TV Discussion

Alias 1×04 – ‘A Broken Heart’ – TV Rewind

Our TV Rewind look back at Alias continues and hear

As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters. While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.

Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process. It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.

Once again, A Broken Heart begins by indulging what is fast becoming one of Alias’s key tropes – picking right up from where the cliffhanger of the previous episode left off. I discussed this more in Parity, and the creative thinking behind it by JJ Abrams, but from a narrative perspective Alias makes an interesting choice early in this episode. Parity’s main plot was driven by introducing the Rambaldi mythology, the mystery of a 15th century Renaissance prophet who invented works centuries ahead of his time, and the episode ended directly with Syd and her Russian nemesis Anna Espinosa jointly opening a box which would reveal the next piece of Rambaldi’s puzzle – in this case, a binary code both have to rapidly memorise before running off to their respective agencies. The code itself is a fusion of Renaissance invention and modern technology Alias will make its stylistic stock in trade.

You might at this point expect an episode similar to Parity, in which Syd & Anna are chasing around the globe after another Rambaldi artefact, but Taylor’s script only really spends the pre-credits sequence and a few minutes of the first act concentrating on Rambaldi, before the plot spirals off in a completely different direction as Sloane presents her with another mission. The pre-credits sequences therefore are already operating in a similar fashion to one of the show’s clear influences, the James Bond movie franchise, which has historically been famous for telling a contained, largely stand-alone mini-plot before the credits and theme song roll, before the primary narrative kicks off after the credits are done. Alias is doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

The confidence I’ve already talked about which Alias has displayed out of the gate is evidenced further with this. Many shows, certainly this early on, would not have the guts to set up the major mythology of the series in one episode and then decide to immediately dip in and out of developing it. This feels like a key evolution from the style of The X-Files, a series which championed and instigated the idea of an in-show ‘mythology’, but which chose to devote specific episodes (often two or three-part stories) which would inch the continuing narrative forward around three or four times in a 22-26 part season. Alias feels more in line with a show such as Babylon-5, which ultimately moved from a stand-alone science-fiction saga with a developing mythology to a fully serialised, ongoing story. Alias is straddling both of these 90’s show-running styles already.

Here, Rambaldi is parked early on after Syd makes another key discovery, the disc known as the Sol Doro aka ‘Golden Sun’ (which feels very similar to the headpiece of the Staff of Ra from Raiders of the Lost Ark, surely another influence), which will reappear in a few episodes in the next major move forward for Rambaldi in Time Will Tell – as indeed will the character of Anna. We’ll discuss her more then because quite what happens to Anna is unusual from a production standpoint looking in on the show, but Alias seems to be aligning certain characters more specifically with certain narrative strands. You never see Anna appear unless the narrative is directly tied into Rambaldi in some fashion, while Sloane also gets more key development mostly in Rambaldi-centric episodes.

Before A Broken Heart veers off into different territory, we do get a further few inklings into Sloane as a character, which are all the rarer this early on in Alias when the series appears to still be figuring out how best to use Ron Rifkin and the character. Though a fairly unimportant guest character in the grand scheme of the show, Anthony Russek turns out to be a prism whereby we are gifted some Sloane development, both here and in Spirit later on. Sloane is still perhaps calculatingly dismissive of Rambaldi: “The guy who wrote it was some sort of Nostradamus” he says to Russek, as if he knows little of the man and hasn’t spent three decades looking for his works.

If you want to be cynical, it could be that Abrams and his staff had not yet figured out Sloane’s backstory at this point, though he does seem more excited by what he terms the ‘hunt’ for Rambaldi than a typical CIA boss would; compare his description of the race to uncover his works, which Alias is very much establishing as a 21st century arcane ‘Cold War’ between the superpowers, to how CIA boss characters like Devlin or even Assistant Director Kendall during Season 2 refer to Rambaldi – Sloane may be partly trying to hide his interest, but at times it bleeds through. Crucially, as we get a glimpse into what could be his passion, we also learn for the first time he is married in a reference to his wife Emily – the first suggestion Sloane has a life beyond SD-6 and may, actually, be human.

What these opening scenes manage to do is crystallise the elements Alias has introduced in the first three episodes. We are reminded Rambaldi is our underpinning overarching story, or at least the suggestion we will return to it is established, and by having Syd find the Sol Doro in a Spanish church again reminds us of the religious core of the Rambaldi mythos, even if Alias may remain a secular, non-denominational exploration of faith. This won’t be the last time the show uses churches and religious iconography to characterise Rambaldi and the search for his work. Finally, as Vaughn establishes how Anna wants to take down SD-6 as much as Syd, he confirms “she is still your enemy”Alias at pains to remind us that Russia is still the great bear, the antagonist, as the powers race to find Rambaldi first. The show will reinforce this again and again and again.

A Broken Heart then scales down a little in terms of scope and stakes, choosing to lean into the aforementioned thematic ideas of broken or decaying relationships. It perhaps seems appropriate that this should be the first episode of Alias written by a woman, in Vanessa Taylor, as it gets deeper into Syd’s mindset than the previous two episodes, exploring the psychological repercussions of Truth Be Told. The entire first season of Alias leaps off the pilot episode and the chance to Syd’s life within, but Taylor uses certain dramatic mirrors to get Syd to a point where she breaks down here, importantly to Vaughn, and admits she is “lost” in the maze of questions, revelations and confusion following Danny’s murder and becoming a double-agent inside SD-6. It is a logical and powerful emotional response, rendered beautifully by Jennifer Garner.

Vanessa Taylor, just briefly to note, is one of the numerous success stories of Alias, a show which was certainly more progressive in hiring female writers than other shows of that era. Taylor may not be a household name but her stock certainly rose this year as the writer of Oscar-winning Best Film of 2018, The Shape of Water, and previously she provided the script for Divergent—the first adaptation of Veronica Roth’s celebrated Young Adult dystopian book series—and penned three episodes of Game of Thrones across its second and third season; she is also behind Guy Ritchie’s upcoming adaptation of the classic story Aladdin, suggesting she may become a bigger name in cinematic terms after the success of Guillermo del Toro’s movie.

Taylor will only write one more episode of Alias, Season 1’s Spirit, but that too has a strong emotional core at its heart—and continues a couple of beats established in A Broken Heart–so it is perhaps unfortunate she didn’t pen more episodes of the show. Nonetheless, numerous aforementioned female writers follow in her wake across the next few years, penning more episodes in the long run – Debra J. Fisher, Alison Schapker, Monica Owusu-Breen, and while the staff writing team naturally remains male heavy (as goes the industry), Alias does at least engage a female voice for what is a highly female-driven story.

Indeed at times A Broken Heart feels like it could have been ported, in places, from Abrams’ previous series Felicity given the sub-plot concerning Francie’s fear that her boyfriend Charlie is cheating on her, established in Parity. While the episode does at one point focus a scene entirely on Francie & Charlie, the plot is entirely meant as a mirror for Syd’s own internal emotional issues. “Have you ever spied on anyone?” Francie asks Syd at one point, in one of the cheeky lines often used by Alias to parallel conceptual dualities between Syd’s two lives. Charlie being a cheat is merely a microcosm to explore the idea of secrets inside relationships which pervades itself across the entire episode – Syd & Will’s secret kiss, Jack’s secret involving his wife Laura, the secret connection Will uncovers between Danny and a mysterious woman named ‘Kate Jones’.

Alias puts us in a unique position with the Kate Jones mystery, at least for the time being, in that it establishes that Kate Jones is a working Alias for Syd within SD-6. We are at this stage led to believe that Will is going to uncover that Syd is a spy, given he has found the Kate Jones connection, and while he may naturally start to draw uncomfortable conclusions about Danny’s fidelity from this, we know the broader picture Will does not. In many other storylines, Alias keeps the secrets from *us* too – and with Kate Jones, not even we quite have the full picture yet. Jack’s secrets are a prime example, and A Broken Heart works to further suggest something major concerning Laura is being hidden from Syd, while using this partly as a frame with which to show how broken her & Jack’s relationship is.

The heartbreaking aspect of Taylor’s script is the difficulty Syd has in reconnecting with Jack, because she’s starting to feel like the SD-6 revelation has afforded her an opportunity to rebuild a relationship which was largely destroyed by Laura’s death. The fact Jack may not be telling her the truth about all of this haunts him; the psych evaluation is purely designed to allow for some eerie dream consciousness sequences which establish Laura as the whiter than white angelic figure, the heart and home in Jack’s mind, which was ripped from him, and he remains haunted by the knowledge he can’t keep whatever he’s hiding from Syd forever: “it’s only a matter of time before I find out the truth” she says to him, appearing as Laura, in his subconscious.

Alias is playing with expectations here and layering in part of its central mythology. Laura being established as this kind of pure mother figure snatched away from Jack & Syd is being intentionally designed to make the Irina reveal all the more powerful and destructive. It too hints at the cyclical nature of destiny which Alias plays with between Syd & her mother, and ultimately Syd’s own child Isabelle toward the end of the series; the idea that she was always meant to *become* Irina in some way, like the suggestion is that Isabelle will *become* Syd. While Jack porting Sydney into the visage of Laura could be read as worryingly Freudian, it more serves as a piece of visual foreshadowing for revelations to come, which Abrams and his team fully have in their mind’s eye this early on.

Jack letting Syd down for dinner, all the while watching her from his car, could also be seen as cruel, but in reality it says more about how Jack’s psychology works at this stage. Aside from Truth Be Told, we haven’t yet seen how far Jack will go to protect Syd – so far he’s remained fairly distant from much of the action and much of her life, but the show is carefully showing that Jack is so burdened with the past, he simply can’t at this stage have anything resembling a normal relationship with his daughter. It factors well into the broader confusions Syd has to deal with in A Broken Heart, including the losses she suffers – and this takes us into probably the weakest aspect of the episode, even if Alias tries to connect it all emotionally: the mission.

As we know, Alias may be set in a world of hi-tech, escapist espionage, but that’s not really what the show is about. Roberto Orci states in Alias Declassified: the Official Companion that the show is all about the underlying metaphor:

For example, Buffy is a metaphor for teen angst; jocks turning into werewolves is how we thought of people in high school who stuffed you in lockers. What you want to have in your mind [as a writer] is you’re telling a metaphor. One of the organising principles of Alias is it’s about a screwed-up family who happen to be spies. That’s the disguise – this is about a dysfunctional family.

We have seen this already with Syd’s relationship with Jack, the death of her mother, and it will become even more apparent once Irina comes into the picture, but Alias often attempts to tether the spy-fi missions—of Syd kicking arse across the globe—into the emotional core of what Syd is experiencing in each episode, related to the metaphor. That doesn’t really happen in A Broken Heart with the impact Taylor perhaps envisaged. The entire Morocco set piece, well constructed as it is, remains fairly functional, even when Syd & her partner Dixon lose Mokhtar, their contact, who they knew historically. It partly screws Syd up later in her confession to Vaughn – he was yet another ‘good guy’ who died having no idea SD-6 was a criminal organisation.

The problem with this is a problem TV shows often have in trying to factor deaths of minor or one-shot characters into the emotional struggle of the protagonist – it means something to *them*, but what does it mean to *us*? Garner, as I said, sells her breakdown to Vaughn well enough that you feel Syd’s torment, but Mokhtar is ultimately just another random agent who wasn’t mentioned before and will never be mentioned again, so what does it all matter? It feels an arbitrary piece of Syd’s current, vulnerable emotional state after everything that has happened in short order, and simply there to try and make the central mission little more than action-based window-dressing to the character aspects of the show. Alias will get better at integrating the two over time, but Season 1 does at times suffer from this issue.

Vaughn makes a good point about all this when he suggests the missions are transient, that the kind of bad guys she faces in these kind of missions – Euro goons like the moustached Luc Jacqneau, who serves as the primary antagonist for this story and into the opening of Doppleganger – will come and go, but she cannot let the darkness of SD-6 and these other criminals and terrorists she’s working against to overcome her. “You got my number” he reassures her and while the show has given us a few moments of developing attachment between the two of them – principally the inclusion of Lambert in Parity – this serves as probably the first true ‘shipper’ moment for fans between Syd and Vaughn, and the writers taking seriously the possibility of a romantic dynamic between them.

You do wonder in a way why they were so averse to a similar dynamic when it came to Will, who tries gamely to take away the awkwardness of drunkenly kissing Syd in Parity… by kissing her sober and making it twice as awkward! Nice one, Tippin! It will become clear in time that Syd & Will are probably a better match as a couple, but the writers still seem determined to primarily frame Will as a retro-70’s journalist steadily exploring a conspiracy related to Syd’s life, rather than a love interest. This works arguably much better than how Francie is integrated; the moment she has a scene without Syd, possibly for the first time, you realise just how unimportant Francie is as a character in her own right to Alias. You suspect they started to figure that out themselves fairly early on.

A Broken Heart chooses to build to one of the wackier cliffhangers the show ever did, as Jacqneau plants a bomb inside the pacemaker of the United Nations diplomat to India, Dhiran Patel, while a horrified Sydney looks on in secret. The intention is to blow up a summit of the fictitious United Commerce Organisation (UCO), but interestingly this was originally intended to be the real World Trade Organisation, but following the national tragedy of 9/11 just weeks for Alias premiered, ABC had the show change the name out of an understandable level of sensitivity given how open the wound was at the time. Again, this serves as another example of how Alias was guided by the fallout from the September 11th attacks and how it works hard to try and understand who the enemies are of this new century.

Though certainly not a defining episode of Alias or its first season, A Broken Heart is not entirely disposable in the context of the broader narrative of the show, or the development particularly of Syd as a character. It is naturally a little more throwaway in places as the show attempts to not be too defined by the burgeoning Rambaldi mythology, or simply repeat previous storylines, and at times it can’t help but fall into a slight level of retrograde sexism of the era (principally Marshall’s ‘lady bag’ gadget that has the whiff of unnecessary girly-girl stereotype about it), but it is a functional and still confident piece of television.

One final thought, mind, when Syd and Anna are rushing to memorise that binary code… it would have been much less tense if they’d had camera phones, wouldn’t it?

Are you a fan of Alias? What did you think of this episode? Let us know.

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