Screen / Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Alias “Truth Be Told”

Alias is a show that could have gone in a very different direction had it wanted to. Secret agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is also a graduate student with a brand new fiance, a seemingly indifferent father and oblivious friends. Much of the premiere episode’s beginning is dotted with timely pop music and cutesy moments, including Jack Bristow harshly shutting down Sydney’s hopeful boyfriend’s sweet request for permission to ask for Sydney’s hand.  It’s the episode’s opening that promises that this is not going to be an adorable, smart spy drama about a young woman’s secret keeping and the resultant strain on her personal life. A pink-haired Sydney is tortured and stares fearfully at the door as another enemy approaches, and we can be sure Sydney’s spying isn’t going to the the fun and games that dated early 2000s pop music implies it will be. 

That’s not to say it’s going to be a total drag. Alias‘ pilot looks far different from its series finale, and longtime watchers will know that it looks  very different even from episodes in season three. It never deviates from Sydney’s dated but glamorous disguises, her jetsetting lifestyle or her ease with slipping into whatever language/accent/dialect is required of her. In the pilot she’s both punk rock and sparkly society woman, a flighty makeup connoisseur and a nervous employee worried for her job. The score sounds right out of Mission: Impossible, and Sydney is chased through parking garages by men in black trenchcoats and automatic weapons. The fight scenes are fast and maybe 15 years ago were considered high quality (I think a young Chelsea enjoyed them) but are now markedly incomplete with fast cutaways and poor audio of swift roundhouses and punches to the face. Still, it’s a fun show with lots of running and jumping and punching and kicking, and while that’s dated now in 2015 where every show has someone doing much of that with little to no heart, Alias benefited from being one of the first to do so. Its swift downward turn in quality is what makes the pilot such a fun episode to review. It’s the episode that’s meant to hook viewers, and years later certainly hooked me. Nevermind that the show loses itself its footing in its piles of mythology down the road, becoming bogged down in lots of weighty material that becomes unwieldy to the point that now, on all my rewatches I pretend Alias ended with its season three finale.

Alias, and its heroine Sydney, have plenty of heart. The pilot doesn’t quite capture what future episodes will: Sydney’s brazen determination, her certainty of her own perceptions, certainty that seem to go against what this pilot episode proves. That Sydney is woefully naive. She believes SD-6 is a covert branch of the CIA, not batting an eyelash when they announce they’ll murder anyone who knows they exist and actually follow through with that threat. And still not getting it when her partner points out that SD-6 will have her eliminated if they can’t trust her. Conspiracy theories aside, a patriot like Sydney readily buys into her government’s slippery trigger finger, only forced to accept the truth when her estranged father rescues her from an assassination attempt and spills all.

Despite Sydney’s painful naivete, the show immediately makes her sympathetic. The pilot takes a turn when Sydney confides in Danny about what she really does for a living, rather than going the rather rote route of having Sydney hide her work for seasons to come. Maybe she’d proceed with their engagement, eventually a wedding, without ever telling him the truth. There’d be a season finale down the line somewhere with Danny learning the truth and his and Sydney’s relationship being thrown into flux, but Alias isn’t concerned about Sydney keeping secrets. In fact, she should keep these secrets as she learns when she returns home to find Danny murdered in the bathtub. With Danny being such a temporary character, it’s easy to forget about him soon after his death, but their love is well-tracked throughout. We meet Danny, see his proposal, see them contemplate children and a future together and see Danny struggle with accepting Sydney’s secret. There’s a lot crammed into this one pilot to contextualize their relationship. Sydney’s cracking voice when she discovers his dead body and her horrified scream is a sequence that lives on in my memory even now. Recalling that image, it’s easy to see why Sydney takes a turn and allies herself with the real CIA to take down SD-6.

Danny’s death throws a glass of ice water over the whole episode, first fun and light only to be immediately shrouded in shadow. After Danny dies, the pop music becomes distinctly sadder and gives birth to a darker, cooler Sydney.  When she walks into SD-6 with the machine she needs to prove her trustworthiness, only to immediately go to the the real CIA with the truth, it’s a much different Sydney than the one we first met who hustled to finish up an exam and was flustered while her boyfriend (quite painfully) proposed to her on the quad. The one who marches into SD-6 is short and unaffected, and when she goes into the CIA and meets who will eventually become her handler, she’s distinctly unkind, intimidating Vaughn and Weiss as she relays her story to them.

The pilot does what any pilot should in introducing the world that’s going to dominate it and the people that make up its characters. “Truth Be Told” barely brushes the surface with what becomes one of the show’s most important relationships: Sydney and Jack. Father and daughter united (and still estranged) in espionage is even more affecting than SD-6 head honcho Sloane’s creepy obsession with Sydney, Sydney’s friendships with Will and Francie or even the inevitable flirtation between Sydney and Vaughn. “Truth Be Told” is the episode of Alias that changes Sydney Bristow’s life. We find Sydney at a moment in time when all has been altered and her worldview shattered, and the pilot makes us just as determined as her to navigate it.

Stray Observations

  • Bradley Cooper being in this show is such a weird, weird thing. And the show’s insistence on making him not-so-secretly in love with Sydney was exhausting and painful.
  • Sydney’s accent and sweet little act at the party was cute.
  • To this day I have no clue why Sydney’s lecture took place in some archaic dungeon, but whatever I suppose.
  • The writing on this show could be painfully clumsy at times. The dialogue always sounded more like prose and less like a person would actually be saying any of it.

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