ALIAS – ‘Crossings’ (3×12 – 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…

How do you follow an episode like Full Disclosure? It is hard to envy Crossings, an hour of Alias that, to some degree, is a necessary change down in gear.

Being aware that Full Disclosure was, in part, meant to span the length of the third season, Crossings could in an alternative universe ended up an early outing in a fourth season exploring the consequences of the Julia Thorne arc, yet it is forced to find a space in the wake of some monumental revelations on a personal level for Sydney, seismic Rambaldi secrets laid bare, and a major twist for one of the series’ lead characters. Josh Applebaum & Andre Nemec’s second script as writers on the show chooses to focus on the easiest of the three, and indeed by and large Alias never really gets into the fallout of the bigger two aspects of the previous episodes. Crossings is a sign of the times to come for the show.

After the events of Full Disclosure, one might suggest that Crossings refers to Sydney’s emotional state as she moves from the missing two years, and the seismic personal changes that wrought, into a new space. “I’m moving on” she tries to reassure Vaughn as they grapple with the terms and conditions of their relationship, but it’s as convincing as the idea of Alias itself truly moving on into a new space. Crossings is no metaphysical piece, no sequel to Passage on a thematic level and any kind of rite for Sydney. Crossings is rather Alias moving into a safe space, a comfort zone, and almost immediately a far less intriguing, complicated and nebulous arena. It’s not even a step back, as such. It’s a step sideways.

Season Three will get back there in much less elegant fashion than in the first half of the year, but perhaps appropriately for an episode set primarily in North Korea, Crossings is Alias walking into a dramatic no man’s land.

As previously discussed, one of the key issues that cropped up in Alias fan circles across the first half of Season Three was what the writers had done to the Sydney & Vaughn romance. The ‘SVR’, if you will.

Consider the series built in pop culture circles on so-called UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension).

Moonlighting in the ‘80s, The X-Files in the ‘90s, and perhaps Castle in the 00s. There are numerous other examples of series constructed on, or which evolved into, a central romantic dynamic that kept fans guessing. Alias semi-evolved into this once J.J. Abrams and his team saw the chemistry between Jennifer Garner & Michael Vartan and leant increasingly into this across the first season and the beginning of the second. It likely would have continued across the entirety of Season Two had the SD-6 double agent narrative carried on longer than Phase One, when ABC network edicts forced the series to implode, reboot and put Syd & Vaughn together.

While the latter half of Season Two was a spiralling rush of narratives as the characters were free to weave in and out of another, the tension between Syd & Vaughn entirely evaporated once they became a couple. There is only ever so far a show can dramatically go with such a dynamic and given Alias was not expressly soap opera and relationship drama (despite the foundations of it being so), the writers almost certainly realised it was too early in the series’ run for Syd & Vaughn to take the logical next steps as romantically entwined characters – co-habitation and children. Season Three, and the choice to separate them and give Vaughn a new wife in Lauren, was from a dramatic point of view quite inspired. Immediately, you have the UST back, only with the added emotional complication of Syd potentially becoming the ‘other woman’. We will come to that later in Season Three.

Fans, nonetheless, operate often without the awareness or appreciation of what makes sense from a dramatic and developmental point of view. If they become attached to characters, and buy into the romantic ideal they represent, putting barriers in the way of that can be problematic. Syd & Vaughn were, after all, an idyllic American couple; beautiful visual examples of youth in love, smouldering with passion, and precisely the kind of ideal many fans wish-fulfil through ‘shipping’ (based on the term ‘relationshipping’ first cited in early message boards) character dynamics. A term that began on The X-Files with Mulder & Scully extended through Trip Tucker & T’Pol on Star Trek: Enterprise to Castle & Beckett on Castle, to even Jon Snow & Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. Examples litter genre TV and fandom across the last three decades.

The fanbase of Alias was heavily constructed around the ‘ship’ of Syd & Vaughn.

Bence Nanay discusses the importance of the ’ship’ in fan circles as all pervasive:

How new is shipping? If you want Romeo and Juliet to end up together, is that shipping? I don’t think so. What I take the main characteristic of shipping (and a somewhat frightening thing about it) is that all other considerations are deemed irrelevant compared to the interest in getting the shipped couple together. Shippers have no patience for anything else–whatever does not move the two characters towards each other is time and energy wasted. And once they are together, happily engaged, everything else is seen as a distraction from showing the two of them holding hands being happy.

ABC, therefore, instructing the writing team to use Full Disclosure as a break point with the Julia arc, and the mechanism for Syd & Vaughn’s parting, likely encouraged Abrams and his writers to figure out a way to put the parted lovers back together. Crossings begins, in media res, with that reality. In the face of death, Syd & Vaughn are snuggling, kissing, with Syd promising “we’ll find each other”. The suggestion of a love unbidden by time or death or distance. A great and powerful love, no matter that Syd just went through a traumatic psychological revelation tethering her to an arcane, terrifying half millennium old mythology, or that Vaughn has a wife at home. Crossings runs toward the security of Syd & Vaughn together, the promise that they will find a way to reach the romantic equilibrium of Season Two, a phase the first half of Season Three worked hard to evolve away from.

It helps, of course, that Lauren is suddenly a Covenant-affiliated murderer, we having witnessed her assassinate Andrian Lazarey at the end of the previous episode, and she now fills a very 24-style position as the inside mole the audience know exists but the other characters don’t. It is almost impossible to believe the twist involving Lauren was planned in advance and was not a course correction based on the Full Disclosure edict.

Melissa George refutes this, nonetheless, when asked if the plot of S3 changed over the year:

Not really, they had a general idea what they wanted – JJ always knows pretty much what he wants to happen. I knew that Lauren was going to be evil at some point – because it’s Alias after all!

She later suggested that Lauren was written out of Alias because she was “too evil”, but we haven’t yet reached the depth of Lauren’s devilishness in Crossings.

We know she is a killer, and we have established the Covenant are, in their chameleonic visage, a deeply dangerous and troubling organisation, but we as yet do not know Lauren’s motivations or what she is truly capable of. She displays anxiety at the idea of Syd & Vaughn’s plane to North Korea being destroyed, forced to “explain her hesitation” by Covenant contact (and seeming superior here) Zisman (played in too small a role by The Mummy’s Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo). Nemec & Applebaum are at pains to try and balance Lauren as the villainous insider without tipping her into pantomime evil, rather someone conflicted at the role she has been placed in.

Nonetheless, it helps the idea of Syd & Vaughn being together again if Lauren is a villain, as it removes the same level of moral compromise both of them, the upstanding Syd especially, have to make as they realise their continued feelings for one another. You sense this was the primary motivation for Lauren’s dark turn and it’s a narrative cheat, a way for the writers to have their cake and eat it, appeasing the fans desperate for the central romance to continue. To their credit, Nemec & Applebaum at least attempt to give Syd & Vaughn a dramatic level of tension as the latter tries to give the former the friendship cold shoulder after Jack’s advice in Remnants, but it never holds true. Vaughn just comes off like a childish jackass. It’s forced complication that just sounds petty.

Just to sugar the pill, by the way, of Vaughn’s pretentiousness, he is reading Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino on the plane to North Korea, a novel described as about “a man on a quest to quantify complex phenomena in a search for fundamental truths on the nature of being”. It’s hard to imagine quite what Vaughn wanted to glean from a book like this which would help him figure out whether he should commit adultery or not!

Returning to the Covenant, they are once again rather nebulously portrayed. Lauren’s twist suggests they are operating on similar lines to a Russian intelligence service who have infiltrated the American heartland, with the more chilling reality that Lauren is no Russian spy—a la Irina—pretending to be American, she rather is (or half-American at least) and has been corrupted for reasons unknown. Zisman drives a cab and for all the world looks like a low-paid immigrant worker chasing the American Dream when he is actually organising domestic and international terror cells. At the same time, Crossings concerns the ‘defection’ of a high-ranking agent in the Covenant, which again suggests the organisation is equivalent to a Soviet bloc.

This is complicated by the defector, Leonid Lysanker, clearly being a Russian man – although confusingly he’s played by Griffin Dunne, the bastion of acerbic 80s Americana with films such as Martin Scorsese’s brilliant After Hours. There’s a wink to this as Leonid suggests that he wants out of North Korea because it has no pep. “America though? Lots of pep!” This is after he cites an ancient pop culture adoration for Gloria Estefan! Dunne gets better material in a few episodes in Facade but Crossings establishes him as a quirky example of the kind of Russian defector who might have come over the wall during the Cold War, seeking the colour and swagger of ‘80s America. It’s like he’s twenty years too late. Maybe that’s the point.

Nevertheless, we saw in Full Disclosure that the Covenant could also be a ‘Syndicate’ of sorts, or even a Politburo, but the voice of the decidedly American McKenas Cole (more on him next time…) complicates this further. Just who or what is the Covenant? Lysanker suggests he’s defecting because what they’re planning “keeps him awake at night” which suggests a terrorist organisation. There seems to be no logical basis for what the Covenant are, it shifts depending on the needs of the plot. When Sark tells Zisman the Covenant he has bankrolled are “ineffective, disorganised and disrespectful to its benefactors”, it’s hard to disagree.

It’s also worth briefly noting how badly the portrayal of North Korea comes out of this. Mercifully, Alias never resorts to inventing national analogies for nation states and will use established countries, but it often panders heavily to stereotypes. The version of North Korea painted here is qwoerrying close in places to that of Team America: World Police! The Koreans are presented as culturally backward locals with old broken down cars Syd & Vaughn need to jerry rig, who Sark pretends to rescue Leonid from with a hearty “you sir are on your way to becoming a god blessed American citizen”, while the military are growling simplistic versions of the totalitarian ‘Other’. Alias no longer has a Russia to easily characterise as the ‘evil bloc’, so the role goes to North Korea. It’s telling that this aired just a few months after the James Bond movie Die Another Day, which paints the nation in a similar, simplistic light.

Returning to more nebulous factors, we need to talk about Katya Derevko.

Played by arguably one of the biggest guest stars to grace the series in Isabella Rossellini, she is an immediately intriguing new addition to the series’ roster of characters. She is colder than Irina was. She is perhaps more playful. She has her own rather badass moniker in the ‘Black Sparrow’. And she is unashamedly flirtatious, attracted to Jack perhaps in spite of Irina’s relationship with him – or, in twisted fashion, because of it, “your love for her must have been intoxicating” she says with almost a jealous taunt. There are also strong hints Katya too was a sleeper agent like her sister historically as her contact Mr Cho (played by future Lost alum Francois Chau) believed she would never return to the US. In no uncertain terms, Katya also only exists because Lena Olin was unavailable to return to the series.

Season Three has, after all, teased that Irina is still lurking in the background. Jack has maintained occasional contact with her via computer since Succession, with strong hints that he picked up on their own romance in Syd’s missing two years (Katya even kisses him on her behalf at the end). Irina is likely to have been involved, somehow, in the Julia Thorne saga, as Prelude lightly hinted at. Though Olin only intended to play Irina full time for one season, and even then took episodes off as she was travelling in from New York to film, the expectation on the writers behalf was that Irina would reappear in guest form. Crossings would have been the perfectly placed episode for that to happen. Almost all of Katya’s lines could have been Irina’s. Except it wasn’t to be.

Olin explained how one season of Alias felt like enough for her as an actor:

Now, when I watch the show, I feel it would be fun to keep doing it, but at the same time I know how difficult it was with all the traveling. The fact is that when I think about it, I wouldn’t do it all again. Partly because of the traveling, but also because I felt I was done with the role of Irina. I didn’t feel like going back to the same character again, it simply didn’t feel exciting and challenging.

There are other pieces of Alias production lore regarding Olin that we will return to when Irina eventually does return to the series, as there is more to the story than Olin’s simple refusal to play Irina again, but the choice leaves Crossings both a problem and an opportunity. A problem in that, for the first time, it makes Irina’s absence notable in a way it wasn’t during the first half of Season Three (a problem that will only intensify as the Rambaldi mythology evolves), but an opportunity in that it paves the way to expand the Derevko mythos. This is even the first mention of the third sister Elena, who will play such a key role in Season Four. Neither she nor Katya would likely have ever existed if Lena Olin had said yes to returning but Rossellini, certainly in this episode, adds a fun new flavour to Alias she and Victor Garber clearly enjoy playing.

It also allows for a B-plot of far greater intrigue than the main story, as Katya manipulates Jack into killing Sloane only for it to be a larger play about blackmailing Sloane himself. We get a great Garber/Ron Rifkin scene as a result, as a beat of tension is added into the increasingly convivial Jack & Sloane dynamic which is welcome, but the whole plot relies on context we never really get. What does Katya mean when she tells Sloane to “back off Irina”? We can assume in hindsight this concerns Nadia in some way but because Irina never appears in Season Three, and when Katya does reappear there is not time, we get no direct context for the continued Sloane/Irina conflict happening off screen. It is just as opaque and unclear as the Covenant this season turn out to be, which is a shame. It feels like a fantastic storyline Alias never really gets to tell.

Crossings does end up using a tried and tested narrative device in Syd & Vaughn crashing, the idea of putting two characters at odds in a perilous situation where they need to work together to survive and confront their own issues in the bargain. Alias does not typically ground Syd’s missions in one space, although Season Three has by default done this more than previous seasons given how many episodes have broken from any kind of established ‘format’ so far, but the action taking place in North Korea as Syd & Vaughn have to escape hostile territory while getting support from the outside recalls Passage. The drama here is rather more simplistic and a touch more inert.

It feels like the extension of a ‘clear the air’ conversation Syd & Vaughn just need to sit down and have.

The episode attempts to frame this in the context of Syd’s own passage into the new post-Julia space but it feels rather forced. She tells Vaughn she slept with Will Tippin in Remnants and he reacts like a wounded, cheated on boyfriend. “How am I supposed to respond to that?” He asks, and it’s rich given Lauren’s presence behind all of this, and how hard he’s having to work not to embrace the still-existent feelings for Syd. Everything about their plotline is designed to reinforce the safety and security of the Alias plotline – even down to soft and homely strains on the soundtrack as they break out of a North Korean prison camp! Jack’s assurance that “your mother found you” only further suggests Syd’s family have her back, even her absent, complicated paternal figure. 

“One day when you least expect it, Irina’s intentions will present themselves to you. And when that day comes it will be unmistakable” Katya promises Jack, and the audience, but much like a lot of Crossings it turns out to be an empty one. “Too many questions” is her final line as she swaggers away but in that she makes the point: the audience need to stop asking questions, stop worrying about the mythology or the answers, and return to what we’re apparently all here for. The action, the romance, and the simpler version of Alias the network have been yearning for the series to be since the middle of Season Two, one of the writers have consistently, even without realising, have been fighting back against.

For a few episodes now though, at least, that is precisely the show Alias will become.

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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