No matter how happy and dreamy the lives of our main characters might get, seems there’s always a tragedy round the corner waiting to cast a heavy shadow over it all. Olivia steps into a dark new chapter after the John Scott “incident” in the pilot of Fringe, where she’s presented with a drastically different perception of the world around her. Similarly the lives of the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 in LOST are turned upside down as they find themselves in a metaphysically remote island filled with unfathomable mysteries.
“Build me up buttercup baby, then you bring me down!”
Same goes for Sydney Bristow as we open to find her in a ‘whimsical’ world, so to speak almost like a fantasy, getting to know her equally blissful knight (read medical student) in white satin armor boyfriend, Danny, who proposes to her, on his knees, in pure Shakespearean manner. But it won’t last for long, as soon we’re brought back to the premonitory flash-forwards showing us a harshly darker side of Sydney’s reality, as a drastic shift in tone occurs right in the middle of the episode when Danny’s murdered. Suddenly, there’s less brightness in the episode, the slick humor (largely dependent on the amazing Marshall Flinkman) is almost gone and a grieving, devastated Sydney begins dangerous double-agent mission, after hours of torture and hopelessness.
“Can I live in the dark? […] I don’t care, the whole world’s a nightmare anywhere… “
- To better clarify this unexpected twist which Alias so brilliantly pulls off in its pilot, let’s give two particular cinematic examples which share similar tone transitions; David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”. The opening sequence of the former helps paint a vivid minimalistic picture of the dramatic shift we’re to witness later on, when amid all the serenely colorful, nice neighborhood, with the flowers, friendly firemen waving at us, etc. the camera goes deep to present us with the horrid image of a severed ear surrounded by worms and other creatures of ‘beneath’. As the movie progresses we see the dark side of the town through the eyes of the protagonist: fitting the drastic shift, the monstrous Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) appears, a menacing, sociopathic creature of the dark who’s kidnapped a singer’s – Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossellini — who’d later join the cast of Alias) – husband and child to force her into satisfying his own depraved sexual fantasies.
” – You killed the man I loved! – No, Agent Bristow. ‘You’ did.”
- Similarly in “Requiem for a dream”, the lives of the two lovers (played by Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto), and the mother (Ellen Burstyn), take a turn for the bleaker when terrors of addiction, obsession and deprivation overwhelm their willpower and shatter their dignity. In Syndey’s case, you might ask, ‘shouldn’t she have gotten some idea in the first place? Shouldn’t she have expected ‘it’ to happen to Danny?’ Well, Sloane’s ruthlessness might have been there right before her eyes since the recruitment, yet she’d somehow always reassured herself that he wouldn’t go to such overtly pragmatic extremes. Then again metaphorically speaking, perhaps Danny was “too good to be true”. Notice the way light is incorporated to make Danny glow in the heartwarming scene (see above) just before the life-changing shower moment, as if , quite literally the two lovers are bathed in heavenly bliss. Contrasting that visual indication, is the scene where Danny leaves Sydney the accidentally self-incriminating phone message which leads to his death at the hands of SD-6; notice how Danny is preserved in shadows, when the rays of hope are almost gone. You could say the shower scene confession pretty much splits the episode into two contrasting-yet-complementing sides; the bright, illusive side and the realistic dark side.
“She loved a man, and she lost him…”
- Curiously enough, as we depart the dreamy, almost too good to last, first half of the episode, later on we’re introduced to Michael Vaughn, who as you know is destined to get romantically involved with Sydney in future seasons. Now unlike Danny’s otherworldly innocent, almost clueless, presence, Vaughn is a realistic character, smart and pragmatic, dedicated to the task, who has actual flaws and secrets. That’s someone both we the audience and Sydney can better relate to. It’s as if Danny were only a mere fantasy version of the dead-serious, slightly ‘gritty’ love of Sydney’s life that was always supposed to be Vaughn. (In Fringe, a similar yet different in context substitution occurs with John Scott and Peter Bishop in case of Olivia)
“I had a dream, strange it may seem, it was my perfect day…” (Never grow old by The Cranberries – as heard in the episode)
- Speaking of dreams, what were the metaphorical signs, if any, indicating that Sydney’s life was bound to take a left turn? Well, putting aside the accidental lucky bells (!) heard in the distance when Danny’s proposing to Sydney (check out the episode’s commentary), there’s Dixon who notices Sydney’s slight disorientation at work when her two lives seem to be colliding, the way Jack tries to push Danny away over the phone before finally indirectly consenting or the feeling that there was just something off with the way SD-6 operated or how they recruited Sydney. In the end, it seemed that it wasn’t possible for Sydney to lead two different lives at once; working as a field agent for SD-6 and leading a normal love life with Danny. So something/someone (Sloane) had to intervene in order to wake Sydney from her cozy dream.
- Throughout the series we see several allusions to dreams, visions and prophetic revelations (in the Rambaldi mythology) and how they cross over into the lives of the characters. The two versions of reality are at times different in color, setting or tone like the drawings of Martin Shepard in the asylum (who interestingly enough, happens to be the brainwashed hitman who murdered Danny Hecht), or strangely similar and optimistic like Sydney’s vision of reuniting with a then presumed-dead Vaughn on the sunny shores of destiny in 5.09 which later comes true at the beach house in the series finale. Then, perhaps some dreams/visions lead to dangerous encounters, such as Syd’s with the doppelganger in 5.14 bringing to mind her lucid experience of fighting her alter-ego (dressed in black, contrasting her white – see below) under the observant eyes of the Walter Bishop-prototype Dr. Brezzel (played by the master of horror himself, David Cronenberg).
- Crashing on the island turned out to be a blessing for John Locke who regained his mobility and found a new purpose in life but later turned into a curse when he started to ‘connect’ with the dangerous forces of the island, or let’s say people (like Benjamin). Would he still call it his destiny even if he knew his dead body was going to be used later as a living vessel for the The Man in Black? Was Sydney too always destined to achieve greatness and fortitude through Rambaldi’s prophecy? Was Jack always supposed to raise and shape her to become the perfect spy similar to how Walter nurtured Olivia’s abilities as a child, preparing her for dark times ahead? Or was it a coincidence that Eric Weiss gave Sydney one of her favorite books which was burned in her apartment, curiously enough “Alice in wonderland”? (Check out the similarities between Sydney’s and Jack Shephard’s ‘truth seeker’ arcs in Lost’s “White Rabbit”)