Thursday, July 24, 2014

Alias: All the Time in the World (5.17)

For a lot of its runtime, All the Time in the World is strangely tragic when it comes to Sydney, driving home the fact that much of her adult life has been manipulated by outside forces, and that she's never had a ton of agency as a person. The flashback structure to the series finale paints her as something of a lost little girl, unsure of her future, but excited when a big opportunity drops into her life at a moment where she needed it most. Only that special something isn't what she believes it to be, just as her father isn't who he says he is, or her boss, or her mother. What makes Sydney such a poignant heroine is that none of this is even driven by 'destiny' or something otherwise mystical. She's not a 'chosen one' along the lines of Buffy Summers. She's a girl with the bad fortune of being born into a screwed-up family, her eventual happy ending being a life dictated on her own terms for a change. It's sweet, seeing her finally free of all the baggage she's accumulated over the years.

Where this strays into disappointing territory, however, is the very fact that, for a lot of Alias, Sydney was implied to be that special 'chosen one'... or at least a fundamental part of Rambaldi's prophecy. The show, in hindsight, never had a firm answer for this, but it's frustrating in some ways that all that build-up, all the implication that Sydney Bristow is a big, big deal, was all ultimately misdirection. Five seasons of ambiguity build to the reveal that Rambaldi once cracked the key to immortality, and that immortality has presumably been what everybody's been fighting to get their hands on all these years.

I mean, it's fine. It's suitably grand and epic, with that sliver of Indiana Jones-style fantasy to it. But the show painted itself into a corner by never being totally sure of where it was all headed. I started my review of the pilot talking about the climate Alias was born into, as if Sydney Bristow was the kind of ass-kicking female lead molded and developed on shows like Buffy and Xena, but here placed into the real world, something we felt like we needed in the television landscape right after 9/11. And it worked, and it spoke to us in a different kind of way to the shows that came before it. But in a lot of ways, Alias was also ahead of its time, born into a TV landscape that didn't necessarily require the answers to the big questions the shows posed. Or so they all thought.

Not only did television itself change over the course of Alias' tenure, but how we watch TV changed as well. Every MacGuffin was dissected by a burgeoning online fanbase, every clue obsessively talked over and debated. The problem here was that the writers didn't seem to anticipate any of it. The show's fanbase and the show's writers were coming at the same stuff from vastly different perspectives, one group thinking it was all leading somewhere, the other making it all up as they went along. It's then unsurprising that Alias ends with a quiet sort of closer, at least in terms of mythological spectacle. That would take real planning, something the show never, even back in season one, had genuinely prepared for.

While it lacks a lot of the ultimate resolution I think many of us were expecting, or at least hoping for, All the Time in the World is still emotionally satisfying in its own way. Jack's death is beautifully played, his final speech to Sydney unlikely to leave anyone in the audience stone-faced unless they're pretty much dead inside. Sloane's fate is really fitting, too, a classic example of "be careful what you wish for" irony. The pacing is also generally strong, the flashbacks cool for long-term fans ("Hi Francie!") and the present-day scenes bouncing between locations and set-pieces with ease.

The giant elephant in the room, unsurprisingly, is Irina's last stand, a dramatic closer that reconfigures the character as the ultimate big bad, irrespective of a lot of her development over the years. I alluded to it back in Maternal Instinct, but here we have a character who has always flip-flopped in terms of agenda from the very beginning. Ultimately the show would need to fall down on one side rather than the other as long as they insisted on using her presence for dramatic effect. In hindsight, I wonder how much of the backlash to Irina's actions here were more a result of fans wishing her to be a good guy, and not necessarily because said actions didn't make a ton of sense. It's harsh seeing her refer to Sydney as "a complication in her life", it's a little weird to see her try and murder her own daughter in pursuit of a shiny ball... but I wouldn't say it's particularly shocking either.

If anything, what is lacking with the Irina coda is a genuine emotional pay-off. Sydney doesn't get the chance to truly mourn her mom before we're whisked away to a beachy flash-forward, the ramifications of watching her mother plummet to her death kept under wraps -- a resolution withheld. Then again, maybe it didn't need one? Maybe Irina was really Sydney's last burden, her Achilles' heal to an extent. Maybe finally having Irina out of the picture, for realsies, was the one thing Sydney desperately needed in order to flourish? It's not particularly satisfying on a fan level, sure, but you could argue that it sort of works in terms of Sydney's development, too.

But in the end that uncertainty, that debate about whether things really worked or not, is an indictment of how lost Alias became. Because nothing here honestly feels like this was always the endgame the writers had in mind back when Irina first became a player in the series, or when Page 47 or Rambaldi itself arrived with such fanfare at the very beginning. What we have is a show that never recovered from network meddling, significant writer turnover and a general lack of interest when it came to making Alias at all cohesive. I still believe those first two seasons are masterpiece television, particularly the gorgeous narrative fluidity of season one, but it's difficult to truly love anything that came after it. I'd argue that the show never bottomed out like some claim it did, but it's sad that it seemed to settle for mediocrity, becoming a series that seemed to be made for casual audiences instead of the hardcore fans that really made it what it was in the first place.

Jack has a fantastic pre-death line here where he talks about how Sydney would always operate on her own terms, regardless of the potential outcome, or how much he opposed it. "You were a very difficult little girl", he tells her. And isn't that just the perfect metaphor for Alias itself? This was a series that played around with various guises over the years, some to great success, others not so much. But it never really seemed to care a whole lot about the long-term consequences, particularly for those folk who were truly invested. Even so, we still all loved the damn thing. Maybe we're just suckers for a good wig? B+

Guest stars Lena Olin (Irina Derevko); Michael Vartan (Michael Vaughn); Mia Maestro (Nadia Santos); David Anders (Julian Sark); Merrin Dungey (Francie Calfo)
Writers Jeff Pinkner, Drew Goddard Director Tucker Gates


  1. Superb review. You put into words a lot of my own thoughts concerning the finale as I've never really gotten the chance to write a proper review.

    To me, it'll always be somewhat of a disappointment. Emotionally, it's perfect. I have no complaints about any of the characters' journeys, but plot wise? Much like Lost (although I lost interest in that quite quickly unlike Alias which I never stopped loving), the mythology never came together in the way I wanted it too. Alias (like Buffy) was one of the first shows I ever loved, and I remember waiting on a week to week basis and wishing all the Rambaldi pieces would fit together perfectly in the end. Obviously they did not, and it's like the writers didn't even care.

    Nevertheless, much like Charmed, a weak finale plot-wise is saved by gorgeous emotional finality. And when the final scene is this touching and satisfying, it's hard to TOTALLY hate it. Still, I'll always wish it was better executed.

    As for Irina, you kind of convinced me and that's quite the achievement. You're very right about the audience WANTING Irina to be good although a case could be made that she was always evil. But it's not just about wanting her to be good I think, it's about the fact that the show dedicated SO.MUCH.TIME. to making her multi-dimensional. And in the end, she seemed pretty cartoonish no? Plus, that fight was such a disappointment. Ever since the Francie-Sydney sequence in season two (one of the best fights ever committed to screen), I'd been waiting for the show to kind of top it. Naturally, it never did. Whether it was budget constraints, or Garner simply phoning it in action-wise at the end after her baby... I was let down from an action perspective (and action was a big part of my love for the show).

    Also, why was Peyton such a minimal part of the finale? This always rubbed me the wrong way; she just gets the snake scene and it's so very underwhelming. No big fight, no resolution, no nothing. Poor Amy Acker.

    It was wonderful reading your reviews as always Max. Looking forward to see what you cover next.

  2. Adam, your reviews were great. I'm sorry the blog didn't reach as many people as you hoped it would. But thank you for the ride.