ALIAS – ‘Blowback’ (3×14 – 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…

While it is tempting to consider the mid-stretch of Alias Season Three as a devolution of complexity and craft, in which the show spins its wheels, Blowback does at least attempt to adopt a tried and tested narrative trope in which to tell a fairly bland espionage story.

It splits the episode between two perspectives, that of Vaughn and Lauren, as writer Laurence Andries charts the continued, steady self-destruction of their marriage, even before the truth about Lauren’s duplicity emerges. We see the same mission, as the CIA unit attempt to stop the Covenant stealing a ‘plasma charge’ from an unseen Philippine terrorist outfit called Shining Sword, from each of their vantage points, with Vaughn blissfully unaware that his wife is one of the Covenant agents he and Syd are chasing down. In this, the audience are ahead of our heroes and complicit in Lauren’s continued duplicity, but Blowback looks to try and depict the cracks in their marriage, in true Alias fashion, through high-concept spy theatrics.

Andries chooses to borrow from Rashomon, the classic 1950 Japanese drama from auteur Akira Kurosawa, which is generally considered one of the first significant pieces of on-screen fiction to manipulate both time and perspective in the story of two men recounting the interlinked stories of a bandit, a wife, a samurai and a woodcutter, as their narratives re-tell the same events and overlap, each providing a unique and often self-serving perspective on what happened. Rashomon brilliantly plays with perceptions and highlights the nature of subjectivity, in how we are often the heroes of our own story, and it simply takes a tweak in how an event is observed to alter the context of the entire meaning of the moment. It is a compelling and philosophical piece of work.

Blowback is, to be charitable, neither, but it should be commended for experimentation and working to frame Vaughn and Lauren’s place in relation to their work and life through such a prism. It is a clever way to show just how intertwined their professional lives are at this stage.

‘The Rashomon effect’ is not uncommon in modern fiction, and Alias is by far the first recent television series or movie or beyond to deploy the trope. It sits within a fairly varied lexicon.

In some ways, Blowback only partially exists within this format, and subscribes just as much to the ‘Perspective Flip’. It doesn’t quite fit either trope perfectly but sits somewhere in the middle, as Blowback avoids the common Rashomon device of employing a narrator who helps the main character recount events which leads to multiple perspectives, such as in episodes like The X-Files Bad Blood or Star Trek: The Next Generation’s A Matter of Perspective, or even multiple examples in How I Met Your Mother which combines both of these tropes with that of the ‘Unreliable Narrator’. Blowback instead flips the episode around halfway through and frames the same spy mission through the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ prism via our two characters.

Blowback therefore plays with time in a manner Alias hasn’t yet employed, even after multiple uses of ‘in media res’ storytelling and the time jump between Seasons Two and Three. Andries’ condenses events here, even in the Sloane B-plot, as a means of showing distinct perspectives, and utilises time in a fresh manner. Time is even on Vaughn’s mind at the beginning as he meditates over a watch his late father, Bill, gave him, and how the man believed everyone should keep appointments they make. It’s a pensive moment that sets the mournful and contemplative tone running through both Vaughn and Syd right now, beneath the noisy action theatrics. Syd, of course, remembers the anniversary of Bill’s death that triggered this pensiveness and Lauren didn’t.

The episode utilises comedy to try and off-set the rather maudlin nature of Vaughn’s mood right now, even more brooding than usual, and Syd’s generalised sadness and feeling of running in place – at the end she worries about not catching Sark or the Covenant, which she hasn’t done since the latter days of Season Two when Sloane or Irina were constantly evading them, which shows how this patch of Season Three is narratively tumbling without a sense of structure in a similar, if less organic way. With Marshall boasting a newborn (Mitchell almost seems like the perfect name), it allows Alias the chance to play lots of baby gags, Marshall being exhausted etc… or Jack’s deadpan “cute” when he looks at baby pictures. They are obvious but enjoyable gags.

Blowback does once again speak to how Alias simply doesn’t understand ‘geekdom’, however, in the way it believes it does.

If Marshall is heavily based on J. J. Abrams himself, with his bumbling geek chic endearing rather than irritating, then why does Alias constantly lack conviction whenever it leans toward geek culture? Syd’s alias here in Vancouver as a radio astronomer looking for alien life, as suggested by Marshall as a cover, sees Garner adopt a nerdy tone and gabbling speech, while still looking outwardly like the sexiest nerd ever. There is no way in the world people who look like she and Vaughn are radio astronomers. “Your science geek character? Was that supposed to be me?” Marshall later asks, forever fantasising about the spy life. “Your son” Syd replies, but none of it rings true.

Let’s just stop a moment and return to Jack because, quietly, he has softened this season, and both the show and Victor Garber have done very good job of naturally turning Jack more into the father figure he had no idea how to be early on. Aside from his recent efforts to save Syd during the culmination of the Julia arc, he came to her house with dinner in After Six. Here he asks her out on a father/daughter ‘date’ to a restaurant she loved as a child “I do *eat* you know”. The Jack of Season One couldn’t even show up for a dinner date with Syd, let alone suggest one. It is an organic development for these chatacters that speaks to the genuine, real-world affection between Garber and Jennifer Garner that has bled into these characters. These are interactions that do speak true.

It could be that the writers of recent episodes have chosen to bring this into focus, even when Jack has played a relatively background role, given Sloane’s ever intriguing sub-plot and the big ‘revelation’ at the climax of Blowback, or the hint toward it. Sloane’s plot breaks free of the structural conceit of Blowback, to an extent, by operating to a rather linear perspective. It doesn’t show Sloane’s side and then Judy Barnett’s side, much as this might have been an intriguing approach. Though it does allow for the dinner conversation they have, as Sloane goes from devilish charmer who convinces Barnett to show up, looking stunning, to as he calls himself “a complete sonofabitch”, to split adjacent to the dual perspective stories.

Their initial discussion certainly has the ring of show runner influence as Barnett serves as a proxy for the audience in trying to uncover answers about the Rambaldi device that, to the show’s credit, they haven’t just unfolded to this point in a debriefing information dump. The events of The Telling, and what happened between that and The Two in terms of Sloane and Rambaldi, remain so enigmatic and in some ways distant from where we are now in the story, they would only matter to someone like Barnett who has almost literally written the book on Sloane, and is both fascinated and disturbed and intrigued by the motives of, as she describes, a “master spy to humanitarian”, as he has become. 

Yet you never really believe Barnett has been brought back into Alias as a character beyond how she can be utilised to ask questions such as what was on the Rambaldi parchment, and to remind the audience of some key facts before episodes soon to come, or indeed to serve as the catalyst for planting in audience’s mind a whopper of a reveal that, if true, would equal the revelation in The Confession that Syd’s mom was a spy: that Sloane is Syd’s biological father. It has, of course, been a fan theory for years by this point. Sloane has always acted, thanks to Ron Rifkin’s deliberate performance, in a creepy space toward Syd between fatherly concern and sexual perversion, and you’ve never quite known where his thought process was, until now.

“I never tried to prove it, one way or the other,” he tells Barnett and, in fairness, Blowback is not explicitly saying that Sloane is Syd’s father. Sloane doesn’t even say this himself, he rather manipulates Barnett into asking the question. He plants the seed in her mind and, metatextually, the writers are very clearly planting the seed in the audience’s mind. They are going to a place that has previously simply been the preserve of fan theory, and likely one often discounted as a possible ‘jump the shark’ moment. It again lines Sloane up with the Cigarette-Smoking Man in The X-Files as a mythic villain who slept with the mother of our protagonist and might be the biological father in a way our hero would never accept. Both of these examples draw earlier from Star Wars and Darth Vader and, of course, before that the cultural mythic anthropology of Joseph Campbell.

Genre fiction really does seem to enjoy this trope, the Secret Father, and it frequently revolves around enigmatic, patrician, white old men. Smoking Man, Sloane, Christian Shepherd in Lost, even Gul Dukat in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at one point sleeps with the mother of one of our heroes. All are similar figures as an archetype within the fabric of their shows. The Machiavelli. The secret keeper. The seeker of arcane truth and mystery. Sloane is in some ways the better characterised of these examples as he is the only one credited as a series regular character but consider how often Alias has to work hard to find a place for Sloane to fit in narratives that otherwise he would have no connection to, as logically he would exist in the shadows, plotting and scheming, waiting for the next point it would make sense for him to appear.

This conversation ends up being smoke and mirrors, to a degree, as Sloane’s threat turns out to be a slight of hand in itself, but it places Sloane in an even more threatening paradigm than before. He isn’t just the master villain perhaps pretending to be a good man—“I sometimes regress” he admits to Barnett after taking her head off for asking questions he cannot control—he is now a direct threat to Syd’s relationship with Jack, the fundamental emotional backbone of the entire series. It is a logical space to move Sloane into, that deeper personal realm, as he has always operated in a connected emotional space to Syd since day one, since he ordered Danny’s murder. He moved from being a surrogate uncle, almost, with a wife in Emily who Syd saw as a mother, to her personal Devil. If Sloane were her father, it would be the ultimate devastating moment for our hero. We will return to this later in the series’ run…

The truth that Sloane does give up is that he slept with Irina Derevko, which places their scenes in Truth Takes Time in a different context. Irina told him then to “never talk to me about your love for Sydney again” in a threatening manner. One senses that while this clearly pushes buttons about Nadia, who Sloane didn’t know existed at that point, that for Sloane the possibility he might be Syd’s father always lurked in the back of his mind. “Jack never knew. Emily, my wife, she never knew. Irina and I pledged to take that secret to our graves” Sloane tells Barnett, breaking that pledge. The timeline of precisely when they slept together, and how often, is uncertain, but Sloane describes it as an affair we can logically conclude went on while Irina was undercover as Laura Bristow and perhaps beyond. There is no greater betrayal Sloane could have made of Jack.

These revelations track well with the central ongoing narrative Alias is now pursuing, visibly defined in Blowback, of Vaughn grappling with whether he wants to be with Lauren, and Lauren cheating on him with Sark. “I’m working” Lauren tells Sark, in bed, as she makes a loving phone call to her husband, and throughout Blowback we are reminded how Lauren and Vaughn are very much in the position Jack and Laura were in the early ‘80s when Syd was a child and Irina was a KGB operative. Alias is deliberately playing this out and while Sark & Lauren as one-dimensional sexy bad guys, replete with cheesy badinage, is already grating, it does correspond thematically with Alias’ core ideas of deconstructing American traditional families through the anxiety of external corruption via a high concept, hyper real espionage drama.

We also get hints of deeper, more intriguing psychology behind Sark and Lauren’s dynamic that are often left unexplored. Lauren very quickly in After Six positioned herself as the dominant figure in their relationship, allowing Sark ostensibly to direct her before revealing she was gaming him all along, and here Sark shows a continued predilection for submission. “Ambitious and domineering? Fantastic!” He squeals before Lauren pulls him in for some rough sex after a car chase while wearing almost the anti-alias; a Syd-style wig that covers her blonde hair with hints of brown red. Lauren sleeps with Sark when she is someone else and, for Sark, as Resurrection will later confront, there is a sense he’s partially imagining Syd herself in this role. Sark has always been attracted to her rebuke of his flirtation and that is clearly made apparent with Lauren.

Lauren also suggests she has played this role before, certainly as the duplicitous wife, when Sark asks “how does it feel to systematically ruin a man from the inside out?” and Lauren claims “it wouldn’t be the first time”. We saw in After Six how she has no compunction sleeping with powerful men and Blowback further cheapens her as a villain by suggesting she has slept her way to the position she is in, and she might indeed get off on it. Any nuance with Lauren has gone by this point. She is the anti-Syd in a way that Anna Espinosa or Allison Doren, the previous examples of this trope, never were; morally, psychologically, sexually, completely. So much damage is done to Lauren as a character across these episodes she just becomes impossible to even deepen or redeem in time.

Blowback does, therefore, contain more than the outward sum of its parts.

There are meditations on time through various characters – Syd telling Vaughn that she remembers “what missing him does to you” about his father, a shadow of the past; Sloane in considering the affair with Irina “I sometimes try to convince myself that it was worth it, that she was worth it”. The central narrative structure is a deliberately play with time and consequence as we see Vaughn and Lauren operating in different spaces, and further establish how they are growing apart – a nice moment is when Lauren, in disguise, punches Vaughn when he admits his love for Syd by giving up his gun to save her life. It is simplistic, and overblown, but it weaves these aspects together well in the broader context of the show and the season.

Alias still lacks direction at this point, however. It lacks focus. It also doesn’t have a great deal of time now, this season, to find either.

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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