Alias, Rimbaldi, and Redemption

“That’s the word he used. Prophecy. Does that sound good or bad?” –Sydney

So many great science fiction shows have an underlying mythology behind them. X-Files and their alien mythos. Fringe and “The Pattern”. Lost and their “what the hell is going on?” mythos. Alias had its own mythos, the Rimbaldi mythology, which often threatened to overwhelm the precarious balance of the themes of the show. Many of Sydney Bristow’s (Jennifer Garner) missions centered around the search for and recovery of artifacts created by Milo Rambaldi, a Renaissance-era combination of Leonardo da Vinci and Nostradamus. Rimbaldi was an artist, inventor, and Pope Alexander VI’s chief architect whose advanced designs got him labeled a heretic. The Rimbaldi scavenger hunt often felt reminiscent of the Da Vinci Code and like with Lost, early on in the show, one might have had the impression that the writers were making up the mythology as they went along.

“Do you believe in redemption?” –Sloan

To SD-6 supervisor Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), Rimbaldi was a prophet and through his journey, he might find eternal life. Sloane was always a complex villain, which is what made him both so charismatic and interesting. As is the case with all well rounded villains, he believes himself to be the hero of his own story. In him we can learn a few things about the perils, cost, and necessities of being a disciple. He was a simple man of faith pursuing the object of his faith with his entire heart, sacrificing all in pursuit of the ultimate Truth.

It began with an epiphany, a moment of truth or an end of self moment of clarity. An encounter with Rimbaldi changed his life, giving it meaning and purpose. It was ancient text he and the other Rimbaldi followers were asked to put their faith in; an ancient text with a vitality for modern times. Through it they managed to divine patterns of hidden meaning in ordinary things. He immediately abandoned his old life, the life of a patriot serving his country, and turned away from people he loved. His friend, Sydney’s father, Jack (Victor Garber) even confronted him about it: “I used to feel sorry for you. Couldn’t you sense it? You’d been abandoned. Left for dead. Disgraced. I pitied you. That you needed Rimbaldi to fill a void in your life. It was like a religion for you.”

“I should never have heard that man’s name.” –Sloan (speaking of Rimbaldi)

Like many disciples, after a difficult path, full of sacrifices, Sloane comes to a place where he regrets becoming a disciple. Jesus once warned his disciples about counting the cost of being a disciple:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-35)

The path of a disciple is marked with hard choices fraught with peril and errors in judgment. As Dietrich Bonhoffer argues, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ … costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.””

Sometimes people come to a point where they feel betrayed by their faith. Many a time, Sloane was left wondering was it all worth his, his own brand of a dark night of the soul. Some folks simply walk away. I’m reminded of the passage in John 6 starting in verse 60, when many of the disciples deserted Jesus. “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” they grumbled. And after Jesus questioned some of them (“Does this offend you?”) many turned their back and no longer followed him. So he turned and asked the rest of his disciples “You do not want to leave me too, do you?” Sometimes we may feel like the remaining twelve disciples. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

“I don’t know what your beliefs are. If you have a faith. If you expect that something follows this life. You might have none. But if there is a chance that there is something else, that we face the consequences of our actions in this lifetime … this is your last chance to do what’s right.” –Sydney

Jesus never claimed that his purpose was to come to have a personal relationship with us. He did, however, say that He came to build his church and called for the church to go forth and make disciples. I’m reminded of this quote from identifying a disciple:

Following Jesus as a lifestyle isn’t a matter of do’s and don’ts as much as an expression of a new identity in Jesus. This identity as God’s image bearers gets expressed toward specific audiences – toward God we are worshippers, toward other Christ followers we are community and towards the very world of people Jesus came to earth on mission to rescue – we join him on mission. While we all sign on to the same calling, God is big enough to creatively invite each of us to a personal pursuit of following Jesus.

Spiritual journeys are difficult. Some people persevere, realizing the importance of questioning and investigation. It’s frighteningly easy to go off of a path as Sloane so tragically found out. Perhaps the object you were following wasn’t meant to be followed, perhaps you made an idol out of something which was good. It can happen in degrees, a slight deviation, and then further down the road you are left lost. What should you do in the face of feeling betr
ayed? What do you do with your questions and doubts? How do you remedy that? What can you do to prevent veering from the path we’re called to? We’re not called to ignorance. Each of us has been gifted with a will and intellect of our own. The only true betrayal of faith is to abandon thinking about it and seeking to know God. The path may look different for each of us, but the journey must be persevered.

Alias and Compartmentalized Spirituality

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.

Mission: Accomplished.