TV reviews

Alias 1×05 – ‘Doppleganger’ – TV Rewind

A hair raising escape for Sydney Bristow results in a quietly effective episode of Alias...

‘Doppelgänger’ comes as something of a surprise when you look at it from the broader context of Alias’s first season. The fifth episode of a twenty-two episode season, structurally, is never going to contain too many of the bigger mythological revelations, character turning points, and narrative surprises that you might expect from a mid-season two-parter or particularly a season finale, and while ‘Doppleganger’ doesn’t buck that trend, it cuts surprisingly deep to the core conceptual idea crucial to the entire show, namely: do we really *know*  the people closest to us?

Before we touch on that philosophical question, we must remember that we are still watching Alias. This is not The Wire, riven with harsh social commentary, or Hannibal layered with creeping metaphysical discourse. This is a show about a young spy “jumping off buildings in three-inch heels while napalm explodes all around me”, as Sydney Bristow deftly sums up her career at the end of the series finale way way into the future. That is not to cheapen the writing or character work, which has far more substance than on the surface you might expect, but we should always be aware that Alias first and foremost is a piece of escapism. Which explains the extended, ten-minute opening sequence which kicks ‘Doppleganger’ off.

I’ve discussed before about how Alias structures both its cliffhanger endings and how it opens each story by continuing the previous episodes’ narrative, concluding that thread, and launching off into another. ‘Doppleganger’ does the same but it arguably makes it work better than either ‘Parity’ or ‘A Broken Heart’ did in terms of operating like a James Bond pre-credits sequence. Those films are famous, historically, for telling a condensed, mini-plot in the first 10-15 minutes before the title song, and then kickstarting the main mission for Bond once the credits have rolled. ‘Doppleganger’ feels like the first episode which really manages to achieve this, as Syd & her partner Dixon stop Euro-goon Luc Jacqneau by blowing up UN peace delegate Dhiran Patel by removing the bomb from his chest while in the midst of a high-speed car chase through Sao Paolo.

It works because it takes Syd on a small journey, from witnessing the bomb being implanted, to battling the Bond-henchman lunkhead who recognised her in ‘A Broken Heart’, escaping the terrorists, getting back to Dixon at the peace summit under attack, grabbing Patel and escaping while the aforementioned bit of ludicrousness takes place. The show at least knows how bonkers the whole scene is, given how Vaughn doesn’t quite believe it happened when Syd later de-briefs him on it. The fact writer Daniel Arkin also manages to use this sequence to give Dixon a shade of characterisation is also impressive, as his reaction to punching Patel—“I worship this man”—suggests behind the resolute, everyman spy is quite the humanitarian.

In discussing Dixon’s backstory in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion, Carl Lumbly confirms as much in terms of what he and the writing team were imagining when thinking about Dixon is as a person:

Dixon is a man of the world and seemed to have all sorts of possibilities. I also found it intriguing to play a patriot. I am of a generation that came out of protest, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. In Dixon’s case, he came out of that experience with a love for the possibilities of the country and the desire to defend it with everything, including his life. I thought it’d be fun to play someone who knows they’re right and feels so single-minded about it. I think there’s a spiritual side to Dixon that he’s very, very quiet about. All of that, I feel, feeds his seemingly calm demeanour.

What’s interesting about this is that ‘Doppleganger’ is the first instance where we see Dixon’s own self-belief in peaceful defence of his country challenged, or thrown into some level of doubt when it comes to Sydney. Dixon so far has been the stalwart, loyal partner on missions with Syd, someone she is relaxed and comfortable around at work – an elder brother dynamic, even in places a mentor. We know he’s a family man, and here we see his wife Diane and children Steven & Robin (albeit briefly). We know he believes, firmly, that SD-6 are a covert arm of the CIA and he is serving his country. He will voice the psychology of this in Season 2, in episodes such as ‘A Free Agent’, once Dixon learns the terrible truth.

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

Being so affected at having to physically assault a man like Patel says a lot about where Dixon, morally and spiritually, is coming from. It also plays quite well into Doppleganger when, following the mission in which Syd switches out the real Schiller for the fake one under his nose, Sloane’s suspicions lead Dixon to question whether or not Syd is hiding something from him. Alias will play with this again more directly, and with greater consequences, in the final two episodes of the season, but playing this beat so early on adds real emotional depth when Syd finally tells Dixon the truth in ‘Phase One’ next season, and invests you more in their relationship. Syd & Dixon’s familial dynamic is one of the more unsung, great aspects of Alias, and this is the first real test of it.

It is also a nice touch to have Vaughn, who is quite honestly becoming quite the buzz kill for Syd’s youthful, idealistic exuberance the more her double agent life develops, question whether it would be a good idea to bring Dixon in on the truth. It’s easy to forget that Syd genuinely posits whether they ought to do this in ‘Doppleganger’, but Vaughn points out telling him the truth could change his entire life, and not necessarily for the better. These words will turn out to be particularly prophetic come Season 2. He also fairly makes the point as to whether Dixon can even be trusted, but Syd’s resolute belief in him stands firm. “You don’t know him. That’s my point” he says. “But I do!” is her firm, final rejoinder.

This cuts to the core of what ‘Doppleganger’ is really about, thematically. *Does* Syd know Dixon? Does she know anyone? The ironic hindsight of Vaughn, given he’s hiding massive secrets about his own identity, is not lost in terms of this and what he tries to warn Syd of here. Arkin’s script tries to make this point repeatedly across numerous narrative aspects – the central idea of the double at the heart of the story, Dixon and Sloane’s suspicion of Syd, Vaughn giving Syd the CIA file on Jack which has pages missing which eventually suggest perhaps he was suspected of being a traitor years ago, Francie and her boyfriend, Will and the mystery of Kate Jones. The entire script, in terms of theme and context, is singing from the same hymn sheet. Who can we trust? Is anyone who they say they are? Hell, even Syd is lying about who she is to her best friends every day.

As an idea, it also taps into the Cold War overhang central to Alias’s mythology and subtext. The entire backstory of Jack Bristow and his KGB double agent wife has been updated, essentially, in The Americans most recently (which feels like a more adult, period-set Alias), and they both tap into the idea that people are living on American soil, among us, who are not who they say they are. Alias even takes this one step further from allegory into a literal, almost science-fiction narrative when next season introduces the Helix doubling technology, and allows the storytelling to actualise the idea of a doppleganger living in your home, pretending to be your best friend, eating your ice cream etc… That make this episode very much one playing with ideas that will be expressed further down the road, still riven with the Communist-era fear that the enemy remains within.

What’s interesting is how the Germans are approached in ‘Doppleganger’, outside of the title itself and its linguistic derivation. The villains here are not Russians but rather, it is strongly suggested, Neo-Nazis. Hansel, the pharmaceutical company in Berlin, are never really characterised beyond the McGuffin character at the heart of the plot, Schiller, but Sloane suggests they have long-standing ties to the Third Reich and the Second World War. Schiller too is looking to ‘defect’ to the US, and it’s left to Dixon to ask the most apparent question: “He lives in Berlin – what’s the problem?”. Precisely – there shouldn’t be. The Cold War has been over for ten years, the Wall down for twelve. Why doesn’t the guy just get on a plane and move?

The reason is that Arkin here is using Hansel as a Soviet approximation, trading the monolithic bloc for a conglomerate with ties to Nazism and bio-terrorism, given they are developing a vaccine against bio-weapons which can be sold to the highest bidder, thereby allowing bio-terrorists an immunity in the field of combat and make the release of those weapons more accessible. An instruments of peace that could be used to wage war. It is quite a frightening concept but it is, nevertheless, a Cold War-holdover idea. The vaccine ‘inhaler’ that Sloane and SD-6 test fake Schiller on is akin to the ‘microfilm’ in the days where defectors would smuggle out state secrets. Alias is continuing to try and play Cold War stories in a post-Soviet world by simply wrapping them up with new names and political constructs. Vaughn even claims the US Army are working on vaccine tech that they thought was “years ahead of the Germans” – why, though, are the Germans now the enemy here?

READ MORE: Veronica Mars 2×17 – ‘Plan B’ – TV Rewind

A moment to discuss Daniel Arkin because he bears some similarity to Vanessa Taylor in the previous episode which shows JJ Abrams, as showrunner, was working to an interesting manner of assigning episodes in this first season. Arkin will only write one more episode, and quite a key one – ‘The Confession’. The episode is most notable for the final reveal about Syd’s mother, and it’s a reveal which ‘Doppleganger’ directly suggests more than any other episode of Alias to date, even if the script is trying to make us look the other way. Much like Taylor will write ‘Spirit’, which further explores Sloane after some hints in ‘A Broken Heart’, Arkin writing ‘The Confession’ provides the payoff for the suspicion thrown on Jack in this episode. Was Abrams directly tying writers to episodes specifically so they would have connective tissue?

We should talk about Jack a little because Alias continues edging the character forward surprisingly incrementally. You forget that, given how central Jack is to the show and eventually to Syd’s life and her missions, that in these early episodes he is drifting in the background like a tragic Grim Reaper; a cold, distant and quite scary enigma. Jack is remote – distancing himself further from Syd here personally, the questions thrown up about whether he can be trusted, and his vicious attack on Paul Kelvin aka fake Schiller in SD-6, all serve to continue making you question just who Jack is, what he’s hiding, and what he wants. In this aspect, Alias is very much trying to throw misdirect us, given how questionably noble we will come to know Jack is.

‘Doppleganger’ is probably the first time Syd really brings Jack into her own double-agent web, however, if you don’t count his forced rescue of her in ‘Truth Be Told’. When it looks like Kelvin is about to be rumbled by SD-6, which would conversely expose her as a double agent, Syd goes to Jack directly for help, knowing his access inside the organisation. Jack even admits that Sloane, having already called him “finds me useful in difficult situations”. This is code for – when Sloane wants someone beaten within an inch of their life, or worse, he calls Jack. Jack, in order to maintain his own cover, is being forced to potentially do some horrific and unspeakable things. It is only suggested here but the inference is chilling.

Speaking of chilling, Ron Rifkin continues imbuing Sloane with a creeping menace, even with relatively minimal scenes and dialogue at this stage. You see it in that moment where Sloane quizzes Kelvin over the inhaler and fake Schiller bluffs. “Why don’t you think about everything?” has such a terrifying suggestion behind the softly spoken, edged words, that Sloane projects a power and deadliness beyond his aged, Jewish features. Moments like these remind you of how SD-6 are playing a long con, and how much they are the internal enemy, and Syd reaches a point in ‘Doppleganger’ where, in swopping the real and fake Schiller, she comes to an increasing realisation about who she is to both sides – the CIA and SD-6.

The ending also works because principally of this dichotomy in terms of her characterisation, and how well ‘Doppleganger’ plays with the idea of how well you know someone, and how much you should tell them the truth. Alias chooses, for the first time, not to end with a cliffhanger that will project Sydney into the next episode with a bold, colourful mission, but instead land her with a beat of emotional devastation. Because she chooses to not tell Dixon about SD-6 being the enemy, and the Schiller switch, she can only watch in horror as he unknowingly destroys the vaccine plant while a team of CIA agents are inside, backing up her counter-mission.

The expression on Jennifer Garner’s face as Dixon blows the plant with a secondary detonator she didn’t know about is fantastic acting – that pure realisation something terrible is about to happen and she can do nothing to stop it. The fact Arkin’s script makes the point of briefly characterising the agents too, as likeable, honest men protecting their country in precisely the way Dixon believes he is protecting his, adds another level of tragedy to how the episode ends. You wonder how Dixon may have reacted when, once being de-briefed by the CIA after the fall of SD-6, he was told how these men died and how he was directly responsible. ‘Doppleganger” leaves that dangling in a manner which is impressively loaded with consequence.

While therefore not an episode hugely important to the grand scheme of Alias, Doppleganger’ nonetheless is an effective, relatively self-contained piece of action drama which starts in bold, explosive fashion and ends up growing into a deeper examination of the central dichotomy key to the series, while landing a gut punch of a final moment for Syd as a character. An episode which is better than you almost certainly remember.

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

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