‘alien’ technology, given how unknowable his work and intentions are.

Alias is, by presenting the DSR in this sense, tethering Rambaldi not just to Indiana Jones-style theological mysticism and treasure hunts (Lazarey is visibly sporting a Dr. Jones style trilby in Namibia), but also American pop culture conspiracy mythology. Rambaldi works as the same kind of analogue we saw The X-Files employ with aliens to represent the deep existential unease of America’s position as a major superpower. If alien conspiracy and collaborators in The X-Files explored deep societal angst about the legacy of WW2, then Rambaldi is positioned in Alias as a quasi-religious zealot whose powerful, unknowable technology are considered a threat to national security, then Alias places its mythology in the context of the post-9/11 era the series now inhabits. Alias, like America, is terrified of what it doesn’t understand.

Kendall encapsulates this too and it’s partly why the retcon of his character works so well. He references the events of Q&A, which followed the DSR’s original appearance in The Prophecy, where he presented himself as FBI but was interrogating Sydney over her connection to Rambaldi. Season Two used him superbly but largely as both an expositional figure and internal ‘boss’ antagonist, no doubt in no small part because O’Quinn can do both of these things brilliantly. It makes sense to reveal Kendall, in sadly his last appearance, as not just part of an organisation deeply involved with Rambaldi but also as a sympathetic figure who actually helped Sydney because he was always a character concerned about quite how far Syd and her family were prepared to go on their crusade to stop extremists using Rambaldi for their own ends.

What happened during the missing two years was that Sydney actually became the ‘greatest power’ the DSR were so afraid she always was, just in a different context.

Kendall is nervous about what the corruption of Syd, and her own willingly complicity in that corruption, actually represents. If we are to consider Syd, on a micro level, as the American consciousness in this regard after 2001, it makes a modicum of sense. “What you’ve gone through may have national security implications” Kendall frets when she returns and, indeed, what she goes through leans into deep existential fears Americans have worried about for decades, and Alias was built on with the SD-6 plotline – fear of the enemy within. Syd suffers sensory deprivation, electro shock, sleep deprivation and deep hypnosis intended to engineer her at the whim of not just the Covenant but a Russian scientist.

Kendall fears that “the Covenant could be far more deadly than the Alliance ever was” and on a deeper level, this speaks to the American fear of a chaotic, post-2001 landscape where the enemies are no longer geopolitical blocks but sinister, shadowy but possibly still Russian forces who cannot be predicted. The Alliance, for all it corrupted Western democracies, still had a blocked out sense of structure with the SD cells, rituals and ascensions to positions, much like an organised crime family. That’s the word – organised. The Covenant are anything but. They are chameleonic. They are in a sense unknowable and unfathomable and while this in part poor narrative structure and complexity by the writers, it works in another context to make Syd’s missing time experience and Rambaldi’s endgame all that weirder and scarier.

When Kendall first begins to tell Syd about her missing time, he starts with a key line: “You died”. In a sense, the Syd we knew did die at the end of The Telling, as did the show we knew. Phase One was a false dawn in some sense. That episode transformed the series into a show that could survive beyond the core double agent concept but the second season played out the consequences of the character arcs and narratives of those first two seasons. Season Three begins anew. It kills off the Alias we started with and has Sydney work, across these eleven episodes, to find another following the trauma of her ‘rebirth’ as Julia Thorne, the dark id she is forced to become in order to survive a chaotic world without any certainties, a world she loses faith in when Vaughn marries Lauren and Syd’s belief he wouldn’t give up on her is shattered.

The end of Full Disclosure therefore, appropriately, sees Sydney burn it all down. Zinder believes this signifies the point that Syd embraces her role as the Christ figure in the dichotomy opposite Rambaldi’s Satanic opposite:

The Covenant’s attempts to immaculately conceive Sydney’s child is depicted in a church setting. Sydney destroys the altar (and the remnants of the Covenant’s mortal sin) with fire. In early Christian texts, ‘fire appears to be an allusion to the destructive fire of judgment’. When Sydney faces a choice of vocation, she obliterates her prophesied role as Virgin Mother by embracing her place as the saviour of mankind. This decision transfers the prophet’s patriarchal authority to Sydney, making her the supreme force. Rambaldi’s ‘demon’ seed remains unborn.

Nor will Alias ever return to this plotline either, one vanished as quickly as it appeared, even when Garner’s pregnancy leads the writers to make Syd pregnant in the final season. It perhaps appreciates just how enormous a concept a Rambaldi child and the literal and emotional consequences such a development would be on Syd and Alias that it feels the best move is for Syd to engage in the catharsis of purging away the theft of her seed, the creation of Julia, and the two years of trauma visited upon her. The catharsis in some ways feels less earned, however, than it would have been had this narrative had the time and space to play out that the writers originally envisaged.

Full Disclosure is, nonetheless, a remarkable achievement and one riven with all kinds of deeper subtext and conceptual ideas that are only being scratched at in this piece. Essays have, as I have mentioned above, been written on this and Sydney’s place in the mythology of the ‘sacred feminine’, the Goddess and the Hellenistic Greek depictions of femininity, all of which may be further explored once Nadia enters, and Irina re-enters, the picture and the Rambaldi mythology itself becomes as chameleonic as the Covenant, morphing into an all new shape in order to serve the narrative in play. It is not the greatest episode of Alias but it could be seen as the most ambitious, the most grand, and the most sprawling example of high concept genre storytelling the show ever dares to undertake.

The final few moments all nod toward twists and turns to come – The Passenger, Lauren’s reveal as a villain – but they are all for future discussion. They are not what Full Disclosure deserves to be remembered for. This is an episode deserved to be remembered for burning and purging away the first half of Alias’ life cycle and, for better or worse, giving birth to something new.

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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