TV Discussion

Alias 1×08 – ‘Time Will Tell’ – TV Rewind

‘Time Will Tell’ is another important episode of Alias when it comes to establishing and contextualising the mythology of the show and how it directly relates to, particularly, our protagonist Sydney Bristow. With a title both figurative and literal, this episode brings into focus Alias’ growing preoccupation with time, and just how directly the past influences the present.

Jeff Pinkner’s first script for the series, continuing the steady roll out of Bad Robot creatives who will all go onto major recognisable projects in the future, operates very much as a sequel to the third episode ‘Parity’, and the pre-credits sequence of ‘A Broken Heart’. ‘Time Will Tell’ very much illuminates just how Alias, while a highly serialised show, remains indebted to its principal influence, The X-Files, in the structural manner it approaches the mythology at the show’s heart – the search for the work of 15th century ‘prophet’ Milo Rambaldi. While the previous four episodes all continued the ongoing narrative sub-plots and storylines for the characters and the complicated double-agent situation Sydney finds herself in, only two of them concern Rambaldi, and in both cases he is very much background.

The mythology of Alias ends up becoming almost as labyrinthine as The X-Files over its five year run, but at this stage they share a common structural thread. Though, as a product of a decade which had not yet truly embraced serialised dramatic storytelling outside of the soap opera—bar ground breaking exceptions such as Murder OneThe X-Files mostly consisted of stand-alone episodes which, as long as you knew the basic show premise, could be enjoyed independently, as it weaved a continuing, dense narrative across each season which told a broader arc concerning, in the case of that show, a plot by extra-terrestrials to colonise the Earth.

Each season of between 20-26 episodes would devote maybe a third of those stories to the larger, connected mythology, often re-using recurring characters who existed outside of the stand-alone stories. With the benefit of hindsight and distance, you could now watch The X-Files mythology episodes alone and understand the entire series in broad terms, despite the sum total amounting to roughly around 40-50 out of the overall 200+ episodes. Alias does not quite work that way, given how Rambaldi appears with more regularity and, as we saw in ‘Color-Blind’, can pop up at various points in an episode when you least expect him to, but ‘Time Will Tell’ still displays a similarity in how it has taken Alias at least three and a half episodes to fully return to Rambaldi as the focus.

‘Time Will Tell’ could, in actual fact, be watched directly after the pre-credits sequence of ‘A Broken Heart’ and you would largely be able to understand the majority of plot threads in operation, despite how the episodes between have introduced a ‘mole’ sub-plot into SD-6, and further increased Syd’s suspicion her father Jack is working for the KGB. The extensive ‘previously’ segments do enough work in catching you up on whatever key beats you would have missed and, in all honesty, with the Jack under suspicion storyline, Alias has been spinning its wheels for almost half a dozen episodes now. ‘Time Will Tell’ not only takes the next major step in the Rambaldi mythology but it also gives Syd the key revelation about Jack’s past which helps tee-up the final scene of ‘The Confession’, even if we remain a few episodes away from that point of no return.

Pinkner’s episode does not just cement the idea that Alias is staggering its mythology storytelling at this point in a similar manner to The X-Files, even if it does not tell traditional stand-alone narratives given the highly serialised nature of the storytelling, but it also follows the same maxim in bringing back a key character who, at this stage, has only appeared in episodes which directly concern the Rambaldi storyline: Anna Espinosa. Though established as a dark, mirror image reflection of Sydney as a highly-trained field agent, Anna is principally little more than a necessary point of antagonism for Sydney to fight in the search for Rambaldi artefacts; ‘Time Will Tell’ quickly forgets that FTL, the enemy spy agency, were on the search for the Rambaldi clock, despite the fact ‘Reckoning’ and ‘Color-Blind’s’ entire main plot revolved around their movements to reach the discovery first.

This could explain one of the strangest decisions that Alias ever makes in terms of characterisation and plot development – the mysterious disappearance of Anna after ‘Time Will Tell’ for over three seasons. Despite having been established as a dangerous, recurring foil who is invested enough in the Rambaldi hunt to have his symbol tattooed on her hand, not to mention the fact she successfully escapes at the climax of this episode with possibly the most important Rambaldi discovery ever made—his manuscript—Anna does not appear in Alias until the eighth episode of Season 4, ‘Echoes’, by which point an incredible amount has taken place, in front of and behind the camera. Anna exists, therefore, between two extremely different versions of Alias, and arguably her character never truly realises her full potential.

The reasons for why Anna suddenly, nay inexplicably disappears from the narrative, are not easy to come by. Even actress Gina Torres, who so memorably played the character, when interviewed before Anna would finally return in Season 4, didn’t seem to understand why Anna was dropped from the show, as recounted in Uncovering Alias: An Unofficial Guide:

I would absolutely love to reprise my role as Anna; I think so much was left unsaid. She just kind of disappeared, and I think Sydney’s due for another ass-whuppin’ from Anna. I fought her three times; every fight I ever engaged in with Sydney I won. Which was shocking! I mean, I couldn’t believe it. I’d read it episode after episode; I’d go ‘I kick her butt again? She’s the lead of the show! I’m the guest villain! Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I never came back.

There may be some credence to Torres’ theory that Anna was just too powerful a foe for Sydney at this stage, but it is also possible JJ Abrams and his writers were afraid they would just continue repeating old ground. Were Anna to show up every two or three episodes or so hunting for the next Rambaldi McGuffin, smacking down a few times with Sydney and either winning or losing the prize, perhaps they suspected it would just become a little too ‘comic-book’ even for such a cult, pulp series as Alias. The truth is, as evidenced when Anna does return and gets far more dialogue even in ‘Echoes’ and ‘A Man of His Word’, they simply didn’t give Anna or Gina Torres time, or the writing, to become more than the sexy, dark reflection of Sydney.

Would it not have made more sense for example, having established Anna as a major recurring villain, for it to have been *her* breaking into SD-6 and kickstarting a siege in ‘The Box’ two-part episode that lies on the horizon? Given McKenas Cole, the hip-talking villain of the piece so memorably essayed by Quentin Tarantino, ends up in the market for a Rambaldi artefact when the day is done, would ‘The Box’ not have been the natural point to reintroduce Anna after ‘Time Will Tell’ and utilise the opportunity to flesh her out into a genuine character? Perhaps knowing they also wanted to eventually introduce Syd’s Russian spy mother, the writing staff were wary of using up plot points and character ideas on someone as relatively disposable and emotionally disconnected as Anna. Who knows?

Anna nonetheless will, perhaps after the absence of Irina in Season 3, remain one of Alias’ key wasted opportunities of the entire series.

‘Time Will Tell’ adds a few significant elements to the burgeoning Rambaldi mythology which will, after this episode, truly blossom in ‘The Prophecy’ when the key aspect of the entire concept hovers into focus: the personalisation of Rambaldi’s work to Sydney’s life. ‘Time Will Tell’ is the first episode to really suggest that Rambaldi’s work revolves around eternal life. One of the major aspects of the Rambaldi mythology, which I no doubt will return to again and again in exploring Alias, is that Abrams and his writers never truly seemed to figure out quite *what* Rambaldi’s endgame was. They change the goalposts more than once in this regard. Abrams has his idea, and writers like Pinkner and Roberto Orci seem to have their own. Certainly for Pinkner, who will write the very final episode of Alias, it seems to concern immortality.

‘Parity’, in which Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Orci established the mythology for the first time, made key suggestions that Rambaldi was attempting to marry advanced science with religion, in attempting to ‘know God’ as Arvin Sloane puts it. Right from the very beginning, the Rambaldi mythology is suggested to concern some kind of transcendence, the becoming of more than just a man, more than simply human. If one is to ‘know’ God, or perhaps ‘become’ God, then one would surely live forever.

This idea is crystallised in the character, in ‘Time Will Tell’, of Donato – a clockmaker in Positano, Italy, who is supposedly the direct descendant of Giovanni Donato, a clockmaker and contemporary of Rambaldi who died in 1503, and who Rambaldi commissioned to make a very specific clock in which, as we learn here, he could use to place inside a synthetic polymer—the Golden Sun from ‘A Broken Heart’—that would reveal the location of his hidden manuscript. “That was Rambaldi’s style” Sloane elaborates. “Hiding codes and designs inside his artwork” or, in this case, a commissioned timepiece.

‘Time Will Tell’ very strongly suggests that the aged, clockmaker Donato who fixes the Rambaldi clock she steals under Anna and FTL’s nose in Oxford University at the beginning of the episode, is the very same Donato who supposedly died in 1503. Pinkner isn’t exactly subtle about it either, given Donato’s slip when admitting his lack of understanding about the clock’s relevance to Rambaldi. “He never did tell me what it meant…”. A slip, incidentally, which leads to a wonderful double take expression from Jennifer Garner as Syd wonders aloud if he really just did give away that he is over 500 years old. This is after Donato admits his supposed ancestor, in exchange for making the clock, would live thanks to Rambaldi an “impossibly long life” and “he even revealed to him when he would die”.

There is a strong sense of predestination established in the Rambaldi mythology here which will grow more and more prevalent and significant as Alias wears on. Assuming Donato has lived since the 15th century, he seems to not only be aware he is going to die once he fixes the clock for Syd, he actively plays the role as presumably spelled out to him by standing up right at the point a bullet meant for Syd from one of Anna’s snipers crashes through the window. Donato knew he would die: “The clock is fixed. Now it’s over” he says, with resignation, once Syd asks what Rambaldi was working on. To this we can assume he means his own life, but given he didn’t know what the clock was meant for, its likely he didn’t know what he was dying for: to protect the prophecy.

At this stage, of course, we nor Sydney know about the prophecy of her being the ‘Chosen One’, nor do we know for certain whether Abrams and the writers had devised that plot aspect at all. But can we infer that Donato, if he was technically immortal, knew just who Sydney was in relation to Rambaldi’s work? Consider the fact when Sydney, in the late Season 5 episode ‘No Hard Feelings’, meets The Rose, another Rambaldi acolyte who appears to have lived for centuries like Donato, the show is very clear in establishing how he has essentially been waiting for Syd in order to impart key information about the endgame. Conversely, the third old Italian man hinted at having lived an extremely long life, Patea di Regno in Season 2’s ‘Countdown’, is murdered without any sense of characterisation in order to retrieve his heart, designed by Rambaldi.

Alias has no internal consistency about the figures who appear to have lived an unnaturally long existence as part of Rambaldi’s centuries-spanning, complex endgame, and this is essentially reflective of the lack of consistency across the board in just how the Rambaldi mythology was devised. Like Chris Carter’s alien mythology in The X-Files, the Rambaldi mystery will always be a bag of ideas rather than a cogent whole. How were Donato, Di Regno or The Rose made immortal? Did they drink of the same fluid from the Horizon device that makes Sloane immortal in ‘All the Time in the World’? How does that connect to the Orchid flower found inside the nuclear weapon in ‘Passage’? These are questions about the internal logic of Rambaldi’s immortality endgame that have no direct, clear answers.

We also learn of another aspect about the Rambaldi mythology which will become more crucial in particularly Season 4 – the Magnific Order of Rambaldi, and their ties to the enigmatic watermark which Rambaldi left as a marker signifying his works. The Order are described by Rambaldi as sporting the symbol and being followers tasked to safeguard and protect his works and designs, particularly after the Church destroyed his workshops and burned the man himself at the stake for heresy. There ends up being some internal confusion once we reach Season 3 about whether the Order and the ‘Followers of Rambaldi’ are one and the same, but given the Order never truly is characterised as a consistent entity either, we can probably surmise they have the same agenda: protecting the work so Rambaldi’s vision of the future can play out as planned.

“Sadly, like most things that once were pure, criminals now use the symbol to infiltrate the Order” Donato claims, and the editing of the episode very much suggests that Anna is one such infiltrator, given we saw the Rambaldi symbol tattooed on her hand. When Anna returns in ‘Echoes’/’A Man of His Word’, she is operating freelance, but here the suggestion is that she is a K-Directorate or post-Soviet Russian spy pretending to be a follower of Rambaldi in order to recover his key works for whatever paymasters she works for. It would have made a great deal of sense for Anna to have been working for ‘The Man’ aka Syd’s mother, but this role essentially goes to Julian Sark upon his introduction in ‘The Coup’. Another example of Anna being passed up for another character when she already had a clear mythological connection to the Rambaldi enigma.

We can assume the Order have been in operation since Rambaldi’s death in 1496, as Sloane later talks about the star chart inside the Golden Sun—described by Dixon as “an ancient GPS system”—which leads to the Rambaldi manuscript buried inside Mount Aconcagua–as being from August 16th, 1523 at 2.22am, over a quarter of a century after Rambaldi’s death. This suggests Rambaldi devised a piece of technology, the polymer, which presumably was completed by members of the Order and hidden by them, as was the manuscript, after he died, given he couldn’t possibly have known how the stars would have looked decades after his own death. Or could he? If Rambaldi truly did see the future in visions from God, he may well have had an astrological connection to the heavens which would allow for such impossibilities.

Regardless, ‘Time Will Tell’ suggests at least the Order operated to precise instructions from Rambaldi as to where to hide his works, whether he was alive at the time or dead, and this ties into a broader theory from Paul Zinder, as described in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, about the Christian narrative myth-making at the heart of the Rambaldi mythology:

The Rambaldi symbol itself contains a circle that sits between two partial triangles: . The shapes used in the ‘eye of Rambaldi’ hold significant meanings in Christian art. The circle denotes eternal life, one of Rambaldi’s fixations, and indicates God’s perfection. The Rambaldi symbol remains unique in its use of connecting lines that form the sides of two separate triangles, which mirror each other outside the circle. This mandalic symbol represents an ancient religious motif that utilises a circle and two triangles representative of ‘male and female divinities’.

We will explore this in more detail when looking at ‘The Prophecy’, but it suggests the symbol is far more representative of Christian iconography and narrative than Alias, on first blush, would suggest. I have described the show as remarkably secular given the initial Christian, monotheistic connections in Rambaldi’s backstory, but Zinder’s theory suggests a great deal of acolytes and followers circle around Sydney as she fulfils a distinctly Christian mythological destiny. ‘Time Will Tell’, in dialogue delivered by a one-scene character who is fairly irrelevant to the broader narratives and ideas in the show, nonetheless goes further than ‘Parity’ in laying significant pieces of the bigger Rambaldi mythology the series will touch on across the next five years.

Beyond the significant return to Rambaldi, ‘Time Will Tell’ thematically continues Sydney’s journey in understanding who she is within the dual worlds of double-agent super-spy and English major college girl. In another connective to ‘Parity’, we see a brief return of Syd’s college Professor who shows concern about her work: “There’s no spirit in this paper, no soul” and this not only suggests Syd’s aspirations for becoming an English teacher and living some semblance of a normal life are being compromised by her espionage work, but that her focus is being divided in too many places – between work, home life and college. This specific theme about Syd’s continued psychology runs through the other plots and sub-plots across the episode.

Specifically, it links back to the ongoing sub-plot concerning SD-6’s realisation they have a mole in the organisation, and Sloane’s quiet attempts to root out who we know to be Syd – a narrative which will come to a temporary head in ‘Mea Culpa’ and ‘Spirit’. We are treated to some of the worst surveillance ever, thanks to the incredibly inept Security Section agent sent to track her, but it is enough to make Syd realise she’s being watched and is going to have to work hard to fool the lie detector test being issued by Carl Dreyer, the man sent in by the Alliance to try and ferret out anyone not working in the organisation’s best interests. Syd therefore has to learn to control and limit her focus, given the test involves measuring blood flow levels in the brain to detect irregularities, and it comes back in her training for the test with Vaughn that she is unable to truly compartmentalise her personal connection to everything she is working on. “Maybe I’ve split my focus already” she wonders.

Naturally this is where Alias strays into the realms of cult fantasy, as under normal circumstances nobody with this amount of personal baggage would be allowed anywhere near a complex, ongoing effort to root out a terrorist cell operating on American soil, but in terms of dramatic stakes it allows the show to not just dig deep into Syd’s psychology and create a heroine being pulled in ten different directions, it gives Alias the opportunity to personalise what would otherwise be as cold, distant and unknowable an operation in SD-6 as we find in the K-Directorate or FTL, or later the Triad, of the Alias world. Sloane even couches the lie detector tests as a routine part of giving your life to government service: “The sanctity of this agency requires the sacrifice of some personal freedoms” and this couched admittance of how the Alliance are (perhaps justifiably) paranoid makes Dixon’s later admission of pride at Syd’s fortitude in ‘serving her country’ all the more quietly tragic.

That level of paranoia, not to mention the split focus, actually affects Jack in ‘Time Will Tell’ for perhaps the first time. Having spent the first third of the season keeping Jack at arms length as a character in order for us to feel he’s as much an enigma as Syd does, we are now getting increasing suggestions that Jack is trying to do the right thing in the middle of a dangerous, desperate set of circumstances, in how he tries to prevent Sloane having Will Tippin murdered for investigating Eloise Kurtz/Kate Jones, which for the first time is discussed by the conspirators behind the mystery we have seen Will investigating. Jack admits to Sydney he’s only “one of 5 agents” in SD-6 who know the truth about the Alliance (we know Angus Scrimm’s oft-mentioned McCullough is another), and though he claims he’s prepared to kill Will if necessary to Sloane, you really do feel his main aim is to prevent the man’s death by any means necessary.

Will, conversely, only continues heading down a road which will change his life forever through the pressure of his newspaper editor, June Litvack, not to let go of a promising story. It’s telling that Eloise’s surname is ‘Kurtz’, as this taps into yet another significant piece of 1970’s American popular culture entertainment – Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s turn of the 20th century novel Heart of Darkness, in which a photo-journalist almost loses his mind during the Vietnam War tracking down through the dense jungles a rogue Colonel named Kurtz (memorably essayed by Marlon Brando). In some sense, Eloise is Will’s Kurtz, his unavoidable fate as he is pressured into continuing ‘up river’ to expose what happened to Danny. It’s only the behind the scenes exploitation of facts by Jack which eventually makes Will seem like a crazy hack chasing a story that isn’t there when the evidence disappears.

This isn’t the first episode where Will keeps his own secrets from Syd, given he attempts to confess about what he’s been looking into, despite her express wishes not to probe Danny further, and cannot bring himself to add more problems to a life he knows is all over the place – even if he doesn’t yet understand why she won’t just quit her job at the ‘bank’. Syd admits she is still wearing Danny’s engagement ring he bought her – she may have found out and made peace with the man who pulled the trigger but she still hasn’t brought to justice the man, Sloane, who ordered the hit, and while SD-6 still stands, Syd will find it impossible to let go. Will understands this on some level, even if he doesn’t know the reasons why.

Ultimately, Will can’t quite let go of the story, and the investigation, as despite Jack’s efforts, fate keeps throwing him into the path of Eloise as he finds the tracking bug in her car. Alias continues tapping into X-Files tropes by having him even approach a Lone Gunman-esque figure who confirms the bug is “government issue”, which only increases Will’s fascination and gives him a slightly wider scope to play with. His contact even makes a joke reference to an R.E.M song from their 1994 album ‘Monster’, called ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’ (which Will doesn’t seem to get).

There’s an intriguing parallel to Will’s situation in what the song represents, as described by writer and singer Michael Stipe in discussing ‘Monster’, when he talks about how the protagonist of the song is an older man trying to understand what makes ‘Generation X’ at that time tick, only to get nowhere in the process:

Keep in mind that we were at the absolute peak of our fame. Our great friends Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix had just died. And half the population saw me, unfairly, as the face of AIDS, or activist liberalism, or both. The atmosphere was very difficult. There was sadness and anguish, and a true sense of mourning and regret. It was a lot to take in. Remember also that American celebrity culture in the early ’90s had just shifted to a very different velocity and tone, and emerging technology was ramping up. The writing was on the wall. We see the result of all that now, with the tail end of reality TV and its attendant sad success stories and exploitation, that you don’t actually have to do anything creative or worthwhile to be famous.

Alias arguably was born right on the cusp of a changing technological world. You can see it across the show’s production design, with the post-modern grunge of SD-6 still utilising large, PC monitor screens which are positively retro to modern eyes; Syd communicates via cell phone but not frequently – she still uses pagers; the true emergence of the online world in people’s homes, globally available GPS systems, smartphones which are in essence portable PC’s – all of this remains just over the next hill, set to truly emerge just after Alias’ demise in 2006 (Facebook launched a year later). Yet Alias, arriving right at the very beginning of the 21st century, exists on the cusp of those technological breakthroughs and fears of mass media consumption.

Alias is made up of ‘Generation X’ babies, born roughly between the mid-1960’s and early-1980’s, uncovering the secrets of the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation before them – people like Syd, Vaughn & Will exposing the dirty laundry of the Jack, Sloane and later Irina’s of the world. Where our younger protagonists (all now middle-aged from our modern perspective) are embracing modern technologies and the fast-moving ideas of an ever-changing world, they are also trapped within the confines of the world their parents and the previous generation built. Will dresses like he’s trapped in a 1970’s conspiracy thriller, Syd discovers the cyrillic codes hidden in the romantic literature Jack bought for her mother – everything goes back to that paranoid, post-Cold War overhang, but its shot through with the anxietal unease of a generation struggling to break free from the past.

Generation X children were also known as the ‘latchkey generation’, defined as the first demographic of young people who often found themselves home alone due to both parents operating full-time jobs as opposed to just the father figure, or a rising divorce rate amongst the parental population which meant a fractured home life for many young people growing up, particularly in the 1970’s onwards. This certainly would have characterised Syd, who once she lost her mother saw Jack immerse himself in his work at the CIA at the expense of a relationship with his daughter. Unlike many such Generation X’ers, Syd didn’t become disenchanted and disaffected, but she can be cynical and distrustful of authority, and Alias certainly stylistically is a product of the 1990’s and the ‘MTV Generation’ who blossomed in popular culture.

The cycles us right back to the sense Alias is moving forward with that same mistrust in authority and anxiety about where we are heading as a species as The X-Files had, except the fears and targets of such concern have now shifted. Syd isn’t afraid of CIA ‘men in black’ working for paymasters operating against the will of the American people, she fears men like Dreyer – agents of a corrupt organised crime cabal duping honest men like Dixon who believes “what we do isn’t for ourselves, it’s for the good of the country” as he tells her on Mount Aconcagua. The fact Dreyer is played by Tobin Bell, a lisping, gravelly hybrid of Brando and James Caan at their cruellest—who would later become famous as the deadly Jigsaw serial killer in the popular Saw horror franchise—almost feels like the show being self-aware of these aspects in the casting process.

If Alias truly does have more of an overtly Christian bent than its secular approach to Rambaldi may suggest, it becomes ever more clear in the climactic moments of ‘Time Will Tell’. With shades of both Lara Croft or Indiana Jones in exploring a cave containing a secret piece of arcanum inside a dark, inaccessible cave, or even presaging Lost’s obsession with mysterious hatches in the ground given the rickety underground hole leading to Rambaldi’s treasure, the show presents the discovery of Rambaldi’s journal as equivalent to one of the lost gospels; the God-figure communicating to his followers and disciples from beyond the grave, from centuries in the past, and to those worthy enough to uncover his words and writings.

The episode even ends with Sydney plummeting, thanks to Anna in a ladder scramble toward the light (which is reminiscent of the climax of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), into a literal black abyss. ‘Time Will Tell’ reminds us that this is an episode all about the struggle, fusing together the growing interest in religion, history and hints of the supernatural, with the show’s innate sense of paranoia and obsession with the past.

We may know Syd isn’t consumed by the darkness, but you are left by the final moments of ‘Time Will Tell’ wondering just how impossibly she may return to the light.

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

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