TV discussion

Alias 1×07 – ‘Color Blind’ – TV Rewind

The continuing evolution of Alias across its first season is increasingly paralleled, as it should be, by the evolution and development of protagonist Sydney Bristow, as ‘Color-Blind’ again returns to the central theme of not understanding or knowing who you truly are, growing lost within yourself deep inside a world with no clear delineation of black and white, or right and wrong. What Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman’s second script for the series does, and Alias does for the first time, is frame Sydney’s character journey through that of a guest character.

One of the difficulties in serialised storytelling to the degree Alias has deployed thus far is that it does not particularly encourage the use of the main guest character. TV shows of old, traditional series which tell a contained episodic story and move on, often framed a one-off character as key to the story being told that week. Murder mystery series, such as Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder, cop shows such as Law & Order or CSI, even science-fiction series such as the Star Trek spin-offs of the 1990’s and shows such as The X-Files, all of them frequently utilised a major guest character to weave a narrative around. With a serialised show telling an ongoing tale, it becomes a lot harder to stop and anchor a story around someone the audience doesn’t care about, and who’ll be gone next week.

Martin Shepard, who we briefly saw played by John Hannah in ‘Reckoning’ previously, does not entirely anchor everything in Color-Blind but this is unquestionably the first episode of Alias to give a character who is not one of the main cast ensemble an arc of some fashion; in this case, Shepard being reminded of his tragic past as a brainwashed assassin who ended up killing Syd’s fiancee on the programmed order of SD-6, and his journey toward finding some escape and peace from that. The reason it works, and Alias is able to do it, is precisely because it factors into Syd’s psychology along the way. Shepard is a character in his own right but his existence is designed to sketch in more aspects of who Syd is, and her own journey in accepting Danny’s death.

There is a neat level of (perhaps justified) paranoia running through ‘ColorBlind’, which kicks off in the same vein ‘Reckoning’ ended – throwing Syd into what amounts to a Kafkaesque horror movie, with her desperately trying to escape a psychiatric asylum which Jack Bender, one of Alias’ signature directors, frames with tilted angles as he fully wrenches from the script the idea that Syd is a prisoner within the shadow of the Soviet Union. Syd even claims at one point that Georgia, as a former Soviet satellite, is “K-Directorate’s main recruiting ground”Alias softer equivalent of the KGB are now picking up agents from the malnourished vestiges of the defeated Russian bear. The paranoia of that ever-present threat still remains.

For a man like Shepard, the paranoia is pretty justified; he recognises Syd before he remembers killing Danny, and he knows he’s broken and something was done to him, hence why he’s rotting away in a Romanian asylum. In talking about ‘Reckoning’, I discussed how Shepard is essentially Alias’ version of a Manchurian Candidate; a brainwashed killer who can be triggered by the use of a specific code phrase, and Syd takes it one step further by deducing how he is colour blind because he is trained to understand everything in black & white – his circuits are simply breaking down. It could be said that this is precisely what happened to Syd herself once she learned about SD-6, learned that the truth about her life was more opaque than she ever realised. This season is all about her not seeing the world in those stark, delineated terms.

Orci & Kurtzman manage to leave the Danny reveal as a surprise, thankfully, and not really out of any sense of misdirection per se. While Shepard knowing Syd obviously hinted at it, he could have just as easily been a former nemesis or something linked to her spy past, so when he does realise he killed the man she loved, it does come as a shock. It’s a satisfying narrative device too – we are aware of the revelation some time before Syd, thanks to witnessing the reverie of Shepard’s dreams, and this helps escalate tension and expectation as they help each other escape the grasp of the sinister Dr. Kresnick. Come the moment where Syd finally learns the truth, and we see almost in sepia how Shepard killed Danny, Syd’s reaction is earned, and justifiably emotional. It ends up being a really well played and structured moment.

Looking deeper, was the framing of Danny’s death an intentional nod to The X-Files, a recognised major influence on Alias creator JJ Abrams? The manner in which Shepard kills Danny, seeing him in the bathroom mirror behind a briefly oblivious Danny, is incredibly similar to how government assassin Alex Krycek murders Bill Mulder in The X-Files Season 2 finale ‘Anasazi’. This may just be one of those TV coincidences but you wonder if this might have been a way of calling back, given the paranoid undercurrent to this episode, to the poster child of 90’s paranoia – because this isn’t the only instance within ‘Color-Blind’ which recalls The X-Files.

The whole Eloise Kurtz/Kate Jones sub-plot keeping Will busy is right out of The X-Files’ playbook. She suffers the fate of a classic X-Files informant or someone who came too close to ‘the truth’ – found murdered after Will, in the previous episode, discovered the apartment he spoke to her in stripped bare and clean as if she was never there. Will at this point is very clearly a fusion of both Carl Bernstein/Bob Woodward from All the President’s Men and Fox Mulder from The X-Files; a dogged investigator rooting out a conspiracy he has no wider understanding of. SD-6 almost in this context operate like the Syndicate in The X-Files, the shadowy cabal of men behind the conspiracy; like Mulder, it takes Will a long time to pierce the veil and begin to see the human monsters lurking within.

Incidentally, the fact Eloise approaches Will using the alias Kate Jones, a woman who died in 1973, suggests SD-6 are recycling the identities of long dead American citizens as cover for their agents, given Sydney also uses the same alias in an earlier episode. This in itself is an unnerving consideration and reveals just how deeply the Alliance have managed to penetrate the organisation government structures of American society. Alias even inverts the aforementioned Manchurian Candidate idea built around Martin Shepard by having SD-6 revealed as the organisation who programmed him to kill; Russia may now be interested in extracting what they need from him, but Alias suggests an American-based organised crime operation is killing American citizens on US soil. It’s a scary psychological idea.

This does also explain why Syd lets Shepard go ultimately, allowing him a freedom and peace by the conclusion of the episode, because she identifies him as as much of a victim as she of SD-6, the Alliance, and the enemy within she is attempting to destroy. It’s telling that ‘Color-Blind’ is set leading up to the Thanksgiving celebration weekend, probably the most famous American holiday after Christmas, and a staple of pre & post-colonial American culture. For Sydney to be faced with the actuality of an agency operating on US soil programming people to murder American citizens on the holiday where Americans give thanks for, in this day and age, the society they have built over several difficult centuries, is almost a cruel irony. America may be the land of the free but Alias consistently fears it may have been corrupted, by elements within and without.

Syd of course lies to Arvin Sloane about Shepard’s death, considering him the actualisation of the open wound at the heart of SD-6, but she has no idea Sloane continues to demonstrate a creeping, quasi-paternal affection for her. Concerned about her undercover mission in the Romanian asylum, Jack discusses it with Sloane who reassures him “we’ve seen her through worse than this” and “I believe in her as if she were my own daughter”. Ron Rifkin delivers lines like this always with a playful ambiguity, but this is the first real underlying suggestion Sloane has these paternal feelings which go far beyond the role as her spy-boss. Sloane remains enigmatic in terms of motivation but this is a big clue into part of his psychology which in future seasons, particularly once Nadia comes into the picture, will play a much bigger part in his story.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Alias over the years comes to be Jack’s visible disgust at Sloane’s paternal overtures toward his daughter, and while he’s restrained here when it comes to Sloane’s comments, he is far less so in his first encounter with Michael Vaughn. Kurtzman & Orci establish a recurring character trope here – Jack’s consistent dislike of Vaughn. When Vaughn & Syd become an item, Jack never pretends he thinks he is worthy of his daughter (though, likely, no man would be), but here Jack is more protective over his daughter’s role in SD-6 and his role as her guardian and protector. He senses challenge from Vaughn over this, and we know Vaughn is growing more concerned and personally attached to Syd – colleagues like Weiss are already noticing a change in him. He’s also conveniently dumped his girlfriend Alice.

Jack is incredibly rude and patronising to Vaughn here, particularly when Vaughn again suggests they ought to pull Syd out of the spy game in order to save her life, but there is an undercurrent of suspicion given Jack knows Vaughn has been pulling his CIA files as part of helping Syd explore the mystery of her mother’s death, and Jack’s possible KGB double agent betrayal. Vaughn is equally suspicious: “what were you doing checking up on me checking up on you?”. The truth is this is a moment between two men rivalling for Syd’s affections – one the father, unable to detach from the paternal protection of his daughter; the other the suitor, looking to fill that void as her guardian and more. The irony is, of course, that Syd doesn’t need either of them to take care of her at all!

The reality is, though, that Syd is leaning more toward the affections of the latter than the former – she and Vaughn are growing steadily closer, even if their interactions and snatches of personal dialogue are subtle; here she enjoys his interest in knowing Francie’s name, learning about an aspect of her ‘real’ life, one he wishes he could be involved in properly. Jack, conversely, still has no real idea how to engage with his daughter; there is a lovely comic beat where he arrives at her Thanksgiving dinner and hands her the newspaper from her lawn, played to perfection by Victor Garber. Nonetheless he then bluntly tells her that Shepard killed Danny and she pulls him up on how coldly he breaks to her news which could well have been a devastating shock.

She does soften to him again when he tries to explain he wasn’t working for the KGB, clearly prepared nonetheless to let Syd believe he was responsible for Laura’s death as the FBI were, apparently, after him, in order to shield her from the awful truth she will finally discover in ‘The Confession’. “After they caught Boyce and Lee in ’77, everybody was under suspicion” is an interesting reference from Jack to a real-life case of American government agents caught and convinced of espionage for the Soviet Union. Christopher John Boyce gathered classified documents concerning secure US communications ciphers and spy satellite development and utilise an old high-school friend, Andrew Daulton Lee, as a cocaine & heroin dealer known as ‘the Snowman’, to deliver the leaked information to Soviet embassy officials in Mexico City in exchange for a large sum of cash. Boyce was exposed when Lee was arrested by Mexican officials.

Note the nickname of Lee, ‘the Snowman’, would later be adopted by Alias writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth episodes of Season 1 as the name of a dangerous international assassin who turns out to be Syd’s ex-lover Noah Hicks – yet another American government agent who betrays his country. Alias continues to be obsessed with the idea of the saboteur, the idea we cannot trust those who are seeking to protect us, but the post-9/11 anxiety does not direct the mistrust *at* the American government, but rather those seeking to undermine it from within or outside; Russian double agents, spies, criminal organisations. Syd’s fear of her father’s betrayal is a microcosm of Americans, vulnerable after what happened in New York City, of being brought down by those closest to them.

It is quite ironic therefore that Sloane, SD-6 and the Alliance are now concerned there is a mole in the agency—or more than one, according to the disembodied voice of presumably Alliance head-honcho Alain Christophe who was briefly first referenced in ‘Reckoning’. The tables are being turned on the insidious force within by building on the fear they too are being compromised, even if we of course know the ‘moles’ in this case are working for the ‘good guys’. The conclusion of ‘Color-Blind’ works harder to lay track for the ongoing narrative which will build over the next few episodes as Sloane begins his covert mole hunt, while establishing that we are heading back toward the mythology introduced in ‘Parity’: Rambaldi.

The coda of the episode reveals that FTL’s disappearance, and all of the shenanigans which involved Shepard and the DNA of a man he killed, was all part of the hunt for a Rambaldi artefact buried somewhere in Tunisia. Alias will, as it further digs deep into the mythology, more and more connect what appear to be fairly standard espionage tales to the Rambaldi mythos, but ‘Reckoning’ & ‘Color-Blind’ take a big circuitous route to getting us back to what was established in ‘Parity’ – the script even mentions that Anna Espinosa, last seen grappling with Syd at the start of ‘A Broken Heart’ over a Rambaldi piece, was hovering around the asylum, even though we never saw her. You almost wish they would have paid Gina Torres to lurk around in the background in this episode to sell the idea more that all of this was about Rambaldi, as it seems quite a sudden right-turn back into mythological territory.

‘Color-Blind’ nevertheless, while not being a particularly standout or stellar piece of storytelling in Alias, keeps the wheels of plot and character development for Syd and numerous characters moving. It thematically continues to explore the idea that Syd can only really achieve what she wants to, find that equilibrium in her life, if she starts seeing the world in deeper shades and figure out her place in the world. This episode, aside from all of the other elements vying for attention, continues that central journey.

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

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