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.

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ALIAS – ‘Salvation’ (2×06 – 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…

If there is a disposable episode of Alias Season Two, it is probably Salvation. It struggles to follow in the dramatic wake of Dead Drop and the personal revelations of The Indicator as much more than an epilogue to episodes which cut to the very core of Sydney and Jack Bristow’s relationship, and the central themes of the show itself.

Salvation to an extent also misses a golden opportunity to fully tether the post-Cold War politics of Alias with the post-9/11 reality of America at the time. Irina Derevko, again unseen in this episode, is tried for treason by the US government and (off screen) pleads guilty, having been interrogated at the ominous Camp Harris—Alias’ version of Guantanamo Bay which we would eventually see in Season Three’s Breaking Point. Irina is sentenced to die by lethal injection in an extremely short time frame, which adds some level of ticking clock to the events of Salvation, as Syd’s moral conscience compels her to try and expose Jack’s crime in framing her to try and save a mother she, otherwise, distrusts and is telling herself she despises.

This has been the crux of this entire mini-arc that has dominated Season Two so far – Sydney being manipulated in different ways by both of her highly dysfunctional parents to choose which one she is loyal to. Jack still believes Irina is manipulating her in accepting her guilt. “She plead guilty to stop you witnessing her trial, Sydney” he assures her, reeling off a reminder of the lives she took as part of the eighty-six counts of espionage levelled at her. Jack considers Syd to be naive in not seeing her manipulation and whether right or wrong about that, Salvation *does* depict Syd’s naiveté in how she believes exposing the misdemeanours of one parent would save another. Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci’s script does her a disservice in how little she understands the actions and motives of a hawkish US government responding, in the wake of 9/11, to an unspoken societal trauma. Had the episode depicted Irina on trial, answering for her crimes, we might have felt the same core level of dramatic weight as we experienced in Dead Drop or Trust Me.

Salvation, sadly, wants to race through character arcs and plot beats of significance, while still servicing the natural structure of Alias as a show, rather than focusing more heavily on the meatier drama at the heart of Irina’s possible execution as a terrorist. It makes for a frustrating hour of television.

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ALIAS – ‘The Indicator’ (2×05 – 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…

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

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ALIAS – ‘Dead Drop’ (2×04 – 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…

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.

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ALIAS – ‘Cipher’ (2×03 – 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…

If Trust Me worked to establish Sydney Bristow’s psychology toward her mother, Cipher begins the same process with Jack Bristow as regards the woman who used to be his wife.

Understandably across the first two episodes of Season Two, Alias didn’t really devote a lot of time to Jack and where he stands with all of this. The Enemy Walks In saw him mainly putting Will Tippin back into the world, while in Trust Me he voices brief notes of caution about Irina Derevko which are entirely to be expected. Jack was the man she betrayed in the most personal and soul-destroying way, and Season One established very clearly just how much Irina’s ‘death’ and the betrayal about her origins he kept from Syd all her life had turned him into an emotional shell of a man, one unable to truly connect with the daughter he loved dearly from such a tragic relationship. Jack was always going to react badly to Irina’s reappearance on the scene but Cipher establishes the terror underneath the anger and caution: that Syd might be bewitched by her mother.

This fear forms the core basis of Cipher, an episode which otherwise is a fairly formulaic outing for Alias. It feels the most ‘Season One’ of the three Season Two episodes to date; that sounds like a rebuke, but please don’t read it as such. Season One, which I’ve talked about in depth, is an extremely confident and accomplished first year of television but many of the early initial episodes lack the same nuance and depth of the middle and later half of the season as they work to establish plot points and character arcs that will pay off down the road. Cipher suffers from the same problem, as writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci (in their first script this season) seed storylines that will bloom: Jack’s secret about Syd’s childhood, Will’s CIA interactions, Sloane being ‘haunted’ by Emily. Around this, they strive to stick to the spinal mission structure employed by the first season as Syd pursues a MacGuffin, but there is less weight and heft than the previous hour.

In truth, Cipher is probably the first of the five weakest episodes of Alias Season Two, running from here through to The Counteragent. Fine episodes on their own terms, and necessary ones, but hours which lack the dramatic payoff Season Two later provides in droves.

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ALIAS – ‘Trust Me’ (2×02 – 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…

On some level, Trust Me is really where Season Two of Alias begins.

The Enemy Walks In did everything required of a premiere episode of a new season, re-establishing the key characters and plot-lines while dealing with the dangling narrative threads from the previous season finale, but it also operated much like an epilogue to the climactic revelations and twists of Season One finale Almost Thirty Years. JJ Abrams had to remind audiences of the central mission statement of the show while getting the ensemble collection of characters back into their traditional roles but at the same time he added in new characters, new complications, and introduced the major new character of Irina Derevko who would drive the primary character arc for Sydney Bristow across the season.

Trust Me is more about establishing not just a sense of place but a central, driving theme that will permeate across the entire season: the titular trust. Immediately, in the previously discussed introductory segment reminding us of the series’ concept, Alias is keen to remind us that we may not be able to trust Irina, whose surrender to the CIA at the end of The Enemy Walks In tags onto the end of the introduction. “The true loyalty of Agent Bristow’s mother… remains unknown” Greg Grunberg ominously warns, as the word ‘UNKNOWN’ flashes on the screen across Irina’s moment of surrender. Alias is very much labouring the point that Season Two will be about answer this question – who is Irina and what does she want? Can she be trusted? And just how does that effect our main characters, particularly Syd?

Trust Me asks those questions right from the get go and packs a huge amount, from primarily a character perspective, into a short running time. We are left far more grounded concretely by the end in what Season Two is looking to achieve than we were at the end of the premiere.

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ALIAS – ‘The Enemy Walks In’ (2×01 – 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 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.

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