“Passage, Part 2” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 12/8/2002)
In which Irina earns some trust from an unlikely source…
“Some people go miniature golfing with their folks. We go to India and look for nukes.” So says Sydney Bristow to Michael Vaughn during the first of this week’s two installments of Alias. It’s a funny joke, but it’s also a statement of purpose for season two as a whole. When trying to explain the show’s appeal to those that have never watched, it’s easy to sell the explosions and the spy world and even the Rambaldi angle. That stuff is sexy. But shows like Alias work in ways current shows such as Spartacus do: Both deploy sexy delivery systems for emotionally driven character pieces. Getting people to the party takes some trickery. Once there, guests find they have been led under semi-false pretenses. But they tend to stick around longer than they would were the party simple shock value and nothing else.
If “Passage, Part 1” was all about Jack and Irina fighting every step along the way, then “Passage, Part 2” sets about rediscovering what common ground they once had, and just how easily all three Bristows can return to the comforts of their old familial life. After narrowly escaping a sneak attack from the People’s Revolutionary Front at the end of last week, the three manage to catch a train en route to Jack’s CIA contact in Srinagar. Jack and Irina teamed up to tend to Syd’s leg wound on the way to it, and it’s a moment in which Syd turns 4 years old before our eyes. It makes sense, since while on the train, her parents reminisce about a faulty toaster that caught fire and made them flee the house for a week while the smoke cleared.
We’ve seen countless missions, prophecies, and bad-assery on Alias so far. But I’m not sure there’s a scene I’ve enjoyed rewatching more than this simple, three-person scene aboard a moving train. The way in which Jack slips effortlessly back into the happy days of his marriage, the way Syd eagerly laps it all up, and the way Irina once again confuses everyone with how genuine her emotions are… it’s all gold. This scene sets the stakes for the season as a whole. Sure, in a few episodes, we’re going to get some seismic changes. But here’s the core of the show, and it’s not made of plutonium. It’s made up of three people that have all been hurt or wounded by each other, and yet still find ways in which to try and reconnect.
Of course, it doesn’t suck that said reconnection happens while trying to deactivate six nuclear warheads. The brief happiness aboard the train dissipates once they reach Jack’s contact, and Syd plays referee in order to keep her parents in line. Jack assumes operational control leading up to the infiltration of the base holding the nukes, but doesn’t take into account Irina’s suggestion about the proper filtration system for their vehicle. Naturally, the car breaks down, which leads to Irina leading them through a minefield. Not an emotional one—that happened on the train. I’m talking a literal minefield, in which armed guards open fire upon them. Syd and Irina tend to a wounded Jack, who accidentally falls on a mine. Irina ends up saving Jack’s bacon in the field, and the three get into the facility.
Once there, Irina asks again that they all split up to accomplish different objectives. It’s the smart tactical play, but also means that she will leave Jack’s sight sans tracking collar. (It’s a bad week for tracking devices in general, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) Syd intervenes in order to stave off possible nuclear disaster, but after she and Jack perform their parts of the mission, they are stunned and heartbroken to see Irina walk in all buddy-buddy with PRF leader Gerard Cuvee. Jack and Syd are detained, although Jack realizes quickly that Irina is, in fact, playing due to being captured during her part of the mission. Irina deploys this info, along with a key for his handcuffs, inside Jack’s cell. But Syd can’t hear what’s happening: All she can see is her mother holding a gun to her father’s head.
Speaking of bad tracking devices, Sloane brings his Emily problem to The Alliance in London this week. He lays all cards out on the table, insisting that only a security breach in the organization could explain how the blackmailer could know about the attempt on Emily’s life. He proposes to play along with the blackmailer’s demands for $100 million in bearer bonds, and employs Marshall to place a double dog dare secret tracking solution inside the briefcase. The blackmailer instructs Sloane to leave the briefcase on a park bench, then directs Arvin to a newspaper stand that contains pictures of a bloody Emily. Naturally, within seconds, the tracker inside the briefcase disappears, which means The Alliance is out a cool $100 million. The lesson? “Tracking devices” are to Alias what “perimeters” are to 24. Just perpetually bad ideas in both cases.
Luckily, all confusion is swept aside, and Jack/Syd soon break out and call for extraction. They learn that the Indian government, having gotten wind of the nuclear devices in Pakistan, have launched an air strike on their location. Vaughn, having annoyed Kendall enough through the hour to get sent to India, races toward them in a chopper. We then learn that the PRF don’t want to detonate the devices: They need the cores to open a Rambaldi device that offers proof-of-concept for “everlasting life.” Inside what looks like a futuristic Faberge egg: A flower, roughly five centuries old. That Rambaldi had the greenest of all thumbs, truly.
By hour’s end, Irina is back in her cell. But Syd is calling her “Mom” without question at this point, especially after Irina reveals that Cuvee was in the room in Taipei when she shot Syd. Everything about Irina has been recontextualized over the course of this season, and the beauty of it is that we are as lost at home as Jack and Syd are in-show. Irina Derevko is a master at walking the line between truth and fiction. But she’s an even bigger master at making people believe what they want, appealing to their heart above their head. Like most things in Alias, her character gets diluted down the line. But here? Here, she’s close to perfection.
“The Abduction” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 12/15/2002)
In which Marshall takes to the field for the first time…
Now this? This? This was a ton of fun, people. I’ve had my Alias DVDs on the shelf since they were each initially released, but I don’t think I’ve ever really gone through more than a half-dozen episodes in the time I’ve owned them. “The Abduction” is an episode that completely escaped my memory, which made this week’s revisiting so much fun. There’s something to be said for having encyclopedic knowledge of your favorite shows. There’s also something to be said for giving time in between rewatches in order to let certain aspects surprise you all over again.
Whereas the primary thrust of this season has been about the family dynamic detailed in “Passage, Part 2,” this episode is all about one Marshall Flinkman. And what’s great is that the show only tips its hand about halfway through, almost like an expert poker player that has you thinking one way only to change course during the game. Marshall’s part seems the same as always at the outset: He’s Nerdy Q, the guy who stammers through op-tech in a way to give minimal flavor to what’s an increasingly dour show. I don’t mean “dour” in a negative sense. But the soap opera aspects of this season, while well-done, also don’t allow for a lot of narrative color. Check out the rooftop scene early on, in which the black jackets of Syd and Irina contrast to the bleached out whites surrounding them. There are shades of grey, to be sure, but there’s not a lot of vibrancy to the proceedings.
While treating these scenarios as serious is a bonus, it’s also nice to watch a show kick ass, take names, and be unapologetic about it. I would not want to explicitly compare Alias to Chuck, as the two shows go after different aims. Both use the spy genre in order to explore timeless issues of love and friendship, but went about those explorations in different ways. “The Abduction” ends in a fairly dark place, but uses Marshall’s character as a way to brighten the journey in ways that truly make this episode stand out. I’m not saying Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak used “The Abduction” as a model for Chuck. But if I learned that fact, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised.
Before we get to All Marshall, All The Time, we get a pretty sweet Syd/Sark mission. I’ve gone on at lengths about their chemistry thus far, and I should stop lest these reviews come up in Google searches for fanfic involving the characters. Nevertheless, the two banter wonderfully in Paris as they search for a Cuvee-owned terminal that can access the Echelon Satellite Service. Should SD-6 obtain the terminal, they would have unlimited access to intelligence and unlimited scope for their blackmail ambitions. Marshall gives Syd a device in order to penetrate the armored car housing the terminal. But the sequence is really all about Syd and Sark blowing up cars in the middle of Paris and then giving chase on foot upon learning the truck was a decoy. Syd runs atop cars for a good quarter-mile before dropkicking Cuvee’s fleeing associate. Hell to the yes.
With all this going on, Alias brings a new player into the Alliance fold: Ariana Kane, played by Faye Dunaway. I totally forgot she was in this. But watching Kane engage in game-theory porn with Jack Bristow as she seeks to snuff out the mole inside of SD-6 responsible for Emily’s abduction? Simply amazing. Her interrogation of Jack hits an awkward moment when she seeks to delve into his love life. His response to her asking if he let slip any secrets during pillow talk amounts to, “Look, let’s have wrinkly sex right now and see if I talk in my sleep afterwards.” His indignation is doubled by the realization that, somehow, he’s still married to Irina after all these years. That makes her offer to let him debrief her henceforth all the ickier. It’s a rough episode for Jack’s wounded psychic libido.
But “The Abduction” rougher on Marshall, who finally gets to go into the field after Sloane learns that Cuvee made a back-up of the now-destroyed terminal. (The CIA reworked it to self-destruct upon return to SD-6.) With the ability to delete the final version reduced to “on-site” only, it’s time for Marshall to save the day. “The Abduction” sets this up via a short insight into Marshall’s life early in the episode: He asks Syd to take photos of Paris so he can composite himself into them later. Why? To maintain his cover with his mom. Altogether now: “Awww.” It’s a sweet moment, one that speaks both to the illusion that Marshall is selling as well as the one that Sloane is selling to Marshall and the rest of SD-6.
That seems like a nice character note, until the moment in which Marshall is activated for field duty. As Syd points out to Vaughn, “I just can’t give SD-6 a fake Marshall!” Vaughn’s solution? Take Marshall out of SD-6, which is both a relief for Syd but also a problem. After all, Marshall has spent more than a decade working for the wrong side. Not only that, but connections with his beloved mother may end should the CIA step in and pull him out. But Syd takes Marshall to London anyway, where Marshall’s ineptitude and nervousness give the mission a comic flair that’s typically not part of the show’s repertoire. Again, it’s neither a good nor bad thing that these missions are so seriously-minded. But it’s definitely fun to watch Syd try to keep Marshall in line. It’s amusing when he’s busy saying “Hi” to literally everyone inside the London Philharmonic on their way to get an access key from the head of Cuvee’s head of I.T. security. And it’s downright hysterical to watch Syd plant a kiss on Marshall in order to keep him awake after being shot with a tranquilizer dart on the way to the server. If Jack Bristow hasn’t had sex in more than a decade, then Marshall’s pretty much not had sex in more than an eternity.
All of this happy-go-lucky stuff turns on a dime twice in the final few moments. First, there’s a lovely goodbye scene at the LAX airport, where Syd thinks she’s saying goodbye to Marshall for perhaps the final time. Marshall is still puffed up from the mission, feeling as good about himself as he ever has. In many ways, both he and Dixon have kept Syd sane during her time as a double agent, and there’s genuine affection between the two. More importantly, there’s a genuine person under the stammering techie on display here. Long-form television narrative offers the chance to make a third-tier character like Marshall into a fully three-dimensional character; with so many episodes to fill, there’s the chance to explore characters that might only get a line or three in a feature film. But with that dimensionality comes the potential for further emotional pain, which happens when Marshall gets abducted by none other than The Dentist, back for another round of torturing our heroes. Given Marshall’s look of terror in that final frame, one can easily assume this third iteration may not have the happy ending of the first two.
- Jack puts Irina in a grain bin for five hours in order to maintain their cover in Pakistan. The best part? He’s unsure, and semi-uncaring, about whether or not she can actually survive inside of it. That shrug to Syd is hysterical.
- Irina actually asks Sydney about school in the middle of the minefield, which is both a great distraction and a great reminder that Alias pretty much dropped the ball on Syd’s grad school life.
- Iqbal Theba, who currently plays Principal Figgins on Glee, shows up as Vaughn’s contact in the Indian government in “Passage, Part 2.”
- The “Fly Cam” that opens up “The Abduction” is showy in a way that Alias camerawork usually isn’t. I know what the show’s going for, but it didn’t really work.
- I don’t wish anyone a lack of paying gigs. But there are times that I wish David Anders had just retired from acting after Alias. He’s so perfect as Sark that seeing him in anything else just feels like a pale shade of this role.
- Last week, I said Francie would get into the game this week. Whoops. Missed it by a few episodes. My bad.
- Marshall’s two words to the I.T. night security (“Hallo!” “Cheerio!”) made me laugh harder than almost anything in the show’s run to date.
- The less said about the Vaughn/Syd/Will/Alice quadrangle, the better. Right? Right. We’re almost through this, people. Be strong. For me.
- “The Abduction” was the fall finale for Alias, meaning fans had to wait three weeks to find out if Marshall had any cavities.
- Cuvee: “You weren’t the only prospect, but you had the most potential.”
- Will: “Yeah, my parents and I went through sort of the same thing.”
- Marshall: “It’s my job to keep you safe.”
- Marshall: “Hey, you know the best part? I’ve never been prouder to be one of the good guys.”
- Ariana: “They’re all afraid of you, except Jack Bristow.”
Next week: We build up to one of the greatest twists in modern television history…