Sunday, July 6, 2014

Alias: Maternal Instinct (5.11)

There's a moment in Maternal Instinct where Sydney reminds her mother of what she told her all those years ago: "Truth takes time." It's a line that quickly became representative of Alias as a whole, as well as a long-standing get-out clause for the show's writing team -- a sort of collective promise that, even in times of wavering or assumed directionlessness, if you just wait long enough, give the show enough credit, that it'll all eventually make sense. Irina Derevko has been the biggest example of this kind of storytelling, re-appearing every once in a while to create sparkage, as well as to make the bigger picture that little more confusing. It's great to have her back this week, but she sure does make things blurrier.

Irina, for reasons unknown, is involved with Prophet Five and in pursuit of the Horizon, a mystical something-or-other of purpose unknown. But she isn't totally involved with Prophet Five since Kelly Peyton (who seems pretty high up the food-chain all of a sudden?) doesn't entirely trust her, almost as if Irina has been brought in especially to retrieve it, even though she seemed to be the one orchestrating everything just two episodes ago. Ultimately Irina flees with the Horizon, and everyone's pretty much back where they started.

I haven't got a ton of problems with Irina's characterization here. She herself makes it clear that she's always been stranded somewhere between fulfilling her mission and caring for her daughter, and that no matter how much she sometimes seems to be leaning on one side more than the other, her motives will all eventually make sense. But it kind of sucks that she only reappears when in pursuit of a plot MacGuffin, with the whole 'I'm gonna be a grandma' vibe just a means to an end. The end of season four really pushed Irina's humanity and maternal heart, so it's jarring to see her back to her old self again, where nobody has any idea where she stands. Arguably believable, but still jarring.

What makes all of this notable is that, returning to "truth takes time", Alias is hurtling towards its climax right now, and eventually the powers-that-be will have to represent said 'truth'. Like so much of this show over the years, delaying and stumbling through plot only generally works in the moment. When things are forced to be firm and concrete and delicately explained by necessity, that's when it all gets a little more complicated... and fans get angry.

As an episode, Maternal Instinct is by far the most engaging the show has been in a long time. While most of the action is confined to one key location, with SpyFam trapped in a bank with enemies closing in from all corners, the script nicely balances between family drama, undercover comedy (huge shades of the Passage two-parter here) and explosive violence. Peyton's rocket launcher scene, for instance, is one of the coolest Alias moments in years.

Those outside of the Bristow clan are also well utilized, Sloane preying on Rachel's APO naïveity to cover up his recent dirty work, and Dixon getting a cute scene with Sydney in which he calls her out on her recent 'waddling'. It's the kind of friendly humor that brings to mind the show's first season, which is always a good thing.

There's a real sense here that the show is finally picking up steam after a couple of weeks of coasting, the only downsides being that it's hard to escape the feeling that the writers are struggling with the kind of story they want to tell. Irina is a lot of fun, but her allegiances are once again problematic. Vaughn's survival, revealed in a climactic cliffhanger, is surprisingly moving... but the implication that Syd and Jack have known he was alive all along feels at odds with all of Sydney's actions over the past ten episodes. Season five has generally worked so far, but it sure as hell doesn't seem to know where it's going. Truth takes time, sure, but time is also running out... B+

Guest stars Lena Olin (Irina Derevko); Elodie Bouchez (Renée Rienne); John Aylward (Jeffrey Davenport); James Handy (Arthur Devlin)
Writer Breen Frazier Director Tucker Gates


  1. I must reiterate that I've probably watched Peyton's launcher scene about 50 zillion times. Utter badass perfection.

  2. Irina being involved with Prophet Five makes perfect sense. She was the one that told Vaughn to come clean with Sydney, and she was the one that killed Vaughn’s father, who was digging on Prophet Five, so the pieces do fit together. I remember that after “The Horizon” and that cliffhanger that left Sydney on the cargo ship (and fans hanging for four months), some fans speculated that Prophet Five was Irina’s organization, one she reactivated now for her own reasons. The theories online were, in fact, more solid than all of season five’s storylines combined.

    So we arrive in this episode to discover that, no, Irina is not “The Man” of Prophet Five, she’s not even part of it. That makes one wonder why the hell Prophet Five, this super-secret mega-powerful organization, would designate someone they can’t fully trust to retrieve a special shit that’s extremely important to them. Unfortunately, that is the first of many times this season that one episode will contradict something established on a previous episode, and while I can be forgiving of the early struggles of season five (because of the many problems the producers had behind the scenes), I’m extremely disappointed at how poorly thought out the second half of the season was. Ok, the episode order was cut from thirteen to eight, but that’s no excuse because, if I remember correctly, the cut happened right after the show went on the four-month break due to Garner’s maternity leave, and the writers had enough time to come up with a worthy run of episodes. The truth is they barely had a coherent story for eight episodes, let alone thirteen.

    What I wrote above is more a complaint of the season as a whole than of this episode. “Maternal Instinct” is one of the best hours of the season, maybe the best, and if you can leave aside the Many Plot Holes of Season Five, it’s a reminder of how great this show can be when it’s on.

    I know some fans love Irina, however for reasons I’ll explain later (on future comments) I’m not on board of the I Love Irina boat. I do like her return here, though. Yes, it’s a punch to the stomach to have her revert to her villain ways, but it’s riveting at the same time, and it makes sense the writers would want its most successful villains back for the show’s final dance. The thing that bothers me about her return here, aside from the season’s overriding problems, is... Man, I forgot what I was going to write! Ha! Dear Rambaldi, what happened? Oh well, I’ll write later if I remember.

    Moving on, there are some great scenes in this episode. Irina and Sydney’s conversation, in which Irina implies she could’ve killed Sydney when she was a baby (that happened on “Maternal Instinct”, right? I’m obviously in need of some sleep and maybe that dialogue took place on season two) and says she chose to be a good agent over being a good mother, is so tense and twisted. I love, however, that in the end Irina still showed she had a heart and helped Sydney deliver her baby in what was a very weird birth scene (the bloopers are hilarious).

  3. Vaughn is alive! Man, I was so happy to see him alive. I even forgot that huge plot crater in which he took a billion bullets and survived. Oh, no, I actually didn’t, but I was happy to see him anyway. And, Max, I don’t think Jack and Sydney knowing he was alive creates a problem with Sydney’s development this season. First, back on “Prophet Five” there was enough ambiguity to leave us wondering if he had died or not. It makes sense that Jack and Sydney would want to hide him from the bad guys and keep him as an informant. And Sydney’s characterization has been done in a way that you could interpret she was either (1) grieving over Vaughn’s death or (2) deeply missing his presence and unsure she would ever be able to have him by her side and live the normal life she’s been longing for. It works for me. There was also another hint on “The Horizon” that Vaughn could be alive (when he says, on her final hallucination, that they’ll always find each other).

    However, if Vaughn was alive and conscious, why, oh, why has no one contacted him to learn what the hell the Horizon is? Vaughn was the one who freaking gave Sydney the address for the damn thing. Oh, season five, why are you such a mess?

    Oh, well, I have complained so much, but I do love this episode. Nadim, I also watched the rocket laucher scene a million times. It’s so cool. And how cute of Irina to call Marshall and ask for diapers? Awn.