Spoilers: Some spoilers for the novelisations set after the series ended.
With thanks to FridayAngel for betaing, the people on the Dark Angel thread on Television without Pity and everyone who’s discussed the show and this character with me.
(Better than) all right
Meet a guy whose favourite lie is that he’s always all right; he just needs a glass of scotch to help him believe it sometimes. Comfortable in his own skin, comfortable enough to mock the dystopian world he’s been released into while he comes up with schemes, scams really, to get on by. Smart – not wise, not yet, but catching up fast – with a knack for finding trouble though he tries hard to make life easy for himself. At least his life isn’t boring. He’s a charmer, perhaps at his most disarming when the little boy he was never allowed to be edges out, but dangerous too, has been trained to kill and knows what it is to be a target. And yet he’s cocky, perhaps because landing on his feet is genetically hard-wired.
Some of you might have met him already, cracking wise in a sewer or blurring at high-speed to deliver a punch. Hopefully this’ll be a reminder of the good times. For others (thanks for the cancellation, Fox!) this essay might be your first introduction to this character, designation: X5-494, name: Alec*.
MAX: […]I’m gonna call you Alec.
MAX: As in smart aleck.
X5-494: I can live with that.
MAX: Good. ‘Cause my second choice was Dick.
He got his name as the audience was introduced to him in the opening episode of Dark Angel’s second season, and the smart-aleck label more than fits. It’s one of the most endearing traits for me in terms of sheer entertainment value. But it’s not the whole definition of the character.
The designation 494 was his from birth, one number after his twin clone. He’ll never fully get away from it, as it’s stamped on the back of his neck in the form of a barcode. Not that he wants to either. He can live with the fact of what he is – a genetically enhanced creature (empowered is his preferred word), who looks human but has part-feline DNA that gives him enhanced senses and allows him to do extremely nifty stuff (fight harder, move faster, leap higher.) He’s casually egotistical about being extraordinary.
“What the hell are you?”
[Proof of Purchase]
He was cooked up at a secret military base, called Manticore (not that the name gave away the very sekrit purpose of the military base in any way) and his initial purpose was to be a super-soldier for his country, one of its ‘perfect human weapons’. His childhood was spent training for this; practising weapon-use, hand-to-hand combat and other military procedure. As he grew older, the training specialised as his handlers found another use for the superhuman abilities that included high intelligence and, in Alec’s case, a remarkable adaptability to any situation - assassination. He was too valuable an asset to dispose of, despite not quite becoming the perfect soldier they wanted. He was as problematic (read: independent-minded, even human) as all of his breed, more so than many.
Broadly, he has the same abilities as the other X-5s introduced in the previous season of the show, most pointedly, heroine Max, with ten years of extra training on them (bar Jace, one of Max’s unit who was too frightened, in the end, to leave with them.) It’s offset by the ten years of inexperience of the rules of the outside world, but he lives up to his potential and picks up fast. It’s interesting that Max is unable to give him credit for the ten years of catching up he has to do to reach her enlightened state, an indication of how well he’s apparently settled.
I’ve always found the X-5 fundamentally cool – in terms of what they are, part-cat trained soldiers, what they’re physically capable of doing, and riveting with the effect of their past and make up on the way they live their lives. They’re a refinement on the sympathetic outsider superhero figure.
But Alec is different again to the other X-5s we’ve met previously. As a child, X5-494 never gave any indication of considering his unit family. He never tried to physically escape from the Manticore facility, nor even planned doing it, as far as we know. Based on incomplete information, he chose to live with what he had and work the system to his benefit – I would assume that this was a trait that always existed in him, but escalated after the failure of his first solo deep cover mission. Running isn’t his first instinct as much as trying to manipulate a situation for his own betterment.
He spent all of his formative years in a hostile and abusive environment where he was instructed to believe himself a superior being to the outside world while under the command of a military structure made up of ordinary humans without his abilities. Due to his wheeling and dealing he was in a particular position to know about the weakness of the guards who enforced his superiors’ orders, and exploit them. All of his life, he went through constant tests and experimentation – and mainly passed. He experienced particular mental evaluation in the one instance for failing a covert mission, in others for his twinned clone’s actions. He’s well-used to camouflage for self-preservation.
Considering all that, he doesn’t brood that much (when he does, it is occasion for those around him to comment), and much of the above back-story is extrapolation from short flashbacks and offhand comments. Alec is a character who doesn’t want anybody’s pity (except possibly as a means of getting something else he wants - usually diversions like money, sex, and junk food). Ergo, he gets it. Because for the viewer, like most of the characters around him – it’s very easy to fall for the “tricks and treats” he offers – the charming persona who he’s constructed as a means to cope with what he’s done and been through. Especially because, for the second season, his arc is growth from the self-interested liar who will work around the status quo to keep himself comparatively comfortable, to someone who’s willing to stand up for his people. (In the books this willingness leads to becoming their elected representative.) He was actually listening when Max said:
If you wanna be the hero, you can’t be half-assed about it.
And it’s all fairly understated and mixed with a good-deal of humour.
Because, did I mention he’s funny? Sarcastic-funny. Quipping, rolling his eyes at what’s going on around him, getting the wry comment in before the viewer does-funny – consistent leaven for the dourness (Dark Angel has both schlocky and pretty dark moments.) Occasionally, yes, he is merely the comic side-kick – but usually not the stooge, and then the next moment he’s a representative of the losses and traumas at the heart of the show.
The character, the second-most developed X-5 (in terms of quantity of screen time,) is a complicated blend of archetypes - opportunistic chancer, cat-burglar, the selfish rebel and the soldier. He’s a lot like (the cool parts of) season 1’s Max, but with the difference of not needing to idealise normality. Alec is the kind of pragmatist who stops dealing drugs when he realises they kill off his clientele.
He gets to screw up and admit he’s done so, learn from the experience, but the development gratifyingly stays organic to the framework of what we already know of Alec. He fascinates me to the point that it’s over a year and a half since I watched the final episode of Dark Angel, and I’m still reading fanfic mainly about this golden soldier boy. I’ve even reached the point where I’m watching the first season and wondering how this, that and the other thing apply to his character, never mind that trying to reconcile some aspects of the first and second seasons of this show are enough to give one a very bad headache.
Way back when, roughly two years ago, my first introduction to Alec was not the very first shirtless entrances**. I missed from Designate This to the earliest scenes of Proof of Purchase when they aired. I had to catch up on the fact that when Alec and Max first met, he was under orders to impregnate her, then help her “escape” to enable his superiors’ cunning plan. When, in retaliation, she widely broadcast information about Manticore and what it stood for, the people in charge destroyed the place and their valuable assets to protect themselves. Max helped as many as she could of her kind escape – Alec was already outside as part of his mission, but witnessed his home burn down and was very clear on what had happened and how the transgenics had been betrayed.
For the first few episodes, his loyalties are very much in question. He’s an outsider, a rogue who doesn’t ascribe to Max’s beliefs or priorities. But in Bag ‘Em he both rescues her and goes on to help her protect the other transgenics, despite this action apparently going against his best interests. There’s a mystery about his motivations at this point, which leads to plenty of speculation. Is he operating based on a loyalty to his kind despite his irritation at the younger Xs’ ineptitude? Is he trying to prove something to Max? Later on in the series he helps other transgenics or fights the good fight to protect himself from exposure, see the whole address book line of reasoning in Brainiac. It’s a case of the cover story he used in Proof of Purchase coming true, always a danger for the liar. Curiosity and the adrenaline-rush are part of the attraction for getting in on the action too, but Fugghedaboutit at least, suggests an admiration of those who do the right thing (although that is under psychic coercion, so who knows how genuine it is?) The trademark X-5 cynicism about do-gooders’ motives remains in place throughout.
I first saw him at one of the character’s lowest point where, captured, he is forced to negotiate for his life, by agreeing to betray others of his kind and kill three people for the season’s villain. Ames White’s job, as far as is revealed then is to hunt down Manticore’s freed transgenics, and to terminate them as part of the cover up.
For a selfish man trained to be a cold-blooded killer, it shouldn’t be too difficult to execute this task especially as he has a bomb attached to his brain stem (it’s that kind of ‘verse.) When it’s self-defence*** against a transhuman who’s feline genetics are far more physically evident than in him, killing is doable. Not so much when it’s the more human-looking transgenics; one who trustingly defers to him as an officer, or Max, with whom he has an already complicated acquaintance. His struggle is between what he’s pretending to be and who he is – 494 versus Alec if you want shorthand. Later the character asks:
ALEC: You really think I could do it? You think I could murder someone in cold blood?
Perhaps my “yes” is more conditional than Max’s but the evidence is there that he is capable of being a killer, not just in the frenzy of fighting (The Berrisford Agenda, Love Among The Runes) but there’s enough of a soldier in him to make someone his target if needs must.
My first impression was, roughly, of a very charismatic, troubled figure. He seemed ruthless, willing to manoeuvre for his own survival, facing an engaging moral quandary that was nagging at him despite himself, very much an X-5, sarcastic and amusing. Plus he argued with Max.
He made such a strong impression, that I found myself frustrated with the next two episodes – Radar Love and Boo, which were all about the Max-Logan-Asha-Reefer non-starter of a quadrangle, and all I wanted was to know more about the cocky, smart alecky one (and his relationship with Max, the other new characters and Manticore.) Given the first season’s pattern, I was expecting him to turn up every now and then, but the following episode, Two, rectified that, where to Max’s chagrin, and my delight, he joined in unwanted first on a theft of hers and then, as a result, her job at a messenger service, bonded with her friends, and the character got a permanent role in the show. A significant role too.
He was either in on a lot of the action (partnering Max on missions and thefts particularly) or making the episode’s B-plot far more entertaining than it had any right to be (I don’t usually love the wacky adventures on the show as much as the writers think I should, and yet Alec’s presence guarantees chuckles.) He was always bringing the banter but also nuance, and carried one of the season’s most dramatically weighty episodes, The Berrisford Agenda, a crucial episode for understanding the character and his back-story, as we discover more about what he did, and was forced to do during the Manticore days. We also see the change, how Alec has grown from being merely X5-494, that he has learned from the mission he tried to repress, his first love and how it all went up in literal flames. His reaction, when forced to confront the experience two years later, is to accept responsibility – to the point where he seeks out extreme punishment that circumstances refuse to give him. Denied that, he doesn’t wallow, but something in his world-view has solidified, his relationships and particularly his views of transgenics and the rest of the world change from that point on.
He’s not ‘a unique creature, unlike any other,’ but for me, the show’s blend of flippancy and tragedy coalesced best in this character, with little sentimentality and lots of ass-kicking, which was what I wanted to see. In Alec’s journey and the strength and flaws he displayed there was an exploration of Manticore’s psychological effect in a way that the second season’s grand guignol ‘freak of the week’ and virus plots lacked.
In the early days after Manticore was burnt down he is in a better position than most. Of course, the fact that he realises how much he has been cut off from his former way of life helps him start to live a new one**** in a way other transgenics do not, until their new orders are received. He has cash which has got him accommodation and companions, one female and the other a TV set. This is in definite contrast to the other Manticore escapees in Bag ‘Em who as X-6, are weaker and more trusting personalities than X-5s, but sticking together as an unit. The episode makes the point that this loyalty gives them their own strength - a theme that runs from the first episode of the series to Freak Nation where it is ultimately vindicated.
But if we make a purely material contrast, they leave together in a truck, while Alec has a (presumably stolen) convertible to take him on his way. They needed help – he appeared to be independent (the limitations of this are shown up in Proof of Purchase when, in all likelihood his use of his enhanced fighting skills and the stage name Monty Cora lead to his capture). In the next episode, he has found a job that pays well, even if it is not one he plans to stick to –
[…]as much as I enjoy beating people up, I've got bigger plans for my life. And this is gonna help me get started.
[Proof of Purchase]
(See Fugghedaboutit also where he repeats the same idea).
In Two he begins to work in Jam Pony, initially as a means of getting around Seattle and helping his planned cat-burgling career, but when he does leave that job, it is because he is forced to. By the end of Two he has Normal, O.C. and Sketchy on-side. In Brainiac he upgraded his living arrangements. As I said, in some ways he lands on his feet.
If it weren’t for the fact that he and his kind are constantly hunted down (and that he shares a face with a serial killer) it’s implied he would flourish, particularly if he finds direction or focus, the soldier who needs a mission, even in an economically-ravaged country. In the books it’s implied that his business savvy (see Medium is the Message) helps the transgenic cause. It comes from his ability to talk himself out of bad situations and into ones that are more advantageous to himself. It’s more than having picked up the vernacular, it’s his ability to adjust – even empathise with others – despite himself that makes him so adept at this. Plus, there’s the practice that comes from creaking so many of those bad situations.
‘Alec had never met a hurdle too low to try to find a skirting shortcut, he would happily spend an hour looking for a way around a problem that he could’ve solved with hard work in half the time.’ (p37-8, After The Dark.)
He’s got the ability to steal where others would earn, and economic and social conditions, his me-first attitude and all his training encourage his inclination to do so. So many things are easy for him that he gets careless and then screwiness occurs. Which is when Max (usually) steps in. This pattern starts in Proof of Purchase where she pays to remove the bomb lodged in the back of his head at some cost to herself, which leads to a debt of loyalty, that eventually leads to a friendship of sorts. On her side, there is the readiness to share the confidence about one of her darkest days in Hello, Goodbye that shows how far he has come in her trust and he explicitly calls her a friend in She Ain’t Heavy (and the tongue that was in his cheek when he described her as such previously has been removed by this point.)
'Shipper or not, it’s impossible to discuss Alec without examining his relationship to Max, the titular dark angel of the series. All his key relationships are forged through her (barring Biggs, Rachel and Robert Berrisford and all are relationships that end unfortunately). She introduces him to Joshua, and for all the wacky adventures the dog and his boy go through, a genuine friendship based on mutual respect develops between them, with some nice play on the fact that one’s worldly-wise and able to walk outside and the other, more sheltered and ‘innocent’ character is the wiser.
One of the elements that I particularly like about the books is the logical development of a camaraderie between Joshua, Max, Alec and Mole, who become an unit of a sort. In the show canon we get the basis of this in the three self-described fellas’ bond, for though Max and Joshua’s friendship develops first, the middle fella is crucial to bring balance. In fact all three plays their individual part in strengthening the other two’s relationship – for instance at the end of Dawg Day Afternoon, though Alec can understand what Joshua is going through, he needs to bring Max in to comfort Joshua, whereas at other times his influence stops Joshua from being mothered by her.
For me, these three are the basis for the transgenic ‘family’ or nation that emerges at the end of season 2, Max’s quest in season 1 was to find her siblings, while in season 2, the other transgenics became her responsibility and she took on the role of their leader and protector. By family, I mean the older idea of kin or tribe rather than the modern domestic set-up – the Freak Nation that the trannies label themselves as (in the books they are compared to gangs). In subtle ways, Alec has grown to be a part of that family, this is shown clearest in Love Among The Runes and the two sequels, but is present in his actions in She Ain’t Heavy and Freak Nation, in the latter he outed himself as a transgenic in front of his collegues to protect Joshua and the rest, giving up the cosy deal he had going there to side with them in an extremely hazardous situation.
Terminal City, where he becomes Max’s de facto second in command (hinted at in canon, but explicit in the books, which were agreed upon by Cameron) offers him ties and a purpose. He’s got a place to use his natural charisma, and the contacts he’s build up in Seattle. His adaptation to, and understanding of, mainstream society makes him useful to the more extreme freaks that have come there for haven.
There were glimpses of the Alec that would raise his hand and stay to fight always – for example he didn’t kill Logan when his training and mission dictated he should (Designate This), he displayed increasing signs of loyalty and taking responsibility throughout the season. He is the soldier who sees himself as part of a larger army for all that he is the egoist. It’s a dynamic combination.
The fact that it is in the transgenics that he finds this family is as a direct result of losing Rachel, which was a case of making a discovery (love) as it was lost/only after it was lost. He blames himself for what happened to her:
I should've tried harder, Rachel. I should've fought them.
[The Berrisford Agenda]
From then on he takes on the burden of protecting ordinaries from what he is and the danger that poses to them – they will only get this close and no further - he respects Logan, for all he rags on him, gets on with O.C. and particularly Sketchy although neither are voluntarily in his confidence, he uses the besotted Normal, though does appear to respect his boss more than his fellow employees, and various women. He’ll sleep with them, but he won’t be their boyfriend (see the blow off to Asha in Hello, Goodbye.)
As I said, all these relationships come about from his interaction with Max – from copying her career path and helping out with the trannie situation. Whether one sees a sexual/romantic undercurrent or a solely platonic vibe between them,***** it’s a crucial relationship. She is his conscience, but he keeps her honest too by reminding her of what they are: thieves, dangerous, different from the humans. For claim as he might that she gets his (and any other male’s) back-up because she’s hot in Two, it’s just as much a sense of obligation or fellow feeling with her that drives him.
Although there is a basic understanding of the other’s nature – see the way they work together on missions, there’s also a continual antagonistic banter between them, which can lead to telling verbal hits on both sides.
Max is the first escapee he meets, but there is comparatively little bitterness on his side about that, although she rarely dazzles him either. For her part, Max thinks the worst of him (and claims to continue to do so for a long time).
ALEC: Why am I always the bad guy with you, Max?
An external viewer tends to realise that he could have handled his assigned missions very differently, would have, were he a more correct soldier. Max’s good opinion matters to him but never as much as his self-belief. This shakes her up in ways other characters don’t:
He'll drive you crazy with his laughing, and his talking, and his breathing...
Fans interpret this in various ways.
Structurally, it can be argued that Alec is a rogue element - the scene at Brain’s flat where Alec and Max call upon Brain, a character who to all intents and purposes functions as a seer is interesting (especially because Alec ends up living in Brain’s flat):
MAX: Nobody asked you to tag along.
(Brain opens the door and looks at Alec.)
BRAIN: That's right. (To Max) You were supposed to come alone.
There he evokes a territorial response in Brain, to a degree in Max too, when it appears he’s taking over her turf (or whatever it is that causes much of the slapping and hitting and yelling). I would argue that Alec is important as a challenging character for Max. For many of the show’s fans his entrances, into cages, down ropes or on motorbikes, shook things up too – an X-5 to the core but his own person too. Despite the fact that we never got full story we wanted, we know he was going to be all right. The lie came true after all.
Resources and fanfiction
All the quotes above come from the transcripts at Eyes Only or After the Dark Max Allan Collins, New York, June 2003.
The most exhaustive character-centric website is X5-494 Genetically Empowered for any background information required.
The following recs are mainly gen pieces that focus on Alec (but there are some with implied M/A.)
Three Hail Mary’s (sic) by Nevermore. This was the first Dark Angel fanfic I read and I’m so glad it was, because the characterisation of Alec was so vivid.
baloo422 is one of the best writers in the fandom, writing wonderful stuff in whichever genre she tries her hand at. The following are particularly Alec-centric
Status Quo, Ask Uncle Monty and Preserving the Roman Tradition and all her work can be found here.
Transitions by infie is a thoughtful piece on Alec and Joshua’s friendship. The Mission series is a great action series if you want to read about Action!Alec.
And if you want more, valjean is one of the best at writing Alec in action, and Caper is a prime example of why. There’s a lot more of that available here. (See Once upon a time for a character profile of a fic.)
Three excellent vignettes – Chrome and Humidity by intodust and Soldiers should" by pari106.
Plus, the classic T.V. Time by All Mighty Terrestrial.
Want more? Most fics about Alec tend to be of the M/A variety (significantly more than Alec/Rachel or Alec/Asha and the amount of slash I’ve seen is negligible.) The largest collection is at Nuns with Pens (for which you need password access, but it’s easy enough to join.) There you can find Dreamer’s stories – I would particularly recommend They Had Ways, In The Balance and Cold Cranberries; and anything by Roonblah, but the Thump series and it’s sequels are particularly about Alec.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on the show’s section at fanfiction.net and the live journal community darkangelfic, for although it’s over two years since the show was cancelled, there are still new writers and stories in the fandom.
*The full designation is – – 331845739494, the custom is to refer to the transgenics by the last three numbers, prefixed by their series description – thus X5 –494.
The surname McDowell is never used in dialogue/seen on Dark Angel, but has been confirmed as the character’s by secondary sources and is widely used in fanfiction. (Though I like the fanonical Smart.)
** His first speaking scene – he’s taking of the shirt and telling Max that their orders are to copulate. Beginning the pattern of their relationship, he gets hit for it. (Designate This) In Bag ‘Em he is shirtless in the motel room transfixed by the T.V. and in Proof of Purchase during the short-lived but profitable fighting career, and when he first crosses Normal’s eye-line, he is also shirtless. These are the sad facts of being a fan of a character on a show on Fox. I wanted to pretend in the main point of the essay that it wasn’t really the hotness that drew me to Alec, but truthfully, it helped, there’s no disputing that. Plus I want to represent the MmmAlec section of the fandom.
***Self-defence in that he went after this 'sister' with a knife and the express purpose of killing her. Self-defence in that she made the first move. Self-defence in that he was provoking her and hardly shying from the fight. Not really self-defence.
**** Of course, given the developments of Freak Nation and the books, the lifestyle he develops in season 2, when, like Max, he ‘passes’ for normal is only his for a limited period of time.
*****Some would say they have a sibling relationship, though technically he’s her adoptive brother’s twin and neither describe themselves as such, plus Max of course lies to Logan that he is her boyfriend in Hello, Goodbye. For the record, I do ‘ship them and see a good deal of subtextual UST between the two.