Alias (2001-6) belongs to a genre, the action thriller, in which the difference between good and evil is usually clear and reliable. However, this does not happen in this series. The protagonist, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), is a double-agent for the CIA and SD-6, which indicates the blurred boundaries between US government intelligence and covert activities and criminal activities. The ambiguity about the characters and the uncertainty about the fictional world are extended to the complex narrative structure and its entangled aspects: time, space, and narration.
Right from the pilot episode, “Truth Be Told” (1.01), Alias experiments with the ordering of events. This episode contains four flash-forwards. The sequence in which the chronological events of the story are arranged in the plot gives us access to glimpses of the future. The frequency, the number of times that any story event is shown in the plot, becomes significant — in “In Dreams” (4.19), for example, Arvin Sloane, the head of SD-6, relives some of his memories. There are other instances in which an initial scene is presented and the rest of the episode is a flashback that leads to it, such as “Mockingbird” (5.04). At other times, manipulations are more structural. Season two ends with an ellipsis. In “The Telling” (2.22), Sydney wakes up two years later not remembering what happened during that time. The omitted interval is then revealed all through the next season, starting with “The Two” (3.01). She needs to know who she was to know who she is.
The screen space is always a selective space that asks us to imagine (or to keep in mind) what is beyond it. Since in Alias the editing usually gives us access to the danger that someone faces, the relation between on-screen and off-screen space is used to create tension. This seems obvious, but nevertheless the series uses spatial design and direction to create images as striking as the mysteries of the story — “Another Mister Sloane” (4.16) is a good example. There are recurrent spaces in the series, the operational bases, the offices of the CIA, SD-6 headquarters, among others, but for the most part the action is expanded to a multitude of countries. This constant dislocation of the action fragments each episode in parts, each one identified by the city’s name. The place of action is global, potentially anywhere.
The narrative information in Alias is usually conveyed through the main character, Sydney. She is not present in all the scenes, consequently, the narration is not restricted to her. Even so Sydney’s explanatory voice-over is heard throughout the first season and the character becomes an internal narrator. Episode by episode, she is turned into a centre around which a group of new characters revolve — a group that includes her mother, her aunts, and her sister. Later, the voice-over disappeared and gave place to a less subjective narration. Narrative absences and limited points-of-view in certain sections abound as well as sudden events. At the end of season four, in “Before the Flood” (4.22), Vaughan, Sydney’s CIA handler, is revealing to Sydney that he is not who she thinks he is when their car is suddenly hit by another vehicle. They survive the crash and Vaughan is taken and then murdered. The introduction of new characters in the fifth and last season carries on the logic of continual narrative reorganization of the series. A case in point is the beginning of season four that is a kind of restart: the characters are working together again in a new unit called Authorized Personnel Only (APO) as if the series has started again. In addition, narrative arcs are interrupted by new ones and sometimes never reach full closure. This discontinuous development plays well with the unstable and unclear characters’ relations and motivations.
What is told cannot be separated from the way it is told. The narrative structure of the series mirrors the ambivalence and unsureness created by the story, generating the permanent feeling that the narrative could have gone otherwise. Yet there is nothing arbitrary about this. The coherence of this structure is stated in the word used as title: alias, a different identity, someone that can pass for another person or who becomes another person. From this point of view, the narration in Alias is mostly unreliable, because there is always something to be added, something we do not know that will change our reading of what we have seen and heard.