“Endgame” (season 2, episode 19; originally aired 3/30/2003)
In which Sloane gets his best Emily Thorne on…
Game of Thrones gets its title from the way people in Westeros play each other in the name of obtaining power. While the stakes are real, there’s a sense that many simply engage in it simply for the pleasure of being the smartest person in the seven kingdoms. This episode of Alias, “Endgame,” also speaks of a move on the sociopolitical chessboard of power, but also aligns well with the ways in which many people in George R.R. Martin’s novels suffer at the hands of those playing on high. But more than anything, this is an episode that drives home just how much this is a show about how these characters react to extraordinary circumstances in extraordinarily relatable ways.
“Endgame” marks the return of Christian Slater’s Neil Caplan, who has spent the previous two months under Sloane’s custody analyzing Rambaldi documents. After the successful heist involving the DNA database, Irina tasks him to unlock the algorithms of the encrypted software in order to locate a single individual. Why is Irina tasking him and not Sloane? Because Sloane’s still in grief over the loss of Emily, cursing the day he ever heard the name “Rambaldi.”
Meanwhile, Syd is upset that there are no leads on Sloane and Irina after the Tuscany fiasco. Grasping at straws, she asks Elsa Caplan to come in for regression therapy in order to unearth some new possible leads. Elsa recoils in horror at the suggestion that she’s somehow responsible for Neil’s imminent death, which prompts Syd to recoil in horror at how far she’s gone in order to track down Sloane. But she’s not the only one: Both Dixon and Jack are suffering as well. Dixon contemplates putting in a transfer order to distance himself from Emily’s death, and Jack still can’t believe he let Irina back into his head.
All of these psychological contexts matter for what unfolds in the hour. For while the genetic base tied to Rambaldi’s manuscripts drives the story aspect of the show, it’s the ways in which people react emotionally to the realization that Elsa is in fact a Russian agent, sent not unlike Irina to marry Caplan and relay secrets back to her homeland. Not only did she spy on Neil, but she also implanted a tracker at the behest of her handler which functioned as both a tracking device and a failsafe should he ever prove a liability. That failsafe? A dose of cyanide, due to be injected into Neil’s bloodstream in 42 hours.
This realization comes at a point at which Jack is not only still unmoored without Irina, but a point at which Syd is starting to share domestic space with Vaughn. As such, father and daughter react very differently to Elsa’s newly discovered identity. Syd wants to believe that Elsa came around during her time with Neil. Jack can’t believe that Elsa is anything other than Irina Derevko: The Squeakquel. While Alias lost some of its signature episodic narrative technique after the fall of The Alliance, “Endgame” features some fun trickery as Syd tries to help Elsa under Jack’s nose. First, she uses a watch inside the interrogation room that helps the pair communicate without anyone else hearing. Then, through some quick-thinking, she assimilates with a group of sorority girls inside a Rite Aid in order to sneak out of the country. She lets Vaughn know on the phone, via a complex cipher that only he and Jack can uncover once she’s safely in the air to Russia. Good ol’ Syd: She knows a dozen languages, can fire any type of weapon, and knows the dates on which the Sigma Gammas have lunch exchange with the Pi Delts. She’s the bestest.
In Moscow, Syd rides a mechanical bull inside a country-western themed bar in order to obtain the device that will locate Caplan’s tracking device. (No, I didn’t make that sentence up. Syd rode a bull. And it was glorious.) She traces Caplan’s device to a warehouse in Spain, and calls Vaughn on Weiss’ phone in order to avoid detection. He meets her in Spain mere minutes before the cyanide capsule releases, and the two quickly work through Sloane’s men and send Sark scurrying for the exit. Caplan has a hard time believing that Elsa is trying to kill him. But it’s not for the reasons you might think: He’s actually NSA, and has known about her double-agent status for years. But he refuses to believe she’d aid in any endeavor that would actually end his life. The removal of the device from his left wrist has him singing a different tune. And yet, when they reunite at the CIA, both of these crazy Caplan kids agree that neither should throw stones in the other’s glass house. Somehow, this pair represents a stable couple in the Alias universe. Incredible.
Sloane wasn’t in the building with Sark because he was too busy dealing with the aftermath of Emily’s death in order to focus on the present. He tasks Faux Francie to plant a device in Will’s phone that will allow her access to the CIA’s databases. She gets him aerial footage of the Tuscany operation, and sees Dixon in the aftermath of the shot. You just had to know that all of Diane’s proclamations throughout the hour that she was now OK with Dixon’s double life would lead to tragedy, and sure enough, in the episode’s final moments, she dies due to a car bomb meant for both of them. Knowing that it’s coming makes this hour unbearably tense at times, lending an air of Greek tragedy to the proceedings.
That bomb had nothing to do with Rambaldi, except for the fact that a few decades ago, Arvin Sloane heard that man’s name and it set off a chain reaction that has led to nothing but death and sacrifice for almost everyone in his life. Irina insists that such sacrifice is worth it. But it’s unclear at this point if anyone other than her actually believes it. Couples in this world start off with certain intentions. Sometimes those are honest and sweet, such as the offering of a bureau drawer in order to lighten the load of an overnight backpack. Sometimes they are duplicitous, such as the infiltration of someone’s life in order to obtain actionable intelligence. But all of these relationships change, for better or worse. In that respect, the relationships on Alias are exactly like those we experience in our everyday lives. And it’s why this show still holds up a decade later, and will continue to hold up in the decades to come.
“Countdown” (season 2, episode 20; originally aired 4/27/2003)
In which Rambaldi comes to the forefront, and half of Hollywood guest stars…
“Countdown” is a strange beast, mostly defined by what doesn’t happen rather than what actually does. The antepenultimate episode of a normal-length Alias season often serves as a table setter, something designed to get the pieces in place for the final two episodes. Season 1’s “The Solution” established Emily’s knowledge of SD-6 and put Will into imminent danger, two things that had ramifications through “Rendezvous” and “Almost 30 Years.” This time around, Alias sets up a literally apocalyptic scenario by bringing Rambaldi to the forefront in anticipation of some sweet, sweet action in the final two hours.
But because little actually happens in this hour, it won’t take long to break things down. First things first…this episode is chock full o’ guest stars: David Carradine, Danny Trejo, and Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad’s fixer Mike). It’s also the hour in which Amanda Foreman (currently on Parenthood) first appears as Carrie Bowman, a character who works under Banks’ Deputy Director and takes an instant liking to Mr. Marshall Flinkman. (All together now: awwww.) There are a lot of new faces and the appearance of a very busy episode. But as mentioned earlier: “Countdown” is all about anticipation, rather than actual delivery. It’s right there in the title.
That’s not to say nothing happens, of course. The primary focus lies on Dixon’s grief in the wake of Diane’s death. And while Carl Lumbly plays the hell out of the material given to him, “Countdown” reveals just how little has really been done in the series to flesh Dixon out as a three-dimensional character. We know a lot about his competency in the field, and his feelings toward both his job and his partner. But his domestic life was, by necessity, somewhat of a closed book. We met Diane early in the show’s run, but she really only came into the picture fully after the fall of The Alliance. From then through her death, her appearances were sporadic, and often boiled down to being a wet blanket on our beloved Dixon’s life.
Thus, having an episode in which everyone is worried Dixon might accidentally trigger the end of the world due his preoccupation and his pill-popping comes off a bit far-fetched. It also actually serves to make us like his character less, not sympathize with him more. Were his grief in isolation, perhaps it would have been more poignant. But he ends up nearly dragging Syd down with him, as he lies about his drug use and then switches the results of them in order to keep his job. Now, on some level, Syd is a bit hypocritical of him upon initially refusing to lie to Barnett during their session to clear Dixon for field use. On the other hand, what Dixon does tonight is apples to Syd’s SD-6 oranges. The hallmark of Syd’s double-agent life was the way she could compartmentalize her feelings about Sloane and her duties as a CIA agent. Dixon doesn’t have any of that control through most of the hour.
All this makes the fakeout at the beginning (already being overused as the writers fell head over heels for this technique) the most annoying yet. It’s not so much that Vaughn doesn’t end up pulling the trigger on Dixon. I don’t think anyone is supposed to truly think that’s an option. But nothing about Dixon’s demeanor suggests he actually has the mental faculties to cut the primer cord on the C4 detonator. It’s not about the show cleverly faking us out. It’s about willfully withholding information that would help us make an educated guess. Plenty of television shows do this all the time, and while it’s hardly an unforgivable sin, it’s disappointing considering how often Alias avoids that mistake.
So what led everyone to the shipping yard rigged to blow? The Rambaldi heart, which exists inside the chest of an elderly Italian man living in Panama City. We learn through Marshall’s briefing that the Rambaldi manuscript page detailing the human heart also have small drawings that correspond to a DNA sequence. It’s the sequence that Sloane was looking for these past few weeks, and it belongs to Proteo di Regno. Trejo’s man for hire removes the heart from di Regno, and has it shipped out for delivery to Irina and Sark in Cyprus. The CIA needs to find the heart within 48 hours, because a recently decrypted page reveals that Rambaldi accurately predicted cataclysmic events centuries before they occurred. Previous events included the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.
Sloane is not with them, because he takes a journey to Nepal to meet the man responsible for starting him on his Rambaldi journey three decades earlier. This man, Conrad, lives in a monastery that Ra's al Ghul occasionally sublets for the League of Assassins. Sloane wants to punish Conrad, but the latter tells the former that everything that has transpired unfolded for a specific reason. (Or, as Irina might say: “Truth takes time.”) Just as the CIA raids the port to obtain the Rambaldi heart, Conrad hands Sloane a Rambaldi manuscript that undoes all of Sloane’s doubts in an instant. We don’t know what’s on the paper, but Alias heavily insinuates that Sloane reading it is the apocalyptic event that Rambaldi foretold. Just in time for May sweeps! Duh duh duuuuuuuuuuh.
- I forgot Slater actually returns here. I had chalked up his appearance to a one-off not unlike that recently done by Ethan Hawke, as I am sure many others had upon initial viewing of the series.
- Syd trying to explain to Jack how Elsa is not Irina feels like the show trying to say “No, we haven’t already run out of new ideas. Calm down.”
- The country-western bar is fantastic, if for no other reason than the show has “generic Eurotrash bar” as its default exotic setting. Also? Her “Oh God” reaction to having to ride the bull is a wonderful moment, suggesting that even Syd has a limit to her arsenal of finely honed skills.
- The cellphone storyline involving Will defies belief (really, the CIA allows personal phone calls inside a secure facility?), but hey, sometimes shortcuts have to be taken.
- The scene with Syd bonding with the Sigma Gammas feels like an audition for 13 Going On 30.
- The tools used to open up di Regno’s chest cavity are still in place when the CIA arrives in Panama City. Yuck.
- I love that Bowman got a crush on Marshall through his analysis before ever meeting him. She’s adorkable, but in a way that doesn’t want me to beat myself over the head with a frying pan.
- Loved the two-on-one fight between Trejo and Garner/Lumbly. Given all the one-on-one fights in this show, seeing such a well-choreographed three-person fight was a joy.
- People who go toward Conrad’s temple “don’t return the same,” according to the guide Sloane hires to take him up the mountain. That will certainly be true about Arvin.
- What is it with J.J. Abrams shows and men attempting to jump off bridges in despair, only to have seemingly supernatural forces ensure they don’t?
- If you look back at the original air dates, it’s insane to see how much time passed between episodes. ABC aired 12 episodes of the season in 2003 over four months, with long and uneven breaks between installments. For those mad about the number of shows going dark during this March in favor of seven- to eight-week interrupted stretches to end the season, it could be a lot worse.
- Vaughn: “I love my drawer.”
- Jack: “This is not a debate. And just because you’re comfortable with my daughter does not mean you should be comfortable with me.”
- Weiss: “Jack is gonna shoot you in the face.”
- Sark: “I’m like anyone, Mr. Caplan. What I want is that which I never had.”
- Conrad: “Now you understand. Your journey has just begun.”