TV Discussion

Alias 1×10 – ‘Spirit’ – TV Rewind

‘Spirit’ works not just as a follow on from ‘Mea Culpa’ but as a companion piece of sorts, continuing Alias’ mid-season exploration of its own central morality.

We saw in the previous episode the difficult soul searching experienced by SD-6 head honcho Arvin Sloane when it came to contemplating that Sydney Bristow, a woman he has spent his life deluding himself into believing a surrogate daughter figure, could have betrayed him – and the consequence of potentially having to sanction her murder. ‘Spirit’, by the very nature of how Syd gets out of what looked like at the end of ‘Mea Culpa’ the end of her life as a double agent for the CIA, shifts this moral question over to Syd’s *real* father, and to some degree the mirror image of Sloane – Jack Bristow. In order to save Syd’s life, Jack has to go beyond simply being Sloane’s weapon of murder—as previous episodes have established—into sacrificing the life of an ‘innocent’ man as part of the greater good.

In reality, as Vaughn later reassures Syd once she realises what Jack has done, the sacrificial lamb of Anthony Russek—an SD-6 agent who Jack frames as a mole working for K-Directorate after faking a transmission to them on a mission we saw in ‘Mea Culpa’ to disguise Syd’s *actual* transmission to the CIA—was no innocent. “He was an early member of SD-6, he knew he was working for the bad guys”. Russek was culpable in the hidden crimes of SD-6, aware of the Alliance underpinning their ruse of being part of the American intelligence network, and involved in weapons sales used against American interests across the world. “He got what he deserved”Vaughn states, showing that he may not have agreed with Jack’s slippery methods, but from a moral perspective he agrees with the choice Jack made in the heat of the moment. “What would you have done if it had been your daughter, or son, or Danny?”he asks Syd. She has no clear answer.

This is a key question because Alias never really asks Syd to sacrifice her ethics in quite the way it does, repeatedly, of Jack. Even when she does undertake actions which are self-serving and/or outright criminal, it later becomes clear she was essentially brainwashed doing them (in the Season 3 Julia Thorne arc), thereby invalidating their consequence on Syd as a person. Though a ‘good guy’ in the classic sense of the term, a man who we see across the run of the series has long ago traded in his own moral compass and personal happiness in order to try and protect his daughter, Jack is by contrast a tarnished human being; Syd is his redemption and without her, he would almost certainly have become, or would become, Sloane. Alias will explore this duality head on in later seasons but episodes like ‘Spirit’ confirm, even early on in the show’s life, it is a series interested in personal ethics.

If there is a core thematic question at the heart of ‘Spirit’, the last episode written by Vanessa Taylor (whose career I talk more about in ‘Parity’) and the first co-written directly by JJ Abrams since ‘Truth Be Told’, it seems to concern the ‘virtue’ of the human spirit. Will you immerse yourself in darkness if you believe it is for the greater good, or will you succumb to it like men such as Ineni Hassan, or principally Sloane? After the first psychological exploration of Sloane in ‘Mea Culpa’, ‘Spirit’—while looking more at Jack—does however give us one of the finest Sloane moments in the entire series, one which adds deeper inflections into the psychological underpinning of his character, and how he sees himself. It’s a monologue, wonderfully played by Ron Rifkin, which deserves repeating in full:

One night, this was years ago, maybe two years before you and I met. I had just finished my first briefing in the White House. I was new to the CIA. After that meeting everyone got into a limousine to head back to Langley. But I didn’t. I told them I was gonna walk for a while. They looked at me sort of funny, I mean, it was a cold night. So I said I needed to get some air. But the truth is, I was overcome. It had occurred to me as I was walking down the White House steps that I was living in a perfect moment. Everything was filled with a promise: my role in the CIA, my relationship with a wife that I had not yet met. Still, I could feel a darkness coming. So I wandered around for a while and ended up at the Jefferson Memorial, it was always my favorite one. Looked up across the basin – Lincoln right there. I didn’t know how it would finally materialise: the darkness. I had nothing to base it on. It wasn’t as if the CIA had just betrayed me. That my wife had just been diagnosed with lymphoma. None of that had happened yet. So, whenever life takes an unfortunate turn, as it has this week, I just remind myself that I could see it coming all along.

Across the next five seasons of Alias, I cannot recall anything approximating quite that level of open and honest introspection being voiced again from Sloane, a character who builds his entire persona around secrets and lies. There is no reason to believe, given he says this to his most trusted confidante Jack, that his words are untrue, and there is a lot to unpick from his confession here. We learn that Sloane joined the CIA around 1969 and it seems appropriate that his tenure at Langley would have been marked by the years of the Nixon administration, famously known to history as being corrupt and unlawful. That darkness Sloane feels could easily be the American political framework of the 1970’s, the advent of Watergate, and that latent 70’s conspiracy thriller aspect which is as potent in the DNA of Alias as its Cold War overhang.

What we learn is that Sloane, even before he lost his way after the death of his daughter Jacqueline (which we’ll learn about in Season 4) and his subsequent obsession with Rambaldi (which starts to become clear in ‘Page 47’), always considered himself an outsider. He separates himself from his colleagues, who don’t understand his desire to walk alone with the demons he can sense on the horizon. Sloane in the White House, given we know him here as an international organised crime figure, seems like a completely different life, but it further proves him as a man haunted by his own innate potential, the darkness inside his ‘spirit’, the source of which Alias never really delves into. We never learn of Sloane’s childhood, or his formative years, or why he sensed—despite his great job and a genuinely loving relationship with Emily on the horizon—that he would succumb to that darkness. We never even learn why or how, cryptically, he was ‘betrayed’ by the CIA.

Sloane mentions the Jefferson Memorial, one of the key historical landmarks of the United States in Washington DC, built to commemorate Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the nation and subsequently one of its first Presidents. What makes the memorial his favourite of the many to the legends of American history? It could be thanks to the inherent contradiction in Jefferson’s character, in his ‘spirit’, which has defined his place in history over the last two centuries. While a philosopher and diplomat immersed in the classical tradition, which you also suspect would appeal to Sloane given his fascination with a 15thcentury prophet, Jefferson has subsequently been criticised for maintaining slaves while also holding true to the decree in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”.

Paul Finkelman in his article, The Monster of Monticello, expounds on Jefferson’s darker dichotomy when it comes to the treatment of his fellow man:

While many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings. Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free. Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Now there is evidence to the contrary, that Jefferson in fact worked to promote the anti-slavery cause that Abraham Lincoln would later write into law, in one of history’s most powerful and progressive moves, but it is more than fair to suggest that Jefferson was a conflicted man in a position of power – much like Arvin Sloane, albeit in an enormously different context. Sloane is not always discussed in the great pantheon of TV villains simply because Alias lacks the cultural cache in the memory of audiences to have the character leap out in the same vein as the Cigarette-Smoking Man or Khan Noonien Singh or Walter White, but in much the same way as many of those examples, Sloane does not believe, honestly, that he *is* the bad guy.

It’s interesting how Rifkin, in approaching his performance of the character, also holds true to a similar precept, as he outlines in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:

I actually don’t think of Sloane as a villain. I can’t approach him as a villain. I have to play it as if I’m a guy who has principals and morals. The fact he has to do some bad things, well, we may find out that the people he had to do away with were KGB or whatever. I’ve played some heavies, but I have a personal side which is generally warm and friendly, so I think JJ cast against type. But I think that was actually important for this character because there’s this confusion in this show – the relationships are all askew.

This is no more apparent than in Sloane’s monologue, fond as he is of a memorial to a man with morals that have been questioned by history, and haunted it seems by Lincoln—who he sees across the basin—a man who, generally, history has cemented as a President who abolished slavery and helped walk America toward being the ‘land of the free’. Rifkin plays Sloane as a man who has some level of a moral compass but it has, as he suggests, gone askew; indeed there are points across this season we do see genuine affection from Sloane, particularly when we eventually meet Emily – this in fact may well be the first suggestion that Sloane’s wife is ill, something that will play heavily into the narrative toward the end of the season.

Alias, therefore, does appear to be consumed by this question of morality as we approach the halfway point of the first season. In moving away from the Rambaldi mythology over the last couple of episodes, the series is attempting to shine a light on key characters who surround Syd’s position in this murky and complicated world, while digging into the deeper questions that go beyond the sprightly, B-movie trappings of the action adventure plotting. ‘Spirit’, and ‘Mea Culpa’ before it, have almost dialled down Syd’s light and frothy globe-trotting as it explores these darker questions surrounding the shows two murkier characters in Sloane and Jack.

It also adds a few extra inflections to the mechanics of how SD-6 works underneath the post-modern facade of an intelligence agency. There is no holding cell with lawyers and due process in SD-6; their cells are as visibly inhumane as the kind Syd faced in Romania in ‘Color-Blind’ in the asylum fronting for their (sort of) Russian alternative K-Directorate – when we see Syd in her cell, she is literally chained by her feet to the wall. They even have their own silent, sinister Doctor who is very casually prepared to pump Syd full of lethal drugs in a manner not completely un-remniscent of the Suit & Glasses character from ‘Truth Be Told’. “I always wondered what you did. I guess this is what you do” Syd says of the man about to kill her.

Tellingly, this entire scene in ‘Spirit’ will be mirrored almost a season on in ‘The Getaway’, only Jack will then be the one strapped to the chair about to have his life ended by that same Doctor, only to also be saved in a last minute reprieve. It is an incredibly dark beginning to an episode (filled with torture and ominous music from Michael Giacchino) which, by just after the time the credits have rolled, has largely re-established the status quo. The Americans, arguably the latent, cable-style successor to Alias, in its first season episode ‘Trust Me’ (Alias will in its second season also use that title for an episode) devotes an entire hour to the vicious interrogation of its main characters after they’re suspected of not being loyal, but Alias gets Syd out of the predicament swiftly so she can be off running around in skimpy clothes beating up bad guys.

This isn’t entirely a criticism but rather a reflection of the realities of a network TV show which, despite being quite format breaking with Alias in just how serialised the show is, nonetheless has to keep people familiar with the central concept. ‘The Box’, the upcoming two-part episode, is the first to centralise the characters and setting but even that takes place under a Die Hard-style terrorist siege, and not rather simply an attempt to shake up the format and have an episode where Syd is being tortured and interrogated by SD-6. It would have been brave, and were Alias being made now there is every possibility the first five minutes or so of ‘Spirit’ could have formed the crux of a full episode, but this is still 2001 and we’re not quite there yet.

Aside from the key, central questions of morality rolling around thematically, ‘Spirit’ does manage to keep ongoing storylines and character points ticking over in the background. In another example of a writer working hard to try and connect their episodes together, Vanessa Taylor not only digs into Sloane’s psychology and personal feelings as she did (more briefly) in ‘Parity’, but she also reminds us of the strange relationship between Syd & Will. It was in ‘Parity’ they shared their awkward, drunken kiss and Taylor seems to be the only writer, at this stage, who recognises there is far more honest, believable sexual chemistry between Jennifer Garner & Bradley Cooper than there is between Garner and Michael Vartan’s Vaughn.

Though it was hinted at a few episodes earlier, ‘Spirit’ confirms Will and his intern Jenny have fallen into a casual ‘work friends with benefits’ scenario, and Taylor gives Syd an enjoyable moment once she learns this of not knowing whether she’s actually ok with it. Alias could have gone one of two ways here with Syd in terms of romance, given how Vaughn buying her a Christmas gift (placing the series very lightly in a sense of time and place for once) further deepens his visible, growing feelings for her (he also pointedly looks jealous when he learns she’s spending time with Francie *and* Will), and you can’t help but feel with some distance that the show chooses the wrong path by having Syd fall in love with Vaughn.

Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense dramatically. The only way you could have made the Syd/Will romance work would have been developing Will beyond the second season and making him an agent, but then effectively you would have no need for Vaughn, and though he is easily the series dullest and most earnest main character, he serves a logical and effective function. Episodes like ‘Remnants’ in Season 3, however, pay off the moments of confused sexual chemistry between Syd & Will that we see again in ‘Spirit’, and it’s a shame to some degree that the series didn’t realise quite what they had there until it was too late. Arguably, and we will get into this later, fan reaction to Will hastened the choices made between he and Syd, and where his character went as a whole.

‘Spirit’ turns out to be a major breakthrough for Will in terms of his ongoing investigation too; having cultivated his own ‘Deep Throat’, he now for the first time hears the name ‘SD-6’ and it leads to David McNeil and a narrative which will play out over the next few episodes and really immerse him into the kind of danger he isn’t prepared for. We’ll talk more about McNeil and the rabbit hole Will starts heading down later but it is definitely the shot in the arm that the conspiracy aspect of Will’s storyline needed, and coupled with the personal sexual chemistry with Syd and his relationship with Jenny, ‘Spirit’ is one of those episodes that uses Will well in the broader context of the series. Taylor, and perhaps Abrams, seems to understand him and his function better than some of the other writers.

The episode also rejoices in finding a way to have Jack and Vaughn clash, something you can tell both Vartan and Victor Garber relish the chance to do, simply because their relationship drips with an outward antipathy given their roles I have previously discussed in relation to Syd, and how both feel deeply threatened by the other. ‘The Confession’ will hit this head on (finally), but we are reminded here that Vaughn has spent the last few episodes trying to unpick Jack’s own secrets, and he touches a nerve with Jack like no other in trying to debrief him about his counter-mission when Sloane sends him to kill Hassan.“Neither your intelligence or experience has earned you the right to question a thing that I do” Jack spits at the very idea Vaughn may know better.

Ultimately, however, Vaughn *does* know better, or seems to, given quite how ‘Spirit’ draws to a cliffhanger conclusion. Jack refuses to heed the younger agent’s advice, in approaching Hassan (having changed his name and appearance on Semba Island, a private island for criminals in Kenya which is right out of 60’s James Bond – there’s even a ‘master forger’ character who could be an evil Simon Templar) and telling him he is CIA and they can offer protection from SD-6, who want Hassan dead after he ripped them off in ‘Mea Culpa’. Syd in trying to rescue him proves that while she holds the moral compass Jack frequently abandons, she has the same determined zeal in protecting those she loves and not being able to emotionally separate when people are in danger or, like Russek, are killed.

It’s just a shame it all leads to perhaps Alias’ most underwhelming and least believable cliffhanger to date, with Jack being challenged by Hassan to murder the captured Syd to prove the loyalty he claims to have as part of his cover. The reality is that Syd would never have been taken down by one random guard in Hassan’s retinue in the manner she is, given how we’ve seen her many times take down legions of far stronger men – plus we know, without a doubt, that Jack would never kill his daughter. The show is trying to build in the thematic point about personal morality and inner darkness by making us wonder – will Jack do it? Will he kill Syd for the greater good like he killed Russek? We know the answer, even with some of the unanswered questions about the man, is no. It just makes the cliffhanger seem forced, and there’s little doubt they’ll fight their way out of the problem once the next episode begins.

‘Spirit’, therefore, much like ‘Mea Culpa’, is a bridging episode which continues certain thematic explorations at the heart of Alias’ concept, shifting the focus away from Sloane and more onto Jack, while keeping plotlines ticking and bubbling away in the background. Memorable principally for the tremendous Sloane monologue, it otherwise as a piece lies in danger of falling away into the background, but it is a necessary backbone to facilitate bigger and more eventful episodes to come.

What is your favourite episode of Alias? Let us know.

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