“A Free Agent” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 2/9/2003)
In which Sloane auditions for Pixar…
Much more than the ill-timed episode “Double Agent,” this week’s Alias twofer kicks off things good and proper in a post-Alliance world. There’s a lot of heavy lifting going on in “A Free Agent,” but there’s also a nimbleness to the way the show adjusts to the new parameters of its storytelling. Without having to construct elaborate cover stories for Sydney on a weekly basis, the show can now pit her against Sloane with both sides aware of the other’s antagonistic relationship. Plus? The show goes full Rambaldi, after weeks in which it seemed like Alias would forgo his involvement in future events.
Much of “A Free Agent” deals with core characters coping with The Alliance’s dissolution. Syd turns her eyes towards her graduate degree, a plot that was semi-important in the first season but essentially forgotten here in the second. “When the hell did you have time to take a class this year?” Vaughn asks her. It’s a line that should be too cute by half, but the meta question also brings up an interesting point about Syd: She always had hope that her time as a spy would be finite. This isn’t Angel, where fighting up to (and often past) the point of death was the show’s ethos. In Alias, it’s about protecting those around you at all costs, whether it be simply pointing out your best friend’s boyfriend is an asshole or saving another friend from a torturer/dentist in Taipei. These actions are meaningful, but also a means to an end.
So what does the “end” mean for Syd? That’s the question at the start, as she begins to think about how her academic pursuits will be useful in a world without SD cells to dismantle. Kendall tries to persuade her to stay, and even Jack feels her resignation may be hasty. Due to the needs of the show, there’s no way Syd would ever leave the spy game halfway through season two. But Syd doesn’t know the rules of this game, and as such her desire to leave never feels anything less than genuine. Even the potential loss of visitation rights with Irina isn’t truly something to keep her in the CIA’s employ. When Syd greets her mother, Irina declares that even if her daughter stays in the field, the two will never speak again.
What keeps Syd in play, ultimately, is her sense of morality. While Sloane is a threat to the world, he’s also the man responsible for much of her primal pain. The killing of Danny is the original sin in this relationship, and one that can only be repaid with Sloane’s incarceration or, potentially, death. So when Sloane kidnaps mathematician Neil Caplan (played by an extremely young-looking Christian Slater), the urge to take Sloane down rises during a phone call from former boss to former employee. Hearing the pair take the gloves off and finally address each other truthfully on the phone is cathartic, and gives a personal tinge to everything that unfolds throughout the hour. The action itself is fairly simple: Sloane has a collection of Rambaldi artifacts that need to be arranged in a specific manner. Caplan has both the mental and physical resources necessary to put them together. To employ Caplan’s brain, Sloane kidnaps the man’s family. To employ the magnetometer Caplan invented, Sloane employs the worst latex mask in the history of history.
Honestly, I love Alias. And I love Sloane. But holy shit is the mask that he dons in order to avoid facial-recognition cameras inside the bank ridiculous. He looks more like a prototype for the lead character in the Pixar film Up than the world’s biggest criminal mastermind. But that’s the point, I’d wager. It’s silly, but it’s also silly in a way that Alias rarely is. (At least intentionally. Come next season, stuff just goes bonkers for all the wrong reasons.) And since the show doesn’t attempt to have Syd walk poor Old Man Sloane across the street, unaware of whom she’s aiding, then it’s ultimately fine. I love how seriously this show takes the lives of these characters, but sometimes a little levity goes a long way.
Most of the levity this hour comes from Marshall, who enters the real deal CIA in much the way that Charlie Bucket entered Willy Wonka’s factory. He’s still the same stammering mess that he was at SD-6, but now has essentially rock-star cache with those computer engineers that used to try outwitting him. But while Marshall is adjusting to things just fine, Dixon is still lost at sea, unmoored from everything that once felt familiar. It’s not that he’s experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, but a loss of purpose and moral compass. Not only is he dealing with the knowledge that he’s aided the enemy of the United States for years, but the two most important women in his life are now lost to him. He doesn’t want anything to do with Syd, and Diane wants little to nothing to do with him anymore. Dixon needs a hug, guys.
Since so much of “A Free Agent” is a setup for “Firebomb,” let’s establish the final scene and move on. Syd and Vaughn end up tracking Sloane to the bank, and engage in a standoff on the main floor. But Sloane has rigged the basement with C4, and has satellite eyes watching the facility. If he doesn’t walk out the door in 30 seconds, then BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE. (Direct quote! Okay, maybe not.) Syd has the chance to end Sloane’s life on the spot, but also risks the loss of hundreds of other lives as well. As such, she drops her weapon. The result? Sloane tosses her his keys and informs her that she’ll be driving him to freedom. Despite the fact that he looks like a castmember on Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, it’s still pretty bad-ass. All hail Ron Rifkin.
“Firebomb” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 2/23/2003)
In which things start to cook on the Rambaldi front…
All of the Rambaldi material in Alias to date has been fun but ephemeral. It’s the sort of shit you talk about while stoned, not really a basis for anything concrete that affects the world of the show. We understand Sloane’s obsession with the 15th-century polymath, but other than a few artifacts and a giant red ball full of liquid disease, there hasn’t been much in the way of concrete examples of why the pursuit of his prototypes is so important.
“Firebomb” changes that in a fundamental, although brief, way. After this episode, Sloane’s chase isn’t so much about satisfying acute intellectual curiosity so much as cleansing the earth for the next stage of man. We’ve known for some time that Sloane’s initial foray into The Alliance stemmed from his disillusion while working with the U.S. government. But simply being part of a criminal organization doesn’t betray a man willing to root out corruption in the heart of man. But burning people alive from the inside out? Well, that’s a step in the right direction. “Right,” of course, is a matter of perspective. But “righteous” is a good way to describe Sloane’s point of view at this point in the show.
In some ways, the hour is an elaborate trick, one designed to reveal its true nature only at the end of the hour. Were this an hour-long ruse, it wouldn’t function well as an episode of television. Luckily, there are other elements at play, other goals that need to be achieved, other character choices that need to be made. It’s these latter elements that make “Firebomb” more than the piles of ash in a Mexican church.
As promised, the episode starts right after the end of “A Free Agent,” with Syd reluctantly driving Sloane away in a FORD FOCUS. (Sorry for the caps. But holy Rambaldi, what product placement.) Vaughn encases the bomb under the bank with Marshall’s aid, but is unable to send backup to Sydney before Sark rescues Sloane in a fun, high-speed chase. Syd is livid at the failure to end Sloane’s life once and for all, and has quite the fight with Kendall about “appropriate” resources allotted to taking out one of the world’s most dangerous men. I kept waiting for Terry O’Quinn to insist that Syd not tell him what he can’t do, but then I realized this fight was taking place in the CIA, not in a geodesic dome on The Island.
Meanwhile, Sloane reaches out to Ahmad Kabir, from whom SD-6 once stole surface-to-air missiles. Kabir doesn’t know that, since the man who successfully infiltrated his organization (Marcus Dixon, naturally) never revealed the organization for whom he worked. Sloane has dreams, but little in the way of cash flow. Kabir makes serious coin running the opium trade in his part of the world, but hates dealing with Americans. Sloane offers up a demonstration of power in order to secure Kabir’s loyalty and cash: the first operational use of the newly assembled Rambaldi device. It turns out that everyone’s favorite prophet designed a freakin’ neutron bomb during his lifetime. Suck on that, Leonardo Da Vinci.
Sloane asks Kabir to pick a target for its first use. He chooses his ex-wife, Alia, who lives in Mexico City. Simultaneous with that decision, Kendall summons Will alongside some Middle Eastern experts from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to brief him on Kabir’s activities. While the K-School professors offer up game theory, Will offers up some photographic evidence obtained during his time working as an analyst for the CIA. He even finds evidence of Kabir’s divorce from Alia on the interwebs. And this was before the phrase “Google it!” was in the public lexicon. He’s a smart one, that Will.
Syd and Vaughn go to Mexico City at the time Sark is there to make the denizens of a church do the Flaming Neutron Dance. The aftermath of the attack shakes Alia from her stupor, and she agrees to help the CIA infiltrate Kabir’s compound. None of this would have been necessary had Dixon agreed to give Syd intel on the layout, but he’s still in “I’d very much like to not be divorced” mode at the outset of the hour. However, Alia’s intel turns out to be outdated, which leads to Syd’s almost immediate capture. What follows is an incredibly stark sequence, filmed and lit in a grainy manner, which conveys the bleak, out-of-time experience Syd has under Kabir’s control. How long is she in custody? We, like Syd, can’t be entirely sure, with individual conversations with both Kabir and Sloane lasting mere seconds but potentially playing out over days, if not weeks. It’s a jarring segment, one that isn’t overtly violent yet reeks of malevolence.
In the end, however, Dixon agrees to help Vaughn liberate Syd from Kabir’s clutches. Seeing Syd, Vaughn, and Dixon all in the field working together is pretty sweet, though not as sweet as seeing Syd and her old partner conversing in the CIA. While Dixon undoubtedly loves his wife, he also has spent much more time serving as father figure/brother/partner to Sydney. As such, we root for them to be together (no, not in that way… okay, maybe for a few of you inthat way) more so than he and Diane stay together. That’s probably a cruel way to look at things. And, if you know where the Marcus/Diane stuff eventually goes, it’s probably an extremely cruel way to look at things. But I can only talk about the here and now. We’ll deal with that other stuff later.
And that other stuff will undoubtedly involve the episode’s final moments, in which we learn the construction of the Rambaldi device and its presentation to Kabir was all a way for Sloane to obtain part of an incomplete piece of Rambaldi’s manuscript. Said missing piece was hidden inside the wooden representation of an arhat. In Buddhism, an arhat is a person who has realized certain high stages of religious attainment. It’s fitting that Rambaldi would conceal a piece of parchment inside an arhat; after all, he inspired acolytes who could only realize his work through achieving worthiness. Sloane’s quest has transformed him from a man seeking treasure to a man seeking the very nature of existence itself. He believes fully in the righteousness of his cause, which makes him the very best kind of villain. After all, he fashions himself the hero of this story, not Sydney. Anything that transpires on his journey back to Rambaldi is just collateral damage on the way to the next stage of human evolution.
- There’s a big stretch in the middle of season two with little to no Lena Olin. This is a crime.
- For the third episode in a row, we get a big expositional speech giving a high-level recap of events to date in the show. The past two episodes have established the spy aspect of Alias. “A Free Agent” serves up a quickie Rambaldi primer as Sloane brings Caplan up to speed on the 15th-century prophet/scientist/madmen/bar-trivia buff.
- Vaughn doesn’t get a lot of bad-ass moments on the show, but threatening to harm a contact via spilled alcohol and a lighter is a fun exception to that rule.
- This Week in The Numbers: The magnetometer was kept in Box 4747.
- In Faux Francie news, Vaughn discovers the bugs planted throughout the house. Marshall identifies them as part of his own handiwork (via the Superman logo with an “M” soldered into the circuit board). But Faux Francie pins the work on a local mechanic, yielding a dead end for the CIA.
- One of the K-School professors? Bonita Friedericy, better known to Chuck fans as General Diane Beckman.
- Syd goes into the Mexican church dressed as an old woman. It’s a surprising, yet smart, detail. After all, at this point, Sloane’s cohorts know to look for the super-hot women first at this point.
- Jack: “Legally, he’s right. Ethically, he’s an ass.”
- Marshall: “Every few minutes, I have to fight the urge to weep openly.”
- Diane: “If you had died that day, I would have buried a stranger.”
- Sloane: “I can’t guarantee your safety in a situation like this.”