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ALIAS – ‘The Counteragent’ (2×07 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The end of the first third of Alias’ second season roughly complements, with The Counteragent, the end of the initial establishment phase of the season. By the end of John Eisendrath’s episode, the show has fully set in place the character dynamics and narrative arcs that will carry Alias into its mid-season point of radical change.

Indeed to an extent you can view The Enemy Walks In through to The Counteragent as, largely, one continuous story. The arrival of Irina as a CIA asset leading to Jack’s illegal attempts to frame her, with Sydney caught in the middle of their parental battle to secure her affections, all flanked in the background by Sark’s ongoing villainy, doses of Rambaldi mythology, and the mystery of Sloane’s wife and the ructions that may cause in terms of SD-6 and the Alliance. All of these elements have been circling over the first seven episodes and just as Salvation begins to spin the show’s wheels, The Counteragent manages to start tying a number of these threads together and, by the end, spins them off into a fairly exciting direction.

Crucially, it brings together the two aspects which have been floating around the most aimlessly since the season premiere – Sark and Rambaldi. Sark has done little more than pop up when the show needs a bad guy, try and flirt with Sydney and… that’s about it, but here Alias finally figures out a way to tether him more concretely to the primary narrative and several other main cast members. At the same time, the episode manages to contextualise the hints of Rambaldi we have seen since The Enemy Walks In, by connecting the mysterious virus established in that episode to Vaughn, thereby giving the mythology more of a purpose than we have seen up to this point in Season Two. The Counteragent stops treating the arcane mystery like a necessary evil and reminds us how important it actually is to the broader series narrative.

The Counteragent isn’t among the best episodes of the show, and it is at times still too disparate, but it begins to provide a road map this season was starting to need.

Though the episode places Vaughn front and centre, it by default has to sideline him from much of the action, given he is infected by a mysterious killer virus. It’s an old storytelling trick: the story may be about him but he does little to influence the story.

The Counteragent suffers in this respect from a key problem which goes beyond Alias’ storytelling in-world: we know that Vaughn won’t die in the seventh episode of the second season. For a network show made in the early 2000’s, it just ain’t gonna happen. Theoretically a twist such as this *could* happen in our current age of television, where shows such as Game of Thrones or Westworld or Watchmen—our modern examples of detailed narrative mythology—kill off important characters with abandon in more places than simply season finales, but this rarely happened in the 90’s and early 00’s – even The X-Files, Alias’ signature contemporary inspiration, usually waited until key mythology episodes at the beginning or end of seasons to kill characters, and even that series never took out its primary leads and meant it.

Alias will, of course, infamously ‘kill off’ Vaughn in Season 5’s Prophet Five, but even that turns out to be a red herring, whether intentionally or not. Crucially, it is also a season premiere, holding to the unwritten rules of television as to when key characters are written out if necessary. The Counteragent was never going to let Vaughn die but Eisendrath is forced to genuinely have Syd, Jack and company genuinely fear this might happen, as opposed to the story becoming less about whether Vaughn will survive, and exactly what Syd has to do to keep him alive. There does turn out to be a deal with the Devil, and it neatly facilitates the right-turn twist that places Sark and Sloane in the same orbit, but The Counteragent fails to lean into properly what could have been the more intriguing angle. Instead, it works hard to make you fear for the life of a character who is never in any real danger.

Much of the reason for this is because Alias is laying the continued foundations for the Syd/Vaughn romance. By now, fans had fully began to ‘ship’ these two characters to the point ABC arguably were getting jittery about Alias working harder on the dysfunctional family side of the drama as opposed to the natural relationship will they/won’t they? UST that could easily be milked by Syd/Vaughn. Season One absolutely established Vaughn’s clear attraction to her, with episodes such as Masquerade and Snowman detailing his clear jealousy when she’s hooking up with Noah Hicks, but Syd is now starting to realise she feels the same way about Vaughn. Season One was more cautious about doubling down on this given Syd’s entire arc of that season was fuelled by the murder of her fiancee; for her to be pining after Vaughn just half a dozen episodes later would not have rang true.

A season and a half later? It’s fair game, and Alias is beginning to roll the dice. Before he is sidelined with the virus, Vaughn essentially assures his own survival by trading his true, open feelings about Syd to Irina for crucial information about where the cure can be found. Eisendrath uses this device not just as a means to allow Vaughn to openly talk about how he feels about Syd to the most unlikely of confessors, but he ties it into the deeper thematic ideas swirling around Irina in terms of family, marriage, betrayal. Irina uses Vaughn to gain more of an insight into her daughter but it as much is about reaffirming her own belief system that self-interest and passion overcome the kind of rule and procedure Vaughn, as a straight arrow, cleaves to. He tells her there are clear rules about the relationship between a handler and their asset. “And between a man and a woman?” is Irina’s open question.

The Counteragent in that sense is the first significant movement Alias makes toward the reconfigured series it will become, post-Phase One, at which point the Syd/Vaughn romantic relationship becomes a key, central aspect to the second half of the season, and drives a major core part of the dynamics and narratives of Season Three. Their dynamic, and the possibility of entanglement has always been there in Alias’ DNA, but up until now the primary relationship has been that of Syd & Jack, and the allegorical deconstruction of the American ‘nuclear family’ in the framework of an espionage drama. Alias will, steadily, now begin to move away from that as the show edges closer to the Syd/Vaughn relationship. It is, at least, handled here with much less soap opera dramatics than it could well have done, especially as Syd has to face ‘the other woman’ in Vaughn’s barely-mentioned girlfriend Alice.

This does allow The Counteragent to show just how little Syd really understands Vaughn’s life beyond her and the agency, even if Alias suddenly wants to make us believe he even *has* such a life. We will eventually realise, come the revelations of Season Five, that Vaughn always had a lot more secretly going on than he ever let on—especially to someone like Alice—but it is a bit of a reach to suggest that there is a whole relationship and life Vaughn has to discover when all he ever seems to do is work. It is a convenience to complicate Syd’s feelings toward him, as she is faced with a literal ticking clock before the virus—which we know will never kill him—kills him. The dramatics are forced but they are at least present. The Counteragent also, thankfully, has enough going on around the central Syd/Vaughn narrative to maintain the interest, and some of it starts tethering together more than we have previously found this season.

It is, genuinely, a great twist to have Sark use Syd to try and kill Sloane, only to have that be the ruse in order to ally himself with the man. It comes absolutely out of nowhere but works so well, and immediately—even in one scene—you see the potential of pairing up Sloane and Sark, which of course the season does with tremendous results in the final third. They are so uniquely different in their villainy that they bounce off one another extremely well, and bringing Sark into the SD-6 fold is a way of galvanising what remains a deeply ignored aspect of Alias this season. There has been no real drama in SD-6 for Syd at all this year, with even Dixon or Marshall barely featuring in this first third, but placing Sark into the organisation is throwing an unexploded, enigmatic bomb into the fold. Episodes such as Passage, The Abduction and indeed Phase One will have some fun with that quietly sexual, sparky Syd/Sark dynamic.

There is also the moral aspect to what Syd is drawn into with Sark which Alias thankfully doesn’t ignore. Sark essentially blackmails Syd into agreeing to be complicit to murder, in having her hand an unwitting Sloane over to be killed in exchange for the synthesised antidote. A life for a life. In any other circumstances, Syd would have a major problem with this, but we have already seen in Salvation that she is willing to compromise on her moral ethics to protect those she loves, and it takes Kendall to point out some home truths when she’s prepared to do the same here. “Do I need to remind you that American intelligence agents are not in the business of committing murder?” he says. Admittedly, we do need to enjoy the hilarity of such a statement, given the CIA’s long track record of theorised assassination plots both foreign and domestic, but Alias is a show in which American intelligence agencies are, unless infiltrated by Russians or criminals, resolutely moral. Kendall’s comments have to be taken through the post-9/11 lens of Alias’ creation.

Nevertheless, he is technically right, understanding that Syd has dehumanised Sloane for all of his (admittedly pretty damn evil) actions over the course of the show so far that she is just as willing to let him die as much as Sloane casually tells Jack to “just kill him” when Claus Richter doesn’t give them the information they need to find Irina’s base of operations. “Yes, I know, it’s not what we do, it’s what *he* does” she claims, and she admits she still wants a level of revenge for the fact Sloane killed Danny. Given she has had far less directly connected to Sloane in Season Two, Alias has almost forgotten this key point but The Counteragent reminds us: she hasn’t entirely gotten over Danny, and while she may be willing to compromise her moral fortitude and sacrifice Sloane to save Vaughn, her actions are coming from an unresolved place of pain. “You do not collaborate with the enemy like this!” Kendall barks and, again, he’s right. Syd does collaborate with a terrorist here for a greater good, and again Jack helps facilitate it with zero consequences.

Eisendrath does, thankfully, ensure Syd has doubts about what she’s planning to do. “Tell me you agree with me” she asks Jack, which is a stupid question. Posed to Vaughn in other circumstances, the answer would be different. He would likely have tried to talk her out of this, implore her to find another way. Jack instead uses it as a means to score points as a parent, claiming pre-meditated murder is something he never wanted her to face. “That is something you never came close to considering before getting to know your mother”. That’s low, Jack. His PR war against Irina continues apace. It does at least allow for The Counteragent to play meaningfully the moment Syd genuinely believes she has seen Sloane for the last time after the Tokyo mission, clearly unsure about the actions she’s taken. Her return to SD-6, to a seemingly empty Sloane office, even foreshadows similar moments in Phase One where he will genuinely no longer be there.

A good example of how The Counteragent, thematically as well as dramatically, manages to pull these various threads together is in how Sloane ends up falling into Sark’s trap in the first place. Sloane is aware that the Emily mystery is part of a chain of losses for SD-6: “Since I became a partner in the Alliance, SD-6 has consistently stumbled in its operations” he admits, rattling off examples from previous Season 2 episodes whereby Syd has covertly thwarted the organisation, and realises he needs “a victory”. He believes he can get it via Richter, dying of the virus, but his information turns out to just be a man crying out for his wife. Sloane later, in the creepy moment Syd ends up massaging him, that he felt sympathy for Richter, and some level of guilt about his murder. “It was the love he had for his wife that sustained him”. In this, they are similar. It’s almost a confession from Sloane. Though lets not dwell on quite why, on the eve of a crucial Alliance meeting, Sloane pops off for a quick Japanese sensual massage!

Season Two hasn’t previously managed to string the Emily mystery, Sark’s plan, the Rambaldi virus, SD-6 & the Alliance and Irina together before, but The Counteragent does just that thanks to some deft plotting from Eisendrath. Though the threads are diffuse, he pulls them in the same direction and while they will billow out again over the next few episodes, from this point on we begin taking more direct steps toward the conclusion of many of them in The Getaway and Phase One. All except the singular outlier of this episode: Will’s investigation.

In some sense, Will’s probe into Project Christmas—which Syd handily sums up for audiences at the top of the episode—is the most intriguing narrative thread of the episode. Much like the Rambaldi virus, which completely disappears from view after this episode for—literally—years, it is surprising how little ends up being done with Project Christmas given what Will discovers here. This is even more tapping into X-Files territory than his Season One probe into SD-6. If that was a play on the classic Deep Throat-Watergate conspiracy tale, Will’s investigation here feels more akin to the Anasazi trilogy that bridges The X-Files Seasons Two and Three, in which Mulder & Scully discover a large scale conspiracy to hoard secret vaccination tests on the American public across decades. Will here learns that 1982, the same year Irina ‘died’ incidentally, is ground zero for a significantly insidious Russian infiltration conspiracy.

1982 feels like a serendipitous year, especially for me. It was the year of my birth and, in some sense, it was a year of growing change. The 80’s were beginning to bloom. Cinema was exchanging the New Wave gloom of All the President’s Men for the futuristic noir of Blade Runner. Thatcherism and Reaganomics were taking hold in the UK and the US respectively. Generation Y aka the Millennials were just being born, with 1981 roughly the accepted year in which Generation X began to fade away. Will even later describes to Francie that an essay about Grenada in 1982 was at “the height of the Reagan-era Cold War indoctrination”, which feels like one of the first examples of Alias, in show, directly addressing its post-Cold War anxieties and roots. A secret conspiracy, possibly involving spies in the Department of Education, to provide a faked standardised test to, as Will later learns, around 5 million children, is staggering. Yet the show never entirely seems to know where to go with it, until the arrival of Allison Doren.

At this stage, it sticks out like a sore thumb as the narrative outlier, but it’s a fascinating plot thread which gives Will a relevant function in the series, even if it feels very detached from much of what is going on around it. This is why The Counteragent never quite reaches the heights of the two best episodes of Season Two thus far—Trust Me and Dead Drop—because it doesn’t quite have enough of a coherent dramatic or thematic core to make it a truly effective Alias episode, but it comes close. It certainly solves the problem of Salvation’s lack of dramatic inertia, shakes up some of the core series dynamics, seeds in some key character and narrative arcs for later—this presumably is the point Sloane learns Syd & Jack are double agents, incidentally—and without the need for a direct cliffhanger, leaves a great deal on the table for the show to dive into over the next few episodes.

While the winds of change have yet to completely blow through Alias, The Counteragent is that first, quiet billow on the wind chime. A new phase is coming…

Check out reviews of the rest of Season 2 of Alias here:

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