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TV/Media Commentary and Societal Insights. With a Beard.
Note: This article contains some massive spoilers from season 2 of Alias. Read at your own risk if you haven’t seen the show.
Serious drama is a really hard thing to pull off. That sounds kind of dumb, because drama’s really the baseline for every coherent story you’ll ever tell–even comedies usually have some pseudo-dramatic throughline to make us care about what we’re laughing at. But doing pure, unadulturated, opening-your-heart-and-ripping-it-out dramatic shockers is really really hard. Plot twists go wrong when it feels like they’re twists for the sake of twists, carry no emotional weight, or have been so carefully mapped out that you can predict them, prepare for them, and thus feel no emotional gut-punch that should have been the whole point. Millions have attempted a “Luke, I am your father,” but more fail than succeed. Talking about the history of big plot twists would be a huge endeavor, and it’s not something I have any intention of doing, but I’d like to look at a very massive dramatic twist in one particular show, Alias.
For any of you unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I recently started rewatching Alias from beginning to end, and I sometimes like to tweet a little bit as I watch.
But aside from this being one of the few shows that somehow plunges me into full-on obsession any time I catch a glimpse of it, it’s also damn good television in terms of analysis and reviewing and such. The plot is a bit complex, but in the first couple of seasons at least, it’s about a CIA spy named Sydney Bristow, who works with her estranged father, Jack, as a double agent in SD-6, an arm of your typical “taking over the world with terrorism” group called The Alliance. SD-6 is special because all the lower-level agents working there have been led to believe it’s a Black Ops division of the CIA, which makes The Alliance look even more eeeeeeevil. But our lead character, Sydney, struggles quite a bit with her double life, particularly the question of whether or not she really wants to work for the CIA, how she can’t hook up with her handler/love interest, how much it sucks to lie to her friends–especially when one of them is Bradley Cooper and a reporter on the trail of uncovering the truth–and how much it also sucks to be part of a 500-year-old prophecy and have the most dysfunctional family in the history of everything. Like I said, the show is complex and kind of off-the-wall, but in a good way…most of the time.
At the core, the show’s major theme is struggling with who you are versus who you wonder you should be. All of our major players have this struggle; Sloane’s Rambaldi obsession vs. being a good man; Vaughn’s loyalty vs. his sense of morality; Jack’s cynicism and experience vs. valuing trust and love; Irina’s love for her daughter vs. being eeeeeevil. Sydney’s struggles are, of course, the most prominent: doing good in the CIA at risk of making her life suck vs. doing anything else that would make her life not suck. Admittedly, that stuggle is much less pronounced after season 2, but it’s at its height at the point in the show I’m talking about–“Phase One,” episode 13 of season 2, and its repercussions.
The episode itself is the big “Superbowl Episode,” produced specifically to bring in a new audience for a show suffering from really bad continuity lockout. It started off with Jennifer Garner’s abs, recapped everything that had happened in the show at that point thanks to some cleverly placed exposition, and then blew everything out of the water.
The show dynamics were completely reset and the entire direction of the show changed–and this was only in the middle of season 2! And it only lasts for 8 episodes before the status quo is reset again in the finale. Seriously, this show is cray-cray.
There’s plenty to discuss about this episode on its own in regard to storytelling structure, seasonal arcs, etc., which I may explore another time because it’s so darn interesting, but what I really want to focus on is the very last cliffhanger scene and its resulting storyline. In the episode, we’ve had our crazy action sequences and romantic happy ending. Then our Big Bad of the show, Sloane, asks his lackey Sark about a new “asset.” The phonecall cuts to LA, where we see:
On the phone is Francie, Sydney’s fun-loving best friend since before the show began, her current roommate, and at this point the only person in the main cast who doesn’t know Sydney is a spy. She’s in black leather, her voice is in that “evil” octave, and she’s talking to one of our main baddies. …Wait a fuckin’ minute, she’s a bad guy all the sudden?! They’re saying she’s been undercover all along?! That doesn’t make sense! Oh, this has got to be the absolute dumbest, most contrived plot twist in the history of tele–
So…yeah. I’ll say now that if you’re reading this without having watched the show (WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!) then I’ll admit this whole “Francie’s got an evil double” thing might look kind of dumb, but I’ll say right off the bat that the show had slowly been building some of the more speculative sci-fi concepts over time, so the concept didn’t come off as ridiculous. We quickly learn next episode that there’s a genetic program called “Project Helix” that reconstruct’s people to look and sound like other people, yadda yadda, and it becomes a big plot device for the rest of the series. But for this particular twist it’s just a detail, and honestly doesn’t really matter. Aside from how the double-stuff gets explained, there’s a few things about the way this was handled that makes this twist a good example how to do a plot twist right.
As I said, Francie was the only main character at this point in the show who wasn’t in on Sydney’s double life. She was also the most boring. Not that she wasn’t well-developed, it’s just that every single character had something that tied to the spy storyline, while Francie’s major story arcs were “I think my boyfriend is cheating on me,” “Now he’s my fiance and he really IS cheating on me” and “I want to open a restaurant.” AWESOME STUFF RIGHT?! It sucked for Merrin Dungey, who as we see later is a phenomenal actress who never got to show off her chops for a year and a half.
Francie wasn’t a bad character at all, but by her very nature, she was limited. She was meant to be Sydney’s attachment to normalcy; her only other “normal” friend, Will, pretty quickly gets involved with the spy life (and his life is ruined at least two separate times because of it). By season 2, Syd has no intention of bringing Francie into this life, which means there logically can’t be anywhere interesting for the character to go, outside of restaurants and boyfriends. Other shows have handled the “normal best friend” characters who don’t assimilate well into the main storylines by having them leave or disappear (Pete on Smallville, Lindsey on Tru Calling, Zach on Heroes). Alias decided to say fuck it, go all-out and let Merrin Dungey show off her kickass ability and write her out in a blaze of glory. But, as awesome as it would have been to have Francie suddenly go on a ninja-style killing spree out of nowhere, we needed context for why this was happening. This wasn’t just “OH SHIT FRANCIE IS DEAD AND NOW SHE’S GOT AN EVIL TWIN AHHH!” Which brings us to…
I mentioned earlier that the major theme of the series, especially at this point, is Sydney grappling with the pros and cons of living a crappy-but-fulfilling CIA life and a good-but-less-badass normal life. Spoiler alert: The CIA life gets worse. But for now, thematically, “Phase One” packs a punch for what it potentially means–Sydney reaches a massive goal, and she could very well leave the CIA for good and live a normal, lie-free life. There’s a scene towards the end that carries a slight, subtle and symbolic nod to Sydney finally being free to make her own choic–
Sydney is one step closer to living her normal life, which Francie as a character really stands for. If the show ended here, with Sydney “done”–now leaving the CIA, being in a relationship with Vaughn–Francie’s character would be “done” as well, because in a way, she’s the goal Sydney’s been trying to reach. Offing Sloane and sexing Vaughn were the more literal goals, but being able to be Francie-levels of normal is the big, overarching goal. As long as Francie’s around, Sydney’s got a physical representation of what she ultimately wants to be once this CIA business is over. And then, literally in the next scene, Francie dies, and the image of Francie that’s left is more spy than human. Francie’s doppelganger is Alison Doren, a spy who’s completely walked away from her past life, integrated herself fully into a mission, and taken the appearance of what was once Sydney’s foundation for normalcy.
Not only has Sydney lost a best friend, but she’s lost the very last thread she had attached to normalcy. Over the course of the final season 2 arc, Sydney’s view of potential normalcy unravels–Sloane’s and Dixon’s wives and attachments to their “normal” sides are killed, Syd’s growing bond with Irina as a “normal” relationship gets severed–and when she discovers the truth about Francie in the season finale, she realizes that she’s lost the very last piece of her life that is completely not CIA. It can’t be a coincidence that after the epic Sydney/Francinator fight, the arc of season 3 begins, which sees Sydney losing even the good parts of the CIA, which she ironically delves into even more than she did in the first two seasons.
So from an artistic storytelling standpoint, it suits the show wonderfully. Plenty of shows have wonderful twists that, analytically, are beautiful to write a dissertation on. But again, none of that matters if you don’t feel what’s going on. But one of the reasons you do for this is because of…
You know that lots of crazy spy action and an uprooting of the premise happens in “Phase One”. But we also get a few brief scenes with our “normal” characters, Will and Francie. Will, as I mentioned before, has already had a story arc play out that got him involved in the spy life as a CIA analyst, but not to the extent that any of our other mains are, so for all intents and purposes he’s still kind of a “normal” guy. Both Will and Francie were usually only connected via Sydney, but in “Phase One” we get…
Francie hooks up with 2011’s Sexiest Man Alive (though at this stage of his career he’s The Unappreciated Nice Guy, oddly enough.) And as the brief scene afterward explains, “it wasn’t weird.” They’re happy together and are officially a couple, which is pretty darn sweet. Additionally, Francie’s dream restaurant is doing well. Just prior, she’s seen Will get his life back together after recovering from a heroin addiction (long story). And Sydney just recently opened up to her about Vaughn (just leaving out the CIA part) and expressed how she likes him. So Francie’s accomplishing her dream, she’s found love, and she’s seeing both of her friends build their happiness back up after some low points. I think it’s safe to say that at this point in the series, Francie’s actually the happiest she’s been. So, taking a cue from Joss Whedon’s handbook, it’s time to kill off a character during their happiest point.
Francie’s moments had been sparse and in the background this season, but seeing her lose her life at this point of her happiness–especially without ever even finding out the truth about her best friends–is tragic. But at the same time, she was happy in the end, so maybe that counts? It’s these conflicted feelings, in true Alias-style, that makes it work. Obviously it’s sad that she lost her life at the height of her happiness, but is it really sad she lost her life by a gunshot to the head on a happy day as opposed to, say, prolonged professional torture, forced heroine overdose, or a bomb in the head? (In case you’re wondering, all of those things happened to the same guy.)
So in a freaky way, she didn’t have it all that bad…which just leads to confused feelings of sadness and catharsis. But then consider the horrible things her double–who is only in this place because Francie died–does to all of the characters. She steals secrets from Sydney, records Syd and Vaughn having sex (kinky?), kills Dixon’s wife, kind of rapes Will since he didn’t know who he was sleeping with, and even frames him for being a double, which involves giving him laser eye surgery and hypnotherapy that causes him to have trouble remembering personal memories (did I mention Will kind of gets the shaft on this show?) Everyone gets put through the wringer in what was supposed to be a positive time in their lives; The Alliance is gone, Syd and Vaughn are together, Will’s got a good career and hooked up with Francie. But then, the one person everyone thought would be the one shining point in their lives they could go to when the CIA crap was over with has become the one person that shatters anything remotely good about what was happening (well, whatever Sloane and Irina didn’t ruin, I guess.)
So structurally, Francie’s death and doubling solves a dilemma for what to do with a character in an interesting way. Thematically, it represents the final thread of normalcy in the show being tragically ripped away and closes the door on that chapter of the series. Emotionally, its occurrence damages any last bit of happiness our main characters could feel by painfully shooting it down during an otherwise happy(ish) time. All of this wraps up to be a good plot twist thanks to forming…
Specifically, the one you feel in your stomach when you watch it unfold. There have been very few twists where I felt a pit like this. Sure, there have been times when I’ve jumped out of my chair, swore, and threw things at the TV. But with this one, I have trouble watching it every time I see it–not because it’s sad, but because, my god, it’s perfect, but you feel like such a dick feeling that way because it’s awful. It’s absolutely heartwrenching to see Francie die–even if you didn’t like her, she’s Syd’s and Will’s best friend, she was the most innocent of the bunch, and in a weird way it seems like a pointless death.
But it’s far from pointless–it’s brilliant, and that’s what makes it successful. You want Francie to fight off her double. You want Sydney to come rescue Francie at the last second. You want them to discover she’s a double right from the get-go. You want to prevent all the terrible things that happen afterwards. But you can’t wish that, because what we’re seeing is so interesting. It’s shocking, it’s scary, it’s intense, but you want to watch more. And to be honest, it plays out really well. The Francie double screws with the main characters, she has a brutal fight with Will, an even more brutal and epic fight with Sydney, and finally gets her just desserts in that fight. Check out the fight for yourself, if you don’t understand the “Coffee Ice Cream” reference in the title:
Many might argue that the show goes downhill after this season, and I can see how you could point to this “last shred of normalcy” development that the Francie double-plot destroys. But what happens afterward is, well, what happens afterward. The execution of seasons 3-5 didn’t necessarily depend on the season 2 developments, especially considering season 2 left so much open for the later seasons to explore. So even in respect to where the show goes, I’d say this twist is really, really well done and is as close to flawless as you can get.
(On that note, I’ll add Evil Francie does pop up in season 3 in kind of a contrived way, but that was more done for fun to bring back Merrin Dungey and Bradley Cooper…for all intents and purposes, her story essentially ended in the season 2 finale. Though her season 3 episodes are certainly entertaining.)
In any case, I think I’ve made my point–the twist works because it comes at it from all angles. Merrin Dungey pulls off Evil Francie, while the show pulls off the “double” pseudo-science, so it never feels like a bad comic book plot. And the twist is not thrown in just for shock value, because it works thematically. It’s completely out of the blue, but doesn’t feel stupidly random because it fits thematically. It’s not just a brilliant structural change, it’s also a visceral experience thanks to the high-emotions we feel watching these events unfold and happen to the characters. I hate watching this twist and its subsequent plot, but I love watching it at the same time. I’m shocked every time I see it, even when I know what to expect, just hoping for it to turn out well–but then I’m happy it happens, because I know what it means and what comes of it is really really good.
That, my friends, is how you do a good plot twist.