Saturday, June 14, 2014

Alias: In Dreams (4.19)

Alias is still capable of greatness, In Dreams being an emotionally-draining and ultimately rewarding episode for long-term fans, but it also drives home where the show has gone wrong over the last two seasons. With J.J. Abrams stepping down from day-to-day EP duties at the end of the show's second season, Alias lost its proverbial 'voice', the God figure controlling where the show went, how the characters would grow and evolve over time, and how the show itself would change. What's left is an Alias made up of random components, a narrative rendered fractured and frequently unsatisfying, and strong storytelling only ever buried between the mess forming elsewhere.

It's a problem especially noticeable with the Joel Grey arc, abandoned a couple of weeks ago just as it seemed to be headed somewhere interesting, the Elena arc that replaced it building in momentum last episode but eschewed here. The show seems to be unclear of what direction it wants to pursue at any given time, instead deciding to bounce between antagonists with little clear rhythm. And that's frustrating because Alias used to be so unstoppable as a serialized drama. I guess it's unfair to keep bringing up the past, but those first two seasons just worked as this relentless assault of forward momentum, serialization balanced out with fun undercover operations and revealing character moments. We're at a point now where characters have mostly become archetypes, even 'old reliables' like Sydney, Jack and Sloane rendered shapeless and uninteresting a lot of the time. And that sort of sucks.

In Dreams seems to lay the groundwork for the rest of the season, Sloane at one point in time responsible for infecting a significant chunk of the world's water supply with a toxin that makes everybody peaceful and compliant... and essentially mindless drones. A Rambaldi orchid is the last MacGuffin needed to truly initiate the scheme, Sloane now feeling guilty that he's set in motion such a huge enslavement of humanity. It's more outlandish than the Alias of old, which is saying something, but you can see the show trying to at least make it somewhat personal for Sydney, Jack having gone along with Sloane's initial plans for some reason. It's intriguing to wonder how the story will play out, even if the character beats come from the same old bag of tricks as always.

Where the episode most works is in its exploration of Sloane's psyche; while it lacks the visual energy of a similar dreamscape depicted in season three's Conscious, it improves on that episode's lack of revelations. Here we discover that the mysterious 'Jacquelyn' mentioned back in Another Mister Sloane is the daughter Sloane and Emily lost in childbirth, the devastation of the event sending him on his quest to unravel the mysteries of Rambaldi. It's a strong addition to Alias mythology, and I liked seeing Sloane as a vulnerable man once again. We're so used to seeing him as an arch-villain that it's almost painful when Sydney just assumes that Jacquelyn was his mistress, incapable of seeing him as anything but an evil mastermind. Ron Rifkin openly weeping was also affecting in its sheer weirdness, the acting equivalent of glimpsing Bigfoot in your bathroom.

In Dreams has a lot going for it, but it's also another episode that falls victim to Alias' ongoing problems as a series, the fact that every recent hour feels self-contained and somewhat withdrawn from everything else around it seriously dragging this season down. As an aside, Jennifer Garner's direction is fine, if perfunctory. Though I suppose she ought to get credit for not randomly throwing in a bunch of visual flamboyance purely to make her behind-the-scenes debut more noticeable. B+

Guest stars
John Benjamin Hickey (Father Kampinski); Angus Scrimm (Calvin McCullough); Joel Grey (Another Mister Sloane); Amy Irving (Emily Sloane)
Writer Jon Robin Baitz Director Jennifer Garner

1 comment:

  1. I mostly remember this one as "the episode Jennifer Garner directed". I was never crazy about Sloane 2.0. Replicating Sloane seems such a complicated way for the villains to get the shit done. It’s like the writers were desperate do make the twists intriguing and the villains capable of great planning, but really, it’s just overly complicated. It’s a good conduit to Sloane’s character development, though.

    I agree with you, max. There’s something lacking on these characters. The season is somewhat bland and, at this point, you start to wonder what is the story about, what are the stakes and where are the characters heading.