"Rendezvous" (season 1, episode 21; originally aired 5/5/2002)
The mind is a tricky thing, as I imagine all of you that have been following along with these Alias reviews will concur. I pitched the project to the powers that be here a few months back as a way not only to have an excuse to revisit a show I hadn’t seen in quite a while, but also as a way to clear the cobwebs from what had become fuzzy memories. Certain things, such as last week’s Peter Berg arc, had completely and utterly fled my mind. But other things, such as Sark’s involvement in Season 1, were grossly overestimated. While we’ve seen glimpses of him thus far, we only got our first full dose of him in the penultimate hour of the show’s first season. But Lordy, it’s a good dose.
We kick things off immediately following last episode’s cliffhanger, where Dixon had Syd in his crosshairs. Whether or not he truly knows it’s her becomes one of this week’s central mysteries, but for now, Vaughn intercedes with CIA crossfire and breaks up the awkward situation. Sark leaves the confusion with the authentic Rambaldi ampule. What then follows is a double fight scene in which Vaughn and Sark go toe to toe while Dixon and Sydney go karate chop to karate chop. Kick. Ass. The idea that Vaughn actually overpowers Sark is a little silly, but we also know that Sark’s mind is 50x more dangerous than his fisticuffs. Vaughn leaves Sark handcuffed to a fence and rescues Syd just in the nick of time, having been overpowered by her partner.
By leaving Sark alone, Vaughn opens up an opportunity for other SD-6 operatives in the area to take him and bring him back to Los Angeles for “questioning.” It’s an important interrogation, one led by Sloane himself. Why? Because The Alliance has realized Poole’s betrayal, Sloane’s murder of Jean Briault, and now views Alexander Khasinau a threat worth investigating. But Alain Christophe doesn’t want assassination: he wants intel. That intel will spare Emily Sloane a premature death, letting cancer be the ultimate thing that kills her. So let’s just say Arvin has a slightly personal investment in his interview with Sark.
And Lord, watching these two work together…it’s as delicious as a 1982 bottle of Chateau Petreuese. Both are master chess players, each seeing the other’s moves a few steps ahead of when they are made. The goal is explained in a convoluted manner, but basically boils down to another switcheroo of Rambaldi pages that may or may not be actually legit in the first place. Honestly, at this point I’m already confused by the mythology: it’s possible Rambaldi wrote enough text to rival The Wheel of Time series. In any case, Syd can’t believe that she’ll be in the same room as Khasinau and not get the chance to grab him. Dixon can’t believe that his trusted partner might be a traitor. Marshall can’t believe it’s not butter. MASS DISBELIEF EVERYWHERE.
The mission leads them to Paris, where Jack and Will just happened to have landed themselves. In an effort to smoke out his source, Jack tells Mr. Tippen to mention “The Circumference” in his next chat with the source. The keyword seems to work, as a meet is scheduled the following night in the City of Love. The A and B plot collide brilliantly after Syd re-dons a red wig, performs Amy Winehouse-style in a club for Khasinau, and then sees Will brought into the same club after her performance. While Dixon takes the cardiac rhythm obtained by Syd’s flirtatious performance, Syd busts into Will’s interrogation room, kicking unholy ass left and right. At first, you think Will doesn’t recognize his friend as his savior, having been recently doped up with sodium pentathol. But then his gauzy look turns laser-sharp, he gasps out loud in shock, and I may have once again gasped in joy. It’s possible, is all I’m sayin’.
Syd now has to deal with the fact that the two most important non-family members in her life seem to distrust her. Vaughn acts strange all episode, mostly because Weiss reams him out after taking a metaphorical bullet for the Debacle in Denpassar. With Vaughn trying to emotionally distance himself from Syd, Will has to come to terms with every odd thing about Syd all season suddenly coming into focus. She worries that Will will never trust her again, but he’s surprisingly understanding about her season-long deception. There’s plenty of room on this show for people to initially feel betrayed by Syd’s subterfuge at a later date, so it’s refreshing now to have Will realize that Syd was not only protecting him all along, but just seriously saved his bacon in Paris.
Ah, but such a respite is short-lived. Will Sark nominally escaped during the Parisian shoot-out, Sloane ensured that the wine Sark requested inside SD-6 was laced with a radioactive isotope that can be seen via orbital satellite. (Would love to see a wine tasting contest in which a bottle is marked down for THAT.) Sloane tasks a force to follow the signal to Geneva, where they find not Sark but a makeshift operation room, complete with all the blood Sark just drained from his body. Where is Sark? Why, shooting Will Tippen in the damn chest inside his CIA safe room. Naturally. Say it with me, boys and girls: SARK!
But there’s one final cliffhanger for this episode. Sloane receives word from Christophe that the Alliance has approved his request for clemency regarding Emily. This would be good news, except we learn in the final moments that she’s actually, miraculously, in remission. She’s overjoyed. He’s crapping his expensive, tailored pants. She’s still a dead woman, only doesn’t know it yet. Like Syd, we suddenly feel oddly sympathetic towards Sloane. How did this happen? Up is down, left is right, Page 47 is now Page 74. Total chaos.
With that said, let’s get to this season finale, shall we?
"Almost 30 Years" (season 1, episode 21; originally aired 5/12/2002)
“Almost Thirty Years” is a textbook example of how a season finale should work. It’s not as seismic as some of the later works inside of what I’ve been calling Earth-J.J. throughout these reviews, but there are seeds here that indicate a template that would later be replicated to varying degrees of effect. (Indeed, even Alias didn’t always get it right. But we’ll deal with those situations as they come.) This finale provides closure to a few big stories even as it throws the door open wider than ever to the increasingly expansive scope. At one point near the end of the hour, Syd gazes upon The Circumference and says, “Vaughn: it’s bigger than I thought.” That statement could be applied to Alias as a whole.
We learn right away that neither Will nor the CIA officers watching him were killed last week. Rather, they were tranquilized so Sark could transport Will to a very familiar location: the office of The Dentist from the pilot. There’s a delicious symmetry to seeing him return, this time plying (see what I did there?) his wares on a hopelessly outmatched Will. Mr. Tippen has seen his innocence stripped away bit by bit over the course of his investigation, but it’s one thing to have one’s “innocence” removed and quite another to have one’s “bicuspids” removed.
While The Dentist seeks information about the aforementioned circumference, Sark calls Syd on her secure line with an ultimatum: bring the ampule and the new blank page to Taipei in 48 hours or Will dies. The former object lies inside the CIA; the latter inside SD-6’s secure vault. Syd and Jack split up duties while both organizations question their allegiances more than ever. Dixon’s investigation into Syd’s activities heats up, and Weiss’ increasing disillusionment with Vaughn’s judgment leads him to begrudgingly side with Haladki. Both Bristows manage to obtain the objects, but it’s unclear how safe they will be even if their mission succeeds. Both are targeted as moles by their respective parties. Sadly, Anderson Cooper wasn’t available to host the proceedings.
Broken trust isn’t simply contained within the Bristow family. While on vacation after Emily’s surprising prognosis, Sloane finally comes clean to her in a wordless sequence in which Generically Drippy Music masks dialogue in favor of facial reactions. Luckily, Ron Rifkin and Amy Irving sell the bejesus out of the scene, so the Starbucks soundtrack doesn’t grate in its normal fashion. Back at SD-6, The Alliance is willing to accept Sloane as a full member, but only if he offs Emily. And you thought YOUR promotion was difficult to obtain.
Luckily, there’s some solace to be found. After eventually admitting his misgivings about Syd to Devlin, he manages to track her down at one of her 47 places she goes when life has her down. In a train depot, he explains how his father (you know, the one killed by Irina) used to keep a journal in which he expressed all the misgivings he had about missions near the end of his CIA career. That blind allegiance, Vaughn tells Syd, ended up killing him. Screw protocol: he’s on board to help her rescue Will. This will totally end with hugs and puppies!
As Vaughn talks to Syd, Jack has a very different type of confab with Haladki. This one involves putting the latter’s hands into a vice and squeezing until bones break. Altogether now: ewwww. Haladki confirms that he’s been working for Khasinau for two years, but curiously frames this confession as an opportunity for Jack. “This is a gift I’m giving you. Khasinau can save you. You should be with him.” Jack thanks Haladki for the opportunity by coldly putting a bullet through his head. Don’t fuck with Spy Daddy’s baby girl, y’all. Notice has been SERVED.
Jack, Syd, and Vaughn head to Taipei, while Sloane serves a nice dinner for Emily complete with what looks like poison in her wine glasses. It’s just a sea of turtlenecks, leather, and lace, as the four go through their respective motions to obtain their goals. Combining the ampule with the new page reveals instructions for the Artist Formerly Known as The Mueller Device, which Haladki described as a “battery” for unknown purposes. As Sark prepares Will for the exchange, the beaten, bloody reporter managed to get one last lick in on The Dentist, injecting the torturer with the same dangerous truth serum previously used upon him. “One out of five, you little BITCH!” screams Will, referring to The Dentist’s previous claim about the number of people that have suffered paralysis after an injection. Best. Will. Moment. Ever.
Syd and Vaughn work their way through a nightclub while Jack makes the switch with Sark. Vaughn takes out the security feed, and apparently also manages to slow down time itself, as Syd slo-mos her way down to Room 47 where The Circumference resides. When she gets there, she’s surprised to see the tiny version from the pilot now the size of a 3-story house. She has to destroy it, but doing so unleashes a literal flood through the facility. She runs past a shocked Vaughn in the hallway, and he’s unable to catch up with her before a door closes, locking him in to apparently drown.
As if that wasn’t shocking enough, Syd gets knocked out in her “oh my god, we never even got to make out” daze and wakes up tied to a chair. Waiting for her there? Khasinau, who offers her some food. She has questions for The Man himself, but lo and behold, he’s not The Man after all. Who is? Why, Syd’s mother, of course. Syd’s quiet “Mom?” is one of the best final words of any season, ever. It’s both shocking yet logical, and an affirmation of the way Alias took the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model of female empowerment as a way to mock misogynistic approaches to action heroes. Having “The Man” as a season-long codename was on one level silly, but another way brilliant. It’s a seemingly benign phrase used to deceive on a deep level. That no one, not even Syd, could conceive that “The Man” would be anything except someone that peed standing up is Irina Derevko’s masterstroke. It allowed her to maneuver virtually undetected, with no chance of the CIA, K-Directorate, SD-6, or anyone else able to truly ascertain who was atop this particular spy food chain.
And with that, we come to the end of this season of Alias. It’s been a long ride, but hopefully a fun one for you. Not sure when we’ll return to Season 2, but it will be a few months at least while I recharge my own (non-Circumference) batteries. If you have enjoyed the series, I humbly ask that you express so in the comments. I know it’s been difficult for many of you to participate, given the lack of the show’s presence on Netflix Streaming/iTunes/Hulu. But if you want the series to continue, it will be great for The Powers That Be here at The A.V. Club to hear it directly from you. As always, thanks for reading.
- I’m bummed we never got to see Roger Moore on the show again. Honestly, was he doing anything better at the time?
- This show has a fetish for “arm injuries that come back to dramatically bite the victims in the ass.”
- Signs of potential Alias memory loss: When Sark requests the ’82 Chateau Petreuese, it certainly felt like a coded message. But I can’t remember if this comes back later in the show. If you do remember, remind me in the comments with a handy “SPOILER” ahead of it.
- Derrick O'Connor is great at playing Alexander Khasinau, but everytime he’s onscreen, I imagine the Alias casting directors thinking, “Damnit, why wasn’t Pete Postlethwaite available?”
- It’s always fun to imagine the hate sex Syd and Sark could have had. Wait, am I typing out loud again?
- It’s easy to miss the empty stare Will gives Syd after his wardrobe change in Paris, mostly because he looks like an Elvis impersonator in an Oasis cover band.
- Seeing all the pieces click between Will’s season-long plotline, the attack on SD-6, and the Rambaldi stuff is IMMENSELY satisfying. Here’s how you do long-term plotting, people.
- I forgot that Weiss and Vaughn ever argued, never mind to the levels seen in the final two episodes of the season. I think I always picture Greg Grunberg as so easy-going that I forget he can bring intensity to the screen when required.
- If I call BS on anything in the finale, it’s that Dixon builds up all that steam and then simply lets Sydney off the hook at this point. Carl Lumbly sells the hell out of the scene, mixing heartbreak with righteous anger. But the script leaves him hanging. Even though we don’t know for sure if he talked to Security Section or not after his talk with Syd on the pier, it still felt like a weak solution to a plot that has ratcheted up a ton of tension.
- A brief scene back at the newspaper confirms they will run the story Will left for Abby before his departure. My foggy Alias memory forgets if this actually happens in Season 2 or not. But I didn’t want to omit this small scene.
- Love that Syd gets Sloane’s fingerprint using the same technology that unleashed hypercolor shirts upon an unsuspecting public back in the 1980’s.
- I’d watch the hell out of a show called When Spy Daddys Attack!!! I’d also watch the hell of a show called When Spy Daddys Give Awkward Hugs To Men That Just Had Half Of Their Teeth Pulled Out!!!
- Not to give away anything, but let’s just say I had a major Lost flashback when Vaughn looked through that window inside a potential watery grave.
- “My employers instructed me to keep you alive. But not comfortable.”
- “Seeing the kind of woman you’ve become, knowing that I had something to do with it, that’s as rewarding as if I had a child of my own.”
- “You had a cavity.”
- “What I’m trying to say is, I forgive you.”
- “Jack Bristow. Doing his daughter’s work.”
- “You should read Tippin’s stuff. It’s not so bad.”
- “She has her mother’s singing voice.”
- “I have waited almost thirty years for this.” “Mom?”
- “I’ll assume that’s a compliment.”
- “For the record, I did miss you.”
- “I’m valuable to you, obviously.”
- “We will collaborate, you and I.”
- “Truth serum? They’re gonna give me that?” “I would.”
- “He came here with YOU?”
- “Which part of this is OK?”
- “Bold of me to make plans for next week, don’t you think?”
- “It was your duty to report Emily to Security Section. And you didn’t. And that’s more than I did for you.”
- “Syd, I don’t love you because of what you do, or don’t do. I just love you.”