The second season of Alias is, let me preface this right out of the gate, one the most impressive twenty-two episodes of television made on an American network.
It is by degrees thrilling, dramatic, filled with stunning twists and turns, and is absolutely JJ Abrams spy-fi series at the top of its game. It is however, also, extremely knotty and complicated, and season premiere The Enemy Walks In immediately sets the tone of what’s to come. For one thing, the episode begins with a change to the stylistic choice entirely unique to Alias in the annals of television – the weekly series recap. By 2001, the ‘previously on…’ segment at the top of an episode, certainly a two-parter, had become a recognised trope but Alias might have been the first show to deliver one that prefaced the entire concept of the show every week so viewers didn’t become lost. Throughout Season One this was voiced by Jennifer Garner. Season Two switches it to Greg Grunberg.
This in itself is a curious decision. Could it be because Grunberg’s character, the somewhat hapless Eric Weiss, takes a bullet during The Enemy Walks In and spends half of the season recovering off screen? From that perspective, Weiss almost becomes the omnipresent narrator of the series, reminding audiences through to the game-changing mid-season episode Phase One—when the recap is finally ditched for good—of the complexities behind the CIA, SD-6, Syd’s mission and now both of her parents. There is also the strong possibility Abrams wanted to nod once again to some of the spy-fi inspirations from the 60’s and 70’s, with Weiss as a veritable Charlie from Charlie’s Angels or the voice on the tape recorder from Mission: Impossible, delivering exposition with a deeper masculine lilt.
Either way, The Enemy Walks In needs such a recap to remind audiences of not just the series premise, but what happened in the final three episodes of Season One, given the episode picks up directly after Almost Thirty Years while employing yet another favoured narrative trope of JJ Abrams – the flashback framing device.
There are several reasons why this is both an interesting dramatic choice and, honestly, a bit of a dramatic cheat. Firstly it allows Syd to process the reveal of Irina’s arch villainy beyond the simple shock we witnessed at the end of Almost Thirty Years; by explaining the situation to Dr. Judy Barnett (as always played well by Patricia Wettig), Syd is able to detail the twisted inversion of the traditional family dynamic we observe in her first adult interaction with her mother. When Irina declares she must tell her who sent her, Syd tartly rejoinds: “Or what? I’m grounded?”, taking a sudden bullet to her shoulder for the trouble. Irina even intimates that she considered infanticide when Syd was newly born. It’s a pretty harrowing reunion for a child with a mother they have loved, grieved and hoped to discover alive, and Syd goes ‘full Jack Bristow’ locking down her emotions over this to Barnett while explaining. Which at this point makes sense.
In their essay ‘Can’t Live With Em, Can’t Shoot Em’, in Investigating Alias: Secrets and Spies, Simon Brown & Stacey Abbott use this as one of the examples to underscore Alias’ unconventional approach to traditional family norms:
The increasing domestication of CIA HQ is a result of the series’ hybridised nature as a spy/melodrama, which facilitates the constant negotiation of the meaning of family that preoccupies the narrative. This hybridity enables the show’s creator to bombard the audience with images that undermine traditional expectations of family. In ’The Enemy Walks In’, Sydney’s reunion with her mother culminates in Irina shooting her. While the series is replete with dysfunctional, or questionable, families, it is the Bristow’ transgressive journey from the ultimate in estranged relations to a form of functional dysfunctionality that preoccupies the series’ narrative arc.
A brief moment here to just mention the arrival of Lena Olin to Alias, playing Irina Derevko. In Almost Thirty Years, the shadowy glimpse of Irina is of casting director April Webster, with a very Russian-accented voice; this was before Olin or anyone was cast in a role between seasons Abrams and his producers decided would be a major, regular character. Olin steps out of the shadows into Season 2 with immediate, regal grace and dark gravitas, her lighter Scandinavian lilt & harder to place brogue somehow making her deadlier. Olin was a big score for Alias, as Victor Garber himself admitted:
She was what they call a “get,” you know. I mean, getting Lena Olin on a series was like, “Are you kidding?” It was like royalty stepped on the set. She was just the most, and still is, one of the most beautiful women.
A classically trained Swedish actress and protege no less of the legendary director Ingmar Bergman, she worked primarily in film, known to audiences in the previous decade for films such as Romeo is Bleeding opposite Gary Oldman, and she even received an Oscar nomination for her role in Paul Maszurky’s Enemies, A Love Story from 1990. Though Alias dabbled with famous, movie star household names across Season One as guest stars, Olin was something different; a celebrated cinematic character actor who committed to Alias for a full season. While Olin’s involvement in the show would ultimately be scattershot and problematic, she would be ahead of the cable and streaming curve in film actors committing longer-term to television roles.
Returning to the structural choices that open the episode, the mechanism is also a way for Abrams to work his way around the potentially tired scenes of Sydney making her inevitable escape from Taipei and Irina’s clutches. One senses some aspect of theatre in Irina’s actions in this opening scene, as if she potentially is being watched – possibly by her chief lieutenant, Alexander Khasinau, but likely the bigger forces of Prophet Five who we would discover in Season 5 she has been involved with for decades – though as ever with Alias, that organisation were a long way from being invented when The Enemy Walks In was written, as it is up to intrepid audiences to fashion the necessary puzzle pieces together.
Syd nevertheless processes her escape and subsequent picking up of dangling threads from Almost Thirty Years through recounting them to Barnett, and while this does sap the dramatic tension from the piece, it allows Abrams to avoid lingering on unnecessary details and rocket the plot into new territory. In this sense, it’s a forgivable narrative cheat which also serves as an extra layer of reintroduction to key characters, beyond the series recap and ‘previously on…’ segment. Alias is working really hard here to ensure audiences are not at sea as this new season begins.
The Enemy Walks In is underpinned, even with all of the plot mechanics churning as Abrams attempts to resolve overlapping elements of Season One and initiate a fresh mission statement for Season Two, by Syd’s personal psychology. The entire episode, ultimately, employs the Barnett framing device and throughout, Syd is defiant. She channels Jack in processing the Irina revelation with logical efficiency— “I can handle the problems that I’ve got” she asserts—or her sympathy for Will Tippin as the scales fall from his eyes upon learning the truth about Syd & SD-6, and it isn’t until Emily Sloane’s funeral that she cracks and reveals the true emotion bubbling underneath. She is even remarkably pragmatic about what she sees in Taipei, in Khasinau’s—read: Irina’s—secret underground base, the weird Red Ball device, which she blew up before being captured. “I did my job” she declares. Her pragmatism for the Rambaldi enigma, and her general lack of time for its deeper mysteries, is one of Syd’s most compelling attributes as a protagonist. She is eternally reluctant as a hero as regards the more fantastical elements of the series.
Syd is equally emotionally defiant about who she considers Irina to be, declaring to Barnett that “All anyone needs to know about that woman is that she’s a bad guy”. Given Irina has just shot her in the shoulder, it’s a fair assumption at this point, but Abrams is very deliberately setting up Syd’s season-long arc with Irina here. We have to begin with a point of abject rejection and defiance in order to tear down those emotional walls as Syd steadily comes to build a relationship with Irina, hence why the choice to have Irina surrender at the climax of the episode is inspired.
It places the character in a position where she can directly interact with Syd and also Jack, without the back and forth of snippets of conversation around hunting her down as a typical bad guy, and it puts Syd in a position where she cannot keep rejecting the truth that she is defying, pushing away and refusing to accept. “This is a problem I don’t know how to handle” she admits, in tears, to Barnett at the very end. Abrams manages to take Syd from strong heroine running on adrenaline to a vulnerable young woman facing her mother’s betrayal over 42 minutes, and it’s quite expertly done here.
Several plot strands work in tandem to pile on the pressure cooker that is Syd’s emotional state across this episode. She may have rescued Will in the previous episode but the damage is very much done as Jack, in order to prevent SD-6 killing him, has to discredit his entire work, ruin his career as a journalist and turn him into a recovering drug addict, in a public forum. Syd feels the weight of those consequences, on how her secret life has destroyed another life of someone close to her. Alias is a little self-aware of the black comedy in Will’s storyline, with his response to learning the entire truth a simple, stunned “Seriously?”. It’s a natural beat because the truth *is* completely absurd when you stop and think about it. “He thought it sounded preposterous. Which is appropriate” Syd admits and it’s a nice moment of metatextual communication from Abrams to his audience. We know this is silly, just go with it. You’re more engendered to the twists and turns in this fashion and more able to swallow what Will has to endure as the season begins.
Ken Olin, one of the core staple of Alias director-producers, who helms this episode, almost predates Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad by casting Will’s fakes drug addiction in bleached visual tones as he is picked up by police, intentionally casting a stark hue to underscore his desperate position. Abrams further extenuates the Fox Mulder allusions with Will subsequently when Jack explains the Alliance can’t now kill him, lest they turn him into a martyr; similar thinking to the Syndicate in The X-Files as to why they keep Mulder alive despite him exposing their secrets. Though one wonders why Alias didn’t do more with SD-6 being named on television in a news report, as that had the potential to seriously compromise the organisation.
The drama around Will begins the steady defragmentation of Syd’s makeshift family unit, with he and Francie, that will crumble across Season Two as Syd attempts to regain her traditional parental dynamics, despite the extreme circumstances. Francie acts like a betrayed spouse (or perhaps at this point a disappointed older sister) upon hearing of Will’s ‘secret’, the irony being of course that Syd is the one keeping the life-changing secrets and Will is simply now complicit in the broader lie behind their close friendship.
In reality, Will being in on Syd’s double life should have been handled differently by the writers, with hindsight. It should have brought them closer. Will doesn’t react in the way many people would have, beyond the initial shock and utter confusion of the situation (there is comic mileage in his “Who’s Vaughn?” moment). Given what happened to him, he remains incredibly supportive, aware he has had a lucky escape given how much he risked his life “Of course I lose my health insurance the day I get a root canal”. It may be a flippant line but it’s a reminder that even in the comic book larger than life world of Alias, the actions of super-villains have real world consequences. He even supports Syd in attending the ‘funeral’ of Emily Sloane. “The Devil’s wife” he refers to her as, now knowing the truth about her husband. Syd admits she’s glad Will knows as now “I could just be me”. Can you imagine the hot-headed Vaughn reacting to all this with the same pragmatic sensitivity? Will ends up friend zoned for the umpteenth time when this rightly should have been where his and Syd’s relationship evolved and deepened.
There is, however, a Vaughn in the way, and this is another factor in Syd’s psychological trauma that frames the episode. When last we saw Vaughn he was, by all rights, a goner. Flattened by the watery contents of the Red Ball under Taipei, Vaughn could have been written out at this point, even if his brewing romantic attachment to Syd lay unresolved. Consider for a second if at this point the show could have survived Vaughn. Though the dynamic is less attractive, Weiss could have replaced Vaughn as Syd’s mentor (he does so here and is far more on mission “You have to focus, we have a job to do”). Will could have filled the romantic gap, especially as he begins to weave into the CIA narrative.
Alias might even have benefited from it, whereas it has to crunch some plot gear levers to quite weakly explain that Vaughn (somehow) escaped drowning from a condensed tidal wave, and it is hilariously convenient that Vaughn just happens to be in the same lab Syd is tasked to break into, finding him in the nick of time before Khasinau (now reduced to a Dr. Frankenstein stooge with Irina in the picture – and it’s a crime to cast martial arts legend Derrick O’Connor and give him the most basic of kung-fu smackdowns before killing him off) was about to open up his insides. In order to slot Vaughn back into the picture and attempt to place the narrative back into a conventional mission structure for the second half, even amidst the framing device, Abrams has to quickly and a tad awkwardly solve the Vaughn conundrum.
As a mythology aside, Khasinau is here seen to be posing gathering samples of the Red Ball water, with one of his goons posing as a hazmat specialist (which suggests the Taiwanese suspect what was in the ball was more than just water, somehow), and this ends up being some nice foreshadowing for plot points Abrams had in his mind that would pay off soon in Salvation & The Counteragent, and then much later late in Season Four. There are even many pointed shots and moments here of Sloane drinking water, which again points to eventual revelations seasons down the line. Chances are that these elements were not set in stone but the pieces of the deeper Rambaldi mythology, however later retrofitted, do work.
Returning to Syd’s psychological angst and the connected unresolved plot points, she also has to try and salvage her relationship with partner Marcus Dixon, hanging in the balance after Almost Thirty Years. Dixon, of course, heard her secret CIA call sign and confronted her about it, and here forces Jack into some damage limitation and a bold lie to Sloane over why Dixon heard what he heard. “Call it a paternal instinct” Jack claims when lying to Sloane that he gave Syd a secret call sign because he doesn’t trust him. Jack knows his relationship with Sloane is solid enough to survive such a lie, and is ultimately proven right in how creepily Sloane later tries to convince Syd he’s the good guy for sparing Will’s life. The Dixon problem is more of a plot point than a significant character beat but it all factors into Syd’s mindset. Unlike with Will, Dixon remains one of the key people in her life she must still lie to on a daily basis, and his nobility in apologising to her for doubting her loyalty makes everything worse. It compounds how much Syd is carrying on her shoulders throughout this episode.
The Enemy Walks In is, ultimately, an ambitious season premiere with a significant amount to achieve in a short running time, and it’s a testament to JJ Abrams’ slick writing that it almost all manages to hold together. He retains the central through-line of Syd keeping her composure in the face of life-changing revelations while using the framing flashbacks structure to steadily resolve the lingering narrative beats from Season One, establishing many of them as frameworks from which to launch new storylines, mythology points and possibilities. Alias here doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel as it would do in future seasons because we are firmly in the middle of numerous narrative arcs that have been in play across the previous 22 episodes. This episode simply adds complications which help launch Season Two’s primary character and story arcs – Syd’s relationship with Irina/Jack, her romance with Vaughn and the continued battle against SD-6.
Toward the end, having saved Sydney’s life and as a result confused an already mysterious and emotionally complicated situation, Irina leaves her with the promise “Truth takes time…”. If there was ever a phrase to underline Alias’ second season, that would be it. The Enemy Walks In asks many of the questions we will spend a season seeking answers for.
Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here: