"Reckoning" (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 11/18/2001)
Finally, the Alias mystery that everyone’s been anxious to solve is finally revealed: CHARLIE IS A SINGER!
OK, so that’s probably not the biggest mystery on anyone’s mind at this moment in time, in any moment in the past, or any possible moment in the future. Let’s take that storyline as “covered” for the purposes of this particular review and move on. Because Lord knows there’s a ton of really fun stuff in this hour without dwelling on the anvilicious performance of “Have a Little Faith In Me”.
For the second straight episode, the show moves directly from the “Previously On” segment into this week’s action, which wasn’t necessary in the (mostly) pre-DVR age but appreciated all the same. It’s a bit how some video games now put in quick-time events into their cut-scenes to maintain interest. You can’t even passively watch what you’ve already seen, since you can’t be sure when something new is going to pop up. So anyways, we move on from Syd’s shock at the death of her CIA compatriots to her barely-there escape from pursuing forces. Dixon has to single-handedly fend off these foes, since she’s essentially catatonic with guilt and grief.
What plays out over the rest of the hour are a series of trust issues, played out over several characters and several plots. Yes, every episode of this show is about trust on some fundamental level, since Alias deals with the duplicitous, deceitful world of spies. But “Reckoning” really drives this theme home on levels both personal and professional. Syd has to trust Vaughn that not looping Dixon into her double-agent status is the right move. But she also has a hard time believing that her father isn’t directly responsible for her mother’s death in 1981. (“What you think you know, you don’t know,” he tells her, a line that may or may not have inspired the show Lost.) Will works hard to make Eloise Kurtz trust him, but her scared final call and newly painted, newly evacuated apartment suggests that trust didn’t go terribly far. And Sloane’s trust in the security of his network is compromised, and along with that, his trust in his fellow SD-6 operatives.
Along the way, the typical spy Macguffin plots still provide fairly new and exciting variations on old tropes. Quickly moving past last week’s mission, Sloane focuses on obtaining an encoder device developed by another rival group known as FTL. (Not to be confused with the cheery CIA antagonist, FTW.) That mission sends them to a London gallery, where Syd shows off some serious gymnastic skills to elude an armed guard, and then into an insane asylum in Bucharest. There, she’s tasked with finding out the location of a deceased man from the assassin that killed Gareth Parkashoff. That assassin? John Freakin’ Hannah, a hit man who has been conditioned to obey any command after hearing a John Donne poem. In other words, he’s Batiatus by way of Dollhouse. Sign me the hell up for THAT.
Nearly every episode thus far has bridged itself into the next one fairly elegantly, but “Reckoning” really feels more like the first half of a two-part episode. The hour cleverly ends with Syd potentially trapped on two fronts: not only in the asylum (which we learn is run by K-Directorate), but also in SD-6 when Sloane learns about the computer worm planted behind their firewall. She’s also cut off from the two men that are best equipped to help her: Jack, upon whom she has essentially painted a bullseye, and Vaughn, who is busy with moppet-hugging duty at the funeral of those lost in “Doppelgänger.” If only there was a way to now RIGHT NOW what her fate is!
Oh yea, right. We’re reviewing two eps a week here. Sweet. Let’s get to it.
"Color Blind" (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 11/25/2001)
“Color Blind” feels less like a piece of an ongoing puzzle and more like a period to the sentence that is the series to date. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. As breathless as the show can be at times, it’s good for it to occasionally take the Ferris Bueller approach to stop and look around for a bit. With a great script, some important character beats, and the inaugural directing appearance of future Lost director Jack Bander, this episode is a pivot point towards the increasing greatness of this initial season.
As has been the recent trend, the show kicks off the action right from the “Previously On” segment, detailing Syd’s desire to escape from the mental ward in Bucharest. But whereas recent episodes have seen her escape danger almost instantly, this one keeps her locked up for most of the hour under the watching eyes and eager trigger fingers of K-Directorate. That Kreshnik and Company can keep their presence unknown from SD-6 speaks to their insidious nature, and gives them more than just Anna Espinosa for us to fear. The show uses both location and timeframe (Syd has until lockdown to learn the location of Parkashoff from Shepard) to give the proceedings a properly tense atmosphere.
The rest of time spent in Bucharest concerns Syd’s attempts to break through Shepard’s programming. We learn that he only sees in black and white due to the FTL programming that forced him to do their dirty work. Her attempts to enable his subconscious mind gives him reason to help her escape from the asylum, but also leads to a fairly shocking revelation: Shepard killed Danny back in the pilot. Think about that. We’re in the seventh freakin’ episode and they are already answering this mystery. In some ways, it’s not EXACTLY a mystery: we’ve known from Second One that SD-6 killed him. But putting a face on that killer (through a bravado sequence, shot in both first-person POV and in glorious black-and-white) also puts another face on the countless people that The Alliance casually wounds or kills in service of their own goals.
While Syd and Shepard work through their own issues in Bucharest, there’s plenty of unrest on the home front as well. “Color-Blind” is the hour in which Sloane transforms from “vague bureaucratic villain” into “Sweet Jesus, I best not even consume liquids in his presence lest he poison my ass to death”. The way in which he subtly manipulates Jack through fake (or is it?) confidence in Sydney’s skills is fantastic. His “reading” of Syd’s face upon her telling him that Shepard committed suicide is likewise multifaceted. And the way in which he lies to Marshall has another double meaning: he’s both comforting a man he needs to work in top form as well as covering up what seems to be another operation. (Vaughn later tells Sydney that the CIA is still downloading files from SD-6, a subtle mention that indicates that the latter is feeding the former dummy info, and will for quite a while.)
Another big step forward this week lies in the first true softening in the relationship between Syd and Spy Daddy. To this point, the show has been throwing haymaker after haymaker at the pair to ensure they can’t possibly restart their estranged relationship. And indeed, early on when Jack meets Vaughn for a debrief (with a handshake and a gun to the back, like ya do), it seems that Vaughn’s investigation into Jack’s past will only further divide father and daughter. But Jack comes clean, or at least as clean as he can at this particular point. Veterans will know that what he tells her is essentially lie via omission (or at least extremely vague phrasing), but he’s still earnest in his attempts to build a bridge towards his daughter on her porch Thanksgiving night. It earns him a Tupperware full of leftovers, and a possible rekindling of a relationship that we’ll soon learn has been fraught from the start.
Speaking of Thanksgiving dinner: while it’s a bit jarring to have an extended dinner montage set to more Starbucks-esque tuneage right after a harrowing escape from an insane asylum, “Color-Blind” probably did the best job to date confirming just how much Syd NEEDS this aspect of her life in order to feel whole. In some ways, it’s a direct homage (if not direct rip-off) of Buffy Summers’ relationship to the Scooby Gang: a Slayer with friends is supposed to be a weak Slayer, but Buffy proves that having a support system actually empowers her. There’s every indication that Syd would go as insane in the membrane as Shepard without them. Of course, with great friends comes great potential for pain: Will’s secret investigation into Danny’s death is about to go public, and….well, let’s just say that might just bring the “safe” side of Syd’s life into a whole lot of danger. Eloise Kurtz’s dead body provides a chilling reminder (as if we actually needed one) of how much The Alliance wants to stay in the shadows.
The hour ends on the first non-cliffhanger of the show’s early history, and it’s a fitting way to bring this particular part of the season to a close. It’s not so much a stop so much as an inhale. There’s a new Rambaldi artifact to locate, but that’s for another day. “The hardest part’s over, Sydney,” Jack tells his daughter at the mid-point of the episode. And given their warm interaction in SD-6 on the morning after Thanksgiving, it seems like they almost believe it. But just a few rooms over, Sloane is already plotting their demise. Game on.
- New intros for these episodes! Apparently people were super lost after only five episodes, and so the opening VO is accompanied not only by previous footage, but mugshots of the main players with their names spelled out.
- I don’t remember an episode of Alias in which Syd has to infiltrate the LPGA, but let me just say I wouldn’t have been opposed to such a plot.
- Syd has a crazy threshold for pain. Not only for torture, but hot water pipes as well. In addition, her skills at throwing purses and hats indicates to me that she would straight up KILL in a game of horseshoes.
- The show works around what could have been a game-changer, and thus game-ender, by overtly explaining just how slowly the work of obtaining SD-6’s computer records was progressing. Seems like an easier thing to do would be to have Syd feed the CIA Marshall’s work schedule. Then again, at this point in the show, it’s unclear if he ever actually leaves the building.
- I’m glad that the show connected Syd and Vaughn emotionally via family members lost in the line of duty, but Lord almighty, that funeral is manipulative beyond the pale. I half expected that kid to ask Vaughn, “Are you my Daddy now?”
- I like the touch of the still-fresh paint in Eloise’s apartment. It gives Will’s search that much more urgency, and a reason for him to press on even further.
- Love how “Color-Blind” not only further throws the fate of Sydney’s mother into question, but some how throws the nature of her paternity into the air as well. Sloane rules.
- I know Vaughn’s a good guy and all, but Jack verbally dressing him down over his “interest” in Syd may have had me pumping my fists. Just a little. OK a lot.
- Bender’s work on “Color-Blind” is unsurprisingly great. He uses some really clever jump cuts early, frames Syd/Shepard against the almost impossibly high asylum walls well, nails the intimate cabin scene between them, and allows multiple actors the chance to paint in shades of grey to mask their true intentions.
- Signs that Sloane’s faith in Syd isn’t all mind-frakkery: her ability to deduce Kreshnik’s allegiance via his Georgian accent was a nice reminder that she kicks butt with her brain as much as with her fists.
- Sydney believes in safe driving: before leaving the asylum in a stolen car, she makes sure that Shepard buckles up. Aw.
- Jenny not being able to buy liquor? Amusing. Her planting one on Will out of sheer romantic bliss at Charlie’s proposal to Francie? Hysterical. Also? I have literally forgotten everything about Charlie’s role in this show. It’s like FTL repressed my memory about this or something. Look for me to show up in a few episodes on-screen and kill him, I guess.
- “I was working with these people who…they were terminated.” “The economy sucks.”
- “Is anything ever unacceptable to you?”
- “Every time I think I know just how awful you are, I learn something worse.”
- “What are you, twelve years old?”
- “You’re admonished not to be conspicuously emotional.”
- “Too ‘I’m with the band,’ kinda.”
- “Raid my closet.” “Thanks. But I’ve got boobs.”
- “Blue Skies Again. I Owe You.”
- “I believe in her. I believe in her as if she were my own daughter.”
- “Since we’re not playing games–which is refreshing–I’d like to know whom I’m talking to.”
- “Sydney’s life is worth it!” “Not to Sydney it isn’t!”
- “So I’m wondering what you were doing, checking up on me checking up on you.”
- “I feel like I’ve been stolen from myself.”
- “If I could give her back to you, I would.”
- Next week: "Time Will Tell" and "Mea Culpa."
- Semi-spoilers for veterans: Anyone else think, “Boy, that sure doesn’t look like Syd’s mom?” upon seeing that photograph in “Reckoning”? And Jesus, if Will thinks that Syd is going to be mad about that story running, wait until he gets a load of a few other people that manage to come across it.