Before J.J. Abrams become a pop culture phenomenon (Lost, Cloverfield, Star Trek) he helmed the series Alias. The premise was simple: newly engaged, brilliant, beautiful college student, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), believes she works for a division of the CIA known as SD-6. Working alongside her estranged father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) and under her pseudo-father figure Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), they foil the plots of evil intelligence agencies. Well, turns out that SD-6 is exactly the agency she thinks she’s fighting, after they kill her fiancée, so she goes to the real CIA. Her ”handler,” Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), sends her back into SD-6 as a mole where she will team up with their other inside agent, her father. Oh, and it turns out the mother, Irina Derevko (Lena Olin), she believed was dead the whole time was actually a KGB agent who betrayed her father and often seems set to either reunite and bond as a family or kill everyone. Then there’s her long lost sister, but that’s another story.
Simple enough of a premise.
So each week Garner essentially got to play new characters with new looks, a living doll for the writers to dress up and play with (which became a blue print of sort for shows like Dollhouse, though Eliza Dusku couldn’t quite pull off the same feat due to her thin acting and with the inherent flaws of the show). The thrilling, over-the-top missions, provided the adrenaline rush while at its heart, the show was about family tensions (taken to the extremes because there’s nothing like a family of superspies squabbling over Thanksgiving dinner).
“The truth takes time.” –Irina
The life of a double agents is a mercurial one. By necessity they have to lead secret lives and while at first or on the surface it may seem exciting, it takes its toll. Living with the desire to tell their friends and family, be honest and real with them, about who they are. Only allowed to tell the truth when convenient or absolutely necessary. And when the truth comes out in drips and drabs, their friends are left with a sense of betrayal, not knowing if a single thing said was true, and leaving them feeling like they were only dealing with a stranger.
It was an exhausting box for Sydney Bristow to live in. She had to constantly be on guard, to be one step ahead of her enemies, her friends, and her family as she led her double and sometimes triple (quadruple?) life. The series explored what it meant to be obligated to conceal who she was, to compartmentalize her life and live in the shadow and fear of secrets, even as she assumed multiple aliases to carry out her missions. Trained to constantly conceal part of who she was, blocking off parts of herself, she was the quintessential double-minded woman.
In the same way we can compartmentalize our spirituality as well as our lives. Our duplicitous lives lead to a sort of spiritual dissociation. This is the way of how (secret) sins work, how they infiltrate our lives and we manage to continue to function. They may start small or innocent enough, manageable enough that we can put it away, lock it up in a box in our heart. Boxes we can control and keep hidden. But those boxes stack up, become bricks in a wall eventually sealing us off from God’s rebuking and restorative voice. We rot behind that wall.
Our scalded souls become numb to our sin. We can read the Bible, hear sermons, and not truly want or feel convictions of our sin. We become trapped in a cycle: attachment, attraction, sin, guilt. Lather, rinse, repeat. So we instead choose to walk around with a band-aid, self-medicating ourselves enough to continue as we always had. Such that the bandages are so thick, they further block your relationship with God and hear His voice. Pretty soon a band-aid isn’t enough to keep us together and soon our wounds are wrapped in a bandage. Then we’re hobbling on crutches. But we keep treating the wound, even as all of those accumulating scars metastasize into a cancer.
It’s the cost of compartmentalization and dissociation until truth pierces the darkness and all of the rot can be brought to light and dealt with.
“There’s rarely an end to the story.” –Jack
Alias had a cinematic quality to it which essentially provided Abrams with on the job training for shooting the movie Mission: Impossible III. “As a (dysfunctional) family drama set in a hyperreal world,” as Abrams once described the show, Alias was almost hobbled by the Rimbaldi mythology (a thread of the show’s premise left for another review) which made the show wildly uneven as the writers didn’t seem to know which theme the show should revolve around. Thus the frequent tinkering designed to make it more accessible as the show constantly re-invented itself (nearly as often as Sydney did).
Still, for its flaws, the show offered constant thrills to gloss over it: from Sydney seduces intelligence out of a Russian aboard a plane, escaping just as he gets sucked into the engine; when Sydney has been captured and tortured and the torturer is revealed to be her mother; when Sydney realizes that her roommate has been murdered and replaced with her genetically altered arch enemy. Episodes ended with a bang, seasons ended with cliffhangers, and mysteries deepened and further entangled (often teetering under the threat of collapse). And when in doubt, Jennifer Garner was easy on the eyes and talented enough to make us buy into her house of implausible lies.