Saturday, June 14, 2014

Alias: Before the Flood (4.22)

As season four comes to a close, it's probably the right time to ask what type of show Alias wants to be. Alias has obviously never been afraid of reinvention, both the events of Phase One and the two-year flash forward radically altering relationships between characters as well as the 'mission controls' they call home. But there comes a point where constant reinvention can only jeopardize the show's foundation itself, resulting in something potentially unrecognizable. Before the Flood is as big and as loud as any other Alias finale, but it's also smeared in overt blurring between sensibilities. Where does Resident Evil end and Alias begin?

It's an unusual suggestion, but too much of Buffy could be a bad thing. Season four saw the hiring of two Whedonverse vets, Drew Goddard and Jeffrey Bell, and their tenure has coincided with a significant rise in the fantastical. Some of it was enough in the show's general wheelhouse to work (I never had a huge problem with Ice, for example), but the blood-sucking zombie attacks in Before the Flood felt one step too far. It doesn't help that so much of this episode feels derivative of old Buffy episodes. There's the giant tower over the city, electric CGI spurting out the top. Sisters at war, one seemingly destined to die. The constant references to the apocalypse and the end of days. It's all a little much, and none of it feels very Alias.

The Rambaldi concept initially worked so well because it was so deeply rooted in science and mysticism. While it was science-fiction, it always kept one foot in the real world, meaning a cliffhanger like the one we got at the end of Page 47 felt shocking, absolutely, but also weirdly believable; Alias putting its own unique stamp on traditional fantasy tropes. By minimizing the 'realism' of Rambaldi, replacing it with mind control, zombies and creepy red contacts, Alias suddenly feels like any other show around. As a result, the battle between the Chosen One and the Passenger, the crux of Rambaldi's entire prophecy, the source of his actual symbol, feels less like the moment the entire show has been building towards, and more like just another chick-fight.

It's sort of a cop-out that Sydney and Nadia finally fought but only once the latter was brainwashed and zombified. Considering Mia Maestro has been given mostly reactionary stuff to do this year, it's unfortunate that the show didn't devote more time to her moral corruption, potentially at Elena's hand. If they had explored that, the idea of Nadia being slowly absorbed by all that Rambaldi prophesied, it would have given greater scope to this finale, improved the Elena character (who even here remains colorless and uninteresting), and limited the amount of repetitive stories that have clogged up a lot of this season's final run of episodes. Instead it's generally underwhelming, an unambitious closer in spite of the heightened sci-fi of the hour's premise.

Before the Flood is still a great episode of television, don't get me wrong. It's constantly exciting, is filmed under this perpetual red bulb, and utilizes most of its cast very well. It's great TV, just not great Alias. Remove the references to Rambaldi and specific character beats and it could be any SyFy channel original.

Unsurprisingly, Irina is the star of the episode. She continues to be a strong fighter and morally complex character, but showcases a maternal tenderness far greater than anything glimpsed before. Her compassion towards her daughters is beautifully played, likewise her renewed romance with Jack, but there's also a heartbreaking undercurrent to it all. Not a fourth-act betrayal or anything similarly bleak, but instead the knowledge that she'll eventually have to flee. She gets a great exit here, walking off into the distance, into the unknown, her closest relationships healed. For such an enigmatic, brilliantly-drawn character, it's a fitting climax. Or what feels like a climax. Potentially the one that she deserved.

But Alias' identity issues overwhelm most of the hour. It's fun, pulpy television, but not the Alias that we all initially fell in love with. Then again, true to form, there's another late-episode reset, Michael Vaughn suddenly not the man we thought we knew. Or something. And I guess there's something to be admired about that, in terms of this show. There are times when stories don't work, but then it's straight onto the next thing. Alias has been a lot of things in its four-year existence, but sitting down and resting for a while isn't one of them. B-

Guest stars
Sonia Braga (Elena Derevko); Lena Olin (Irina Derevko); Robert Patrick Benedict (Brodien)
Writers Josh Applebaum, André Nemec Director Lawrence Trilling


  1. Beautiful review, max.

    This is a great episode, it just doesn’t feel like Alias. I imagine that if a person watched the pilot and then this finale (without watching the stuff in between), they would ask how the hell a spy series turned into Resident Evil.

    Still, I do like this conclusion and I kind of wish that, cliffhanger apart, this had been the series finale. In some ways, season five is stronger than both seasons three and four (especially where Sydney’s character development is concerned), but it had so many behind the cameras problems and so many wrong decisions onscreen that I’m not sure it’s a good additional chapter to the series. Curiously, I do like some parts of season five more than I like the previous two seasons. I can’t deny it’s a mess, though.

    “Alias has obviously never been afraid of reinvention”

    This is the only part of your review I disagree with. I think they were terrified of real reinvention. While Buffy, for instance, kept pursuing new directions after its initial high school conception ended, Alias felt unsure after the writers collapsed the central idea of Sydney as a double agent. Yes, Buffy failed from time to time, but Alias never seemed to dive into a new direction and grab it.

    On the beginning of season three you have storylines trying to mirror former situations (Sydney and Jack have a secret, just like when they were double agents together). On the beginning of season four you have the show trying to go back to its roots, but only half of those roots, really. You have Irina on the story, but then she’s not really there. You have Sloane going back and forth as a villain. You have the never ending Rambaldi mystery.

    If you take a close look, except for Nadia, there was no significant hero added to the show after season two. No remarkable villain after that season as well (Lauren doesn’t hold a candle to Irina nor Sloane). The show keeps going back to what worked (Sloane and Irina) and repeating it endlessly. So we have Lauren The Wife That’s Also a Spy, Katya Derevko, Elena Derevko, Arvin Clone, Dead Irina, Clone Irina, Alive Irina.

    It’s a shame, really. I don’t think the show collapsed as much as some people do, but there’s no denying the gap of quality between the first two seasons and the final three.

  2. Thank you for all of your comments, Lamounier. I actually completely agree with everything you wrote about Alias' lack of reinvention, and I think your writing works as a nice (and entirely correct) counterpoint to my original post. I had never really noticed it, but you're absolutely correct that the show never explored anything truly new post-season two, and that regardless of the major villains of the last three seasons, almost all of them involved rehashing popular old characters, or doing the same "are they evil?/are they good?" saga over and over. You've got Sark, Anna, Sloane, Irina, her sisters -- both of whom were generally just doppelgangers of Irina herself.

    I guess what Alias was good at, so much that my original statement in some ways does work, was giving the audience the illusion of change, whether it's the frequent changes of main location (from SD6 to the CIA to APO) or the slight differences in Sydney's personal life, rather than actual evolution. You're absolutely right that the writers always relied on the exact same plot devices, even the same bunch of characters, over and over and over again. And it's only when you look at the show in totality that you can spot how much of it was repetitive after season two.

    Thank you!