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ALIAS – ‘A Dark Turn’ (2×17 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

If you really think about it, everything that happens in A Dark Turn has almost certainly been inevitable since the beginning of Season Two. It’s perhaps why the title of the episode is so heavy in foreshadowing.

The fact we probably just didn’t want to believe how A Dark Turn ends is a testament to how well both the writers and Lena Olin have crafted the character of Irina Derevko since she first truly appeared in The Enemy Walks In. The first third of Season Two was almost entirely devoted to Irina’s introduction, her relationship with both Sydney and Jack, and how her unexpected returns exposes and decrypts Alias’ exploration of the dysfunctional, nuclear American family. Irina is played ambiguously on the page but Olin, with some skill, drew out of her dialogue shades that Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber both played with, and likely influenced later scripts in the season. She could be mercurial and sinister on one hand, while sensitive, regretful and caring on the other.

This was, undoubtedly, in many senses a deliberate move on the part of J.J. Abrams and his staff. We were never supposed to know quite where Irina’s loyalties lay. She could never entirely be trusted, given she surrenders control of what appears to be a major global organised crime network to become a CIA prisoner. We knew she always had an agenda. Yet Season Two plays with the idea that maybe, on some level, Irina turned herself in because she *did* care about Jack, she did love Sydney, and she regretted many of the choices she made decades earlier when her KGB cover was blown. Season Two inevitably saw her character thaw the hearts of both Sydney and Jack, inveigling her way into their lives and emotions, to the point she was in danger of becoming not just an ally, but someone we might actually start rooting for.

A Dark Turn is the reminder we needed. Of course Irina is a villain. She was always a villain. She will always *be* a villain. Alias is just very good at the emotional long con because, over Season Two, we had almost talked ourselves out of this being true.

In one sense, Irina’s initial function within Alias was over by the end of Passage pt 2. That episode, uniting the shattered Bristow family together on a mission in dangerous territory, was the fulcrum of their story. Sydney and Jack came through that experience with a renewed belief that Irina wasn’t simply the monster they had long believed her to be.

Subsequently, partly no doubt due to the practical realities of Olin living in New York and simultaneously undertaking film and theatre projects, Irina would disappear for tracts of the narrative – this admittedly happened in the earlier part of the season in The Indicator and Salvation, but her absence was a key part of Syd & Jack’s story. A brief appearance in The Abduction follows, which cements Syd’s fondness for her; she assists the CIA in A Higher Echelon and supports Jack in The Getaway, but then she’s out of the narrative with no real mention until she appears, again briefly, in A Free Agent, to encourage Syd to leave the CIA. She threatens to refuse to see her again if she doesn’t. There has been no substantive focus on Irina since the Passage two-parter, and this feels deliberate. She has, by now, been taken for granted by the audience and the narrative itself.

A Dark Turn corrects this mistake. It places her at the centre of the CIA’s now established efforts to stop Sloane’s quest but suggests she is, by now, very much an ally, at least ostensibly. Jack is quick to seek counsel with her after the murder of Russian gangster Luri Karpachev (a brief, returning goon from as far back as So It Begins…), and equally as quick to develop a plan with Irina to use her as bait to lure Sloane out in his hunt for another Rambaldi manuscript. “When the *hell* did we switch places?” Kendall asks, playing devil’s advocate. Jack nevertheless is confident in his own ability by now to read and play Irina. “I’ve had twenty years to reflect on that woman’s ability to deceive. Trust me. If she lies to me again, I’ll know it”. Except he’s wrong, and in moments like that we and the audience, even subconsciously, know he is headed for a fall. The inevitability of Irina’s betrayal hangs over the episode at every point.

Yet Jesse Alexander’s episode seeks a key, and with hindsight quite a fascinating parallel for the B-plot, in the possibility of Vaughn’s betrayal. This is possibly the first episode of Alias in which Syd functions in the B rather than the A-story, a consequence of Jennifer Garner hosting Saturday Night Live which meant she was available for only three of the traditional eight shooting days for an episode. It feels natural, ultimately, in that it allows Jack and Irina to take a much-needed centre stage and explore their relationship, but it places Syd in a unique parallel position to Jack. Is Vaughn not loyal to the CIA? Is he working for someone else secretly just like Irina was to Jack? Is her entire relationship with Vaughn, blooming now after being freed from her role as a double agent, a lie?

In one sense, the idea of Vaughn being a traitor might come out of left field, but there is a certain logic to the concept you can understand Alexander being keen to pull on, not just to develop the thematic parallel to Jack and Irina. Vaughn is naturally cautious, often humourless, and prone to not playing by the book – we’ve seen him do this numerous times, often apparently to protect Sydney. What makes you suspect this story was pieced together last minute, however, is the lack of consistent develop. There have been no instances of Vaughn across Season Two behaving strangely or out of character, or anything we could have noticed as indicating he was leading a double life. A better example of a show Alexander would later write for that does this is Star Trek: Discovery, which in Season One plants lots of red flags about Jason Isaacs’ Captain Lorca that, with hindsight, you can see threaded across the season. There is nothing like that for Vaughn.

What’s curious is that Vaughn being a possible traitor, and certainly having a double life, is presented again as egregiously out of nowhere in the closing moments of Season Four and into Season Five. In that instance, it ends up being true – Vaughn really is, and always has been, living a lie. Here, Alexander weaves Vaughn’s secrets into the broader story of A Dark Turn concerning Irina, which makes a lot more sense than the eventual retcon later in the series’ life. Given Vaughn’s history with Irina, and the backstory of how she murdered his CIA father, it actually makes complete sense that he would have remained suspicious of her motives when everyone else was being taken in by her. “I had to find out if she was deceiving us again. I mean, I could not sleep at night knowing I was doing nothing. That somehow, I was helping her” he tells a concerned Sydney.

Vaughn’s betrayal also contributes to Alias’ new found post-9/11 paranoia about how inviolate United States government security is. In Season One, the CIA were through and through the good guys, working to collapse the fake ‘enemy within’ concept of SD-6, and they have maintained that status across Season Two. Jack goes rogue at one point, and a Senator is blackmailed, and the Project Christmas conspiracy (to be returned to, briefly, soon) suggests the system has been compromised, but Syd is forced to face the possibility Vaughn’s loyalty has been compromised. Vaughn since the beginning has represented that seemingly inviolate CIA fortitude as a stoic foundation of Syd’s heroism, so to throw that into question also suggests Alias is growing wearier of the US government apparatus itself being untouchable in the post-9/11 world. “There is not a chance that he is a traitor, that he would be collaborating with an enemy”. Not *the* enemy, crucially. *An* enemy. The uncertain, unknown face of a brave new world, one Sydney cannot psychologically make sense of.

This isn’t just a logical step for Vaughn’s character, it also addresses the central issue of how Alias hasn’t seemed to know what to do with Irina not just since Passage, but also since the paradigm shift of Phase One. While Irina may be an international terrorist a la Sloane has now become, that’s not how she was presented. As ‘The Man’, she existed within the post-Cold War criminal ‘establishment’ of warring geopolitical blocks. She represented post-Soviet Russia, in all its lawless glory – a former KGB spy turned terrorist, running an organisation filled with other KGB brass. That made sense in contrast to the Alliance, but now? She essentially sabotaged her own organisation by killing Khasinau and stopping Cuvee, allowing Sark to combine that power with Sloane’s. She even murders Stuka, in this episode, another old ally and vestige of the geopolitical regime she was once part of. There is a sense Irina is literally destroying her own past and in turn unifies both of those previous post-Cold War parallels of criminal blocs into a singular, post-9/11 chaotic fundamentalism. Irina joining Sloane is the only logical move for her character.

The reasons for this are present in A Dark Turn if we look closely enough. With Sloane now fully presented as a Rambaldi zealot after Firebomb, translating the prophet’s work into weapons of mass destruction, Jack spells out to Irina the differences that marked the man he knew and the man he became. “Sloane changed and… it was Rambaldi that did it. I’m not sure what it is — he never told me — but Sloane has a personal connection to Rambaldi”. Irina counters with her own admission. “I lived for years with the same obsession, to find a higher meaning in Rambaldi’s work”. While this was established across Season One, in which Irina’s organisation engaged in as much of a Rambaldi scavenger hunt as the Alliance, Irina has not up to this point been defined by quite the same zealotry. That begins to change after A Dark Turn. She and Sloane become established chaos fighting against the order of the CIA.

Her betrayal, therefore, is a foregone conclusion, even if Alias works to make us believe maybe she *is* on the side of angels, and she isn’t just using Jack and Sydney for her own purposes. Having established some trust via Passage, and helping Jack in The Getaway, there is a casual familiarity between them which, while underpinned still by Jack’s constant pain at her initial betrayal of him decades before, does logically lead to a passionate rekindling, aided by the genuine chemistry evident between Olin and Victor Garber. Irina also comes to understand why Jack didn’t become obsessed with Rambaldi as she and Sloane did: because of his love for Sydney. “I never thanked you for everything that… for raising our daughter” Irina admits, and in these moments she is being truthful. These are the nuggets of honesty amidst a sea of lies, and another acknowledgment at just how warped Alias‘ vision of the nuclear family is. Syd grew up to be a good person, a hero, in spite of the fact her parents were less a nuclear family, more a family fighting over nuclear secrets.

This admission from Jack also plants a key narrative seed that Alias will pick up on in subsequent seasons: the daughter saving the father. It takes Nadia’s arrival at the end of Season Three to swerve Sloane away from another dark path. Jack is consistently saved and redeemed by his love for Syd and his determination to protect her, to the point that when she is presumed dead for two years, he falls into a spiral of emotional decay. Syd is a tether to goodness for Jack that Sloane has never had, even with Emily in his life, and nor has Irina. She is given the opportunity to rekindle that family this season but she rejects it. The quest, her religion, her fundamentalism, means more. She can just about bring herself to admit her love for Syd, knowing within it lies a goodbye. “I’m pretty sure I haven’t earned very much, and that’s okay. This was just something I needed to say”. In the end, however, love and family are not enough.

In that sense, Syd’s concern over Vaughn makes sense as a thematic parallel. Alexander is teasing, with the title, that the ‘dark turn’ could involve Vaughn as opposed to Irina. It is enough for Syd to spy on him, to question the central precepts of the trust they have established, and openly wonder if he might be her Irina. Incidentally, this narrative mirrors last season’s Q&A, also episode seventeen, in which Syd was questioned by a review panel, then led by Kendall. Here, she faces a similar interrogation, only this time about Vaughn. As a side note, the interrogator—in a strange but enjoyable bit of casting—is well known New York comedian Richard Lewis, best known for playing a heightened reality version of himself in Larry David’s brilliant Curb Your Enthusiasm. Here Lewis plays the role of counter-intelligence agent Yeager straight, tapping into Syd’s anxieties about the man she loves.

The theme even extends to Will, suffering what Vaughn believes to be a by-product of his new role as a CIA analyst in vivid dreams of confessing to Francie the truth about Syd’s cover and life as a spy. Little does he realise these are themselves a by-product of Evil Francie’s hypnotic conditioning, programming him to relay covert information while sleeping as part of her role as a double agent. She is even egotistical within this conditioning. “When you wake up, you’ll have no memory of this conversation. All you’ll remember is that tonight, you had the best sex of your life”, which adds a nice inflection to the character behind Francie we haven’t yet truly met. But everywhere in A Dark Turn, betrayal lies around every corner.

A Dark Turn, as a result, feels like yet another pivot point for Alias as it reconfigures itself into a new shape, one which will continue to reverberate into the Season Three status quo. A Free Agent establishes the fight against Sloane, Firebomb then contextualises that fight as existing resolutely in the post-9/11 world, while A Dark Turn feels like the other shoe dropping – the unification of the lost souls from both East and West, joining forces in a fundamentalist crusade to understand a deeper truth that exists beyond simple geopolitics. Irina’s betrayal is both personal and, in its own way, political. It cements the role of her character in Sloane’s brave new world, and deepens how truly personal the fight in the final few episodes of Season Two becomes.

It also adds yet another shade of tragedy to the character of Jack. It’s a wonder he doesn’t just fall dead at the end of a broken heart. If he had, ours would likely have failed at that point along with him.

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

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