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Alias

ALIAS – ‘The Abduction’ (2×10 – 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…

Ever since the very beginning, Alias has always neglected a key group of its contracted regular cast, among them the character who finally gets his moment in the spotlight in The Abduction: Marshall Flinkman.

Though Will had his conspiracy investigation angle in Season One to give him meat to chew on, Marshall was one of three characters particularly who week in, week out would get short shrift compared to Syd, Jack, Vaughn and Sloane principally. Dixon would only be wheeled out when Syd needed someone to go on a mission with, getting only the briefest of interesting plots when he suspects Syd of betrayal in Almost Thirty Years. Francie, Syd’s roommate, gets an unconvincing romantic sub-plot ditched from The Coup onwards, after which she barely features. It takes Dixon’s entire belief system and then family to be destroyed to give him anything of real substance, and Francie has to actually *die* before she becomes in any way interesting. Which just leaves Marshall.

Right from pilot episode Truth Be Told, Marshall is designed entirely as comic relief. He is the nerdy oddball who is tolerated purely for his technical brilliance, given how much he irritates all of the serious people in the room. There is barely an episode of Alias up to this point that doesn’t feature Marshall in a briefing awkwardly dropping one-liners or geek references that nobody in the room finds funny, or rambling too often before being cut off and falling quiet. He is, effectively, Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Q from the James Bond series by way of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files. Marshall, as a character, runs entirely counter to everyone else in Alias and that’s precisely the point – though he may be a genius, he is also perhaps the most relatable person in the show. If we were in Alias, we’d all be a variant on Marshall, most likely.

The Abduction, and particularly A Higher Echelon after it, are designed with one question in mind: what if we throw Marshall out of his comfort zone?

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ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 2’ (2×09 – 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…

The second half of Passage is proof positive that Alias might have benefited more often by indulging in the traditional two-part episode structure of old, given how well it makes use of the breathing space afforded to it by part one.

The Box, as we previously discussed last season, played structurally with the classic two-part event episode by seeding a high-concept idea within the ongoing, serialised fabric of Alias, in a different manner to Alias’ penchant for ending stories week by week in a truly serialised fashion with a cliffhanger, frequently Sydney-in-peril. This lessened over time, with many Season Two episodes having the confidence to end on an emotional beat, but connected narrative structures remain – take how Salvation flows into The Counteragent, for example. Passage, like The Box, has a condensed conceptual idea—Syd, Jack & Irina work together on a mission—that only exists within the construct of these two episodes, while helping the forward the broader arcs of the season.

Passage therefore has the space to establish the global stakes—in this case stolen suitcase nuclear weapons inside contested Kashmiri territory—and establish the emotional stakes—here surrounding whether Syd, Jack and the broader CIA can trust Irina enough to let her out of her cell—which gives this entire story a greater depth than some Alias episodes are afforded. It is a sign that Alias can break from the traditional Season One template of a mission Sydney goes on with a specific objective, broken up into two or three set-pieces per episode. The mission in Passage *is* the episode, and it works entirely to service the Bristow family drama. Not until Season 4 premiere Authorised Personnel Only will Alias again give itself the two-part framework to tell a story in quite this manner.

That is part of the reason Passage works so well, indeed rarely for the second part of a story, it works better than part one and the establishment. Passage also works because the payoff is as satisfying, if not more so, than the setup preceding it.

ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 1’ (2×08 – 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 the first seven episodes of Alias Season Two deal with the fallout from Season One and establish the narrative and character arcs of the second season, Passage is arguably the two-part episode which kickstarts the beginning of the end of the series we have come to know up to this point.

The change is evident right away with the lack of a pre-credits sequence explaining the concept of the show, as every episode up to this point has in some manner included. This could have been a decision designed to afford the show greater running time, having to worry about those concerns as a network series, or equally it could simply show the confidence Alias now has that the audience will be keeping up enough with a standard ‘previously on…’ segment. The stabilisers are now off. Even the slippery Mr Sark, who we see in a brief car dual alongside Sydney Bristow which recalls a much cheaper version of the car chase in Mission Impossible II, is blasting out Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic ‘Bad Moon Rising’ on the stereo. “I see a pale moon rising… I see trouble on the way…”.

Everything about Passage, immediately, is foreshadowing significant change on the horizon. Syd is now working with one of her key antagonists in Sark, though she very quickly establishes a Mutually Assured Destruction quid pro quo with him as regards the truth about her role as a double agent. “If you burn me, I burn you”. His presence, nevertheless, moves a bad guy into her orbit in a way the series has not previously attempted. As Sark arrives, the stakes also massively raise as Passage introduces a big gun: nuclear weapons. Sure, Syd may have casually defused a nuke early on in Season One’s So It Begins…, but here it matters. Passage considers stolen nuclear weapons big enough, Thunderball-style, to warrant a broader, two-part canvas.

Passage, in that sense, mirrors the key Season One two-part story The Box, even if they go about their business very different. They both change the game in several ways. They are both points of no return. …

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.