A Spy in the House of Metaphors: The Metaphysics of Alias
What if the genre of Spy-fiction was just a cover for the inner struggle of a typical woman to find her identity? What if the biggest conspiracy was one of myth and spiritual growth? Would the world of Popular Culture be forever changed? Could it be possible that a story can be both fun and thought provoking? Maybe, just maybe, a B-genre really can be done in an A-genre style. Prepare to be debriefed on one the most successful covert operations of our time. Prepare to be debriefed on the cult hit Alias.
The TV show Alias grew out of the idea that a college girl such as J.J. Abram’s WB darling Felicity could live a double life. College is all about discovering one’s self, after all, and everyone has worn a mask or told a lie at sometime or another. Abrams never got the chance to send his undergrad on any spy missions, but he was able to develop an entirely new show around the idea of a college woman leading a double life while searching for some sense of who she really is and searching for her true purpose in life.
That timeless search for the self is what pushes Alias into the metaphysical realm. Metaphysics is defined as the “branch of speculative inquiry which treats of the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc.; theoretical philosophy as the ultimate science of Being and Knowing” (OED). Sydney Bristow’s personal mission is to understand who she was, is and is destined to be. Throughout the five-year run of the show she peels away the layers of her life to reveal the core of her being, the true Sydney Bristow. While the premise of Alias is a fantasy world of espionage, Sydney Bristow is really a metaphor for the every-woman. She is a spy in the house of metaphors. Using the metaphor of the spy, Abrams turns the Anais Nin classic A Spy in the House of Love upside down. There are many obvious cinematic and television influences that can be found. The James Bond Franchise, Mission Impossible and Hitchcock’s movie Notorious can all be sited as influences. However, Alias breaks with the spy tradition. With references to movies such as Run Lola Run and Shiri, Abrams brings Alias to the cutting edge in visuals and steps up the pace to a cinematic frenzy. By carefully placing allusions to the classic novels Alice in Wonderland and Wuthering Heights he then takes the audience on a metaphysical and spiritual journey without them even knowing!
Alias is rich in movie and television references that link the show to other metaphysical journeys. The 1998 German film Run Lola Run is perhaps the most obvious influence. In the pilot episode, “The Truth Be Told,” we Sydney don a punk red wig which resembles Lola’s wild hair color in the movie. While in this disguise Sydney struts to techno music similar to the soundtrack of Run Lola Run. The structure of the movie Run Lola Run is unusual in that it plays with the idea of time and fate. The movie shows three versions of the same twenty minutes. In each version seemingly inconsequential events alter the outcome of Lola’s frantic run to save her boyfriend Manni. Although Abrams never gave Sydney any alternate realities, he did often play with the concept of time throughout the series. More than one episode was presented in nonlinear narration. It would begin at near the end and circled back to the beginning, then lead up to the beginning and finally show the resolution.
The 1999 Koran film Shiri also provided a great deal of inspiration, mostly in the form of the bomb that would become the Mueller Device. Shiri is a big budget action film that is filled with secret agents and political intrigue. The South Koran government has created a dangerous nuclear weapon in the form of a mysterious red ball known as CTX. The film ends at a soccer stadium where North Korea and South Korea are playing a huge game unaware of the bomb set to go off. The two assassins fight and the bomb is disarmed just in time. Shiri was meant to mimic typical Hollywood action movies, but it has a uniquely Korean feel to it with its theme of political reunification and its convoluted plot. From its influence on the design of the Mueller device to Sydney and Ana Espinoza’s meeting at an empty stadium, Shiri had a definite influence on the look and style of Alias. It also provides for one of Sydney’s many aliases and leads Sydney down the rabbit hole of personal interplay masquerading as political intrigue.
Alice in Wonderland is referenced several times throughout the series. The first time is at a Halloween Costume party that Sydney throws the first season. She is dressed as Alice, which is fitting since her character seems to have taken similar journey. In season two we find out the Vaughn has a girlfriend named Alice. Later, in Season Three, Weiss gives Sydney a 3rd edition of the book Alice in Wonderland for a welcome back present. Sydney had told him that out of everything she had lost, that a first edition “Alice and Wonderland” from her mother was what she missed most.
The book Alice in Wonderland, which was written by Lewis Carroll, is about a girl named Alice tumbles into Wonderland. One afternoon she notices a white rabbit, dressed in a waistcoat and muttering “I’m late! I’m late. I’m late for a very important date!” She follows him down a rabbit-hole, and floats down into an underworld of paradoxes, of the absurd and of the improbable. For example, Alice drinks a bottle of liquid that makes her very small and then finds an antidote that makes her very large. Wonderland is characterized by nonsense and asymmetrical logic. It is a place where things are backwards, like through a looking glass. It is a dreamscape can be a pleasant dreamscape or a complete nightmare.
Sydney is tumbles down the hole of espionage and finds herself in world where nothing is as it seems. Although being a spy lends itself to some pretty outrageous situations, but the situations have their parallels in everyday life. Perhaps the strongest personal theme in Alias is the theme of trust and betrayal. Sydney learns that it is not smart to trust anyone. Being a spy is all about creating a labyrinth of lies and seeing through other people’s lies. An agent learns to get intelligence by any means necessary. This applies not only to black operations and covert agencies, but to relationships in general in Abram’s world. Being attached to friends or family is a liability because they may be used against you in the endless struggle for power.
Irina Derevko betrays husband Jack Bristow, setting up the family dynamic for the rest of the show. In season one Sydney feels as if her father has betrayed her by not telling her the truth about his career in the CIA, SD-6 or the truth about her mother. Irina was originally a KGB agent sent to infiltrate the CIA by way of Jack Bristow. It isn’t until nearly ten years after Sydney is recruited by SD-6 that she finds out the truth about the agency that she believes to be a black ops division of the CIA. When she tells her fiancée Danny that she is a secret agent, Danny is killed. This sets off a chain reaction of events that lead Sydney to discover her father’s true vocation and that she has been working for the very enemy that she thought she was fighting against. As the show progresses Sydney discovers that the father she thought was against her is really on her side and the mother she thought was dead is really alive. Then the mother that she learns to trust betrays her yet again. Her friend Francie is killed and replaced by a genetic double. Later her handler and love interest Michael Vaughn is married to a woman, Lauran Reed, who works for the terrorist organization the Covenant. Sydney then discovers she has two aunts, one of whom has questionable allegiance and the other turns out to be the mastermind behind a plan for world domination! Along the way she also discovers that her former SD-6 boss and her mother had an affair and that it resulted in her half-sister. No one on the show is who or what they seem. Everyone has secrets, even Sydney.
While Alice in Wonderland provides a key to the life of Sydney Bristow, perhaps the best piece of intelligence lies in the in 1956 novel A Spy in the House of Love by Anais Nin. The book is a fascinating journey into the mind of Sabina; an adulterous woman working with a therapist to try to come to terms with her dishonest ways. It is a character study of a woman in torment. Sabina is a beautiful, but lying wife, who desires to seduce attractive men because she can. All the while she is living a double life with Alan, her unsuspecting husband. She tells Alan that she’s an actress in a play and she must leave for weeks at a time. Sabina likens herself to an international spy in the house of love. She hides herself under makeup and clothing to hide her flaws as she goes in search of someone who can save her from herself. She’s tells her story to a lie detector, whom she dialed at random when she attempted to call a friend. The lie detector traces her call and continues to follow her, revealing in the end the error of Sabina’s ways.
Sydney is both a graduate student and a spy when we meet her. She lives two different worlds. There is what we’d call the average everyday world filled with papers, professors and perfectly normal people. Then there is the wonderland of international intelligence and intrigue. In order to keep the normal world safe, Sydney must lie to her to everyone around her. The phone rings for Joey’s Pizza and Sydney makes up an excuse as to where she is going. When she travels around the world for her missions she must tell everyone that she was on a business trip to somewhere else entirely. Sydney, like Sabina, dons disguise after disguise in order not to be recognized. Eventually her worlds collide when the head of SD-6, Arvin Sloan, and her mother, Irina Derevko, discover her secret and drag her friends into the game. By discovering their secrets, in turn, Sydney is able to bring down SD-6 and prevent her mother from destroying the world. Abrams takes Nin’s story a step further and suggests that true change can only happen in the cycle of death and rebirth, be it physically or spiritually. It is only by becoming consumed by her wonderland world that Sydney can ever hope to return to her normal world. Sydney must die and be reborn so that she can reclaim her true identity, which is just what happens in “All The Time In The World,” the last episode of the series.
Alias takes on a metaphysical nature as it explores not only the themes of time, space and the nature of reality, but also spiritual growth and evolution. For Sydney the largest philosophical question is rather or not she has a special destiny for fulfill. The overarching mythology of the show revolves around a Da Vinci and Nostradamus like figure known as Milo Rambaldi. In his manuscript he refers to a woman whom he calls the chosen one.
This woman here depicted will possess unseen marks, signs that she will be the one to bring forth my works: bind them with fury, a burning anger. Unless prevented, at vulgar cost, this woman will render the greatest power unto utter desolation. This woman, without pretense, will have had her effect, never having seen the beauty of my sky behind Mt. Subasio. Perhaps a single glance would have quelled her fire.
The FBI believes this woman to be Sydney Bristow, but as the events unfolded it appeared as if it could have been Elena or Irina Derevko instead. Both Sydney’s mother and her Aunt are bent on world domination, which would make it likely that they are the one’s to be feared. Sydney struggles throughout the series to keep alive her sense of justice and her sense of right and wrong. Her driving force is not power, but rather stopping the evil that she is entangled in. Since she is believed to be the one Rambaldi is talking about in the prophecy, both the Covenant and Profit Five sought her out and tried to manipulate her into fulfilling her predestined role. Again and again Sydney finds herself faced with no choice but to go along with Rambaldi and his followers even if she disagrees with them. The struggle between free will and destiny is something that Sydney Bristow cannot escape. Even in the last episode it is not clear rather she is the chosen one or not. With Sloan trapped alive forever in Rambaldi’s tomb and both her Aunt and her mother dead Sydney feels as if Rambaldi is out of her life; however, her daughter Isabel demonstrates some of her special abilities. Abrams left the answer open for debate or perhaps eventually a movie.
Perhaps the strongest metaphysical theme in Alias is that of death and immortality. The pilot begins with the death of Sydney’s fiancé Danny. Throughout the series both innocent by-standers and key players continued to be killed off. Sydney’s friend Francie is genetically doubled and killed. Will is stabbed at the end of season two, but survives. Michael Vaughn shoots his wife Lauren at the end of season three. Emily appears to be murdered by her husband Arvin Sloan, but is really alive. Later Dixon accidentally shoots her while trying to take out Sloan. Sloan then orders that Dixon pays for it with his life, but Dixon’s wife is killed instead. We assume that Allison, Francie’s double is dead, but she is resurrected using one of Rambaldi’s formulas. Sydney fatally wounds Allison, but Allison still escapes. Finally Allison is stabbed and killed by Will. Irina was thought to be dead from a fatal car accident, but survived. Later she is thought to be murdered by her husband Jack, but then it is revealed that it was her genetic double that took the bullet. The real Irina was captured and doubled by her evil sister Elena. Elena is killed by Irina.
Why all of this mayhem and murder? Murder is a metaphor for the death we go through at the end of each of our painful break-ups. Divorce certainly can feel like death. In Alias pain is not just emotional. It is physical. When we come to the end of a relationship we mourn its loss. Although death does permeate our lives, we experience more often than not in a metaphorical way. Sometimes relationships that we thought were dead resurrect themselves. Immortality is found not in our physical body, but within our spiritual lives.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is one of the books on Sydney Bristow’s shelf in season one, which reinforces the idea of turbulent relationships. The novel does not follow a linear narration, which is also parallel to the structure of the show. Wuthering Heights is rich with symbolism that is often spiritual, just like Alias. Not only is it metaphorical, but it is also metaphysical. Metaphysics investigates the concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. The novel repeatedly shows efforts to break through or cross the boundary of separation of the various dualities, like Lockwood’s breaking the window in his dream or the figure of two children who struggle for union. It is not just love that Catherine and Heathcliff seek but a higher, spiritual existence which is permanent and unchanging, as Catherine makes clear when she compares her love for Linton to the seasons and her love for Heathcliff to the rocks. The dying Catherine looks forward to achieving this state through death.
Sydney goes through a number of transformations in the series. These dramatic physical changes are unlikely in real life, but the represent the many inner trans-formations that we go through. Her fiancée dies and her world is shaken to its very core. Things start to unravel and her life takes on a whole new meaning. That first unimaginable loss begins her journey to wholeness. One by one her illusions are stripped away. The childhood beliefs about her parents are shattered. The woman she thought she was can no longer exist. Sydney must discover who she really is. As she builds a new relationship with her estranged father, issues surrounding her mother come to light.
Sydney must also choose between her love for her friend Will Tippen and her growing attraction to her CIA handler Michael Vaughn. At the end of season two SD-6 is gone and so are Will and Francie. Then she looses Vaughn and two years of her life. All traces of her previous life have faded. By season three we see a woman who is wounded and lost. She is confused and angry. She is desperate to recover the missing two years of her life and find some sense of identity. When season three concludes Sydney is struggling with coming to terms Vaughn’s betrayal and the memories of the horrible crimes she committed while under cover in the Covenant. By the fourth season we see her rebuilding her relationship with Vaughn and dealing with the discovery of her half sister, Nadia. In the fifth season Sydney is pregnant. Shortly after she finds out, Vaughn is apparently killed. Then it is revealed that Jack Bristow faked his death and hid him high in the Himalayas to keep him safe from Profit Five. Vaughn is discovered and returns to help put an end to the threat to his life and his family’s. Sydney also physically and metaphorically dies. Vaughn saves her life so that they can begin a new life together with their daughter Isabel. Both Jack and Irina must die physically and metaphorically so that Sydney can be free to live her new life as a wife and mother…….