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Ron Rifkin

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.

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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.

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 (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

Alias – ‘Almost Thirty Years’ (1×22)

When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.

Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.

This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow JJ Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you *don’t* see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.

It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.

Alias – ‘Rendezvous’ (1×21)

Given Rendezvous has to work as the middle piece in a three-part climactic best for Alias’ first season, and tie together threads which have been building across the entire year, it’s surprising how well it works as an episode on its own terms.

The main reason for this is that Rendezvous finds a way to maintain three distinct but increasingly interlinked, building narratives in a coherent and dynamic way: Will’s investigation intersecting directly with Syd’s search for Khasinau, Dixon’s growing suspicions about Syd’s loyalty, and Sloane’s wrangling with the Alliance over the Khasinau problem and how it could be affected by his wife Emily. Writers Erica Messer and Debra J. Fisher (who last wrote Mea Culpa, but did uncredited re-writes on some of Season 1’s strongest episodes such as The Box two-parter and The Prophecy) manage to satisfactorily interlink most of these threads to the point you can feel the overarching plot stitching together in preparation for the finale.

Rendezvous, of course, is most remembered for finally pulling the trigger on a plot development that was inevitable eventually: Will discovering the truth about Syd’s secret life as an international super-spy, and thankfully they manage to pull this off in the most entertaining and enjoyably histrionic way. Captured by Khasinau’s forces, Will watches the red-headed Syd leap into fray, in slow motion, kicking the arse of the Euro-goons watching over him before realising who it is and delivering a scream of disbelief that is just *perfectly* executed. You feel the payoff of this moment, and Syd’s complete disbelief that Will has shown up on her mission, because the season has really put the leg work in to get Will into her orbit. 

It’s a moment that in its own way changes Alias forever. Rendezvous ends up delivering the first of several leading into Almost Thirty Years that allows the show’s first season to stick the landing.

Alias – ‘The Solution’ (1×20)

The season finale of Alias’ premiere year may technically be Almost Thirty Years but in real terms, The Solution marks the beginning of the end.

Specifically, a three-part end to the season, building off everything we have seen so far and drawing many of the lingering narrative threads together in an attempt to provide some level off satisfying payoff while simultaneously delivering a springboard into the coming second season. The Solution is a good example of how Alias both holds to and breaks from the traditional stand-alone/ongoing serialisation structure of shows past. It both could not exist without many of the preceding nineteen episodes before it and equally it feels contained within the confines of its three-part climactic storyline. 

Alias by this point understands it has a great deal of balls in the air and story threads it needs to either start taking to the next level or justifiably paying off. This was a major problem with Snowman, the previous episode; it spun the show’s wheels, focusing on an extraneous central romantic entanglement which means little beyond serving as a thematic parallel, at the expense of getting on with most of the story in play. The Solution begins to correct that immediately. It ramps up the search for Khasinau. It reintroduces the Rambaldi mythology. It spirals back around to Sloane’s relationship with his wife Emily and his dealings with the Alliance and it kicks back into gear the simmering Will investigating SD-6 plot line, which ends up being a major factor in how Season 1 comes to an end. 

In short, while not necessarily much more than a protracted Act One, The Solution corrects most of the problems from the previous episode or two.

Alias – ‘Page 47’ (1×15)

Page 47, unexpectedly, turns out to be the first Will Tippin-centric episode of Alias.

As the show moves into the second half of the first season, JJ Abrams and his team of writers (including this episodes’ co-writer Jeff Pinkner) are working hard to try and draw together and assemble the disparate threads coursing across Season 1 in the wake of the game-changing The Box two-parter, which amped up the threat to Sydney Bristow’s life and career while dealing with the series’ biggest revelation to date. The Coup served as an epilogue concerned with the knock-on effects and consequences of those episodes while equally working to tie off loose ends dangling across the first thirteen episodes. Page 47, in some sense, does the same.

Looking back at Season 1, it really does quite acutely feel like pre-The Box and post-The Box in how the writing staff approach their storytelling. Not that serviceable episodes such as Page 47 are vastly different but they feel more unified in terms of where the primary storylines are headed. Before The Box, Alias worked consistently to figure out what kinds of stories it wanted to tell, having Syd face a litany of rent-a-baddies on a consistent basis. The missions felt more throwaway, the Rambaldi mythology more separate, and characters such as Anna Espinosa less defined. After The Box, something changes. Everything feels more in line with a plan and a direction.

Alias – ‘The Coup’ (1×14)

If there is such a thing as a TV comedown episode, it’s The Coup

Not in the sense that The Coup is a bad episode of television. It’s a perfectly serviceable, mechanical Alias episode, even if it probably would fall fairly low in a ranking of what has been a strong first season. The Coup is a comedown in the fact that after a two-parter like The Box, where exactly do you go next? Almost akin to the difficult second episode, the one that has to clean up the narrative mess from the pilot, The Coup struggles to function in any way beyond that of an epilogue to a much stronger piece of television.

Alias – ‘Spirit’ (1×10)

Spirit works not just as a follow on from Mea Culpa but as a companion piece of sorts, continuing Alias’ mid-season exploration of its own central morality.

We saw in the previous episode the difficult soul searching experienced by SD-6 head honcho Arvin Sloane when it came to contemplating that Sydney Bristow, a woman he has spent his life deluding himself into believing a surrogate daughter figure, could have betrayed him – and the consequence of potentially having to sanction her murder. Spirit, by the very nature of how Syd gets out of what looked like at the end of Mea Culpa the end of her life as a double agent for the CIA, shifts this moral question over to Syd’s *real* father, and to some degree the mirror image of Sloane – Jack Bristow. In order to save Syd’s life, Jack has to go beyond simply being Sloane’s weapon of murder—as previous episodes have established—into sacrificing the life of an ‘innocent’ man as part of the greater good.

In reality, as Vaughn later reassures Syd once she realises what Jack has done, the sacrificial lamb of Anthony Russek—an SD-6 agent who Jack frames as a mole working for K-Directorate after faking a transmission to them on a mission we saw in Mea Culpa to disguise Syd’s *actual* transmission to the CIA—was no innocent. “He was an early member of SD-6, he knew he was working for the bad guys”. Russek was culpable in the hidden crimes of SD-6, aware of the Alliance underpinning their ruse of being part of the American intelligence network, and involved in weapons sales used against American interests across the world. “He got what he deserved” Vaughn states, showing that he may not have agreed with Jack’s slippery methods, but from a moral perspective he agrees with the choice Jack made in the heat of the moment. “What would you have done if it had been your daughter, or son, or Danny?” he asks Syd. She has no clear answer.