“Time Will Tell” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 12/2/2001)
I’m tempted to sum up this episode by simply by saying, “Lots of insanely cool shit happened” and move on. Because that’s this hour in a nutshell. It’s not that these past few weeks have given us subpar episodes by any stretch. But this is possibly the first hour that reaches the energy of the pilot and adds a healthy dose of mythology to the mix. About midway through the episode, Syd stresses to Vaughn how much her multifaceted life is weighing her down. However, Alias just seems to be taking flight.
Key to the show kicking things into high gear: the elevation of Rambaldi into the overall DNA of the show. Until now, he’s been a curious sideshow, something to give off a vague whiff of mysticism without really injecting itself into the main narrative. If anything, he probably seemed like a more fun way to tie disparate missions-of-the-week together than some vague dictator of a fictional third-world nation. But in “Time Will Tell,” the show reveals just how integral this figure is not just to Syd’s caseload but the entire world of the show. The Rambaldi gauntlet got thrown down in this hour. And what a gloriously weird gauntlet it is.
Now, as we’ll certainly get to down the line in this rewatch series, the amount to which Rambaldi stays central to the show varies as time goes on. And there will be plenty of time to armchair quarterback about WHY that is at a later time. But let’s stop for this moment to marvel that in a few shorts weeks, Alias went from a Run Lola Run ripoff to a show that featured a potentially supernatural prophet as its driving narrative force. People caught up in worlds they don’t understand is a hallmark of what I’ve been calling “Earth-J.J.”: Even Felicity featured a fish-out-of-water story, one augmented in Alias and later deployed in Lost, Fringe, and the recent film Super 8.
That Abrams continually dips into that well is either a source of joy or a source of frustration for viewers. Here, we’re in the fun discovery part of his perpetual mystery box. The device discovered at the end of last week turns out to be a clock that, when used in conjunction with the Golden Sun disc from “A Broken Heart,” reveals a star chart. Combined with the date on the clock, SD-6 figures out that it refers to a location on the Chile/Argentian border that features a hatch (seriously, it’s a freakin’ hatch, and the episode is loaded with The Numbers from Lost, and when a certain someone shows up in a few episodes, I may lose my damn Lost-loving mind all over again). Inside the hatch: Rambaldi’s notebook, inside of which are some drawings, some recipes, and maybe a drawing or two. Perhaps. But I get ahead of myself.
I tried to sum up the plot in one tidy paragraph to succinctly show how batshit this show got in this hour. And I left out the part about how Giovanni Donato, the guy who designed the clock in the early 16th-century, was 1) still alive today to help Sydney fix it, and 2) knew that her arrival marked his imminent death. Both his extended life and exact date of death apparently came from Rambaldi as “payment” for helping design the clock in the first place. That’s what Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder would categorize as going “full Rambaldi.” Only by writing all this down does the craziness of this truly come into focus. The show itself doesn’t leave you a lot of time to think about it, because it keeps sending Syd into mortal peril each step of the way. It’s both an overt and yet semi-stealth method of mythological deployment.
While the show ramped up the mythology, it had no need to ramp up the action. It simply needed to maintain its nimble inventiveness, and “Time Will Tell” has that in spades. The initial mission to snag the clock in Oxford is a great shout-out to the first appearance of Anna Espinosa back in “Parity,” right down the kiss on the glass. But as great as that is, the escape from Donato’s building exceeds it in every way. Having the fight play out over multiple levels of the building, with the see-through elevator as the central set piece, was simply brilliant. Capping it off with Syd leaping off the building to escape her pursuers? Even better.
With all this craziness going on, the episode somehow managed to jam in at least three more plots. In one, an accidental lemonade spill by Francie onto an old book once owned by Syd’s mother casts new light on Jack’s KGB ties. In another, Will is thrown off the Danny Hecht story after Jack fakes a manifest for Flight 816 (I guess 815 was fully booked?), only to find a mysterious bug in the late Eloise Kurtz’s glove compartment. In the third, Alliance interrogation expert Karl Dreyer deploys a new type of lie detector test in order to smoke out Sydney. Because when you want to scare someone into telling you the truth, who else would you employ other than Tobin “Jigsaw” Bell? Sadly, at no point does he ask Syd if she wants to play a game.
The third is the most significant, and ties directly into the next episode in today’s docket, but it’s worth it to touch upon them all just to see how many balls this show successfully juggled at the height of its power. It’s downright giddy to watch. Let’s keep the giddiness going into the next episode.
“Mea Culpa” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 12/9/2001)
After the nuttiness of “Time Will Tell,” it’s almost nice to have an episode that’s somewhat more straightforward. There’s essentially no Rambaldi whatsoever, other than Sydney escaping from the Rambaldi Hatch and using a CIA phone to radio for support. Most of the hour is dedicated to following the money trail of Hassan, which makes for a fine but semi-banal series of capers. But what the “Mea Culpa” lacks in mythology it more than makes up for in taut suspense, as the hour turns into a giant cat-and-mouse game.
When last we saw Dreyer (you know, a few paragraphs ago), he claimed to have definitive proof of Syd’s guilt. Turns out that proof is a lack of proof, which is odd to Sloane. If anything, the results confirm her innocence in his eyes. But Agent Jigsaw is having none of it and suspects that Sloane has a secret reason for defending the supposed mole. And indeed, Sloane does. Other than a casual comment to Jack a few weeks back about viewing Syd not unlike a daughter, we haven’t seen Sloane show his cards too much when it comes to his agent. But “Mea Culpa” starts us down a long, long road of bizarre back history between this pair.
What’s great about the way that Sloane confessed his feelings for Sydney a few episodes ago and the way he does it tonight is that he both shows his hand and yet completely confuses any attempts to read his true intent. That he can be both malevolent and kind in the same sentence (never mind scene) makes Sloane in these early episodes a badass among baddies. He doesn’t command the physical presence that Jack does, but his calm, coiled demeanor inspires as much, if not more, fear. And yet looking at the way he smiles all alone upon watching Sydney’s mission in Italy demonstrates that his speech to her before she departs for Tuscany isn’t all a ruse.
Mileage may vary on how seriously you take his claim that Danny’s murder was a last resort. And there are certainly other reasons besides pure paternal instincts that keep Sydney on his radar, reasons that will become apparent down the line. (And no, newbies: not in a sketchy May/December way. Weirdos.) But it certainly is nice to have an antagonist who isn’t simply a mustache-twirling, two-dimensional baddie. There’s every chance that when he met Jack in 1971, they were like Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr. And he acts very much like a godfather in describing his relationship to her: “I chipped in, in my own way. I always thought of you as my daughter, even from the beginning.” But it’s the mention of Syd’s mother that truly attracts her attention to his sudden presence in her past.
Things get even stranger for Syd when Sloane springs an apparent trap for her during the aforementioned Tuscany missions. Sloane sends out an apparent kill order for her but in fact is trying to snuff out her status as the mole. The kill order is meant to be read only by the CIA, not SD-6, a fact Jack quickly surmises and uses to ensure that the CIA don’t fall into Sloane’s trap. It leads to a tense three-pronged scene in which Syd walks through a park unaware that her life is in danger, Jack and Vaughn once again argue over who values Syd’s life more, and Sloane looks on like he’s spying the world’s most tense Tribal Council EVER. That Syd passes that test makes her later betrayal in Geneva all the more painful for Sloane. He doesn’t order her capture from the position of despotic boss: He does it from the position of disappointed parental figure. It’s the perfect marriage of what Alias does at its best: Take the fantastical and present it in terms relatable to the audience on an empathetic level.
Francie gets an increasingly short shift at this point in the show (the less said about her wedding dress shopping, the better), but Will’s storyline actually obtains a great deal of heft in this hour. Being thrown off the story by his newspaper should have ended his search, but the bug in Eloise’s car is turning his childhood love My Girl Friday into an adult re-enactment of The Conversation. One of the great pleasures of reliving this series is that while I remember certain milestones in the show’s history, plotlines such as this went out the door with a couple of ill-advised shots of Petron in my late 20s. We can’t be sure it’s still Jack pulling the strings, because he’s been stretched pretty thin with keeping Syd alive. So who is on the other end of Eloise’s bug, providing Will with muffled micro cassette recordings in dusty old cars? Looks like we’ll have to find out at a later time. One thing’s for certain: Will is certainly not remotely “ready” for what’s coming down the pipe.
- Fringe co-showrunner Jeff Pinkner gets his first writing credit for “Time Will Tell.” His next one? “Page 47.” I knew there was a reason I loved Fringe so much.
- I alluded to The Numbers earlier. Well, the clock specifies August 15th, 1623 as the date on which that star chart was depicted. For the love of Alvar Hanso, J.J. Abrams. You sure like those digits.
- “Time Will Tell” confirms that Sloane had Eloise “retired” but also gives convincing arguments of why she was a terrible spy during her brief time on the show.
- Hearing Sloane say “Will Tippen” is downright freaky and connects the two worlds of the show more tightly than Syd’s presence in both.
- “McCullough did it” seems to be a common excuse in SD-6. They use it from everything from throwing a fellow agent off their scent to giving people a scapegoat if the toilet breaks.
- The symbol for The Magnific Order of Rambaldi is not only on Anna’s hand, but also factors heavily into the show’s mythology going forth.
- I confess I don’t know if this is ever actually explained in the show, but my sense watching Donato’s scene is that Rambaldi made this deal: “You will live as long as this clock is broken. Someone will ask you to fix it. When they do, you must comply. And then you will die.” Feel free to confirm/correct in a “SPOILER” comment below.
- Cougar Town fans: Enjoy seeing Bob Clendenin (aka, Tom) as Will’s tech contact?
- According to Vaughn’s lie detector test, Syd has romantic feelings for someone. Had I a beard, I would thoughtfully scratch it right now.
- If you thought Dixon was a goner upon his last speech to Syd before they parted ways in Argentina, well, you’re not alone.
- Anna should know better than to shoot an adversary in the chest.
- Dixon’s out for most of “Mea Culpa,” but given the overall layer of paranoia going on this hour, we can’t really be sure he tells Syd the truth about the last thing he remembers outside of Rambaldi’s Hatch.
- SD-6 apparently has a hospital at its disposal. The work might be dangerous, but at least the health plan seems comprehensive.
- I could watch Tobin Bell have an overenunciation-off with Hugo Weaving any time, any place.
- As solid as the Will stuff was in “Mea Culpa,” having him literally explain the plot of the show to the guy examining the bug was unintentionally hilarious. Apparently the opening credits exposition wasn’t enough for some people. Nowadays, shows like Fringe give the middle finger to those that don’t want to keep up. Just an interesting thing to note as a point of contrast.
- I’m not sure how Syd breathed, never mind broke into a highly-secure villa, in that black lace dress in Tuscany. Guess that’s why she makes the big bucks. And I do this.
- Next week: I’ll be covering the Fall 2001 finale “Spirit,” and “The Confession,” in which we learn a whole lot about Syd’s mom.
- “How do I look?” “For the record, that’s never a question you have to ask anyone.”
- “I’m writing a paper with soul. It’s got lots o’ soul.”
- “Hey. If this were for real, I’d be dead now, wouldn’t I?”
- “He never did tell me what it meant.”
- “The clock is fixed. Now, it’s over.”
- “That sound you hear? That boom? That’s my mind blowing.”
- “The thing I admire most is your courage. After what happened with Danny. The way you came back. Your commitment to the job. I know what we do isn’t for ourselves, but for the good of our country. Still, thanks.”
- “I think that’s a dangerous accusation made by a desperate man.”
- “Dreyer: Don’t you do a damn thing. I’ll take care of Bristow.”
- “We don’t have an in. You won’t be on the guest list.” “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
- “I don’t blame you for not talking to me the way you used to. For hating me since what happened with Danny.”
- “Why am I even talking to you?”
- “I just lost thirty pounds. I’m not kidding.”
- “I’m living in a puzzle. I don’t know who’s doing what. I’m a mess.”
- “Stop torturing Will Tippen! He’s my friend!”
- “Stop questioning every decision I make.”
- “Great job in Tuscany!”
- “How far are you willing to go, Will Tippen? I need to hear the words, ‘I’m ready.’”