Thursday, December 15, 2005

Alias - 5x09 "The Horizon"

Or: Boy! I Wish I Paid More Attention During Class Lectures on Psychoanalysis!

All the hallmarks of psychoanalytically intriguing Alias returned in full force! Macguffins, aka (GEDDIT? "aka"??! EQUALS "alias"! (Also worthy of a parenthetical mention is how often the word "alias" has popped up on the show in the past two seasons, which normally I'd interpret as a negative sign of its desperate self-consciousness.)) phallic signifiers, with the Artifact of the Episode™, the "Horizon"/the thing that Syd's captors were after. Repetition compulsion, with actual Syd actually reliving pleasurable memories! Mirror phase hijinks (i.e. Syd trying to differentiate herself from Irina ("You're nothing like your mother."))! I just wish I knew what I was talking about here.

So I'll shift gears (I just typed that as "girls" -- I thought I'd share since I started this post off all Freudian-like) over to narrative (talk about repetition compulsion!).

However, to delay gratification (I can't be stopped with the Freud, and the Lacan, and the death-drive, and the wish-fulfillment!), I shall assess the episode itself: very good! It stopped just short of being great by actually having three endings, each of which could have served as great cliffhangers on their own. But because each of these three endings (1. Seeing that Irina was the one behind the Sydnapping; 2. Jack and Renée Rienne stumbling into that eerie nursery; 3. Syd finding out that she was on a supertanker; and 4 tha record, I liked #2 best), our sense of WTFness/awe at a well-executed twist became less impressed at each additional ending. To be informal and anecdotal about my reaction to cliffhangers and twist endings in general: typically, I immediately react with a Keanu-esque "Woah." Then realizing that I'm selling my vast intellect short, I think some more: "Just what will happen next?" The latter thought is key to the cliffhanger experience, and a successful cliffhanger is defined in direct proportion to the urgency of the viewer asking, "What's going to happen next?" No less importantly, the viewer also expects enough time to process "What's going to happen next" and take pleasure in the not-knowing. In not knowing how a great cliffhanger will be resolved for the moment, anything could conceivably happen. If anything can happen (whether or not the resolution lives up to its setup), the viewer is filled with wonder and thrill in the realm of unfettered, pre-mirror phase possibility.

Yet, when an episode has more than one scene, our wonder and thrill are diluted because we are shown something that does happen "next" -- that is, we don't have enough time to revel fully in the not-knowing of one cliffhanger before we have to start wondering about another. (So I suppose I did address narratological issues after all.)

Nevertheless, "The Horizon" was a thoroughly excellent episode which didn't rely on camp and cartoonishness, two qualities that I thought were the most I could expect from Alias nowadays. I couldn't even fault T!YBE's original piñata, Von, and only part of the reason had to do with how Syd had to let him go (forever so that I would never have to relive the sickly sweet schmaltz). Vartan, to his credit, concretely demonstrated that maybe he learned how to act beyond furrowed brows in the past few months (perhaps Kitchen Confidential is good for something after all?), and how bland, how paltry his replacement is (Balthazar Getty's name is more convincing than his acting).

But far from damning "The Horizon" with the faint praise of a passable Vartan: the way the episode handled the driving force of its narrative -- what Irina wanted from Syd -- was done perfectly. The episode never patronized us by revealing what it was, and like a cliffhanger, left us not knowing; at the same time, the episode incrementally parceled out information to make us feel like we were making narrative progress and still be left wondering. While this very technique -- i.e. letting the viewer glimpse a plot detail without giving much meat to it (which incidentally is the objet petit a or the phallic signifier or something) -- is also employed ad nauseum in Lost, the fundamental difference in the case of "The Horizon" resides with everything else about the episode: measured characterization, sharp dialogue, etc.

And finally, just how flat-out cool was the end of the scene where Jack let Renée Rienne shoot the old man?

Indie rating: Doc & Merle Watson - "Thoughts of Never"

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