“A Higher Echelon” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired 1/5/2003)
There’s a strange tension in the lead up to “Phase One,” the 13th episode of the second season of Alias. We’re only two away from that seismic hour with “A Higher Echelon,” and if you know what’s coming, you can feel the show bursting at the seams to tell you its secret. At the same time, there’s not a lot that actually happens in this hour. Having multiple factions engage to what amounts to Hack-A-Thon 2003 doesn’t exactly make for compelling television. As technology has evolved, it’s allowed storytellers to fashion increasingly elaborate structures. But it also means that there are times in which people just sit hunched over computers for a great deal of the hour. Had “A Higher Echelon” aired today, it might have centered around a three-way race to create an Echelon app.
The problem with Echelon as the central focus lies in its obliqueness. It’s an idea more than an object. It gives the user access to essentially every conversation on the planet, but it’s still just a piece of software. Obviously owning it confers a great deal of power. But it’s an abstract thing, signified onscreen only be a satellite that tries to stand in for Echelon as a whole. So a large portion of the hour consists of various parties typing away furiously. That’s… not terribly exciting television.
What compounds the problem is that it’s unclear why anyone is actually trying to access it. Sure, there are stated goals. But there’s always the sense that those goals tell only a part, if any, of the real story. Sloane wants to present a gift to his Alliance brethren… although Lord knows he’s up to something else. Look at how quickly Sloane replaces Marshall in-house after the latter’s kidnapping. Irina says she can help locate an overlap point between Echelon and Swarm, the Russian equivalent of the program. But why does she want to help? Marshall’s goal in recreating the program from his photographic memory seems clear enough: To save his poor mother from certain execution. But even he is up to other things throughout the hour.
Only in the last aspect does the show truly succeed. In subsequent episodes, we’ll learn more about what Sloane and Irina are actually doing in this hour. But there’s always a fine line a show has to tread in keeping its actions mysterious without tipping over into making its events obtuse. A show has to give its audience at least the illusion that it has a chance of accurately assessing what’s happening onscreen. Pulling The Usual Suspects off works in a two-hour movie, but not over two seasons. The level of investment that it takes to view each is vastly different, and thus there are vastly different levels to which the storyteller can simply fuck with audience expectations.
With Marshall, we learn throughout the hour that his fear, while real, also is a tool he uses to lower the expectations of his captors. He repeatedly pings SD-6 in order to communicate his location in Mexico City, and then gives the double deuce to the dentist by revealing his Echelon recreation is in fact a simple game of Pong. On top of all this, he manages to actually save Syd’s bacon after she initially rescues him. He throws a chair through a window on the 47th floor (like he’d be held on any other), and reveals that essentially every suit he owns comes equipped with a tandem parachute. This leads to one of the great lines of the season, if not the series: “My name is Marshall J. Flinkman. And I’m here to rescue you.”
Ariana Kane’s relentless investigation into Jack’s possible role in Emily Sloane’s death is a another successful endeavor for the episode. Having spent a season-and-a-half with Spy Daddy, we recognize what a threat Ariana is when she puts Jack into full panic mode as he attempts to cover his CIA-laced tracks. Whether or not the techniques put forth in order to retroactively fake his backstory are actually accurate is something I can’t authoritatively answer. But they sure as hell feel accurate; right down to the way the CIA composites Jack into Istanbul like he’s Keanu Reeves being placed inside The Matrix. Despite all his best efforts to outwit Ariana, she’s still more resourceful than him. She asks for his cell phone’s SIM card as Security Section agents intermingle with CIA operatives in an open-air restaurant. The attempt to put cellphone tower codes into Jack’s phone fails, a recreation doesn’t past muster, and Jack’s cover with SD-6 is effectively blown.
There’s a great moment of silence that follows this debacle, one that lets Jack and Vaughn stare at each other as they think the same thing as the audience: “How the hell do we get out of this one?” After all, the entire basis of the show is the double lives of Sydney and Jack. There are emotional undercurrents that provide interest, but plotwise, the double-agent aspect drives nearly every single story moment. The pause really drives home the WTF nature of this plot development. In many ways, it’s a logical move: There are only so many missions that the Bristows can undermine for SD-6 before someone makes a connection. It’s still a bold move to potentially remove Jack and Syd from SD-6 in the series’ 33rd episode. It’s so bold that I know from personal experience that many assumed an instant reboot of the status quo the following episode. How right were we?
“The Getaway” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired 1/12/2003)
The second season of Alias preceded Ocean’s 12 by roughly a year. So you’ll be forgiven watching “The Getaway” and thinking that the television show ripped off the movie, as opposed to vice versa. But Arvin Sloane’s master plan supersedes that planned by Danny Ocean, and plays out over a half season instead of a film that only seemed to last longer than the twelve episodes of Alias we’ve covered so far.
But we’ll get to all that in a bit. First, we need to talk about just how damn ’shippy this episode is for the majority of its running time. In many ways, if you know what’s about to happen in the next episode, “Phase One,” than the majority of this hour is the show just fucking with those that desperately want to see Syd and Vaughn get together. I’m not a big fan of only watching shows through the prism of couples smooching. But I also recognize that an enormous amount of people derive pleasure and pain from watching fictional people circle around each other before falling into bed together. As such, a lot of “The Getaway” plays with Syd and Vaughn circling around each other before the whole relationship goes down the drain.
How do they get into this position? Well, Syd starts off pissed at Vaughn for knowing about Jack’s troubles with Ariana Kane weeks before she did. She feels shielded by both, and all protestations that both men did it to protect her fall on deaf, incensed ears. One can see their point, but Syd also has one: She’s a fierce, strong woman who feels as if said protection actually smacks of sexism. Neither side is completely right, nor is either completely wrong. We’ve seen how strong Syd can be. But we’ve also seen her fall apart after the return of her mother. Thus, her feelings for her parents are both signs of strength as well as points of vulnerability to her.
The schism between Syd and Vaughn breaks slightly with the return of Weiss. While we’ve seen quite a lot of growth in Vaughn over this second season, Weiss’ return brings out some fun energy in Vaughn that’s been lacking this year. Everything’s been so damn serious that having Weiss bring out a more human side of his partner is refreshing. It’s also precarious: After his near-death experience in the season première, Weiss is 100 percent carpe diem, encouraging Vaughn to take life by the horns and take Syd out to dinner in France. It doesn’t take much to convince Vaughn to do so, which completely catches Syd off-guard. It’s a supremely silly, yet supremely Alias moment, to have Vaughn confess his feelings for Syd while she’s still in Gwen Stefani-esque punk-girl drag due to her cover mission. (Something about gyroscopes and missiles and blah blah. Super boring. No need to worry about it.)
While Syd and Vaughn are having an awkward, yet sweet, dinner, there’s another awkward meal happening in Washington, D.C. Trying desperately to clear his name at SD-6, Jack enlists Irina’s help in locating the real blackmailer. An encoded email from Sloane points Jack in the direction of Jean Briault, whom Sloane killed in season one. The former spouses eat Chinese food and trade theories. It’s pretty amazing to watch a man who couldn’t stomach the sight of his ex-wife now spitballing ideas back and forth with her. They eventually come across records of Briault’s travels to Peru, where he made secret rendezvouses with one Ariana Kane.
Jack returns to SD-6 to prove his theory. He has to go there since only SD-6’s computer system can hack into Briault’s accounts. It’s an incredibly tense mission, since Kane shuts down SD-6 the moment Jack arrives. Luckily, Jack fires off a communication just before being dragged into the interrogation room. He would have given up the entire double-agent life, except Sloane comes in to confirm what Jack discovered. The tables turn, Kane is rooted out as the mole, and everything turns to normal.
In the final few moments, we get reversal after reversal. The injection from the season première, we learn, not only allows The Alliance to track Sloane’s movements but also his conversations. So, like in Ocean’s 12, everything Sloane has said and done this season has been tracked, right down to his biometric readings. But all the while, he’s had a technician on the payroll working on a way to block the signals from getting back to Alain Christophe and company. In short: Everything this season with Sloane has been a long con due to the injection, meaning Sloane has been playing the lead in a script that he’s written to ensure Emily’s ultimate safety.
When he meets her in her hideout in the Philippines, it almost plays like a moment for the hero, not the show’s resident monster. Does it all hold together? Dramatically, yes. The injection means that all of his shocked expressions hold true, since he’s being measured on a cellular level at all times. Plotwise? There are points at which Sloane’s master plan strains so much credulity that you just want to call “bullshit” on the whole endeavor. But I’d rather the show justify Sloane’s reactions than his actions.
What’s great about this, among other things, is that Jack and Irina basically call this twist moments before it happens. Sloane knew about Kane’s affair with Briault, and brought her in to be the fall guy for the missing cash. They laugh off their theory, but it’s completely and utterly true. It’s not the whole story, of course. But it never is with Alias. And all this ties back to what feels like the end of Syd/Vaughn for quite some time. Just as the show is playing with audience expectation in terms of how it’s handling the double-agent storyline, it’s also manipulating audience expectation of how long a destined couple should stay apart before finally achieving “happily ever after.” Getting this close, only to have their moment of happiness occur at the worst possible time, indicates to the audience, “See? We tried it. We gave you what you wanted. We now have a good reason to string you along for a long while. And you will hate us for it, even as you secretly love us for it.” Television staples such as the “romantic near miss” work, to a point. But exploiting audience expectation about the rhythms of these tropes can often work as well. As far as anyone knew at the end of this episode, it would be a very long time before anything else happened on this front.
How very, very wrong they were. About everything. “Phase One,” hit me baby. One more time.
- Will learns through Francie of Syd’s crush on Vaughn. It’s one of many curious, overly expositional scenes in the first third of “A Higher Echelon,” and it continues with Jack essentially summarizing the Sloane plot to Syd in “The Getaway.” Then again, it’s only curious until you realize this was the first episode of 2003 in the ramp up to Alias’ post-Super Bowl slot. While a lot of “Echelon” would be impenetrable to newcomers to the series, there’s enough handholding to give them a chance to at least get the gist of what’s going on in the show.
- There simply were not enough episodes that featured DJ Dixon in the hizzouse. I consider this a damn shame.
- Marshall Flinkman? Huge Sammy Hagar fan. Now you know.
- Nice shout out to Steven Haladki in “Echelon.” I can’t say I miss him. I missed me some Eric Weiss, though.
- I wonder if the guy who faked the Instabul footage also helped Dustin Hoffman’s character produce a war in the film Wag The Dog.
- “The Getaway” has a great callback to the show’s pilot, with the role reversal of Syd frantically pulling up to rescue Jack inside a parking garage.
- Marshall gets gifts for everyone in SD-6 for rescuing him. Naturally, Sloane is not wearing the tie that Mr. Flinkman purchased for him.
- Again: I’m not a ’shipper. But everything about Vaughn and Syd deciding whether or not to take the restaurant owner up on staying the night is pretty delicious stuff.
- As much fun as the Sloane reveals are in these episodes, there are many more to come, and one in particular that helps justify almost everything we’ve seen this season thus far.
- This week in The Numbers: Dixon collects 47 Euros while panhandling during the gyroscope mission.
- Jack: “It was as if someone had overcooked his steak.”
- Dixon: “I speak nine languages. Techno is not one of them.”
- Vaughn: “It’d be rude to overlook such a generous offer without proper consideration.”
- Sloane: “We did it.”
Next week: Everything changes.