“A Free Agent” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 3/2/2003)
In which a Rambaldi manuscript changes the playing field for everyone…
Last week, I noted how Irina Derevko disappears from the show’s radar around the season’s midpoint. After dominating the proceedings throughout the first ten or so episodes, she recedes into the background as the show ends the Alliance, reconfigures Sydney’s priorities, and brings in some special guests in an attempt to boost ratings in a post-Super Bowl landscape. Forgoing Lena Olin for Ethan Hawke and Christian Slater makes sense from a business perspective, but not necessarily from a story perspective. Luckily, “A Dark Turn” transforms Irina’s absence into a positive, making us take for granted her status on the show as much as its central characters do. And then? It pulls out the rug from under all of us.
As much fun as it is to see the show confidently expand its central mythology, it’s even more gratifying to see just how easily people previously cynical about Irina’s intentions could have come around by this point to lulling themselves into a false sense of security. You could argue that her con is so long and complex as to defy belief. It’s a fair point, one that I don’t exactly agree with but wouldn’t muster up much energy in the way of trying to dissuade anyone putting forth such a thesis. Rather than try and see if every action makes sense in hindsight, I choose to look at the way in which Irina forced people with whom she came into contact to confront their past with her while simultaneously giving them a chance to move past a particularly painful chapter in their lives.
Jack, Syd, and Vaughn all have visceral responses to her existence at the start of the season. None are emotionally prepared to have this woman confined to a CIA cell, where she’s nominally imprisoned, yet feels like an omnipresent threat. The threat comes not only from what she’s done, but also what she represents: Irina’s the living, breathing embodiment of their psychological scars. The way Alias cautiously and methodically makes these three lower their guard around her is a testament to some rather subtle writing and an incredibly subtle performance by Lena Olin. She plays Irina as someone who draws people toward her, rather than outright approaching them. In terms of posture, movement, and intonation, she makes those unwilling to listen lean in, despite their best efforts not to do so.
This ties in with all aspects of “A Dark Turn”’s multiple plots, in which people are essentially hypnotized into betraying either themselves or other loved ones. In Will’s case, the hypnotism is literal, as Faux Francie is using their shared bed as an interrogation room. In some ways, it’s the CIA’s own fault: Had they not put Will under hypnotherapy earlier this year in order to locate Sark, perhaps he wouldn’t be so susceptible now to Faux Francie’s nighttime technique. For her part, Syd lets counterintelligence agent Mitchell Yeager (played by an understated Richard Lewis, of all people) get into her head about Vaughn’s loyalties. And, most tragically, Jack does the one thing he promised both Kendall and himself that he would never do: let Irina back into his heart. Or, at least, his bed. (Few shows besides Alias can make the removal of a subdermal tracker somehow erotically charged.)
So what launches all this? Rambaldi, another piece of the Alias puzzle that was put on semi-hold around “Phase One” in order to lure people in with Jennifer Garner’s abs, rather than complex details of a Nostradamus-esque prophet who designed neutron bombs for funsies. Sloane has Sark kill Luri Karpachev, a Russian arms dealer potentially in possession of a Rambaldi manuscript detailing the human heart. The elevator sequence that ends Karpachev’s life is fun, but leads to a dead end: Sark employed death-by-elevator in order to access the manuscript Sloane believes is inside Karpachev’s private vault. But Irina, who once had dealings with Karpachev, knows that another associate in Bangkok has it. So it’s time for Kashmir II: Electric Boogaloo.
Jack and Irina go alone, without any aid from Syd or Vaughn. Not only does this let Lena Olin have all the fun dress-up duties for the episode—it also gives time for Syd’s growing doubts about Vaughn to take hold. In some ways, “A Dark Turn” stacks the deck too heavily, too quickly about Vaughn’s potential double-agent status. But in the end, the true nature of his off-the-book dealings ties into the A-plot effectively. While Syd and Jack now work with Irina with little doubt as to her loyalty, Vaughn has been conducting a months-long investigation through back channels, former KGB assassins, and freelance agents in order to independently verify Irina’s motives. Whereas Irina can manipulate Syd and Jack through familial bonds, Vaughn has had the distance (relatively speaking) to keep on her trail.
And I’m guessing that six months of intelligence is about to come in handy. Because after learning in Bangkok that the manuscript actually resides in Hong Kong, Jack and Irina continue their worldwide journey to obtain the manuscript in order to lure Sloane out in the open. But thanks to Faux Francie’s spying on Will, Sloane and Irina conspire to arrange a final meeting in the one area of the world in which they can control CIA satellite coverage: Panama. With Jack having removed Irina’s subdermal tracking device pre-meet (and also pre-boinking), the dominoes fall quickly and horrifyingly into place. Sloane jams the satellite, Sark and Irina switch limousines inside a tunnel, and Kendall realizes the Rambaldi manuscript in CIA hands is just a series of Post-it Notes, supplied to her by Kendall after the successful Kashmir mission.
If you know it’s coming, you can easily see the way in which Irina ticks off several things from her to-do list before joining up with Sloane to fulfill their long-gestating Rambaldi obsessions. Her last scenes with both Syd and Jack are pure Irina: There’s a mixture of calculation and genuine regret in nearly every word she speaks to them. I like the idea that she understands how much she hurts those around her, yet is helpless to stop herself in pursuit of her goals. In that respect, she and Sloane are probably perfect going forward. Then again, if only one of them can truly be worthy of Rambaldi’s greatness, I’m sure they’ll find a way to share in the glory. Cough.
“Truth Takes Time” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 3/16/2003)
In which everyone loses something close to them…
How much does self-delusion play into our everyday actions? That’s the question at the heart of “Truth Takes Time,” which adds to the confusion created in the wake of “A Dark Turn.” Arvin Sloane fancies himself a family man above all, pursuing the Platonic (Rambaldic?) notion of capital-T Truth in the name of his wife. Simultaneously, he harbors pain that Syd, the girl he and Emily thought of as their own, won’t pursue him along his destined path. Enter Irina Derevko, newly freed from CIA custody and anxious to shatter any illusion Sloane might have about his real motives.
Then again, what works so well about “Truth Takes Time” (and this second season as a whole) is the show’s steadfast refusal to paint its primary players in primary colors. Sloane is both dedicated to Emily and something of a sociopath. Irina is both insanely devious and devoted to her daughter’s safety. Jack both wants to fall under Irina’s sway yet knows enough to plant a passive tracker on her after they have ill-advised mission(ary?) sex. And finally, Syd both is newly determined to shoot her mother dead and yet only able to shoot Irina in the shoulder come the proper moment. And who pays for all this complexity? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.
But let’s backtrack, much like this episode does after its intentionally misleading opening sequence. The CIA brings in Vaughn under suspicion of treason, but Alias doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring the red tape involved when an innocent man gets falsely put through the ringer. So while he can’t attend briefings, he can still work in the field. Jack assumes operational control of the Sloane/Sark/Irina mission, which seems totally weird until you learn about the passive tracker he installed within Irina. Kendall’s steaming mad, worried that Jack is after his job. But Spy Daddy insists that he will step down once the Axis of Rambaldi Evil is captured.
The first part of the mission involves a genetic map stored in Stuttgart. Why does Sloane want it? He claims to Emily that it’s part of his plan to keep her cancer-free forever. But we’ve also seen him recently snag a Rambaldi manuscript about the human heart. Also? Talk of “immortality” has been circling all things Rambaldi recently. So, Sloane could mean that he wants his wife to live cancer free for the remainder of her days, or live cancer free for the remainder of days. In either case, Sark recognizes the CIA’s van outside the facility storing the map, finds Irina inside, and uses shock paddles on her to disrupt the signal. Sark then plants a bomb to go off once they have downloaded the code. Syd and Vaughn give pursuit inside, and only make it out alive thanks to Irina calling out Syd’s name in order to lure her outside the building before things go all ’splodey in Stuttgart.
Meanwhile, in Tuscany, Emily is nominally content but also increasingly concerned about Sloane’s true wheelings and dealings. It doesn’t help when strange women start calling Arvin on his cellphone, and it goes from bad to worse when she sees Irina (whom Emily still calls “Laura”) on Sloane’s private jet. Because she’s a major female character on Alias, Emily then walks through the front door of a major American government building in order to turn herself in. Emily agrees to talk only to Syd, and agrees to help capture her husband so long as Sloane never gets the death penalty. Narratively speaking, having less Emily on the show is better, since her scenes really count thanks to their sporadic nature. Yet it’s frustrating all the same to see Jennifer Garner and Amy Irving share a scene one final time: There’s so much tenderness and regret between the pair that it’s simply a shame we couldn’t have more of these during Emily’s time on the show.
And yes, spoiler alert: That is their final scene together, because Emily dies soon after, a victim of an errant sniper bullet from Dixon while Sark’s overhead air support throws off his aim during the raid of Sloane’s Tuscan villa. Watching the final half of this hour knowing what is to come is an exercise in gnawing frustration: Seeing how many ways this could have played out well for at least some people lends an air of tragedy to the proceedings. And yet, because of all of the cross purposes established over the course of the season (as well as series), there’s no way that anyone could come out of this raid accomplishing their goals. The CIA loses all three targets. Irina loses the disc. Syd loses a mother figure. And Sloane loses a wife.
Just before Emily’s death, Sloane offers to sell his assets to Irina in a last-ditch effort to get out of the Rambaldi game entirely. It’s tempting to think about it as Irina does: a potential play in and of itself to gain all of the power possible in the search for capital T Truth. It’s equally tempting to think about ways in which Irina’s desire to have Sloane see himself for the megalomaniac he is directly leads to Emily’s death. But tempering both of those theories is the way in which Alias gives both Sloane and Irina enough complexity to make us feel somewhat bad for them as the two take off with Sark into the Italian skies. Ron Rifkin plays Sloane as an addict in this hour: He’s a man willing to give up all of his artifacts in the present. But there’s no doubt he would have craved to get them back at some point in the future. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t honestly wish to break free from Rambaldi’s grasp. It just means that his love for Emily was strong enough to temporarily overpower that desire. And without her around, Lord only knows what he’ll do without that tether binding him to reality.
Well, some of us know what he’ll do. But we’ll just have to wait a week to see.
- Seeing Irina in the field playing five-finger fillet with former associate Ilya Stuka? Fantastic. Seeing her take out him and two others within a matter of seconds after learning the location of the manuscript? Even better.
- The talk of Rambaldi’s obsession with immortality is good foreshadowing for the series finale.
- “Truth takes time” is pretty much the ethos of most mystery-laden serials, no? Sometimes, shows make us anticipate the answers. Other times, it simply makes us wait for them. Right now, Alias is definitely in the former category. In later seasons? Eh. We’ll take that as it comes.
- “Truth Takes Time” features the second Vaughn/Sark fight, after the initial one in “Rendezvous.” Whereas Vaughn won that round quite easily, Sark overpowers his opponent before shooting Vaughn in the chest this time around.
- By “Truth Takes Time,” the CIA apparently only employs one analyst: Will Tippin. I know suspension of disbelief is needed here, but man, it’s a bit much.
- Faux Francie gives Real Vaughn a Spy Tie during a quick double date.
- As strong as the Garner/Irving scene is, watching Rifkin play Sloane’s heartbreak upon seeing Emily’s wire is a master class in acting.
- I’m adding “morse code earrings” to my Amazon Wish List after posting this review.
- This Week In The Numbers: Karpachev tried to get to his penthouse on the 47th floor in the cold open for “A Dark Turn.”
- Kendall: “Jack, when the hell did we switch places?”
- Marshall: “Hey! How are you doing? You’re Sydney’s mom! That’s really cool.”
- Irina: “Let her go. Play with me instead.”
- Irina: “Thank you for extracting me.”
- Irina: “Never talk to me about your love for Sydney again.”